Branch Rickey might have been the greatest general manager in the history of modern North American sports. He is rightly remembered best for being the general manager who signed Jackie Robinson, breaking baseball’s color barrier, but he was responsible for a staggering number of other innovations. Spring training and minor league farm teams were ideas of his. A number of baseball historians have theorized Rickey utilized advanced statistical analysis when constructing his roster. That did not become common practice until the turn of the century in baseball. The man was literally decades ahead of his time.
Lately I have been thinking about one of Rickey’s most famous sayings, “Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late.”
I think back to this time last year. What if we knew then what we know now?
The Jets had a major roster purge this season, dumping numerous veteran contracts. They were not able to receive much in return. The team did add a second round pick in exchange for Sheldon Richardson, but most of the team’s pieces were lost for nothing.
The Buffalo Bills, Sunday’s opponent, figure to be in for a bad year much in the same way the Jets are. Rather than fight it, they decided to trade players who did not fit their long-term plans while these players still had value. They also let some pricey veterans go. Combined with a Draft day trade, the Bills now have multiple picks in each of the first four rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. They are a couple of smart cuts by the middle of the season away from potentially adding an additional third and fourth round compensatory pick. That would give them ten picks in the first four rounds, quite a way to accelerate a rebuild.
I think back to a year ago. The Jets thought they were onto something. They weren’t. Brandon Marshall was released during the offseason. A year ago he had trade value. Coming off a monster 1,500 yard season and with a reasonable contract, the Jets would have looked like shrewd investors by buying him for a fifth round pick with his value low and dealing him with his value high. Instead, Marshall struggled with injuries, possibly contributed to locker room strife, and was released.
Eric Decker was coming off a big year. His contract was also reasonable. Instead the Jets held onto him. Decker missed most of the year with multiple injuries. Even though the team held onto him into the summer to wait for him to heal, the Jets were not able to trade Decker.
Muhammad Wilkerson was coming off a monster year that led to his second All Pro selection. He required a monster new contract to keep, but there surely were teams out there who would have been willing to give him that deal. At that point he was one of the best defensive linemen in football. Now he is one of the highest paid defensive linemen in the game and coming off an underachieving season. Nobody would trade for that.
The Jets gave up a Draft pick for Ryan Clady. Signing veterans Matt Forte and Steve McLendon cost the team two compensatory picks.
Trading expensive veterans like Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold, and David Harris might have been trickier, but those guys were still playing at a high enough level where it might have been conceivable if the Jets were willing to kick in some money.
These moves likely would not have netted the Jets the same Draft capital as the Bills. Buffalo acquired early picks because they traded young players on rookie deals thought to have hindsight.
Even if it is hindsight, however, the Jets clearly would have been better served tearing down their roster last year. Draft picks are the most valuable asset for a team going nowhere.
Right now the Jets are not in a great spot. What is the plan? It seems to be hoping to hit the quarterback lottery in 2018.
It’s a great plan...if it works. But it makes me quite uncomfortable the extent to which the future of this franchise relies upon:
A. Being bad enough to secure a top three pick.
B. Hoping the players who look like franchise quarterback prospects now don’t have down years or get hurt.
C. Hoping the players who look like franchise quarterback propsects now actually enter the Draft rather than go back to school the next season.
There are no guarantees this is going to work out for the Jets. What is the Plan B if it doesn’t? I honestly have no idea.
The Bills are also in a position where they could potentially get lucky in the quarterback derby, but they have fallback options if that doesn’t pan out. Their extra picks give them the currency to move around the Draft if there is a quarterback they like. They also can trade some of their excess picks for future selections to provide them with the currency necessary to trade up for a quarterback somewhere down the line. And if they don’t land their quarterback of the future this year, they at least have a big jump start in building their roster’s infrastructure to support a young quarterback.
Of course, this is on some level an exercise in hindsight. Few were calling for these moves at the time, and the Jets were coming off a 10 win first season in a new regime.
Of course, fans and the media aren’t paid seven figures to spend all of their time constructing a roster. General managers are.
As Branch Rickey told us, the best general managers understand before anybody else when their players are about to decline, and they do something about it.