AFC East: Mark Sanchez
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Key free agents: RT Austin Howard, PK Nick Folk (franchise player), TE Jeff Cumberland, LB Calvin Pace, RG Willie Colon, S Ed Reed.
Where they stand: The Jets are trying to re-sign Howard before he hits the open market. He's not a household name, but he's a massive blocker with surprising athleticism. Howard has two years of starting experience and he's only getting better. They've expressed an interest in re-signing Cumberland and Pace, although it's unclear if deals will get done by Tuesday. Pace produced a career-high 10 sacks last season, playing for the minimum salary, but he's 33 -- and the Jets won't throw significant money at a player that old. The Jets are rebuilding at tight end, so Cumberland's role is undefined, which could affect negotiations. Colon and Reed are fallback options. In Reed's case, way, way back. Colon is recovering from biceps surgery and won't be healthy until the spring.
What to expect: With an anticipated $30 million in cap space, the Jets could be aggressive buyers if they so choose. They need a wide receiver (or two), a tight end and a veteran quarterback to push Geno Smith. There aren't any true No. 1 receivers on the market, so they'd better be careful not to overpay for the second-rate talent. Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate could be on the radar. They're likely to have interest in QBs Josh McCown and Michael Vick, who'd be ideal because he already knows Marty Mornhinweg's system from their days together in Philadelphia. If they strike out with free agents, the Jets could retain former starter Mark Sanchez, contingent on his health and a massive pay cut. The Jets could have 12 draft choices (counting possible compensatory picks), so they don't have to overpay to fix every need in free agency.
ESPN.com colleague Paul Kuharsky, our Tennessee Titans team reporter, did the research and came up with this nugget on the number of quarterback selections since 2004:
Denver Broncos: 7
New York Jets: 6
Philadelphia Eagles: 5
Green Bay Packers: 5
Cleveland Browns: 5
Baltimore Ravens: 5
San Francisco 49ers: 5
Washington Redskins: 5
During his run as general manager, 2006 to 2012, Mike Tannenbaum subscribed to the Ron Wolf theory on quarterbacks: It never hurts to draft one every year because of the value in the position. There's also the need factor. You could argue the Jets haven't had a true franchise quarterback since Joe Namath. Tannenbaum selected five quarterbacks, and his successor, John Idzik, took one in his first draft. It wouldn't be a surprise if they add another in May. A look at the six:
Geno Smith, 2013, second round: He went 8-8 in an up-and-down rookie year. He hasn't been anointed yet, but he's the likely opening-day starter.
Greg McElroy, 2011, seventh round: He started only one game for the Jets (it was ugly) and was released last preseason. He's on the Cincinnati Bengals' roster after spending last season on their practice squad.
Mark Sanchez, 2009, first round: He was the Sanchize for two seasons, but it fell apart and now he's a likely salary-cap casualty. His career record is 33-29, plus four playoff wins.
Erik Ainge, 2008, fifth round: He never played a down for the Jets. His career was derailed by substance-abuse problems and he's out of the league.
Kellen Clemens, 2006, second round: He was drafted as Chad Pennington's heir apparent, but he played poorly in 2007 and never regained the confidence of the organization. He will be a free agent after spending the last three years as a backup for the St. Louis Rams.
Brad Smith, 2006, fourth round: The Jets converted him to wide receiver, used him in the Wildcat and made him a kickoff returner. His quarterback days are over, but he's still hanging around, playing for the Philadelphia Eagles.
1. Good hands people: This is one of those years where the Jets' top need marries with the strength of the draft. Everybody knows they want to rebuild at wide receiver, and the combine reinforced the widespread belief that receiver is perhaps the deepest position. Nearly all of the top wideouts performed well in drills, with Mike Evans (Texas A&M), Brandin Cooks (Oregon State), Odell Beckham Jr. (LSU) and Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) helping themselves the most. The Jets should be able to get a quality wideout with the 18th pick if they opt to go that route. The abundance of receivers could impact how they approach free agency.
