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Keys to the Offseason (Part 3: Striking Gold in Free Agency)

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When I submit this post, the New York Giants will be wrapping up a day of parading around Manhattan, reveling in the thrill of their fourth Super Bowl victory. It is impossible to take a step in New York City without running into a crazed Giants fan, but I'm beyond ready to move forward into the offseason. In fact, I am already eagerly awaiting spring, which has historically been an action-packed time of year for the New York Jets. Gang Green will be slightly restricted because of a tight salary cap, but free agency will nonetheless present an opportunity for the Jets to plug some holes. For my keys to the 2012 free agency period, take the jump!

Despite the widespread perception that the New York Jets' current roster is deeply flawed, the truth is that Gang Green is perfectly positioned for long-term success. Cap space will be tight, but the Jets' areas of needs are at positions that have historically been the cheapest to fill out. One of their most urgent needs is at pass-rusher, and general managers tend to dole out the big bucks for sacks. Luckily the draft is deep with talented sack-artists, so the Jets will be able to bolster its pass rush in this way. Because of the new rookie-scale, the Jets will have the opportunity to pick up at least one skilled OLB or DE at a bargain price. Their other needs are as follows:

A RT to replace Wayne Hunter: Mark Sanchez was statistically the worst QB in the league when under pressure, and in 2010 his completion percentage was 26.52% higher when his line held up. That was the biggest difference of all the quarterbacks in the league, and really underlies the importance of protecting the Sanchize. A stud RT like Jonathan Martin may fall to the Jets in the draft, but the chances of this happening are unlikely and it would be foolish to expect a mid-round pick to contribute right away. My approach to fixing this position would be to draft a talented project player in the later rounds (Levy Adcock, anybody?), and sign a decent veteran as a stopgap while Vladimir Ducasse and the other young OTs develop. These are the options in free agency:

  • Khalif Barnes: Barnes was a 2nd round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2005, but his erratic play and frequent missed blocks earned him the nickname "Khawiff". His pass protection in Jacksonville was a huge disappointment, but his run-blocking was typically satisfactory. He signed with the Raiders in 2009, and enjoyed a good season as the starting RT in 2011. His pass blocking improved tremendously, and he only gave up 3.5 sacks all season long. In fact, Barnes' refined pass protection solidified Oakland's line, which gave up 25 sacks in 2011 (4th best in the NFL). Barnes wore down a little toward the end of the year, but he would be a definite upgrade over Wayne Hunter. Check out this advanced analysis for a deeper look at Barnes' season. This would be an unexciting signing, but it might be the best option given the circumstances.
  • Demetrius Bell: Bell had an injury-plagued season in 2011, but was very good when he received game-action. He allowed only .5 sacks in 7 games, and is noted for being a very good athlete. However, he has been injury prone and his technique still needs to be refined, so he will be a risky addition to any team. I believe that Bell will receive a substantial payday this offseason, so I hope that the Jets stay far away from him, given that he is a huge gamble.
  • Levi Brown: This former #5 overall pick has been a bit of a bust in Arizona, and will likely be cut due to his high salary. I wouldn't want the Jets to rely on Brown as a starter, but bringing him in as a project would be a great move. He has exceptional talent and great size for the position, so a change of scenery might do wonders for him. His erratic play over the last few seasons will likely force him to take a job as a backup, and pouncing on that opportunity would be a great move for the Jets.

A down-field threat WR: In the summer of 2011, the Jets were faced with a dilemna. Their top two receivers were free agents, and they only had the money to retain one. Keeping Santonio Holmes over Braylon Edwards might've been the right choice at the time, but 'Tone proved to be ineffective without a deep-threat opposite him. The Jets almost never threw deep in 2011, and this predictability on offense allowed opposing defenses to take away the middle of the field (where Holmes has thrived throughout his career). Gang Green appears to be set in the slot given the very promising stretches that Jeremy Kerley flashed during his rookie year, but need a deep-threat to stretch the defenses. Let's take a look at the most likely options:

