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NY Jets: The Harvin Conundrum

The complex decision facing the Jets regarding Percy Harvin.

Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets have a decision to make regarding Percy Harvin.  That decision will be made no later than about four months from now.  By sometime in mid to late March, the Jets will decide whether or not they will retain Harvin's services for another year.  If they choose not to do so Harvin's $10.5 million in cap money will come off the books, the Jets will have that much more to spend on other players in 2015, and the Jets will send the Seattle Seahawks a 6th round draft choice in the 2015 NFL draft.  If the Jets decide to retain Harvin's services they will send Seattle a 4th round draft pick.  If they decide to retain Harvin's services the Jets can either simply keep his current contract in place and pay Harvin $10.5 million in 2015 or they can attempt to reduce that compensation, presumably by agreeing to a restructure that guarantees Harvin a certain amount of money in exchange for reducing the overall compensation under the contract.  That sounds straightforward enough, right? Well, maybe.  Let's take a closer look at the possible complexities of the situation.

The Contract

Currently Harvin's contract runs through the 2018 season.  He has all non-guaranteed compensation consisting of base salaries of $10.5 million, $9.9 million, $9.95 million and 11.15 million over the next four years (all figures taken from  As a player with more than four years experience, if Harvin is on the opening day roster his entire 2015 base salary becomes guaranteed.

Now let's explore the two options the Jets have if they wish to retain Harvin's services in 2015.  First, they can simply keep the current contract in place.  If they do that, then on opening day of the 2015 season $10.5 million of Harvin's contract, slightly more than 25% of the entire contract amount, becomes fully guaranteed money.  Now of course the Jets could keep the current contract in place and still decide to cut Harvin prior to opening day 2015, but if they go that route, they will have surrendered a 4th round draft pick instead of a 6th round draft pick and received no benefit of Harvin's services for doing so.  That decision would appear to be extremely unlikely on the part of the Jets to say the least.  Therefore if the Jets decide to retain Harvin's services by keeping the current contract in place we can assume Harvin will not be cut prior to the start of the 2015 season.  The implication of this in terms of any possible restructure is fairly obvious: the bidding on the guaranteed portion of a restructured contract with the Jets begins at $10.5 million.  In order to provide Harvin any financial incentive whatsoever to accept a reduced compensation package, the Jets will be required to guarantee more than $10.5 million.

Now of course the Jets could offer somewhat less than $10.5 million in guaranteed money, possibly with some form of performance bonuses that have the potential for Harvin to earn as much or more in 2015 if he performs well.  But offering that type of deal leaves Harvin short of the compensation that would be fully guaranteed if the Jets simply retained him under the current contract.  If the Jets are making a serious effort to retain Harvin's services, it likely means he has performed well and stayed healthy in his time with the Jets.  That would likely mean there would be an active market for Harvin's services in the NFL at large.  What Harvin knows at that point is (i) the Jets have already sunk $6.5 million in cap money into him and likely do not wish to lose that money plus a 6th round pick in exchange for a 7 game tryout for some other team, and (ii) Harvin's performance has likely been enough to perk up interest in multiple other teams at a reasonably high rate of compensation, or why would the Jets be actively trying to retain his services?  Thus the Jets have a choice: refuse to up the ante and cut Harvin, who will then be free to negotiate with all 32 NFL teams for his services.  Or pony up a fairly large amount of guaranteed money in exchange for a reduced overall compensation package. The Jets have sunk costs of $6.5 million and a 6th round draft pick that no other team potentially bidding for Harvin's services has, making the Jets incentive to get a deal done higher than any other team.  In effect the Jets have placed themselves in a poor negotiating position, with the Harvin camp knowing the Jets will have ample incentive to pay above market compensation in order not to lose $6.5 million in cap space and a 6th round pick for nothing.

To try to establish some parameters for what Harvin might be willing to accept in terms of guaranteed money, let's look at Golden Tate and Eric Decker, two wide receivers from the 2013 free agent class.  Tate got an $8 million signing bonus and an additional $2.5 million in guaranteed base salary for a total of $10.5 million in guaranteed money.  Decker got a $7.5 million signing bonus and an additional $7.5 million in guaranteed base salary for a total of $15 million in guaranteed money.  Given how the Jets have made Harvin a focal point of their offense it is probably safe to say that Harvin will be looking at the Decker guaranteed money as a baseline floor in terms of guaranteed money on a restructured Harvin contract.  The argument is simple: the Jets have clearly valued Harvin's services in the offense at least as much, and probably more, than Decker since Harvin got here, therefore it only stands to reason Harvin should be guaranteed as much as or more than Decker.  Even if that argument doesn't fly for reasons of Harvin's injury history and questionable character, it is difficult to imagine Harvin accepting less in guaranteed money than Tate got.  Thus we have the beginnings of an outline for a Harvin restructure:  for reasons ranging from the amount Harvin would be guaranteed if the current contract stayed in place, to the somewhat compromised bargaining position of the Jets, to the amounts somewhat comparable players have recently been guaranteed, it is difficult to imagine Harvin taking less than $10.5 million in guaranteed money, and it is likely the bidding starts closer to $15 million than $10 million.

