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Cutting Up The Credit Cards

Why the NY Jets need to bite the bullet on the 2013 season and plan the salary cap around 2014.

As of today, the NY Jets have 49 players under contract for the 2013 season, at a total cap figure of $147 million. That is approximately $26 million over the estimated 2013 salary cap. The Jets have about $4 million in unused 2012 cap space that can be rolled over, bringing the team down to $22 million over the cap. There are a group of 6 players widely believed to be on the cutting block who will substantially help the cap situation. These players are Jason Smith, Eric Smith, Calvin Pace, Bart Scott, Sione Pouha and Tim Tebow. Collectively, if all are cut they will free up $36 million in cap space. That would bring the Jets $14 million under the cap, while leaving the roster at 43 players. A new draft class would cost $6 million and leave 3 roster spots still to be filled.

That leaves the Jets $8 million under the cap, with maybe $3 million held in reserve needed for in season moves. That leaves $5 million to fill 3 roster spots, so if 2 are filled with minimum salary guys, the Jets can afford to spend $4 million for 1 mid level free agent. That doesn't include signing any of the Jets own free agents. such as both starting guards, the starting right tackle, both starting safeties, the starting running back and the starting tight end. It leaves the Jets with a roster that includes 14 players who spent most or all of last year either on one team or another's practice squad or out of the league entirely, plus 7 other newly drafted rookies, plus 7 other guys who essentially never saw the field in 2012, plus 2 other to-be-signed minimum salary guys. That's a total of 30 players who have never done a thing at the NFL level, and if you take out the top 3 draft picks, 27 players who are essentially practice squad level players.

Of the remaining players who are at least legitimate, proven NFL players, the Jets will be left with a backfield of Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight, tight ends of Konrad Reuland, Josh Baker and Hayden Smith, starting guards of Vlad Ducasse and Caleb Schauderaff, no right tackle at all, quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Greg McElry, and starting outside linebackers of Garrett McIntyre and Nick Bellore. Assuming the Jets used their draft choices and 1 free agent signing to address those needs, they would end up with maybe a new FA at QB, plus rookies at both starting guards, tight end, right tackle, at least one outside linebacker and at least one running back. This is the state of the Jets 2013 roster once the salary cap issues have been taken into account. It is a very ugly picture indeed.

You might say we can just cut all the scrubs on the current roster and sign new guys to replace them, but that doesn't really get you anywhere. Any scrub you cut will only save you minimum salary amounts or a bit more for each player cut, and they will have to be replaced by other guys who will also need to be minimum salary guys in order to fit under the cap, leaving you with a roster with all new scrubs and precisely the same problems.

Perhaps we might trade Sanchez? Or cut him? Well, Sanchez is actually worth more to the Jets as a bench player than as trade bait, because of the now notorious Tannenbaum extension of last offseason. Sanchez counts a ridiculous $12.85 million against the 2013 cap. Ugh. But if he is cut, he will count an even more ridiculous $17.15 million against the cap. Double Ugh. For all those who insist it is time to cut him and move on, Sanchez will hurt the Jets far more if he is gone than if he stays. Yes, it's possible he could be traded, and if the Jets could somehow trade him under his current contract his $8.3 million base salary would be transferred off the Jets' books onto their trade partner's books. But here's the rub: no NFL team is likely to agree to take a $8 million cap hit for a backup QB. And Sanchez is no longer starting material. Which means the only way the Jets can trade him is to assume most of his salary. If the Jets restructured Sanchez's contract immediately prior to the trade so that his new team only took a $1 or $2 million cap hit, that might be enough to get another team to bite for a backup QB. But it would cost the Jets $15-16 million in dead money being paid to Sanchez to play for another team, and it would also not help the Jets cap situation, leaving the team $2-3 million worse off under the cap than if no trade was done. The truth is, Sanchez is worth more to the Jets holding a clipboard all season than he is as trade bait. Sanchez will almost certainly have to stay.

So, what about restructuring some contracts to clear more cap room? Haven't the Jets always managed to do that in the past? Well, yes. Unfortunately, it has been Mike Tannenbaum's many past successful restructurings that have gotten the Jets into this mess, and the best way out is to go cold turkey and stop feeding at the restructuring trough.

