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Preliminary grades for 2018 Jets free agent signings

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Cincinnati Bengals v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

As a team that entered the offseason with a ton of salary cap space, it was no surprise to see the Jets make a number of signings. Today I will offer preliminary grades.

I think these signings have too many different aspects to offer a simple grade for each. Signing an average player at a discount is different than signing a superstar at a discount. Two contracts might be for the same amount of money on paper but structured differently. It is one thing to stretch financially to sign a player at a position the team needs desperately. It is another to stretch financially to sign a player at a position where the team is already deep.

With that in mind, I will offer four grades for each major Jets signing in these categories.

Quality: How good is the player the Jets signed?

Need: How big of a need did the Jets have at the position?

Value: How well does the money in the contract correlate to the quality of play the Jets can expect to get?

Structure: Over the last three years, I think Mike Maccagnan has gotten way too much credit on this front. People effusively praise him for signing contracts the team can escape after two seasons. The problem is almost every NFL contract can be escaped after two years. With that said, the structure of a deal does matter. How many potentially cheap years have the Jets tacked onto a deal if a player exceeds expectations? How many years have they committed to a player? How painlessly and how quickly can they escape a deal if it doesn’t pan out?

I am not going to discuss every single signing. We will stick with the major signings.

As always, these are preliminary grades. I reserve the right to change my mind and amend these grades in the weeks, months, and years ahead as the situation dictates.

In addition, the following are only my opinions so please spare me your hate mail if you don’t like what I have to say.

We will go in alphabetical order by last name.

Teddy Bridgewater

Contract details:

Quality: C Unlike every other player on this list, it is difficult to make much of a projection. There are two ways this could play out. Bridgewater could become a viable long-term option (or trade bait) for the Jets, which would make this an A signing. The other option would be if his knee injury ends his career as a viable starter, which would result in a low grade. We will split the difference and give him a C.

Need: A+ There might not have been a team with a bigger need at quarterback this offseason than the Jets. In Bridgewater, the Jets found a 25 year old with some track record of success.

Value: A 25 year old quarterbacks with some track record of success don’t grow on trees. They are almost never available. Bridgewater obviously comes as the result of some extenuating circumstances, but a $15 million annual salary for such a player is excellent value on paper.

Structure: A Normally I wouldn’t give an A to a one year contract because it would be better to have some guaranteed future years in case things work out. The quarterback position is special, though. Teams have various tags to use on quarterbacks who perform well that might not be a consideration at other positions on the field. If you want to keep a quarterback, it is a virtual guarantee he will get tagged so this grade gets a nice bump. The commitment if things don’t pan out is minimal. The contract is heavily based on how Bridgewater performs, and the Jets walk away only $1 million poorer if Teddy is bad enough in preseason that the Jets cut him prior to Week 1.

Morris Claiborne

Contract details:

Quality: C If Claiborne’s last two seasons are any indication, the Jets can expect around half a season of really good play and another half where he will miss time and/or be less effective due to injury. This is a player with talent, but he still has not put together a full 16 game quality campaign in his NFL career.

Need: A Claiborne was signed to be the second cornerback behind Trumaine Johnson. Cornerback is a premium position in a Todd Bowles defense. Bowles ideally wants to be able to blitz and trust the guys in the back of his defense to hold up. The second corner spot was a major problem area for the Jets in 2017.

Value: C- $7 million isn’t franchise-changing money, but it is fairly pricey for a second corner, particularly one who we just mentioned has yet to put together a full quality 16 game season.

Structure: B- The fact the Jets only committed to Claiborne for one year is a good thing. The lack of unguaranteed option years brings down the grade. So does the large percentage of guarantees in this contract for a guy who is a major injury risk.

Isaiah Crowell

Contract details:

3 years, $12 million

Quality: B Crowell is a solid if unspectacular back who has shown an ability to help as a receiver and has posted back to back 1,000 yard seasons from scrimmage.

Need: C With Bilal Powell in the mix, the Jets were not in a position where signing a go to running back was a dire need, but it certainly made sense why the team did so.

Value: B Running backs do not make a ton of money, and Crowell’s annual salary puts him around in the middle of the pack for starters at the position.

Structure: B+ The Jets can get out of the deal after only one season with a relatively small $2 million dead money hit. $5 million in years two and three wouldn’t be super bargains for a running back, but they wouldn’t be horrible value either.

Trumaine Johnson

Contract details:

5 years, $72.5 million

Quality: B If you were making a list of the top fifteen cornerbacks in the NFL, you could make an argument that Johnson should be on the list. He has frequently been solid and occasionally been excellent since entering the NFL in 2012.

Need A: What I said about Claiborne goes for Johnson. In the defense the Jets run, corners who can survive on an island are essential. Johnson’s job will be even more important than Claiborne’s as he will be frequently be asked to cover the other team’s top receiver (some of the best receivers in the NFL) by himself.

Value: D: There is only one other cornerback in the entire NFL on a deal averaging $14.5 million. “Arguably top 15 corner” is a nice thing to hear about a player on your team, but not exactly ideal for a guy getting this type of contract. This was a clear case where the Jets had a big need, and supply was low.