2. Thin at tight end: The Jets may have to think twice about filling their tight-end need in the draft. North Carolina's Eric Ebron solidified his standing as the top tight end with a strong performance, but some of the other top prospects were limited by injuries. For players such as Jace Amaro (Texas Tech) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington), it means their pro days will carry greater importance. It's not a terribly deep position anyway.
3. Sanchez saga: The Jets met with Mark Sanchez's reps to discuss the quarterback's future. Nothing was settled, but Sanchez will be rehabbing in New Jersey this week, giving the Jets a chance to monitor his surgically-repaired throwing shoulder. One source said the chances of Sanchez returning are about 20 to 30 percent. Obviously, he'd have to accept a large pay cut. Look for this to play out until March 25, when a $2 million roster bonus is due -- or until they find his replacement.
4. Higher salary cap: The Jets aren't facing a cap squeeze, but it's always nice to have extra flexibility. The combine began with one report projecting the cap would increase to $130 million, up from $123 million last year. Then came another report saying it would be $132 million. The final number will be announced in the coming days. Either way, the Jets will have the ability to be aggressive in free agency. It'll be a departure from last year, when they were forced to bargain-shop.
5. Meet and greet: Teams were permitted to conduct 60 formal interviews at the combine. The Jets met with many of the top players, including Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles, but don't put too much stock in these sitdowns. It's called due diligence. They will conduct hundreds of player interviews by draft day. In some cases, the combine interview is just a starting point. Example: The Jets weren't blown away by Geno Smith last year, but they scheduled a follow-up on the eve of his pro day. That's when they became more comfortable with him.
Sanchez, said to be progressing nicely from surgery on his throwing shoulder last October, will return to New Jersey next week to continue his rehab at the Jets' facility. That will allow the medical staff and decision-makers to get a first-hand look at Sanchez's arm/shoulder strength. On Thursday, coach Rex Ryan told reporters that Sanchez had resumed throwing. One source said the former starter has progressed to the point where he can throw with good zip on the ball. He's expected to be ready for training camp, possibly OTAs in the spring.
The two sides are operating under a March 25 deadline. The Jets have to make a decision by then because if Sanchez is on the roster on that date, they owe him a $2 million roster bonus -- and that won't happen. With a $9 million base salary, and a $13.1 million cap charge, Sanchez would have to take a significant pay cut to remain on the team. At this point, the Jets haven't played their hand. The expectation is that they will release him and acquire another veteran quarterback, with growing speculation in league circles that it could be free agent Michael Vick.
The former starter is expected to be a salary-cap casualty in the coming weeks, and neither Rex Ryan nor general manager John Idzik said anything Thursday that indicated otherwise. They wanted no part of a Sanchez discussion, with Ryan refusing to give a basic overview of the quarterback position.
And he proceeded to praise Smith for his strong finish. It's not hard to read between the lines here, folks.
Sanchez has a $13.1 million cap charge in 2014, including a $2 million roster bonus due March 25, and there's no way he will be on the roster at that number. The only question is whether the Jets will try to retain him by offering to restructure his contract -- i.e. a massive pay cut. If the Jets were to take that route, they'd probably offer Sanchez an incentive-laden deal with base pay in the $2 million-to-$3 million range for the coming season, according to a longtime personnel executive. His current base pay is $9 million.
It's quite possible the Jets will simply cut bait, making no effort to keep him. It's also possible that Sanchez would reject a pay cut, forcing his release by March 25. His agents are expected to meet with Idzik here at the combine.
Ryan gave his stock answer, saying he'd "absolutely" like to have Sanchez back. He says that about every player whose status is uncertain. Idzik declined to comment. Quite frankly, his non-answers were eerily reminiscent to those from last year's combine, when he dodged questions about trade rumors involving Darrelle Revis. Of course, we all know how that turned out.
"We tend to let things play out," Idzik said of Sanchez's situation. "We still have some time there. We know he’ll be ready (for the season). We’ll just let that take its course."
Economics aside, the big factor is Sanchez's surgically repaired throwing shoulder. He's four months into what was initially projected as a four- to five-month process. Both Idzik and Ryan praised Sanchez's diligent approach, repeating the sound bites they used last February for Revis and his knee rehab.
