In my prior article, Whacko For Flacco, I suggested that if the Ravens fail to tie up Joe Flacco prior to him hitting the open market, the Jets should make every effort to sign Flacco.
Many people responding to the prior article suggested there is zero chance that the Ravens will fail to lock up Flacco. They argued, perhaps correctly, that if the Ravens and Flacco could not agree to terms on a new contract, the Ravens would just use the exclusive franchise tag on Flacco and be done with it. If that is in fact the case then the idea of trying to bring Flacco to NY is not worth the bits spent on it here. The odds are very much in favor of that being the case. Very much in favor, however, does not mean 100% guaranteed. I believe there is a small but very real chance that Flacco and the Ravens fail to come to terms and the Ravens do not franchise him. Here's why.
The Ravens are in surprisingly bad shape under the cap. In fact, there is an argument to be made that the Ravens are in worse shape than the Jets are. According to this Raven's Salary Cap site, the Ravens are currently $12.3 million under the cap for 2013, with 41 players under contract. A draft class of 7 players will cost $5 million in cap space, leaving them $7.3 million under the cap with 48 players. Add 5 minimum salary guys and you have a full roster with about $4.8 million to spare. Doesn't sound so bad, right? But here's the kicker. If they franchise Flacco, that costs the Ravens $14.6 million, meaning they will then be $9.8 million over the cap. That shouldn't be too hard to deal with. If they cut Anquan Boldin and Ray Lewis retires, that will save the Ravens about $11 million in cap space, leaving them $1.2 million under the cap. Sign a minimum salary guy to make up for the net loss of 1 roster guy (add Flacco, subtract Boldin and Lewis), get to about $0.7 million under the cap and call it a day, right? Well, maybe. But consider this. The Ravens currently have a whopping 29 free agents, including 13 UFAs, 7 RFAs and 9 exclusive rights free agents. Among those free agents are Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Bryant McKinnie, Dannell Ellerbe, Cary Williams, Albert McClellan, Ma'ake Kemoeatu, Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson, Josh Bynes and Art Jones. That's the Ravens' starting Left Tackle, both starting Tight Ends, and 8 of their 14 leading tacklers. Add in the loss of Ray Lewis and Anquan Boldin and you're looking at a completely decimated Ravens team.
Of course the Ravens could restructure some contracts to afford a few of those guys, but how much restructuring would be needed to fit even half those guys under the cap? It should also be noted that the Ravens have only 3 guys on their roster with more than $4 million base salary; Suggs, Ngata and Yanda. Those 3 guys collectively have approximately $17 million in base salary. At most maybe $11 million of that could be converted into bonus money and prorated over contract extensions. But those guys will be 31, 30 and 29, respectively by the end of the 2013 season, leaving it questionable just how far the Ravens would wish to extend their contracts into the future.
2014 also does not provide much relief for the Ravens. As of now the Ravens are at $94 million in 2014, with 28 players under contract. Ray Lewis' retirement lops off $6 million, but Joe Flacco would add at least $10 million, leaving the Ravens at $98 million for 28 players. Add in the 2013 draft class at $7 million and the 2014 draft class at $5 million and you get 42 players at $110 million. If the Ravens restructured contracts for 2013, add in at least an additional $4 million for cap prorations from restructured contracts. That puts them at $114 million, or about $8 million under the cap, and still 11 players short of a full roster. Any way you slice it, the Ravens are in a world of cap pain for at least the next couple of years.
