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The Jets may have a lot of cap space next year, but will their approach to free agency change?

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NFL Combine - Day 2

One of the newest observations from the Jets beat notes that the team is looking at a lot of salary cap space in 2021.

ESPN:

They have only $121 million committed to the ‘21 cap, which gives them $81 million in projected cap space, per overthecap.com. The cap will get a nice bump once the NFL negotiates its new TV contracts. You also have to think running back Le’Veon Bell won’t be around, which would add another $11.5 million in the kitty.

The Jets will have plenty of room to re-sign star safety Jamal Adams (if he still doesn’t have a long-term extension) and perhaps do something with quarterback Sam Darnold, who will be eligible for a new deal in 2021. There aren’t many huge contracts looming on the Jets’ horizon — safety Marcus Maye is their only prominent free agent in ‘21 — so Douglas will have the ability to be a big player in free agency if he decides to go that route.

I think this leads to the natural question of whether we will see the Jets return to giving out big money in free agency to big names.

If you are looking for a 100% definitive answer, I am sorry to disappoint you. I cannot see into the future. Still my hunch is the cautious approach we saw this year from Joe Douglas will remain even with more salary cap space at his disposal in 2021.

He hinted as much in his conference call with the media this week.

That very well might be a generic general manager cliche that has little predictive value. With that in mind, I look at his influences.

Douglas spent the first 15 years of his career in the Ravens organization working under Ozzie Newsome. Over the last few weeks, many have talked about how the Jets’ approach to free agency resembles the Ravens model.

In the last two decades, the Ravens have been one of the few teams in the NFL that has embodied the overused phrase, “Build through the Draft.”

I think people frequently misunderstand the phrase. Building through the Draft doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding free agency completely. At the risk of oversimplifying, championship teams are built through two types of players, stars and role players.

Of the two, stars are more important. These are the elite players who move the needle. Role players fill out the roster and prevent your team from having weaknesses that destory the team. Building through the Draft means that you seek stars there.

At its core, the job of a general manager in the NFL is about properly valuing players. The GM’s job is to essentially quantify each player’s value in money terms and to sign players to contracts for equal or less than that. A player who brings $2 million worth of value to a team by his play is valuable if he has a contract worth $1 million per year. That same player is not valuable on a contract for $5 million per year. In fact, he hurts the team.

Star chasing at the top end of free agency makes it difficult to find good values. The contracts given out are so lucrative that players need to perform at exceptional levels to be valuable. Sure, there are a handful of big money free agent deals that do work out, but there are many more Trumaine Johnsons than there are Stephon Gilmores.

The mechanics of the NFL make it very difficult for genuine star talent to hit the open market. Teams have the franchise tag at their disposal to keep their best players from getting to free agency. Additionally the constant threat of a career-altering injury incentivizes players to agree to extensions with their current team as quickly as possible even if they leave a little money on the table. In other sports finding star talent through free agency is a viable path for team building. In the NFL it is not. The big names who hit the open market tend to be good players who want to be paid like stars. The contracts they get seldom have any chance of working out.

Free agency is, however, a valid method for adding quality role players combined with hitting on late round Draft picks and developing players on the practice squad.

Through the years, the Ravens have done an excellent job finding these players in free agency. While Douglas might not want to run his team exactly as Ozzie Newsome did, there are similarities in his approach to date.

Every year around this time articles come out about which teams “won” free agency. These articles almost always declare the teams that spent the most money on the flashiest signings the winners. Jets fans should know exactly what I am talking about. Come December, many of these contracts look like failures.

When I think about teams that have actually won free agency, my mind drifts to the Ravens in 2014. Douglas was still working in their front office at that point.

That offseason Baltimore signed Steve Smith, Justin Forsett, Darian Stewart, and Owen Daniels. They also made a trade for Jeremy Zuttah. Of these players Smith was a big name, but he was squarely in the, “Not the dominant force he used to be but still effective,” phase of his career.

Baltimore added five quality starters that year. The total cost was around $7 million in cap space and a fifth round pick. That’s what winning free agency looks like. It isn’t about flashy signings. It is about seeking out value. That’s what Douglas learned.

Of course to paraphrase Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson, the most important part was they signed the right players.

One of the reasons that Ravens free agency period sticks out to me is I found that information doing research as the Jets were failing during free agency taking a cautious approach of their own that year.

The 2014 offseason is rather infamous among Jets fans. Former general manager John Idzik was criticized for not spending enough. The real problem wasn’t a lack of spending. It was how he failed to find value. That offseason the Jets failed to address a glaring need at cornerback despite workable solutions being available on the market. The attempted solution, Dimitri Patterson, was an all-time bust signing. The Jets were forced to cut him after he appeared in only one preseason game. The signings of Michael Vick and Chris Johnson along with a subsequent in season panic trade for Percy Harvin caught these players at the, “Not the dominant forces they used to be, and not very effective now,” stages of their respective careers. Breno Giacomini was signed for moderate money but proved to be a poor value. Eric Decker was a good player who had later success with the Jets, but the signing was largely a waste for the first year because the Jets didn’t set up a viable offensive infrastructure that could make use of his talent. (Remind you of anyone?)

This is the danger Douglas faces. It’s important to have the right plan. Executing the plan well is just as important. If George Fant, Greg Van Roten, Pierre Desir, and Breshad Perriman all fail, merely having the right plan won’t save the team. That goes double if he fails to add impact talent through the Draft.

That warning aside, I do think Douglas has the right plan. If Fant, Van Roten, Desir, and Perriman play to their capabilities, impatient fans angry that the Jets weren’t “more aggressive” in free agency will see the wisdom in building through the Draft and using free agency as a tool to add moderately role players. (And for the record, one of the things Douglas earned the highest marks for when he worked for the Eagles was using free agency and the trade market to fill out the roster effectively around a homegrown core of stars.)

While I can’t definitively predict the future, my guess is that more cap space next year means we will see more of the types of signings the Jets made this offseason, moderate contracts to build a full roster to support what hopefully will be a bumper crop of high impact drafted talent. I would be surprised if we saw a return to the free spending days of star chasing in free agency.