With training camp coming up and the season around the corner (okay, a very long corner), I thought I'd take a look at the spotlight players who will be under the microscope this year. Obviously any player who isn't guaranteed a roster spot will have a lot to play for, but I wanted to take a look at the higher profile players here. I'm going to keep it on the short side, so the less heralded players are getting lumped together at the end. Here we go:
Muhammad Wilkerson, 25, 1 year - $6.696M
Wilkerson is probably the most obvious choice for this list. He has been a force on the DL for years and though he has yet to make the Pro Bowl, his appearances on the NFL's Top 100 shows the respect the league has for him. He's one of the best at his position and he is on the final year of his rookie contract, a fifth year option, and has been on the warpath for a contract for over a year now. While the Jets could franchise tag him next year, it would be hard to absorb the likely $13-15M cap figure with the Jets already likely to be pressed up against the cap in 2016. Signing him to a long term deal in the off-season next year would dramatically lower that cap hit while giving Wilkerson the instant payday that he wants, so it's likely that a deal could get done if both parties can agree on a number. The problem is that Wilkerson may want a ridiculous sum of money despite lacking the credentials of someone like J.J. Watt or Ndamukong Suh. If he wants to even approach Watt money, which would be a pretty big overpay anyway, he will have to have a monster season.
Geno Smith, 24, 2 years - $2.97M
This is Geno Smith's final shot to prove himself in the NFL. In his third season with a receiving corps that finally might exceed average, Geno Smith is out of excuses. This is the make or break year for his career and if he were to lose the position to Ryan Fitzpatrick at some point during the season, it is unlikely Geno Smith's career could ever rebound. I'm not going to get into all of it because you probably already know, but this season is as big for Geno as for just about any other player in the NFL. His career is on the line and he needs to win some games.
Demario Davis, 26, 1 year 1.69M
Expectations were high for super Demario when he was drafted, but he has never quite lived up to them. Davis has proven himself to be a capable starter, but is far from an elite player. He has been a very cost effective cog in the Rex Ryan machine over the last 3 seasons, but now that he is on the last year of his rookie contract, it's hard to predict what his value will be on the open market. He's flashed his ability at times, but it's hard to see him getting big money without a breakout year in 2015. He's in prime position to exceed playing with one of the NFL's best defensive lines ahead of him and some of the NFL's best corners behind him. Considering that this is a contract year for a young player who still has a lot to prove, this should be the most important year of Davis' short career.
Chris Ivory, 27, 1 year $2.75M
At 27 years old, Ivory is finally in position to get a contract after sitting behind other players and dealing with nasty injuries. His value is not particularly high considering his limitations and injury history, but he will probably get more than he's currently making if he hits the FA market. A big year could do a lot to boost his FA stock before his payday, but he may be sharing his carries with multiple running backs considering the number of backs with starter experience on the roster. It will be a big year for him financially, since he has never had a big payday and this is likely his best, and as a 27 year old running back possibly his last, opportunity.
D'Brickshaw Furguson, 31, 3 years - $40.1M
The Jets have been in a tough position with Brick for a long time. Brick was given a massive contract in 2012 after several Pro Bowl level seasons, but he has not lived up to the price tag. He is currently the 5th highest paid LT in the NFL according to Overthecap.com, yet he is not a top 10 player at his position by any stretch of the imagination. After 2015, Brick's salary bumps up to over $8M.5 and then over $11M while his guaranteed money actually shrinks. Despite having a cap charge of over $14M in 2016, the Jets might have a tough decision with Brick because they simply have no one else who can play LT and Brick would be incredibly difficult to replace at one of the NFL's most important positions. If Brick falls apart this season, there's very little chance the Jets decide to keep him. If he excels, he should probably be back if he's willing to take a pay cut. It's a big year for a guy who has fallen off at an age where many tackles start to break down.
Antonio Cromartie, 31, 4 years - $32M
Despite signing with the Jets just last off-season, Cromartie will permanently be on the hot seat. Cro took a deal with literally nothing guaranteed after 2015 despite the fact that he'll be playing CB at over 32 next season. To make matters worse, a lot of Cro's success is based on his elite athleticism, which is starting to decline as he ages. He has compensated by becoming better in other aspects of his game, but it's likely that his decline will be steep when Father Time inevitably wins. With large cap hits of $8M, $8M, and $9M over the next 3 years, Cromartie will need to prove himself every year. Meanwhile, the Jets have several young corners with a lot of talent, such as Buster Skrine, Dee Milliner, and Dexter McDougle. If one of these players did enough to show that they could play alongside Revis at a fraction of Cromartie's cost, he could be let go without a second thought (except by fans.) While Cro may have gotten a lot of money for his services, he will have to put up very solid seasons to remain a Jet.