The Injury History

Percy Harvin has been in the NFL since 2009.  At the conclusion of the 2014 season he will have six years in the NFL under his belt.  Thus far in Harvin's career there have been a total of 89 games played, and Harvin has played in 63 of those games, or about 71%.  He has played in all 16 games only once in his career, and he will not do so in 2014.  Harvin missed one game in 2009, two games in 2010, seven games in 2012, 15 games in 2013, and so far one game in 2014.  To say health is an issue with Harvin is not a controversial statement.  Health should be a major consideration when deciding how much guaranteed money a team is willing to pony up for Harvin's services.  This involves two separate considerations.  First, there is the simple matter of paying for services that are likely not to be rendered.  An NFL contract envisions performance of a 16 game schedule.  While it is clearly a violent game and injuries are to be expected, some players are more injury prone than others.  Harvin's track record suggests that we can reasonably expect major chunks of time missed due to injury over the course of a multi-year commitment.  Given such a track record it might be wise to limit guaranteed money so that if too much time is missed the team can cut ties without suffering too much financially.  Unfortunately we have already established the parameters of the lowest amount of guaranteed money Harvin is likely to be willing to accept, and it is not insubstantial.  Restructuring Harvin to include $12 to $15 million in guaranteed money in exchange for reduced overall compensation might make sense from a 2015 salary cap point of view, but it probably does not make sense from a longer term perspective.  Any cap dollars saved in 2015 from such a restructure are fairly likely to be lost, and then some, due to injury down the road.  If Harvin proves unable to stay healthy it will have been a better move to just leave the current contract in place (or, in the alternative, cut him prior to the middle of March), and leave flexibility to cut him at any time after 2015 with no cap hit.

In addition to the relatively straightforward calculation of the risk of paying for services not rendered due to injury, there is a second, more nuanced consideration with an injury prone player like Harvin.  Specifically, Harvin is a player the Jets have quickly built their offense around.  He will likely get paid an amount that makes him the highest paid skill position player on the team.  That makes him all the more likely to have the offense structured around his specific strengths.  Large numbers of packages and plays will be designed specifically to take advantage of Harvin's unique abilities.  What happens when a player like that goes down?  Wholesale portions of the offensive playbook become useless.  The offense has to adjust on the fly and install whole new packages and schemes.  While this is of course true about any star player, Harvin is a bit different, both in his unique characteristics as a player and in his long injury history.  There really is no other player on this team that could do a passable Harvin impression if Harvin goes down.  Building an entire offense around Harvin means more than the usual upheaval when he goes down and wholesale changes need to be made in the offense. It is worth asking the question, is Harvin worth less in terms of guaranteed money because his injury potential is likely to create major continuity problems on offense?

The Character Issue

When Percy Harvin was traded to the Jets a number of different character concerns surfaced, mostly revolving around anger management issues and issues regarding not getting him the ball enough.  Harvin reportedly got in multiple altercations with teammates and was not well liked in Seattle or Minnesota.  Reports like these often come out after a player is traded as the former team tries to trash the traded player, but there is probably enough here to suspect there is at least some validity to the character issue.  From most accounts Harvin has been happy and at peace during his brief stay with the Jets.  However, given that the Jets have to decide whether or not to make a long term commitment to Harvin, the question arises, for how long will the honeymoon last?  Players in new environments very frequently have a honeymoon period where everyone is trying to get along and the player is relieved to get away from his prior situation and everything seems great.  Such honeymoons rarely last.  Up until now Harvin has been targeted more than any other Jet in his brief stay in New York.  As Harvin has often expressed the desire to be utilized more, it is not surprising that a Jets offense that has force fed him the ball has made Harvin happy for now.  But for how long?  Will other Jets players always be happy playing second fiddle to Harvin?  Will everyone be happy with weekly game plans that consist mainly of "get the ball to Harvin?"   What happens if the Jets sign a better player, or if they draft a better player who by his performance demands the ball?  OK, OK, stop laughing so hard at the notion of the Jets drafting a superior offensive playmaker; you'll choke.  Yes, we all know that simply doesn't happen in Jetsland. But surely it will, someday, right?  What if it happens soon?  Will Harvin continue being happy and at peace?  I would say the odds of Harvin remaining happy in the event he is not the dominant target on the offense are pretty low.