"His whole focus -- and I know he’s doing a great job of this – is rehabbing, getting that shoulder back to where he’s throwing right now," Ryan said of Sanchez. "I know he’s doing whatever he can to get back."
Added Idzik: "We’re assuming Mark is going to be fine with his shoulder."
Of course, the Jets are best served by giving a glowing medical report. They need to enhance Sanchez's market value, assuming they try to trade him. Good luck with that.
League observers expect the Jets to replace Sanchez with another veteran, possibly Michael Vick, a free agent. Smith is the odds-on favorite to start, although Idzik continued to spew his semantic approach to the quarterback situation, refusing to name Smith the starter.
"We don't anoint starters in February, and we don't anoint them in March," Idzik said.
There will be another quarterback competition, because everything is competition in Idzik's world -- just don't expect Sanchez to be part of it. They won't acknowledge it publicly, but the Jets want no part of the egg-on-face possibility of Sanchez beating out Smith in training camp. Idzik said Sanchez still can be a starter in the league, but he measured his words carefully.
"We know Mark Sanchez," Idzik said. "He’s been a productive player in this league, a productive starter in this league. We know how he works, we know how he’s going to put everything into his rehab. We know how he’s going to be ambitious in his career. What would lead you to believe he wouldn’t (be a starter again)? That’s who Mark is. He’s competitor and he’s done it before."
And he hopes to do it again, but probably not with the Jets.
The NFL is expected to raise the salary cap to about $130 million, ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported Thursday -- about $4 million higher than projected. The cap was $123 million last year.
Nothing is official yet, but it looks like the additional $4 million will give the Jets about $24 million in cap space. That would be enough to re-sign potential free agents (right tackle Austin Howard, kicker Nick Folk and tight end Jeff Cumberland are the top priorities) and be active in the free-agent market.
Obviously, they will gain more flexibility when they start dumping veterans. They would create an additional $26 million by releasing Santonio Holmes, Mark Sanchez and Antonio Cromartie.
The Jets are being applauded in some circles for having only $48,958 in "dead" money on this year's cap, one of the lowest totals in the league, but that figure is deceiving. If they cut the aforementioned three veterans, they'd get hit with $12.8 million in dead money, barring June 1 designations.
The surgery was described as a "clean up," and is not expected to affect his availability for the offseason.
General manager John Idzik said the team is monitoring Sanchez's shoulder and knee rehabs. Idzik declined to speculate on Sanchez's future with the team, saying, "We'll let it play out."
Sanchez, who has a $13.1 million cap charge, is due a $2 million roster bonus in late March. The Jets are expected to part ways with their former starter.
"Mark has eveything ahead of him," Carroll said. "As often happens when you get the break, when you get to take a step back and observe and analyze and assess what's going on, you come back even stronger. I think that's what will happen with Mark. Hopefully, for him, it'll happen in New York. Wherever he winds up after that, if that doesn't work out, Mark is a good football player. I think he'll be better than ever."
Maybe Carroll and Sanchez will be reunited. Hey, you never know.
Sanchez, who missed the entire season because of surgery on his throwing shoulder, faces an uncertain future with the Jets, especially with Geno Smith's encouraging finish. Sanchez is under contract through 2016, but his current salary-cap charge ($13.1 million) is prohibitive. They may try to trade him before March 25, when a $2 million roster bonus is due. Failing that, they probably would release him. They'd clear $8.3 million in cap room by parting ways. Sanchez has said he'd like to return, but he'd have to take a significent pay cut -- and he may not be willing to do that, forcing the Jets' hand.
Carroll could be looking for a quarterback because his backup, Tarvaris Jackson, will be a free agent. Carroll is a longtime admirer of Sanchez, but he was publicly critical of Sanchez's decision to turn pro after the 2008 season.
1. Trim the fat: The Jets are likely to dump three big contracts before the March 11 start to free agency -- wide receiver Santonio Holmes ($10.8 million cap charge), quarterback Mark Sanchez ($13.1 million) and cornerback Antonio Cromartie ($15 million). By cutting those three players, the Jets would create $26.1 million in additional cap room, putting them more than $40 million over the salary cap. There probably will be interest in re-signing Cromartie for a lesser amount.
