I want to take a step back right now and discuss the current state of the Jets from a long-term perspective. I see lots of people using phrases like "win now" because of how old some of the key players are on the roster. It is true. The Jets have one of the oldest rosters in the NFL and the oldest in the AFC East. Does this mean a short window of opportunity followed by certain doom? To answer that question and figure out where the Jets stand, we need to look at some of the things that make the NFL distinct and how we got here.
If you are a fan of teams in other sports, you are likely used to hearing about teams winning now opposed to rebuilding teams. The NFL's structure does not lend itself to breaking teams down so neatly.
One of the big difference between the NFL and other leagues is that contracts are not guaranteed. Knicks fans out there might remember when the team hired Donnie Walsh after the Isiah Thomas fiasco. Contracts are guaranteed in the NBA. The Knicks had so many that Walsh had to wait two full seasons of futility before he could even start to think about rebuilding, and it would have been longer had he not gotten creative to expedite the process in the hopes of clearing enough salary cap room for LeBron James.
Compare that with the NFL. Much discussion has been had about Antonio Cromartie's disappointing 2015 season and how he will likely be cut after the year ends. Do you know how much Cromartie will count against the 2016 salary cap if the Jets cut him after this season? The answer is zero. How much would Cromartie's $8 million contract cost in another sport where the money is guaranteed? It would be the full $8 million, and the Jets would have little recourse.
This is a huge difference between the NFL and other leagues. You can get out of contracts and get back your cap space quickly.
There is another key distinction between the NFL and other sports. Players contribute quickly. Mets fans out there just saw the fruits of a long and painful rebuilding process as their team went to the World Series behind a bunch of young homegrown pitchers.
It took time for those guys to develop. The Mets drafted Matt Harvey in 2010. He did not even pitch in the Major Leagues until 2012. He was an All-Star for the first time in 2013. The Mets also drafted Jacob deGrom in 2010. His Major League debut was in 2014. Noah Syndergaard was drafted in 2010 as well. His debut was in 2015.
Compare that with some NFL players. Sheldon Richardson was an impact player right off the bat. He was Rookie of the Year the year he was drafted and a Pro Bowler the year after. Darrelle Revis also made the Pro Bowl the year after he was drafted. Muhammad Wilkerson did not make the Pro Bowl, but his breakout season was 2012 after he was drafted in 2011. By the points in their professional careers these guys were stars, the Mets' pitchers were still hoping to crack the Major Leagues.
These things make the NFL a quick turnaround league. You can totally remake a roster and rebuild in two to three years in a way that just is not possible in other sports. You can shed bad contracts, clear cap space for better players, and infuse a roster with young talent. It is no wonder that coaches who successfully turn their teams around have usually shown major progress by the end of their second seasons.
Where does all of this leave the Jets? They spent a lot of money to upgrade their roster this offseason. Doing so contributed to this becoming one of the oldest teams in the league. You might say this gives them a narrow window of opportunity.
I bring you back to the ranking of NFL teams by age. You can see this doesn't just have the 2015 rankings. It also has the 2013 and 2014 rankings. You can see that in 2014 the Jets were on the younger half of the league. In 2013 they were one of the seven youngest teams.
Those rosters had little talent, though. Even though the 2013 team did go 8-8, I think most would agree that team caught every break imaginable. That isn't to say the team did not deserve 8 wins. It is only to say that team probably maxed out or came close to it by getting 8 wins. Even had they won an extra game or two, it was not a core that could realistically win a championship even if everything fell into place.
So what the Jets did with their spending this year was to replace a core that had no window of opportunity because it lacked talent with a core that has a short window of opportunity.
Why did the Jets have to spend money? Why did they have to get so much older? It is because they drafted so poorly for so long. All of the cap space they had was not really because John Idzik was a salary cap wizard. It was because Idzik inherited a roster that lacked players who were worth giving big contracts. That cap space was really marked off for second contracts for homegrown players. The Jets did not have any worth keeping.
Consider this. The Jets have no players left on their roster from their 2008 Draft class. The Jets have no players left on their roster from their 2009 Draft class. The Jets have no players on their roster from their 2010 Draft class. Even a great general manager is not going to hit on all of his picks, but it is a stunning failure that not one player from those classes is currently on a second contract with the team. Players on rookie deals are cheap. The guys who get second contracts are more expensive because other teams can bid on them unless you lock them up at a price they want. These guys fill out starting roles, and hopefully some become impact players. When you don't have anybody worth spending this money on, you end up with a lot of cap space.
You also end up with a lack of talent on your roster. The stars and quality starters you depend upon to fill roles aren't there when you Draft so poorly so there is a dearth of talent. What the Jets did during the offseason was spend that money to fill the talent with players from other teams. They had to be older players like Brandon Marshall, Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Ryan Fitzpatrick. These are the players who were available.