The implications for Flacco are obvious. Slap the franchise tag on Flacco and kiss your leading WR and half your defense goodbye. The Ravens just might balk at that deal. As brilliant as Flacco has been in the post season, he has never been more than a little above average in the regular season. The defense has been what has gotten the Ravens into the playoffs up until the 2012 season. With half the defense and 2 all time greats gone going forward, and the best 2 defensive players left both on the wrong side of 30 after the 2013 season, the Ravens might think long and hard about whether Flacco can carry the team on his back with what shapes up to be a very mediocre defense. The Ravens were 17th in total defense in 2013 with Lewis playing 6 games and Reed playing 16. What will they be without both those guys and without half the other top tacklers on the team? Are the Ravens prepared to take the risk and find out? The answer is, probably yes. Most likely they will value the QB over all else and go all in with Flacco, even without Boldin and half the defense. Most likely, but, not, I think, most definitely. I could definitely envision a scenario where the Flacco camp makes clear he will be too expensive to keep over the long haul, and the Ravens decide to go the old familiar route of spectacular defense and adequate offense. We will soon find out, but I do not think it anything like a 100% certitude that the Ravens lock up Flacco.
If the unlikely happens and Flacco in fact becomes a free agent, should the Jets go after him, and if they do, how can they afford him?
First, should the Jets go after Flacco? That is not an easy question to answer. In order to fit Flacco in, the Jets would have the same sort of problems that the Ravens have, although for reasons that will become clear I think the Jets may be in better shape to fit him in than the Ravens. In Cutting Up The Credit Cards, I argued forcefully that the Jets should avoid doing any such thing, and should instead pay the piper in 2013, get out of cap hell by 2014, and build through the draft. I still believe that is likely the best path to pursue. However, I also believe the Jets should pay almost any price, whether in draft picks or in cap space, if they can be reasonably assured of obtaining a top 10 QB. The question then boils down to, is Flacco a top 10 QB? And the answer is, I really am not sure. Judging only by his regular season performances the answer is clearly he is not. Flacco has never been a dominant regular season QB. He's never passed for 4000 yards, never thrown more than 25 TD passes, only once had a better than 89 passer rating. Those are not the stats of the kind of QB who can put a team on his back and carry them to the playoffs. During the regular season Flacco has been a little better than average, nothing more. But the post season is a completely different story. In the playoffs Flacco has turned into Super Joe, with a 9-4 record, only one game under a 95 passer rating, 3 conference championship games, a Super Bowl championship and a Super Bowl MVP under his belt. He also has never lost in the first round of the playoffs. That is a post season record as good as anyone not named Brady. In the post season there is no doubt Flacco is elite. So which QB is he: the regular season better-than-average-but-nothing-special Clark Kent? Or the post season Superman? That is the difficult question anyone who signs Flacco to a long term deal must answer.
Let's assume the Jets decide Flacco is in fact Superman. If that is accurate, then I believe the Jets MUST do everything in their power to sign him. If he is in fact an elite QB, then almost no price is too steep to pay for him. But will the Jets be able to maneuver under the cap to be able to pay that price? That is the $100 million question.
To answer that question we'll need to take a hard look at the Jets cap situation. The goal will be to create enough cap space in 2013 to fit Flacco without gutting the team in the process. All cap numbers are taken from the excellent site nyjetscap.com.
The 2013 NFL salary cap is estimated at $120.9 million. Add in approximately $3.6 million in carryover space from 2012 and the Jets have a 2013 cap of $124.5 million. Currently the Jets have a $150.3 million cap figure (yikes!) with 57 players under contract. Cutting Jason and Eric Smith, Calvin Pace, Bart Scott, Sione Pouha and Tim Tebow saves $36.1 million, getting the Jets to $114.2 million with 51 players under contract. A full draft class will cost $5.6 million and will add 7 players, getting the Jets to $119.8 million with 58 players under contract. Cutting Aaron Berry, Ellis Lankster, Nick Bellore, Caleb Schlauderaff and Josh Baker gets you down to $116.8 million with a full 53 man roster, or about $7.7 million under the cap.
Now comes the hard part. $7.7 million is not nearly enough to sign Flacco, let alone fill the holes at Safety, Tight End, Guard, Tackle and Linebacker all the Jets' free agents and cuts have created. So, what to do? First, we need to recognize which positions can be competently filled with draft picks and which cannot. The easiest positions for draft picks to come in and immediately have an impact at are running back, linebacker and defensive end. Consequently, those are the positions the Jets should target in the early rounds of the draft in 2013.
