I've noticed a lot of chatter about the cap space the Jets will have at their disposal this offseason. Most of it revolves around Mo Wilkerson and his somewhat ludicrous $20M cap number for next year. This raises an important question: In today's NFL, how much is cap space really worth? For the first time in my memory, an NFL team made an NBA-esque trade in which they swapped cap space for a draft pick. The Browns willingly absorbed a $12M cap hit to get a second round pick along with Brock Osweiler, who was clearly not in their plans as he was cut and returned to Denver, where he is inexplicably starting once again. Actually, it's not inexplicable to anyone who's actually watched Trevor Siemian play this season and seen him for what he really is: bad. Thus, in this day and age, how much is that cap space really worth?
The fact is that draft picks and salary cap space value varies from team to team, especially based on where that team is and what they need. The Texans appeared to be in the thick of the playoff hunt coming into this season, but had serious cap concerns. The Browns were...well, not in the playoff hunt, and are still far from contending. Cap space is not as valuable to a rebuilding team as it is to a potential playoff team. The reason for this is pretty simple. If you're close to making a run, buying a few aging veterans with a bit left in the tank can be enough to put you over the edge. If you're far from contending, paying for vets that will likely not be with the team in 2-3 years doesn't do you a whole lot of good. I was very critical of Maccagnan's 2015 spending spree because I didn't think many of the players would be with the team by 2018 and I didn't think the Jets would break 8 wins. I was about half right: Most of the vets are gone, but the Jets did finish with 10 wins, which would normally win you a playoff spot.
Looking forward to 2018, the Jets should have at least $60M in cap space to work with in free agency. There will also be a variety of players with unrealistic numbers that would provide additional cap, and Mo is no exception, sitting with only $9M in guarantees remaining on his 3 year $58M contract. Now we have to look at what this cap means for the Jets.
The Jets could be at .500 and in the playoff hunt by their bye week. The fact of the matter is, however, that this is not a good roster. The Jets are in rebuilding mode and will require a couple more years to be a really competitive team. This means that the Jets need to be targeting young players who will be on the team for several years. When it comes to free agency, these players are rare and typically extremely overpriced. Teams rarely part with good to elite players as most teams have enough cap space to retain their homegrown talent. While I didn't disagree with the decision at the time, the only really talented, young player the Jets have let walk recently would be Damon Harrison. It's rare that you see an above average starter in his prime leave, but when you do, that's the type of player you target. The issue is that if you have over $60M in cap space, you have a lot more money than opportunities to spend it well. Last season there was only 1 player under 26 who changed teams that was ranked above 86 by PFF (Tony Jefferson.) Now I don't put a lot of faith in PFF rankings, but it does show how rare it is to see a young, quality player hit the market.
The nice thing about cap space is that it rolls over. If the Jets don’t spend it this year, there’s always next year. Some FA crops are better than others. Regardless, at some point you have to spend it just to reach the floor and you’re never going to have a FA crop with 5 quality players under, say 28. Even if you do manage to find some good players at reasonable prices, it takes a long time for players to gel in a sport that requires a lot of teamwork. Free agents rarely provide plug-and-play upgrades and are difficult to evaluate on other teams, so regardless of the homegrown fan bias, retaining your players is the best use of cap. It's also typically the only way to lock up elite players early in their career. The problem here is that the Jets really don't have any players to retain and this has become a long-running theme.
How many players on the Jets' current roster deserve longterm contracts in the next few years? Well, for 2018 the only player who should get an offer is Quincy Enunwa. He's coming off a season ending injury and is hardly an elite player. After that, the only sure thing I see is Leonard Williams, who is under contract until 2019 and has the 5th year option available. Maybe Demario Davis has played his way to a contract extension, but he's not going to be looking at a big number.
How is it that the Jets don't have to pay big to retain players? Well, they haven't drafted many good ones recently. Idzik's tenure resulted in 20 picks (1 traded for Chris Ivory, also something happened with some Harvin guy later) which included 3 first rounders, 2 second rounders, and 2 thirds. None of those 7 players are still with the team. Of his picks in 2013 and 2014, only Quincy Enunwa, Dakota Dozier, and Brian Winters remain. Winters has already been overpaid and Dozier doesn't look like he'll be getting a big extension, so that leaves only 2015 and beyond. Williams is the only player from the 2015 draft worth retaining and he has the 5th year option. The 2016 players are under contract until 2020 and the crop is pretty much restricted to Darron Lee, Jordan Jenkins, Brandon Shell, and Lachlan Edwards. Simply put, the Jets have a lot more cap space than they have players to use it on.
This is a big problem because free agents are more of a gamble than homegrown players. With resignings, you already know the player and how he fits in your system. You also know that how he fits into the team and you are not in a direct bidding war with anyone else. With free agents, you could be signing the next Albert Haynesworth or the next Reggie White. You might even sign Dmitri Patterson. Personally, I would like to try to retain Claiborne, Mo, Davis, and ASJ if the price is reasonable. All of these guys have shown that they can contribute to the team and most of them won't be particularly expensive for players that have at least 3-4 season left in them. The 2017 Jets need a couple more years and these are not the type of guys you let walk in free agency unless by some miracle you can find young, quality players available. Now I obviously don't want to argue that Mo is a $19+ million player, but if the Jets can retain these guys, they should try. Mac needs to avoid the mistakes of 2015.