Now have the Jets mortgaged their future to acquire these guys? They have not. In two years, it will not cost the team more than $3 million in cap space to cut any players other than Leonard Williams and Darrelle Revis. There is long-term roster flexibility. Again, this is because contracts are not guaranteed in the NFL aside from what players specifically negotiate to be guaranteed.
This is important because the spending spree the Jets went on probably raised some anxiety. Everybody remembers the cap predicament Mike Tannenbaum got the team into. That was a different situation. What Tannenbaum did was perform tricks to reduce a player's cap hit in that year but also increase it the next year. It was like he was using a credit card. He did this with guys like Bart Scott and Calvin Pace. It was the basis of the famous Mark Sanchez extension. By lowering a player's cap cost that year, he could improve the team in the short term. Eventually, the bill would come due, though, because he kept adding costs to the Jets' future cap space. Like with a credit card, eventually the bill came due. Scott, Pace, Sanchez, and others eventually had absurd cap costs. The Jets needed to take it on the chin in 2013, clear the books, and not add any new costs.
The Jets haven't done that here. And even that example shows the nature of the NFL. It took the Jets one year to clean the ledger off a horrible cap situation.
Every now and then you will get a Jets situation where a team just has to go into full rebuild mode for a year. In most cases, though, there are not clear distinctions between win now and win later teams. With most NFL teams, there is a balance. You are building now and for the future.
In other league, you might not want to sign a free agent. Your cap space might be such that said player will either be too old, or his contract will be over by the time you are ready to compete. This is not so in the NFL. Because teams can turn things around so quickly, that player you sign can help you improve a lot in year one, and he can be part of a contender in year two to three.
This brings us to the current Jets team. As we discussed, Mike Maccagnan decided to spend to improve the talent now. It was one of two options he had.
Maccagnan chose to upgrade the talent level. In doing so, he created a window of opportunity for the current group. This was not all he was doing, though. There is a long-term view here.
This team does have a number of young players it is hoping to build around like Richardson, Calvin Pryor, and Leonard Williams. By putting a representative team on the field, Maccagnan is giving them a chance to grow. These guys have a chance to grow by playing in big games at the start of their respective careers. Ideally what will happen is these guys will develop into reasons this team is winning and be primary reasons the team is winning. These guys can push the team into the Playoffs. Once you get there, the single elimination element of the NFL Playoffs means anything can happen.
The alternative was to do nothing and essentially hang young players out to dry. These guys would be on a losing team, the type of circumstance that breeds dysfunction and is not good for the development of young players. The Jets tried this approach last season, and as it turns out, this is not a good way to operate. It is the type of philosophy that asked a rookie safety to be the savior of the defense by playing on the back end instead of the attacking style which suits him. It asked a second year quarterback to lift the team on his back because he didn't have receivers capable of getting separation or winning balls in the air. Surrounding Pryor with the team that allows him to play to his strengths is much better for his development. Having quality receivers so a raw rookie like Devin Smith can take a back seat and learn on the practice field benefits him rather than him needing to be a go-to option in the passing game. Young guys who become good do contribute early, but Smith might be the type of guy for whom things click in year two rather than year one.
Yes, the older players the Jets added will need to be replaced in a few years, but again, the NFL is a league where there is a lot of turnover. To some extent, you can say any team will need to replace a lot of players. Look at the rosters of New England or Seattle this time three years ago and consider how different they look today. Every team has to replace a lot of players in a few years. I will admit that an inordinate number of key players are getting old quickly for the Jets. You would like to see a more even distribution. This makes the margin for error smaller for the Jets than it does for a lot of other teams, but the end result is not that different from the rest of the league.
It will come down to drafting. Can the Jets get an infusion of young talent to take over for the aging players they have? Can Devin Smith replace Marshall? Can Lorenzo Mauldin become the type of edge rusher the Jets need? Can Mike Maccagnan and the scouting crew put together successful Draft classes in 2016 and 2017?
What the free agent spending spree did was buy the Jets some time. It bought Smith time to develop. It gave Pryor a realistic chance to grow into a difference-maker who can carry some of the impact playmaking load when Revis goes even if they play different positions and do different things. It gave the team a year or two to find impact talent in the Draft and not need to immediately need those players to become stars on day one. Now they can develop and do so in year two.
The Jets are competing this year, but this is also about building for the future. Funny as it is to say, the sucesss of Maccagnan's tenure will not depend greatly upon his free agent class in 2015. The spending stopped the figurative bleeding in terms of talent. Now the well needs to be replenished in the next few years.
Jets fans just need to hope the team hired a front office that can find the right talent and a coaching staff that can develop it.