While yakking with a key starter from last year's New York Jets squad this week, I asked a question I posed on the AFC East blog last month and have addressed regularly in my weekly chat.
What team is the class of the division? The New England Patriots, coming off 14 victories and another title? Or the Jets, who knocked the Patriots out of the playoffs and reached their second straight AFC Championship Game?
"Until we dethrone them," he said, "the Patriots are the class of the AFC East. That's the bottom line. There's no other way to slice it. You've got to knock them off the pedestal. That's goal No. 1, winning the division. That's the easiest way to get to the ultimate goal of the Super Bowl."
That comment alone wasn't enough for the player to request anonymity, but the next part of our conversation made him feel it was necessary for the sake of diplomacy and because he wants to keep his job next season.
I wanted to know more. To extract his veteran insight on the state of the Jets, I asked what his game plan would be if I could appoint him general manager for the next couple months.
How would he get the Jets over the hump from runners-up to AFC East champs and into the Super Bowl? He must have pondered that very question over the past few months because, without much thought, he rattled off six key steps to propelling the Jets upward.
Here they are, in order of what he felt was most important, along with his reasoning:
1. Re-sign receiver Santonio Holmes.
"You have to do that," our embedded analyst said. The Jets have three prominent free-agent receivers, but Holmes must be the priority over Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith. Holmes missed four games while serving a suspension but made 52 catches for 746 yards and six touchdowns. He was a clutch performer and added a couple more touchdowns in the playoffs.
"If I had to choose between Santonio, Braylon or Brad Smith -- I don't think you can re-sign them all -- I'll take Santonio because of his body of work," the Jets insider said. "He's more established."
Smith averaged 28.6 yards on kickoff returns and scored two touchdowns, and was the club's third-leading rusher with 299 yards and a TD as a gadget quarterback. The Jets led the NFL in average start position after a kickoff (at the 31.5-yard line). But the insider said revamped kickoff rules would neutralize Smith's impact in 2011.
The possibility of signing Plaxico Burress is intriguing and could help the Jets cope with any inability to re-sign Edwards or Smith. As for whether Burress would be a problem for head coach Rex Ryan, the insider laughed.
"With everything we have in our organization, he'd be just one of the guys," he said. "He wouldn't stand out like a sore thumb.
"Guys just love playing for Rex. With Rex's personality and the way he runs the show, Plaxico would just fit right in. Rex doesn't have problems with guys who have so-called character issues or big personalities. Rex is a big personality himself. A guy like Plaxico would do well with the Jets."
2. Get inside linebacker David Harris signed to a long-term contract.
Harris led the Jets with 119 tackles. He recorded three sacks, 14 quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a recovery.
He signed his franchise tender and is under contract for next season, but he'll be a free agent again next offseason unless the Jets broker another deal before then.
"I've got to lock up David Harris," the insider said. "He's one of the more underrated defenders in the league. I've got to get him signed long-term."
3. Re-sign cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
Another significant free agent, Cromartie helped limit opposing quarterbacks to a 50.7 completion percentage -- lowest in the league by far -- and a 77.1 passer rating. He notched 42 tackles, three interceptions and a team-high 18 passes defensed.
Besides, the Jets invested too much in him to let him stroll for nothing this summer.
"If I gave up a second-round pick for the guy, I don't want to see him walk out the door," the insider said. "That would be a high draft pick I'd wasted.
"Plus, with no offseason to monitor the young players, I don't know what I have with Kyle Wilson. The team hasn't had a chance to coach him up. He didn't do the things the team expected last year. So I need to get Antonio Cromartie back to make sure I shore up the secondary."
4. Find a pass-rusher or two.
One of the Jets' biggest perceived weaknesses heading into the offseason was their inability to generate a more formidable pass rush last season.
"This team has a defensive scheme that can be dangerous with a pass rush," the insider said. "We had a great group, but that'll make my defense even stronger."
Outside linebacker Jason Taylor's status is in question. The Jets cut him, but it's not unfathomable he could return. Last year's regular starters, Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas, are under contract. Thomas recorded a team-high six sacks last season, while Pace had 5.5 sacks. Taylor added five more. Those aren't fearsome numbers.
Football Outsiders charted the Jets for 117.5 hurries (seventh in the NFL), but just 38 quarterback hits (tied for 23rd).
5. Sign a free-agent right tackle.
The Jets released Damien Woody after the season, but published reports before the lockout indicated the club was interested in bringing him back.
Woody can't provide many guarantees in what would be his 13th NFL season. Although he has been to the Pro Bowl, is one of few players on last year's roster who owns a Super Bowl ring and started 13 games last season, there are injury concerns. He battled knee problems before an Achilles' injury landed him on injured reserve in the playoffs.
There don't appear to be any solutions on the roster. Last year's second-round draft choice, Vladimir Ducasse, was a tackle at Boston College but was unable to win a job at guard. Woody's reliable backup, Wayne Hunter, is a free agent.
6. Identify a safety to solidify the secondary, looking first at Brodney Pool.
Pool started 12 games. He ranked fourth in tackles with 63. He registered a sack, an interception, nine passes defenses, a forced fumble and a recovery. Smith started six games and was fifth with 57 tackles. He also made an impact on special teams (19 tackles), as did Ihedigbo (27 tackles).
"I would try to get Brodney Pool or Eric Smith back," the Jets insider said. "Both played well down the stretch, but I think Brodney Pool was a guy who, as it got later in the season, really picked up the scheme and became a playmaker at the safety position."
I found the insider's opinions to be insightful. Nowhere among the list of issues to address were quarterback Mark Sanchez, left guard or kicker Nick Folk. The obviously aren't major concerns with this veteran player.
Once the lockout concludes, we'll see how much the anonymous player's wish list jibes with Mike Tannenbaum's.