Next, other than Flacco, the Jets should focus their available free agent dollars on holes that are the least expensive for good players to fill. Safety, Tight End and Guard fall into this category.
But we are still left with the pesky problem of finding the necessary cash. So let's start looking for loose change. To find the necessary money we will have to focus on the Jets' biggest contracts. That amounts to David Harris, Mark Sanchez, Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie, D' Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis. Those are the only contracts worth considering.
Restructuring Sanchez in the manner described in Mark Sanchez Lemonade creates $6 million in cap space, bringing the Jets' total to $13.7 million. That brings us to David Harris and his whopping $11 million in base salary and $13 million cap figure. Harris just turned 29 and his contract expires at the end of the 2014 season when he will be 31. While the Jets could extend him and convert most of his $11 million salary into bonus money, generating as much as $8 million or so in cap savings, I do not think this is the way to go. He is already on the decline -- extending him would likely be a mistake. Instead, I think the way to create value from Harris' contract is to convert about $7 million of base salary into bonus money, leaving only $4 million in base salary, then trade him to a team looking for a reliable inside linebacker. We might be able to get say a 4th or 5th round draft choice back for him. Green Bay, Washington, San Diego, Cincinnatti and Houston all might be looking for a modestly priced reliable option at ILB. Green Bay might make a particularly interesting trade partner, as it is rumored they may be looking to deal TE Jermichael Finley for a mid round pick, or cut him if they can't find a trade partner. A straight up trade of Harris for Finley, with the Jets picking up the difference in 2013 salaries, and possibly throwing in something like a 5th round draft pick, might turn Harris' liability into a TE strength. All this is contingent on the Jets transitioning to more of a 43 defense, emphasizing our strength at defensive line and making Harris the odd man out.
So now we have either $17.7 million in cap space, or $13.7 million and Jermichael Finley at TE. That brings us to Santonio Holmes. With $11.2 million in salary and roster bonus, Holmes needs to be restructured. If he's healthy, we need to go all in with Holmes. He will be 29 years old during the 2013 season, likely giving him at least 4 good years left at WR. His current contract expires after the 2015 season, with no guaranteed money after 2013. The Jets need to extend his contract 1 year through 2017, add say $8 million in guarantees, to be paid half in 2014 and half in 2015, and convert $8 million of 2013 money into bonus money to be prorated over the final 4 years of his contract. The net result would be $8 million in cap savings in 2013, at the cost of adding $6 million, $6 million, $2 milllion and $2 million in cap to 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. It would essentially mean the Jets would not be able to cut Holmes until 2016 -- two more years than currently feasible -- a price the Jets should be happy to pay for Flacco, if Holmes is healthy. Now we have $25.7 million in cap space, or $21.7 million and Jermichael Finley at TE.
Next up -- Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie will also be 29 throughout the 2013 season. He has $9.5 million in base salary and roster bonus due him in 2013, and his contract expires after the 2014 season. After 2013 there is no more guaranteed money in Cromartie's deal. The Jets need to make Cromartie a core piece of the puzzle. At age 29 Cromartie should have 3-4 good seasons left. Sign him up. Turn $7.5 million of his 2013 money into bonus money. Extend his contract through 2016. To induce him to restructure, convert $7.5 million of his 2014 salary into guaranteed money, then pay the total of $15 million converted money in a 2014 bonus, with non guaranteed base salaries of $4 million in 2015 and 2016. Prorate the $15 million over the last 3 years of his contract, resulting in a cap # of 3.25 million in 2013, $8.75 million in 2014, and $9 million in 2015 and 2016. If he is still performing at a high level the Jets can keep him through 2016, his cap #s will be worth it. If not, they can cut him as soon as after the 2014 season, with cap hits of $5 million in each of 2015 and 2016. Again, there is a price to be paid, but this move creates $7.5 million in cap space in 2013 and an additional $2.5 million in cap space in 2014. This seems well worth it to get a franchise QB. We now have created $33.2 million in 2013 cap space, or $29.2 million plus Jermichael Finley.
