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Is A Reunion With Ryan Fitzpatrick Likely?

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Can the Jets afford to bring Fitz back?

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The lack of a trade materializing for Wilkerson leading up to (and during) the draft raised some questions about Fitzpatrick's future for me. The selection of Christian Hackenberg in the second round raised some questions more (after a long, drawn out "Oh no....") Can the Jets afford to bring Fitzpatrick back? More importantly, can the Jets afford not bringing him back? With the draft in the books and free agency essentially finished, Fitzpatrick remains in limbo. While it was once assumed a foregone conclusion that Fitz would resign with the Jets, it's starting to look more and more likely that the Jets are willing to roll the  dice and let Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, and Christian Hackenberg fight for the starting spot in 2016. Without trading or extending Wilkerson, the Jets are currently pressed right up against the cap and their 2015 starting quarterback remains unsigned. What can we expect?

Well, most people want to resign Fitzpatrick to a 1 year deal. Okay. Let's say Fitz is willing to do that (a big if for a guy who bounces around more than a superball.) Fitz reportedly wanted money in the Sam Bradford range whereas the Jets were offering money in the Chase Daniel range. That means that Fitzpatrick is essentially asking for just above 257% of what the Jets want to pay him. All right, that's a problem. Let's say they work it out and that the Jets are willing to pay him $11M and Fitz is willing to accept "only" 61% of his original asking price. Well that means that the Jets need at least $11M in cap space for 2016 because there's no kind of salary cap contract voodoo that allows you to move cap hits on a 1 year deal. On top of that, the Jets will need a few million in space for "fudge money" during the regular season in the event of injuries and about $2M for rookie contracts. So the Jets would essentially need a bare minimum of $15M in cap space to meet 61% of Fitzpatrick's alleged contract demands.

Unfortunately, the Jets currently sit at $3.3M in cap space with rookies yet to be signed. Looking at potential cuts and savings, there are only a handful of players that offer any real cap relief. Let's say that we cut Breno Giacomini, Nick Folk, Kenbrell Thompkins, Brian Winters, and Khiry Robinson. We also manage to find a trade partner for Dee Milliner (or a team picks him up and saves us some space due to offsets.) Well, despite that hatchet job, the Jets are still sitting at $13M in cap space without signing their rookies. But there has to be more fat to cut, right? Well, not really. There are only 6 players that offer over $1M in cap space when cut (not even accounting for the contract that replaces them.) Those players are Muhammad Wilkerson ($15.7M), Nick Mangold ($8.6M), Eric Decker ($3.5M), Ryan Clady ($3M), Sheldon Richardson ($1.7M), and Geno Smith ($1.1M.) Geno Smith is the only even remotely possible cut candidate, and after signing his replacement, he hardly even impacts the cap. The fact is, the Jets would have to cut every corner imaginable just to keep all of these players and reach the bare minimum cap space to sign Fitz to a 1 year $11M contract. Afterwards, the Jets would be looking at $1-2M for in-season signings. Anything below about $4-5M is just poor planning.

So barring major movement on a Wilkerson trade/extension, the only remotely plausible salary cap saver would be a Nick Mangold extension. This could save the Jets a few million, but would likely require the Jets to sign a 32 year old center to a long term extension of at least 4-5 years (if they want to backload it to shave money off his 2016-17 hits.) Mangold also has 2 years left on his current deal and absolutely no reason to consider throwing good money out the window. While far from impossible, it's hard to imagine either of these things get done. Without either of these things happening, signing Fitzpatrick would probably cause significantly more damage to the cap situation than it would help the Jets for the 2016 season. That $11M spent on Fitzpatrick would have rolled over to the 2017 season and could have been used in a potential Wilkerson megadeal/Mangold extension. While I admit that the quarterback position is much more important than any other position in football, you don't let top 5 players at their respective positions go unsigned to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick. Elway was criticized for letting Brock Osweiler walk in free agency, but I never saw Osweiler do anything to prove he was above league average. If anything, he looked pretty lousy considering his supporting cast. Why would you sign him and destroy your cap when you have a transcendent star like Von Miller waiting for his megadeal? The Broncos know better than anyone that you don't need elite QB play to win if you have enough talent and depth.

Even if we ignore how difficult it would be to manage clearing cap space for Fitz, we have to wonder if Fitzpatrick is really going to give us a level of play that is $10M better than the other QBs on the roster. I'll admit right now that I do think that Fitzpatrick gives the Jets the best chance to win in 2016. Most of that belief stems from the fact that he was last year's starter and developed chemistry with his teammates and is comfortable in Gailey's offense. If we talk about the actual level of play last year...his numbers don't prove much. Is Fitzpatrick's 88.0 passer rating that starkly different than Geno Smith's 87.9 passer rating last year? Wasn't Fitzpatrick reportedly behind in the quarterback competition before Geno Smith was sidelined by a punch? Didn't Chan Gailey endorse Geno Smith as the starter? Yeah okay, Fitzpatrick is probably a better option. Probably more than probably. But a $10M better option? For a team pressed right up against the cap?

I think it's getting likely that fans will have to brace themselves for an offense led by Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, or Christian Hackenberg (or all of them. Heck, if one of them starts, it could easily be led by another one within a few weeks.) If the Jets are serious about letting Wilkerson play under the franchise tag, it's hard to imagine a Fitzpatrick reunion without Fitzpatrick cutting his reported asking price by about 40% at least. Even then, it might not be in the Jets' best interests to entertain the idea. When the season ended, just about everyone thought that Fitz would be back. Where could he recoup more future value? Which team could possibly need him more? Where could the fit possibly be better than in Gailey's offense with 2 stud receivers on the outside? Yet it may not be meant to be, after all. If Wilkerson's agent is not willing to play ball, Fitzpatrick probably won't get to for the Jets this year.