2. Money to burn: After a year of coping with a salary-cap squeeze, John Idzik finally has the flexibility that every general manager covets. Let's see if he uses the money wisely. His philosophy is to build through the draft, but he'd be crazy not to be active in the free-agent market. First, he should re-sign right tackle Austin Howard and kicker Nick Folk, both of whom will be unrestricted free agents. After that, he needs to find a wide receiver, a tight end and a safety. Names on the radar will be Eric Decker, Brandon Pettigrew and Jairus Byrd, respectively.
3. Draft for offense: The Jets picked a defensive player with their last five first-round picks. That has to change. With the 18th pick, they need to focus on offensive playmakers. Three names to watch: wide receivers Marqise Lee and Mike Evans and tight end Eric Ebron. If one of the Big Three at quarterbacks falls to 18 -- Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater -- they'd have to think hard about going in that direction.
Question: Who’s the player (active, non-teammate) you’d most like to see in the Super Bowl?
Winner: Adrian Peterson, running back, Minnesota Vikings
Our take: Peterson scored 59 votes (18.4 percent), narrowly defeating Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (56 votes). To be honest, the voting was all over the map, as a total of 88 players received votes. Only two Jets landed in the votes column -- Mark Sanchez and Muhammad Wilkerson, each of whom received one. Yes, somewhere out there in the NFL, Sanchez has a huge admirer. You know what? After coming close to the Super Bowl in his first two seasons, then falling out of favor and wrecking his shoulder, it would be a tremendous comeback story if he made it.
Interestingly, there was no love for Peterson and Gonzalez among the Jets' voters. The leading vote getters were Michael Vick and Alex Smith, with three apiece. Believe it or not, the polarizing Tony Romo scored two votes.
No. 1: Mark Sanchez's shoulder injury
It was an unmitigated disaster. Matt Simms was warming up, seemingly preparing to replace Smith, but the call went to Sanchez, who was caught off guard and warmed up quickly. He was under siege from the first play. On his third series, rolling to his left on a scramble, he was blasted at full speed by defensive tackle Marvin Austin. He hit Sanchez so hard that it tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder -- although it took a few weeks before the Jets finally came clean, admitting he needed surgery. It probably will end up being his last play as a Jet.
Things got weird after the game, when Ryan, in a combative news conference, insisted his reasoning for playing Sanchez was because he wanted to win the game and the Snoopy MetLife Trophy. Ryan was so annoyed by reporters questioning his decision that he actually turned sideways at one point.
The Jets had no choice but to start the season with Smith, who wound up starting every game. Sanchez's injury created so many what-if questions: What if Sanchez had started the season? Would he have thrived in Marty Mornhinweg's system? If not, how long before he was replaced by Smith? There probably would've been a full-blown quarterback controversy at some point. We'll never know.
There are conflicting stories of what actually happened Friday at Los Angeles International Airport. Depending whom you believe, Smith was either the victim of a quick-tempered flight attendant on a power trip or the instigator of a dispute triggered by his refusal to stop yapping on his cell phone while sitting on a Virgin America flight ready to take off for his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
This much we know: Smith wasn't arrested and airport police didn't file a report, according to the public information officer at LAX. This suggests the incident wasn't serious. At the same time, there was the TMZ video of Smith leaving the airport by himself, getting picked up by a car service. He sure looked like a player ejected from the game, sent to the showers. If the dispute was no big deal, why didn't he stick around to get booked on another Virgin America flight? Maybe it's because the airline sent him away, refusing to rebook him. That's what happened, according to reports.
Smith's alleged behavior doesn't jibe with the player we saw during the season, a seemingly mature rookie who acted professionally in dealing with the media three times a week. Because he played so poorly at times, his media sessions were more like interrogations than interviews, but he rarely flinched, almost always managing to stay on his talking points. No doubt, he was coached up by the team's public relations staff, but you always wanted to believe he was just being himself.
