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2017 Jets Offseason: Neither Fish Nor Fowl

NFL: New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last year or so I have come back over and over to one thought that struck me as ironic. It seems like the Jets front office benefited in public perception from how many misfires it had in 2015. First year general manager Mike Maccagnan went on a spending spree. Almost every move he made proved to be a mistake.

Many of those moves panned out for one year. However, given the vast resources the Jets used, a one year shelf life cannot be called a success.

The spectacular failure seemingly fueled a perception that the Jets went all in during that 2015 season.

I disagree greatly with that idea. Maccagnan inherited a roster similar to the one the Jets have now. It was a roster with almost no talent. It was a rebuilding job. It still is.

The spending spree the Jets went on was fueled by a lot of cap space. Spending cap space isn’t necessarily a sign a team is going all in, however. Free agency is an instrument in the rebuilding process.

Sometimes a big splash helps the cause. The most famous example in the early days of free agency was the Packers signing the legendary Reggie White. Then Packers general manager Ron Wolf has spoken about how it was a franchise-altering moment for the Packers. Some moves are bigger than simply the player added. Yes, signing White meant adding a Hall of Fame level talent to the Green Bay roster. It wasn’t only about the tangibles, though. At that point in time the Packers were consistently a bad team. They were one of the least successful franchises in the league. Nobody wanted to play for the Packers. But suddenly things became different. If a guy like Reggie White wanted to be a Packer, other free agent would soon realize it was a team worth going to.

A free agent signing need not be as transformative as White’s move to Green Bay to be successful. Adding role players on value deals can help fill holes to aid a rebuild.

The point here is rebuilding and free agency are not competing entities. Smart free agency spending is frequently an essential component of a rebuild, even if the Draft is more important.

I think a lot of people don’t appreciate this, and that is why the failures of the 2015 offseason have almost benefited the Jets front office. The perception seems to be, “They went all in. Now they’re going to rebuild the right way.”

The truth is the Jets being back at this point is a sign of great failure. With smarter spending and a couple of Draft hauls making more immediate impacts, the Jets would be well on their way to the top of the league. The fact we find ourselves at square one entering year three is damning for the Maccagnan-Bowles regime at this date.

As the extent of the failure became obvious in 2016, it became clear that the Jets would make big changes in the offseason. Because the failures were so great it also became clear that the Jets had too much to fix to have realistic odds of fielding a competitive 2017 team.

Whether you view it as year one of a new rebuild or share my perspective that this is year three of a rebuild that has gone nowhere, it became clear that the 2017 season for the Jets was mainly going to be a mechanism to get to 2018 and beyond.

2017 was going to be about shedding bloated contracts, creating cap space for the future, giving young players opportunities, and targeting players who could help the team grow in the future.

There aren’t many good things about needing to rebuild in the NFL, but one of the few good points is it can be liberating. Teams focused primarily on the future don’t have the same temptations contenders do.

You don’t need to stretch financially to keep that decent but unspectacular role player. A contender might give him a contract it will regret later on out of fear of creating a fatal hole that will lose a big game. A rebuilding team knows it will be bad whether that player stays or goes. That player can stay but only if he is willing to take a deal that makes sense on the rebuilding team’s terms.

You don’t need to focus on depth when you are a rebuilding team. When you are a contender, backups matter. If a starter gets hurt in a big game, a good backup might be the difference between winning and losing. You have no such concerns as a rebuilding team. None of your games are going to be big. No, you don’t like losing, but that backup helping you get to 5-11 instead of 4-12 just doesn’t make a difference.

In its 2011 collective bargaining agreement, the NFL added incentive for rebuilding teams to spend little. Teams became able to carry over unused salary cap space to the next season. If your team is not going to be good, why spend? You can save that cap space for a year where you expect your team to be competitive.

We have seen signs of the Jets embracing a rebuild. They have let go of players who could have helped them to a marginally better record in 2017. These are players who will help other teams this season. Brandon Marshall at $6 million to be the second banana in the Giants offense is a great deal for the Jets’ crosstown rivals. There was wisdom in the Jets letting him go, however. He might not be able to carry an offense at this point of his career. Even if he could, would going say 6-10 instead of 4-12 be worth it? Perhaps not.

Just yesterday the Jets announced they were parting ways with David Harris and Eric Decker. These are two guys who have skill. It would not be surprising to see them help a team in 2017.

The same goes for Nick Mangold. Mangold has been unsigned for months. It is easy to point to this and conclude he is finished. That might not be the case, though. Mangold also has skills left. Sometimes athletes sit on the market for a long time. In Mangold’s case, he might need to come to terms with not making as much money as he thinks he deserves. He might need to accept a position change. Still each year there are players with resumes like Mangold who sit on the market for a long time. These guys get signed in the summer and end up helping a team. Around January when their team is in the Playoffs you hear Troy Aikman or Cris Collinsworth go on a tangent about how amazing it was this player was on the market for any team to sign for so long. It isn’t difficult to picture Mangold being one of those guys this coming year.