We are left with Mangold and Brick. Both just turned 29. Both probably have about 5 good seasons left. Both have contracts running through 2017; i.e, the next 5 years. Both can't really be cut without mega dead money until 2015. So pick your poison. Which one of these two do you want to restructure? I'll go with Brick, because he gives you the most cap space to work with. Realistically we might get $6 million of Brick's $8 million in 2013 salary and roster bonus restructured. Mangold only gives us about $4 million to work with. Others might go with Mangold. I don't want to be tied to both of these guys long term, so it's going to be one or the other. Choosing Brick's contract, we take $6 million of his $8 million due him in 2013 and convert it to prorated bonus money, payable in 2014 and prorated over 3 years. To induce Brick to take this deal, guarantee $3 million of his 2017 $13 million non guaranteed salary, making his dead money hit $3 million in 2017 if cut. This creates $6 million in 2013 cap space and adds $2 million in cap hit to 2014, 2015 and 2016, making his dead money if cut in 2014 $13 million, in 2015 $10 million and in 2016 $7.5 million. This is the biggest price to be paid in all of our proposed restructurings, as you push back the earliest date you could realistically cut Brick from 2015 to 2016, and insure that Brick takes up a massive $12.4 million in cap space in 2014 and 2015. Certainly not ideal, but probably worth it to land Flacco.
So where does that leave us? We now have $39.2 million of cap space, or $35.2 million and Jermichael Finley at TE. We have chosen a core group of Flacco, Brick, Mangold, Holmes, Cromartie, Wilkerson, Kerley, and Coples to build around for the next 3-5 years. We also have lopped off $23.5 million in 2014 cap space, making the 2014 figure $73.3 million with 21 players under contract, leaving ample room to work out a deal for both Revis and Flacco in 2014.
Returning to the question of filling out the 2013 Jets roster, let's assume that a deal can be worked out with Flacco for 7 years $120 million, $70 million guaranteed, taking him through the age of 35. The deal would be structured so that the 2013 cap hit is $9 million, all in guaranteed base salary, the 2014 cap hit is $16 million, all in guaranteed base salary. In 2015, when Sanchez and Cromartie can come off the books, pay Flacco $10 million guaranteed base salary and a $15 million roster bonus. In 2016, when Holmes, Brick and Mangold can come off the books, pay Flacco $15 million guaranteed base salary and a $20 million prorated bonus, prorated over 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. In 2017, 2018 and 2019 pay Flacco non guaranteed base salaries of $15 million, $11 million and $9 million. By structuring the contract in this way, Flacco will only be really expensive in 2 years -- 2015 and 2016. Those years should correspond to the peak years of Flacco's career. They also correspond to the years when the Jets can clear away all of the current large contracts and their cap space, neatly dovetailing cap demands with cap availability, while giving the Jets 4 draft classes to build a new, inexpensive talent base around Flacco, replacing the old expensive one.
So, Flacco costs the Jets $9 million in 2013 cap space. Now we have $30.2 million in cap space, or $26.2 million and Jermichael Finley. In the draft the Jets should try to trade down and get 2 #1s or a lower #1 and 2 high #2s. Those will be used to fill a hole at OLB, DE and Guard. The Jets could then use their remaining $30.2 million in cap space to sign Laron Landry ($6 million in 2013 cap space), Atlanta's UFA safety William Moore ($6 million cap space) Tennessee's TE Jared Cook, a big, fast dangerous receiving TE ($4 million cap space), Buffalo Guard Andy Levitre ($7 million cap space), Anquan Boldin (virtually certain to be cut by Baltimore --$3 million cap space) and San Diego's Antwan Barnes (a blazingly fast pass rushing OLB [4.43 40 time!] who is made expendable by Melvin Ingram; $2 million cap space). We now have added 7 players to the roster, so we can cut 7 players off the back end freeing up about 3.5 million in cap space. That leaves us $5.5 million in cap space to play with, enough to sign DeVito, Slauson, Josh Mauga and Anthony Fasano (after we add in the $2.2 million in cap space we get by cutting the 4 back end roster guys we are replacing.)