  • Robert Meachem: the free agent class is very deep at the WR position, with DeSean Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson, and Mike Wallace at the top of most teams' wishlists. The Jets probably won't be able to afford any of the top-tier receivers, but they will likely be able to land a guy like Meachem for a bargain price. The Saints will have to resign many expensive players, including Drew Brees, OG Carl Nicks, and WR Marques Colston. New Orleans would love to retain all of their free agents, but keeping both Colston and Meachem is a bit of a luxury. Meachem is a highly-skilled WR that has a rare mix of speed (4.39 40 yard dash) and height (6'2''). He has the skills to be one of the best recievers in the league, but has been known to follow up huge games with total duds. A change of scenery might flip his switch, but even the Meachem that played for the Saints the past few seasons would be a great addition to the Jets. The Chargers' Malcolm Floyd had very comparable statistics in his contract year, and signed for 5 million over 2 years. Floyd was 2 years older when he signed last summer, but I'd expect Meachem's contract to be in the same range. For that price, Robert Meachem is exactly what the doctor ordered.
  • Braylon Edwards: Last summer, Braylon was insulted by the Jets' lukewarm pursuit of him. He eventually signed a meager $1 million base contract with the 49ers, but San Fransisco cut him in December because of persistent injuries and his failure to sync with the offense. Given Bray's difficult break up with the Jets, I highly doubted his return. However, Rex Ryan recently complimented Edwards in an interview, and Braylon in turn seemed open to the possibility of a Jets return on twitter. Bray is a perfect fit for this team, as his speed and ball skills made him a perfect receiver on deep routes. His chemistry with Mark Sanchez is undeniable, and he always gave 110% on the field. The injury concerns are still present, and Braylon has had a few run-ins with the law. This should make him a very affordable option in the spring, as a classic low-risk, high-reward player.
  • Mario Manningham: Mario has had an inconsistent 3 seasons with the Giants, but had flashes of being a dominant wide-out. In the most critical moment of the most consequential game of the year, Manningham put it together with an incredible catch. However, his targets in 2011 were diminished with the emergence of Victor Cruz, and it wouldn't surprise me if Manningham decided to leave the Giants for an opportunity at a starting gig. He has concentration problems and his hands are often unreliable, but his speed forces defenses to remain honest. In a market ripe with wide recievers, I'd look for Manningham to receive a contract similar to Meachem (2 years/ 6 million). That would be fair value, but Manningham's incredible Super Bowl catch might have earned him an additional million in free agency. Of the 3 recievers I've listed, Mario would be my last choice. Regardless, he'd be a fine addition to an offense that was all too predictable last season.

A ball-hawk safety: During the 2011 season, the Jets' lack of quality safeties exposed them on more than one occasion. Jim Leonhard is recovering from a very serious injury and may be unable to attend training camp, and Eric Smith's inability to play the pass is widely known around the NFL. Gang Green needs a ball-hawking safety that can drop back in coverage, especially given the recent surge in athletic tight ends. Although it will be important to upgrade this position, I think that the urgency is a little overstated. Sure, our safeties stunk it up against the better tight ends in the NFL. However, it is almost impossible to find a player that can match up in man coverage with guys like Rob Gronkowski or Jason Witten. If Brady is given time, he will find Gronk repeatedly, regardless of who is defending him. The way to combat this problem is by improving the pass rush, so I believe that finding a safety is the least critical of the Jets' offseason needs. Nevertheless, Gang Green does need a playmaker at the position, so signing one (or two) should definitely be on their to-do list. There are several worthy safeties available in the draft, but everybody after Mark Barron will be a huge risk. Therefore, the Jets might look to stabilize the position by signing a veteran. Here are the options:

  • Dashon Goldson: This 5th-year vet played very well for San Fransisco last season, and will likely be looking for a contract to match his solid play. He had 6 interceptions last season and has shown flashes of being a classic ball-hawk. When he wasn't able to force a turnover, Goldson's disciplined coverage usually prevented opposing offenses from reeling off big plays. He has also delivered some big hits, including this HUGE thump last season. Eric Weddle signed for $40 million over 5 years last year, but that deal was universally regarded as overpaying. If Goldson looks for a similar contract, the Jets won't be able to make a run for his services. For slightly less, Dashon Goldson would be a perfect fit in the green and white.
  • LaRon Landry: Landry is one of the most talented safeties in the league, but injuries and inconsistent play should make him very affordable. He's typically good in coverage and is also solid in run-support, but he sometimes tends to over-pursue, resulting in blown plays. He has also missed 15 games over the last two seasons, and reportedly elected to not have surgery on his Achilles' injury this offseason. Landry certainly comes with a few risks, but this offseason may present the rare chance to sign a supremely talented safety for a bargain price.
  • Reggie Nelson: This former first round pick may never live up to his pre-draft hype, but he may perfectly fit the Jets' needs. He covers his position exceptionally, and picked off 4 passes last season. Nelson has often been knocked for not being physical enough, but he seemingly improved in that area last season with 85 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 sacks. He's inconsistent at times and won't be an exciting signing, but I wouldn't mind bringing the former Florida Gator in on a cheap contract.

Player to Watch: Sione Pouha has been one of Gang Green's most consistent players in the Rex Ryan era. His ability to play the run is only rivaled by his great presence in the locker room, and his contributions over the last couple seasons cannot be overstated. Pouha is a free agent this offseason, and his solid performances will present him with the opportunity for a big pay-day. Resigning Pouha will be one of Mike Tannenbaum's key to the offseason, but he may just price himself out of the Jets' range. Losing him would hurt, but Tanny should avoid overpaying for this 33 year old NT. Rex Ryan's specialty is the defensive line, and the Jets are lucky enough to have a deep unit. Gang Green would miss Pouha's leadership, but replacing his play on the field is possible. If Pouha does indeed become too expensive, Tannenbaum would be much better off using the money elsewhere. This would open up many possibilities, including going after players like Cliff Avril or Robert Mathis.

Stay faithful Jets fans! As hard as it was for us to watch the Giants win the Super Bowl, it must've been torturous for Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum. The Jets will be back with a vengeance, and this offseason has the potential to be the start of something truly special.