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A Word About Paying Both Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson

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The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

I have heard some skepticism from people that the Jets can afford both Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. How much money can the Jets invest at the position? I would like to make a point about that. Even in the event this became an issue for the Jets, we are three to four years away from it having any sort of an impact. The Jets also would be in a position to do something about it.

This is because Richardson isn't close to taking up a big chunk of cap space.

You can see from Over the Cap by clicking here that Richardson is in the third year of a four year rookie contract. In 2015, he is going to count for a little over $2.7 million against the camp. In 2016, he will cost a shade under $3.2 million.

This gets us to 2017. If Richardson signs a big contract, does this means he is going to take up a huge chunk of the Jets' cap room? That isn't necessarily the case because of the way NFL contracts are structured.

When a player signs a new contract, you frequently hear about a signing bonus. As the name suggests, that is a payment the player gets just for signing the contract. He is typically paid that money or at least a nice chunk of it shortly after signing.

Let's say you sign a contract with a $12 million signing bonus. You get $12 million. That's money you can put in the bank. You can buy a house. You can do whatever you want with it. You get it in the next few days.

Just because the team is cutting a $12 million check today doesn't mean that $12 million all counts against the cap this season, though. Signing bonuses are spread out over the life of the contract. So year 1 it will count as $3 million. It also counts $3 million in year 2, year 3, and year 4.

Again, you've got a $12 million check, but the cap hit for the team from that bonus this year is only $3 million. You've still got $12 million, though, so I might go to you and say something like, "Hey, since you have that money can you take a $2 million salary in the first year?"  You might be worth $10 million a year, but in that first year you've already got $12 million. An extra $2 million in base salary is reasonable.

So we add the $2 million to your cap hit. The signing bonus counts $3 million against the cap. Add them together, and your cap hit for the first year of this contract is $5 million. Now next year you don't get that signing bonus so I'll pay you $10 million in base salary. Add that to the $3 million your signing bonus costs per year, and you're a $13 million cap hit. Still, this is an extra year I've been able to buy before you become a big cap hit.

This is fairly common for the NFL.

Randall Cobb signed a 4 year, $40 million contract during the offseason. His first year cap hit for Green Bay is $5.3 million. He got a $13 million signing bonus. That's money Cobb has been paid, but the Packers don't get charged $13 million against the cap this season. They get charged $3.25 million each year for the next four years. Since Cobb has that money, he's taking a $1.2 million base salary this year along with a couple of bonuses that add up to $900,000. Next year his cap figure will rise to $9.1 million and $12.75 in both 2017 and 2018. But the Packers got an extra year of Cobb at a reasonable price.

Jeremy Maclin signed a 5 year, $55 million contract during the offseason. His first year cap hit for Kansas City is $3.4 million. He got a $12 million signing bonus. That $12 million is his. He's got that so in exchange, he could afford to take a base salary of under $1 million along with a small workout bonus. He'll never be below $12.4 million against the cap for the rest of that contract without restructuring, but that first year is not painful.

This brings me back to Richardson. The Jets might work out a new deal with him when his rookie contract expires, but the first year cap hit isn't necessarily going to be the type of hit you take on a megadeal. Once we get to year two, it will be, but this gets us to 2018 before we are talking about whether the Jets can afford to pay big money to both Wilkerson and Richardson.

I didn't even mention Richardson's fifth year option. As a first round pick, the Jets have a team option for a fifth year on Richardson. That just used their fifth year option on Wilkerson. This year, the fifth year option on a defensive end outside the top ten picks was around $7.7 million. That might go up. We are getting into the range of big money, and that's why I didn't talk about it. Maybe it's not big enough to preclude the Jets from using it, though. Then, a year later, they might sign Richardson to an extension with a cheap first year cap hit. Now we are talking about 2019 before both Wilkerson and Richardson are both being paid exorbitant money.

Either way, it's quite possible for the Jets to go another three to four years without needing to pay both Wilkerson and Richardson top dollar. Three years is an eternity in the NFL. You really can't definitively plan that far ahead because of how much changes. Three years ago at this time, Maurice Jones-Drew, Jared Allen, Charles Woodson, and Troy Polamalu were reigning All Pros. Jim Harbaugh was the exciting young coach of a team on the rise. People were questioning whether Peyton Manning could play at a high level. NFL teams were doing things like drafting Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden over Russell Wilson. That's how long three years is in the NFL. Every GM should be thinking into the future. When it comes to three years in the future, though, any GM who thinks he knows exactly the roster he will assemble is at best mistaken and at worst foolish.

We don't know what Richardson will be in three years. If he keeps improving, he will likely command top dollar. It wouldn't be unprecedented, though, for a player to peak early. Maybe Richardson ends up not being worth top dollar by the time he hits free agency.

With all of this in mind, the Jets should not base their decision on Wilkerson on whether or not they can afford both Sheldon and Mo. There are ways to make that years away from even being part of the discussion. Say we get to 2018, though. Maybe Mo is on a big contract, and the Jets find they actually cannot afford both. Even worse, Richardson is the guy they want to keep. You'd be hard-pressed to find many NFL contracts that make it a cap problem to trade a player after the third year. Say Wilkerson signs a new deal this offseason. If they decide he isn't worth keeping over Sheldon by 2018, they will be able to move him by that point.

Now there are factors that might make the Jets move on from Mo. Namely, they are:

  • A situation where Mo wants more than the Jets estimate he is worth.
  • A situation where the Jets decide since they already have Richardson, Leonard Williams, and Damon Harrison, the big money it would cost to lock Mo up would be more wisely spent upgrading other parts of the roster.
What I don't see entering the calculus, however, is a consideration of whether the Jets can afford both players. For the forseeable future, this should not be an issue.