Getting back to the draft, use Rds 3 and 4 to double dip at RB; there are lots of good ones available. I would try for Jonathan Franklin and Zac Stacy, but others may have other favorites. I would trade up if necessary to get the 2 best guys we can.
Now, what does the team we go to war with look like?
Listing only the guys expected to play a major role, here's what the team looks like:
O-Line: Brick, LeVitre, Mangold, 2nd round draft pick, Howard, Slauson (in case draft pick isn't ready).
RB: Joe McKnight, Bilal Powell, John Griffin, Jonathan Franklin, Zac Stacy (or whichever 2 RBs in the 3rd/4th rd)
TE: Jared Cook or Jermichael Finley, Anthony Fasano
WR: Holmes, Boldin, Kerley, Hill, Gates
D-Line: Wilkerson, Ellis, DeVito, Coples, #1 draft pick, Damon Harrison
Linebacker: McIntyre, Davis, Antwan Barnes, #1 or #2 draft pick, Mauga, Sapp
CB: Revis, Cromartie, Wilson, Walls
Safety: Landry, Moore, Bush, Allen.
In my opinion that is a legitimate Super bowl contender. The Jets get a gigantic upgrade at QB, an upgrade at Guard, a huge upgrade at TE, a huge upgrade at WR with Holmes returning, the addition of Boldin, and hopefully some improvement in Hill, and with any luck, at least 1 and possibly 2 new playmakers at RB. That would be the best offense the Jets have had in many years, and possibly a top 10 offense.
On defense the D-Line should improve with a #1 pick and expected improvement in Coples and Wilkerson. The linebackers will be the weak link, but with the addition of Barnes and a #1 or #2 draft pick, the pass rush should substantially improve. Also, although the unit looks weak on paper, it is very fast, and how much worse can it be than the bottom feeders the Jets had last year?
Finally, if Revis returns healthy, the Jets have the cap space to lock him up for life. A secondary of a healthy Revis, Cromartie, Wilson, Moore and Landry might be the best secondary in football, and it represents a major upgrade over the 2012 unit, which was 2nd in the NFL in pass defense.
Overall this looks like a significantly improved bunch from last year's 8th ranked group. The pass rush should be better, the secondary much better, Moore, Landry and Revis should create many more turnovers, an area the Jets suffered in last year. Call this a top 5 group.
This team has enough depth to withstand all but a huge run of injuries. It has serious speed and playmaking ability on both sides of the ball. And it is young, with only one starter on either side of the ball over the age of 29. There is little doubt in my mind this group would make the playoffs, and possibly win the East. And once we're in, Flacco can work his magic.
The salary cap numbers for acquisitions are my best guestimates, based on recent salaries for the players involved as well as average salaries for players of similar abilities. You may quibble with this or that number, but overall I believe the numbers are fairly accurate. If they're not, you can take a player off the table and redistribute where necessary; one player will not make or break this team.
The restructuring numbers are also my best guestimate of what is reasonable and doable. Again, you may quibble with this or that number, but I do not think the overall figures are unachievable. The intent is not to get every last number perfect so much as to show a general outline of what might be accomplished and how it might be accomplished, if the Jets decide to go all in in 2013.
I can't emphasize enough that this general plan only works in the unlikely case that Flacco becomes available. If the Jets can get their hands on a franchise QB for the next 7 years, I believe they have to do everything in their power to do it. This could provide us the best chance at winning a Super Bowl since 1968. If Flacco isn't available, however, I'm not at all sure this plan makes sense. In that case the better course of action is probably to take our lumps in 2013 and reload via the draft, marshalling resources to trade up for a chance at a franchise QB in the draft should one become available in 2014. But until Flacco is definitely locked up, it's worth considering just how cool it could be to bring in another Broadway Joe. If we managed it, the Jets would own this city, and possibly the AFC East, for years to come. Broadway Joe Flacco. If he's not locked up, Mr. Idzik, make it happen.