Were the Jets wrong to cut these guys? You could make that argument. Even on a rebuilding team, it can be good to have some degree of continuity. Veteran stalwarts can take young players under their wing, help them learn the scheme, and teach them how hard they need to work to have success in the pros.

Still within the context of a rebuild, it is totally defensible for the Jets to let these and other guys go. They created cap space and opportunities for younger players.

If that was the end of the story, the Jets offseason would make perfect sense. They would be tearing it all down and hoarding cap space to try and build a better future around a younger core.

For all of these moves that have indicated big picture thinking, however, we have seen a number of perplexing moves using resources in the short run without accomplishing much in the long run.

In truth some of the moves the Jets have made probably won’t help much in the short run either. The concept of the replacement level player has been around sports for some time. A replacement level player is somebody whose level of play can be replicated by a free agent signed off the street for a minimum salary.

It is never a good idea to pay a player like this more than the league minimum. It is especially foolish when you are a rebuilding team. When you are rebuilding, you don’t have the need to spend to fill every hole on your roster. Sometimes somebody perceived as a replacement level player slightly exceeds expectations. That little difference sometimes can make a difference to a contender. To a rebuilding team, however, it will not move the needle. A slight short-term upgrade doesn’t improve the rebuilding team’s trajectory.

Now let’s look at some of the Jets’ spending this offseason. Josh McCown had been on eight teams. His career passer rating doesn’t even reach the marginal plateau of 80. Somehow the Jets agreed to pay him at least $6 million, and that could go higher with incentives. If the goal was simply to get a veteran quarterback, even one of suspect quality, there were options who would not eat up so much cap space. It should come as no surprise that the Jets’ bid for McCown was around $4 million higher than their closest competition for his services according to one report. How is adding a quarterback like McCown in what will likely be a lost season better than conserving that cap space for a future when the Jets might be competitive?

Ben Ijalana had 7 games played in 5 NFL seasons before 2016. He played largely ineffective football in place of injured Breno Giacomini and Ryan Clady for the Jets in 2016. The Jets decided this was worth over $4 million in cap space for 2017. At best Ijalana and McCown will provide a marginal upgrade over their competition on the roster for the right tackle and quarterback starting jobs. At worst they will block younger players with more upside for getting experience.

Last week the Jets traded Calvin Pryor for Demario Davis. While I am not a huge Pryor fan, I think it is difficult to dispute that the Jets gave up the player with more upside. Pryor is also younger and less expensive than Davis. How does that mesh with a team building for the future?

Perhaps some might point to the release of David Harris. It is tough to argue that Davis is better than Harris in any way, but Davis is around $3 million cheaper. The quality of play at linebacker doesn’t matter for a rebuilding team, right? The Jets will be bad either way. Why not save money?

That might be a good point, but it leads to a question. If that is true of Davis and Harris, is it not true of Davis and Bruce Carter? Carter is around $3 million cheaper than Davis. If the quality of play at linebacker doesn’t matter, why have Davis around making so much more than Carter even if Davis is a slightly better player? Why not cut him and go with the cheaper guy? Of course that leads us back to the question of why the Jets made a player for player trade where they got the older, more expensive player with less upside in the first place.

There are other areas where the Jets just haven’t picked their spots well. Again, when you are in rebuilding mode you can pick your spots. It’s OK to lose on a guy even if that means you don’t fill a hole. That hole isn’t going to make a difference in a lost season anyway. You can afford to bring in players on your terms who make sense financially and can help you in the long haul. Low risk-high reward players are great for situations like these.

Kelvin Beachum is one of those players on paper. He will only be 28 when the season starts. He has a track record of quality play in the NFL. He also came at a discount due to recent struggles that might be due to a 2015 knee injury. If Beachum heals, he could help a team for years to come and with that discount. This is a player who makes sense for a team like the Jets. He could be a long-term player. If it doesn’t pan out, the season is lost anyway.

When you are dumping contributors yet still spending to possibly marginally improve your team, what are you doing? Are you rebuilding? Are you trying to compete? This is the dilemma of the 2017 Jets offseason. This would be great, but the Jets structured his contract in a way that guarantees his spot on the roster for two years. If Beachum’s injury prevents him from regaining his old form, the Jets are still stuck for another year. One of the purposes of clearing out so much veteran cap space like Marshall and Mangold was to provide the team with flexibility to pay a guy like Beachum a little extra in 2017 if that means being able to get rid of him in a year in the event things don’t pan out. Maybe the Beachum move will work out in the end, but it did not come on terms that minimize the Jets’ risk. They made a fairly sizable commitment. If you are contending and absolutely need a left tackle, that is the kind of risk you take. It isn’t the kind of move you make when you are going to struggle either way.

When you are dumping contributors yet still spending to possibly marginally improve your team, what are you doing? Are you rebuilding? Are you trying to compete? This is the dilemma of the 2017 Jets offseason.

The muddled strategy would be troubling on its own. You can’t forget the greater context, though. This is coming from a regime that already has a large track record of failure from that 2015 spending spree.

Maybe the team can successfully rebuild. Maybe we will remember this as the dawn of a new era of greatness. The Jets just need to figure out what they want to do first.