The Performance

Percy Harvin has a surprisingly uninspiring performance record for one so highly paid.  Harvin has had only one season with 1000 yards from scrimmage.  Only once has Harvin scored more than six touchdowns from scrimmage in a season.  He has never had 1000 yards receiving in a season.  Harvin has never scored double digit touchdowns in a season, even with his kickoff returns included.  His yards per target is fairly impressive, averaging 7.88 yards per target for his career.  However, for a player who is supposedly a big play waiting to happen, he has rarely been among the league leaders in big plays, and has never had more than 14 receptions of 20+ yards in his career.  To put that in perspective, the Jets, never a team known for big play receivers, have had a receiver match or exceed Harvin's big plays in all but one year of Harvin's career, and even in 2011, Harvin only exceeded Keller's total by 2 big plays.  For  all the reputation as a big play gamebreaker, Harvin has produced surprisingly few actual big plays in his career.  It is fair to ask whether Harvin's performance record justifies paying him like a gamebreaker when he has rarely actually been such a player on the field.


Jets Leader 20+ Yard Receptions

Jets Leader # Of 20+ Yard Receptions

Harvin 20+ Yard Receptions


























The Coaching Staff

With a 2-8 record this year and four straight years without a winning season, it seems all but inevitable that Rex Ryan will not be the coach in 2015.  If Ryan is fired or resigns, it also seems very likely that Marty Mornhinweg will not be the offensive coordinator of the Jets in 2015.  Percy Harvin is Marty's kind of player.  Marty's offensive schemes are made for a player like Harvin.  Since Harvin came aboard Marty has been force feeding Harvin the ball, and Harvin has been happy.  What happens when a new offensive coordinator is hired, as seems all but inevitable in 2015?  There is no guarantee any new coaching staff will be as enamored of Harvin and his skill set as the current staff is.  If the new staff does not force feed Harvin the ball, how long will it be before Harvin becomes a problem?  How long before his character issues again rear their ugly head?  There is a real issue here of Harvin's worth to the Jets being tied to the offensive coordinator and how whoever that may be will value Harvin in the offense.  If Harvin is no longer the focal point of the offense for any reason, whether due to better players being added to the team or a new coaching staff wanting to take the offense in a different direction, Harvin's worth to this team takes a hit.  His likely negative reaction to such a turn of events may further devalue Harvin in  such an event.  Thus the uncertainty of the coaching situation further complicates the issue of exactly how much Harvin is worth and whether the Jets should make a long term commitment to him.

The GM

This disastrous Jets season has threatened the future of not only the coaching staff, but also, perhaps, the entire front office, including general manager John Idzik.  Some are convinced there is no realistic chance Idzik will be relieved of his duties after just two years, while others think his ouster is becoming very likely.  If you are in the Idzik is going nowhere camp, then this issue becomes a non-issue. However, if you believe there is a non trivial chance Idzik will be gone in 2015, the Harvin issue becomes problematic.  Specifically, in many ways the Harvin trade is thus far the signature move of the Idzik regime.  He is likely under some pressure to make this work and not lose $6.5 million in cap space and a 6th round pick for a meaningless seven game tryout for some other team.  Thus Idzik remaining as the GM somewhat weakens the Jets bargaining position, as he feels pressure to make this move work.  If Idzik is fired before the 2015 season, it is perhaps not the best of things that Idzik remains in place for the time being and vested with the authority to make a long term commitment to a player the next regime may not want.  In a functional organization, if there were any questions about Idzik's future, major long term commitments would be put off until the 2015 GM was decided upon, whether that meant Idzik or somebody else.  This, however, is the Jets, and what makes sense does  not always rule the day.  The possibility that Idzik could in fact make a major long term commitment to Harvin and then be fired is unsettling to say the least.  The fact that Idzik retained the authority to pull off the Harvin trade at all, given that the season was already lost by then, either indicates that Idzik's job is not in jeopardy, or that the Jets have not clearly thought through the implications of Idzik remaining in power long enough to saddle the next GM with major decisions he would not have made.

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out.  The Harvin issue is a bit more complex than it is often portrayed, and there is significant risk in committing major guaranteed money to a player with both injury issues and character concerns.  If the Jets are committed to bringing Harvin back, perhaps the most sensible approach is to simply overpay him a bit and retain the current contract, viewing the overpayment as insurance against the obvious risks that could derail Harvin over the long term.  Or the Jets could decide that Harvin is not a priority, especially if John Idzik is no longer here, and offer a substantial pay reduction to Harvin without major guarantees, an offer he would almost surely reject, thus ending the Harvin era in NY.  Stay tuned.  This story is just beginning to take shape.