Well, it's the offseason now, and the players are scattered across the country, interacting in the real world without the constant aid of a PR official. It's Smith's job -- and the job of every player -- to represent his employer in a positive manner. You want your quarterback to be the CEO of the franchise. Even if he can't play like Peyton Manning, you at least want your quarterback to act like him. That's the model. You'd rather have your quarterback making TV commercials than making news for the wrong reasons.
Smith isn't having the greatest offseason. A woman, saying she had an affair with him, posted a photo that she alleged to be of Smith's private parts. Naturally, it fueled comparisons to Favre and Sanchez, both of whom ended up on the Internet in -- shall we say? -- unflattering situations.
Look, Smith is young, only 23, so he's bound to make mistakes. Maybe he'll respond to these experiences the way he responded to adversity during the season. He found a way to get better. He has to understand that we don't stop keeping score when the last game ends.
They were the healthiest team in the league, according to a study by Dallas Morning News football writer Rick Gosselin. The Jets lost a league-low 20 games by starters due to injury, including only five on defense. That, too, was the league-low.
The study doesn't reflect Mark Sanchez's season-ending shoulder surgery in the preseason. That would've been another 16 games lost if you operate under the presumption he would've been the opening-day starter. As you know, Rex Ryan never named a starting quarterback. Still hasn't.
The Jets got hit at wide receiver, where they lost Santonio Holmes (five games) and Stephen Hill (four). But, all things considered, they were extraordinarily fortunate when it came to injuries. Good thing, too, because they probably didn't have enough depth in certain areas.
On defense, they lost cornerback Dee Milliner and outside linebacker Quinton Coples for three and two games, respectively, providing continuity that allowed the coaches to integrate seven new starters. General manager John Idzik needs to fortify the team's depth in his second offseason because, honestly, what are the chances to staying this healthy in 2014?
In case you're wondering, the most injury-prone team was the New York Giants, which lost a league-high 91 games by starters, including 26 on the offensive line.
He started every game and won eight, a fairly impressive feat for a rookie in a new system, surrounded by mediocre skill-position talent. Over the final four weeks, Smith posted the second-highest QBR in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
In short, he didn't do anything to lose the job -- a job, technically, he was never given in the first place. The Jets never anointed him as the starting quarterback. Again, semantics.
No one on the roster is capable of unseating Smith in training camp. Mark Sanchez? He probably won't make it to training camp; he's a likely salary-cap casualty. Matt Simms will be back, but he's not ready to push Smith. David Garrard? Great guy, good mentor, but he probably won't be back.
What about drafting a quarterback? I'd be surprised if Idzik selected a quarterback in the first or second round, one year after investing a second-round pick in Smith. They have too many other needs.
How about a veteran acquisition? Yes, the Jets absolutely must sign a competent veteran because, despite his encouraging finish, Smith still isn't proven commodity. Don't let a few solid games camouflage his 21 interceptions. They need someone who can start in the event of injury or slump. They got away with not having that guy in a rebuilding year, but the expectations will be greater in 2014.
The free-agent class includes Tarvaris Jackson, Josh McCown, Michael Vick and Chad Henne. The Jets have to spent a little extra for a legit No. 1/No. 2 quarterback, someone willing to accept a backup role.
So, yes, the Jets need to bolster the quarterback position, but there's no need for an overhaul. They have their Guy, whether they choose to tell us or not.
ICYMI: As they cleaned out their lockers, the Jets offered strong support for Smith. ... The Jets are reportedly poised to offer Ryan a one-year contract extension. ... Sheldon Richardson should be the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. So says Sheldon Richardson. ... Kicker Nick Folk is looking for a pay day. ... Ed Reed wants to play another year.
In January 2011, Rex Ryan conquered his nemesis, the New England Patriots, creating a big, loud and cocky green monster that figured to wreak havoc for seasons to come. But instead of the Incredible Hulk, they turned into Shrek -- ugly and goofy.
On Sunday, the Jets completed their third consecutive non-playoff season. It's their longest postseason drought since the dark ages of the 1990s, when they failed for six straight years under four different coaches. Their record since 2011 is just 22-26.