The way in which restructuring a player's contract clears up present cap space is really quite simple -- it shifts cap hits from this year into future years. The only way to accomplish this is to convert current base salary (which is always counted against the current year's cap) into bonus money (which is prorated over the remaining life of the contract), and possibly extending the years of the contract (thereby giving you more years over which to spread the bonus money and reducing the prorated figure for any particular year). So, as an example, David Harris has a 2013 cap figure of $13 million, $11 million of which is base salary and $2 million of which is prorated bonus money. All of that is guaranteed money, which means cutting him saves nothing. But the Jets COULD restructure that contract by converting $10 million of base salary into bonus money payable immediately but prorated over the length of Harris' contract. Unfortunately Harris' contract only runs through 2014, so the restructured $10 million would only be spread over 2 years, meaning the Jets save $5 million against the cap in 2013 but add $5 million to the 2014 cap figure. Further cap savings could be achieved by adding additional years to Harris' contract, but to accomplish that the Jets would also have to add additional $ to the contract. The net effect would be additional cap savings in 2013 at the expense of additional cap hits down the road.

This is how cap "guru" Tannenbaum has been working his "magic" over the years -- by paying for this year's roster with next year's money. In effect, every time he "miraculously" reworked a contract and cleared cap space, what he was really doing was opening the Jets' organizational wallet, discovering he was out of cash, and deciding, no problem, I'll just put it on the old credit card and worry about paying for it later. It's like the friend or family member you may know who never saves a dime but every year manages to spend lavishly for his family's holiday gifts, putting it all on credit and hoping to pay it off over the next year. Well, sooner or later, the cards are all maxed out and it's time to put the cards away and pay up for years of excess spending and get the financial house in order. This is where the Jets find themselves now.

Oh, maybe the cards aren't COMPLETELY maxed out. There are still a few contracts that could be restructured. To find them, we have to look for contracts with high base salaries who are not going to be cut in 2013. That search yields up the following contracts:

David Harris $11 million base salary.

Mark Sanchez $8.3 million base salary

Santonio Holmes $11 million base salary

Antonio Cromartie $7 million base salary

D'Brickashaw Ferguson $7.3 million base salary.

That's it. Those 5. No other Jet that is not already on the cutting block has more than a $3 million base salary, meaning restructuring them would have little effect on the cap.

We have already discussed Harris, and I highly doubt there is anybody in all of Gang Green Nation in favor of putting off a portion of Sanchez's cap hit for yet another year. So that leaves Holmes, Cromartie and Ferguson. Between the three of them the Jets might be able to come up with another $10-12 million in cap space, at the expense of pushing an equal amount into future years. But here is the problem. Within 2 months of the end of the 2013 NFL season, all three of those guys (as well as Harris) will have turned 30 years old. Age 30 is kind of a turning point in the NFL. At that point nearly every NFL player other than a few QBs have already seen their best playing days, and can only look forward to decline. Some will decline slowly and have many good years left; most will decline more quickly and will be out of the league or close to it within 2 or 3 years. So the Jets have a clear choice: clear another $10-12 million in cap space, enough to afford 2 good players or 1 great player, and pay the price of once again pushing cap hits into the declining years of expensive players. Or finally, once and for all, ending the credit card addiction, cutting up the credit cards and learning to pay as you go, in the process permanently ending the perennial cap problems.

If the Jets had an elite QB, that might be a tough decision, particularly if he was in the final productive years of his career. It might be very tempting to swing for the fences and go all in for one final shot while we still had that elite QB. As things stand, though, the Jets not only do not have an elite QB, the Jets do not even have a starting caliber QB on the roster. The 2013 draft is unlikely to change that, and elite QBs are not made available in free agency, Peyton Manning notwithstanding. So, what are the chances the 2013 Jets could be molded into legitimate Super Bowl contenders, even with the additional $10-12 million in cap room? Without an elite QB, and with a roster that will have serious holes no matter what is done, and other positions manned by totally unpredictable rookies, I think the answer is obvious. Barring a miracle, the 2013 NY Jets will not be serious contenders, and will have virtually zero chance of winning a Super Bowl. Maybe, with a great draft, a couple of wise FA signings, some surprises in the development of young players, and if the schedule turns out to be weaker than it looks on paper, the Jets could squeak out a winning season, maybe even eke out a wild card bid. But I do not think there is any realistic possibility of competing for the Lombardi Trophy. And for me, there is one and only one legitimate goal -- hoisting that Trophy over our heads in victory. If the Jets cannot realistically compete for that in 2013, then the only legitimate focus of this organization is on 2014 and beyond, when the cap problems largely disappear and the Jets might actually field a contender. Given that, it is clear to me that the Jets MUST just say no to contract restructurings that kick the can down the road. It is time to get the financial house in order. It is time to live within our salary cap means. Woody Johnson, please, tell the new GM, whomever he may be, cut up the credit cards, and start planning for a brighter tomorrow.