Damon Harrison, 26, 1 year - $2.36M
Despite quickly becoming the forgotten man in the Jets incredibly stacked defensive line, Harrison has proven himself to be an exceptional run stuffer and a quality nose tackle. He will be a free agent next year and after working his butt off for years as an UDFA, he will likely get a sizable paycheck for the first time in the NFL. While he may not be retained by the Jets, Harrison will certainly have many suitors in free agency who have a need for a role player like Harrison. This year will likely be a major factor in determining his value on the market next year. I think I speak for most Jets fans when I say if another team snatches him up in free agency, I'll be sad to see him go and wish him the best, but the Jets won't be devastated considering the depth.
Sheldon Richardson, 24, 2 years - $5.94M (with a 5th year option)
Richardson is not in a contract standoff just yet, but his vocal and boisterous nature leads me to believe that he will be a handful come contract time. Apart from claiming that he wants "Suh Money" for himself, he has done a lot to put his foot in his mouth this off-season. After claiming the Jets could be the best defense and the best team in the NFL, Richardson got hit with a 4 game suspension for failing multiple drug tests. Not only does this mean that the Jets will be without their star lineman for the first 4 games of the 2015 season, but also that Richardson will probably face a full year suspension if he were to slip up again. For a player just 2 years into his career, that is a very dangerous concern to have hanging over you. Richardson's bombastic nature also doesn't help him appear particularly well controlled, though I do love his confidence and motor. If Richardson doesn't come back swinging after his suspension and continue developing with a monster year, his stock could take a serious hit in the years to come.
Nick Folk, 32, 3 years - $8.4M
Folk earned a large contract from Idzik after a career year in 2013 in which he was often referred to as a "Folk" hero due to his ability to hit clutch kicks. In all honestly, Folk has never been much better than an average kicker in the NFL and 2013 was somewhat of an anomaly. With no guarantees and an average salary approaching $3M, money usually reserved for top 10 or even top 5 kickers, it's really hard to justify his salary. Without much competition in 2015, he probably doesn't have to worry, but because his salary continues to rise in 2016 and 2017, he will really have to have a good year to make anyone believe he is worth the money he got from Idzik.
Jeremy Kerley, 25, 4 years - $14M
Kerley has been a fan favorite for years because of his consistency on the field and his personality off of it. He's been arguably the best receiver on the Jets not named Decker for the last few seasons and his absence was immediately apparent whenever he missed games due to injury. Idzik ended up rewarding Kerley mid-season last year with a contract that, while team friendly, seems to really overpay for Kerley's talents. After a down year in 2015, not aided by some really unfortunate luck with penalties and timeouts, Kerley needs to bounce back to solidify his spot on a roster that now features Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, and Devin Smith. If the Jets become extremely strapped for cap space, Kerley could become a cap casualty as a post June-1st cut next year and could also be put on the trading block. While he has a good shot of retaining a roster spot for at least one more year, things could get dicey if he doesn't bounce back this year.
Marcus Gilchrist, 25, 4 years - $22M
Gilchrist was recently signed to a surprisingly lucrative contract by the new administration. It's possible that Bowles and Maccagnan see potential in Gilchrist that others do not, but Gilchrist really only has one year to prove it. Gilchrist's base salary skyrockets from $1M to $5M in his second year and to $6M for each of the next two seasons. He doesn't have a lot of guarantees, so if he bombs in year 1, he could be cut with 3 of 4 years remaining on his contract with only $1.875M in dead money. He's going to have to prove that he's worth the money that was invested in him or he could very quickly be on the market again. His chances of returning for at least 2016 are pretty good, however.
Other notable players with something to prove in 2015
Breno Giacomini (RT), Jeff Cumberland (TE), Oday Aboushi (G), Bilal Powell (RB), Calvin Pace (OLB), Jason Babin (OLB), Stevan Ridley (RB), and many more.