Structure F: I am sure a lot of people will argue the signing of a corner like Johnson was essential. I am sure a lot of people will argue that even if it was an overpay, it was worth it. If you want to make those cases, feel free. I don’t think there’s an argument to be made that this deal was well-structured, though. The Jets essentially kept Johnson’s cap number down the first two years at the expense of making this deal brutal to escape in the events things do not pan out.

The kicker is the Jets didn’t need to do it. Usually deals like this are done to fit a player when short-term cap space was tight. The Jets had plenty of space to frontload this deal and minimize any dead money hit after year two, though. They could have reduced his cap number near the end of the deal to coincide with a gradual decline.

There is almost no cap relief if Johnson fails, and the Jets want to get out of the deal after two years. They only get $3 million in cap space and suffer $12 million in a dead money hit. Heck, if they want to get out of the deal after three years, they take a big $8 million dead money hit.

And Johnson is already 28, which is a point where many cornerbacks are past their prime. He has even shown some signs of a possible decline already.

The Jets essentially made sure they took on as much risk as possible with the way this contract was structured.

Spencer Long

Contract details:

4 years, $27.5 million

Quality: C Long has been up and down in his playing career and battled injuries. He projects to be a serviceable center.

Need: A Last year the Jets were starting Wesley Johnson at center. Johnson hasn’t even proven he’s a quality backup in the NFL so there was a clear need.

Value C: Long will be making middle of the pack center money. If he stays healthy, the deal will probably be in the ballpark of what he should be making.

Structure: A+ The structure of this contract is a thing of beauty for the Jets. It is no risk and all reward. If the team wants to move on at any point after the first year, Long is gone with no dead money. Or the team has the option to keep him through 2021 at around $7 million per season.

Josh McCown

Contract details:

Quality: D We are talking about a soon to be 39 year old journeyman in his 10th NFL organization. A year ago I probably would have given an F for this category, but since he beat unspeakably low expectations in 2017 we can bump him up to a D.

Need: A+ As I said with Bridgewater, the Jets certainly needed a quarterback.

Value: D The problem with this deal is that in order to justify it, McCown essentially has to replicate a career year he had at 38 years old...and one that wasn’t even that good. For all of his fanfare, McCown only threw for 2,926 yards and 18 touchdowns, won 5 games, and repeatedly melted down in the fourth quarter of games. You can’t even really use his late season injury to explain some of those numbers away. The 13 games he started matched a career high. You can’t count on him to stay healthy for a full season.

Structure: D This deal might be easier to take as an insurance option if $5 million wasn’t guaranteed. The best case scenario for the Jets involves Teddy Bridgewater looking healthy in the preseason, and the quarterback they pick third overall catching on quickly. So are the Jets going to have a $10 million third string quarterback? Are they going to cut McCown and pay him $5 million for nothing? Are they going to bank on some team offering a Sam Bradford-esque package for Bridgewater (hardly a guarantee). This would be a different deal if the Jets could just walk away before Week 1 with no cost.

Terrelle Pryor

Contract details:

Quality: C- Pryor is coming off a disastrous year in Washington. It might be tempting to attribute his struggles to injury, but it doesn’t take much effort to read up on the problems there. He did post 1,007 receiving yards in Cleveland in 2016, which is a positive. That said, barely eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark on a team where he was force fed the ball due to a lack of other quality options might not be as impressive as it sounds at first.

Need: C The Jets have some quality receivers, but they do have question marks. Robby Anderson’s come with off field issues that have only been partially resolved. Quincy Enunwa’s come in the form of health as he recovers from a serious neck injury. There wasn’t a huge need, but another option certainly doesn’t hurt.

Value: C After failing on a one year, $8 million deal in Washington, Pryor was due for a paycut, and that is what he got.

Structure: C $2 million guaranteed isn’t a lot of money. It wouldn’t hurt the Jets a ton to walk away from the deal after the preseason. But player quality also matters when we are talking about structure. It is a decent chunk of guaranteed change for a player with Pryor’s track record. Again we have the plus of only committing to one year and the minus of not addition unguaranteed option years later.

Avery Williamson

Contract details:

3 years, $22.5 million

Quality: B Williamson emerged as one of the better run stopping linebackers in the league in 2017. The Jets seem to be doing a bit of a projection by signing him. While the Titans took him off the field on plenty of passing downs, Todd Bowles has shown an affinity for leaving his inside linebackers on the field for the entire game. He figures to take the Demario Davis/David Harris role we have discussed in the past, That role would prevent him from seeing the toughest coverage assignments so it might suit him.

Need: B Inside linebacker doesn’t have the same positional value as quarterback or cornerback, but the Jets did need to either re-sign Davis or find a replacement. Davis had a surprisingly effective 2017, but this deal suggests the Jets believe Williamson is more likely to replicate that kind of year than Davis is.

Value: C Williamson isn’t being paid Luke Kuechly or Bobby Wagner money, but he is now in the top ten for annual salary at the inside linebacker position. I would imagine that is the caliber of play the Jets are hoping to get with Williamson’s run stopping ability.

Structure: C The Jets are in this deal for two years and can escape easily after. That is a standard deal...not for Mike Maccagnan but for the league in general.