Without question, they overachieved in 2013, squeezing eight wins out of a young roster devoid of stars. Ryan did a commendable job in a rebuilding year and will return in 2014, the team announced after a season-ending 20-7 victory in Miami.
For GM John Idzik, the honeymoon is over. It's on him, and he faces an offseason with many challenging issues. Such as:
Augment the quarterback position: This is the biggest decision facing the Jets. They have to decide if Geno Smith is a true No. 1 quarterback or whether they should hedge their bet by bringing in legitimate competition. They have 16 games on tape to evaluate.
While Smith's late-season rally reduces the need to make a major acquisition, the smart play would be to add a competent veteran. Problem is, it's hard to find that guy, a No. 1/No. 2 quarterback.
Mark Sanchez fits the description, but there are health and salary-related questions, not to mention the entire issue of whether they'd want to re-create last summer's competition. Been there, done that.
An interesting target would be Kirk Cousins, who probably will be dangled in trade talks by the Washington Redskins. He wouldn't come cheaply in terms of compensation, maybe a second-round pick. That's a lot to surrender for a possible backup, but they have to look at the long view. He'd be an asset that appreciates in value.
They could go for Matt Schaub, the 2006 version of Cousins. Schaub would bring some baggage to the party, assuming he's released by the Houston Texans, but he’s still only 32 and would be a worthwhile reclamation project/insurance policy.
What about the draft? Unless Idzik absolutely falls in love with someone (Johnny Manziel, anyone?), it wouldn't make much sense to sink a first-round pick into a quarterback, one year after using a No. 2 on Smith. Jay Cutler could be the big fish in free agency if the Chicago Bears let him hit the market, but he'd be a disaster in New York.
Rebuild the offense: The Jets' skill-position talent has deteriorated steadily since 2010. Since 2011, they're ranked 26th in scoring, due largely to a lack of playmakers and poor quarterback play. They've ignored this side of the ball under the defensive-minded Ryan. It's time to pour money and resources into the offense so they compete in an offense-obsessed league.
They need a new tight end and two new wide receivers, preferably a game-breaker. Stephen Hill was supposed to be that guy, but he can't be counted on after two disappointing seasons.
The free-agent market for receivers is thin -- Eric Decker of the Denver Broncos might be the best -- so look for Idzik to address the need in the draft. There are a couple of good ones, Sammy Watkins (Clemson) and Marqise Lee (USC), assuming they turn pro. The top free-agent tight end is Jimmy Graham, but there's little chance he gets away from the New Orleans Saints.
In theory, the Jets could stage their biggest spending spree since 2008, the year they acquired Alan Faneca, Kris Jenkins, Calvin Pace and Damien Woody, but Idzik believes in building through the draft. He owns eight choices, a total that could grow to 10 or 11 with expected compensatory picks.
This is "go" time for Idzik, a chance to show his acumen as a team-builder.
The first thing they should do is take care of couple of their own free agents, namely right tackle Austin Howard and kicker Nick Folk. Both earned long-term deals with their play in 2013. Linebacker Pace and guard Willie Colon are B-list free agents who have value for the short term.
Out with the old: Sanchez, Holmes and Antonio Cromartie -- key players on the 2010 team that reached the AFC Championship Game -- are highly paid players with injury questions. It's possible all three could be playing elsewhere in 2014.
Holmes is a goner, for sure. They would've cut him two years ago if it weren't for $24 million in guarantees, one of the contracts that got Mike Tannenbaum fired. Sanchez fits the profile of what they need, but he's due a $2 million roster bonus in March -- and there's no way that will be paid. He'd have to agree to a massive pay cut, and that's unlikely to happen. Chances are, he'll be released.
Cromartie is a tough call, with a lot depending on his bad hip. His contract, which runs through 2014, is prohibitive -- a $15 million cap charge, including a $5 million roster bonus. He says he wants to retire a Jet, but let's see if he changes his tune when they propose a pay cut. Chances are, they'll cut him, letting him establish a market price before deciding whether to bring him back on a new deal.