AFC East: Mark Sanchez
2. Stress-free environment: At this point in free agency, Sanchez didn't have many attractive options, but this move makes sense. After five years in the New York crucible, he goes to a non-pressure situation, backing up Nick Foles. He can continue to rehab his surgically repaired throwing shoulder, learn Chip Kelly's system and work himself back into form -- just in case he needs to play. Being around an offensive guru such as Kelly can only help Sanchez, who could benefit from fresh coaching techniques. It could get his career turned around after two disappointing seasons.
3. Quarterback controversy? No, not really, but Sanchez absolutely believes he still can start in the NFL. Foles won the job last season with a brilliant performance (a 119.2 passer rating), but he has only 16 career starts and has missed time due to injuries in three of the past four seasons. In other words, it's not like Sanchez is playing behind Tom Brady. Even if he rides the bench for a year, Sanchez can rehabilitate his battered image and look for a starting gig elsewhere in 2015. If he gets on the field, he'll be surrounded by top skill-position talent, something he didn't have with the Jets.
4. No homecoming: The Jets don't have the NFC East on their 2014 schedule, but they always play the Eagles in the preseason finale. As a backup, Sanchez figures to see significant action. Unfortunately, it's at Lincoln Financial Field, not MetLife Stadium. That would have been really interesting.
Before the deal is complete, the Eagles will examine Sanchez's surgically repaired throwing shoulder. Assuming his shoulder checks out, the two sides will move quickly toward a contract. Everything fell into place Monday, when ESPN Senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen reported that Sanchez would sign with the Eagles.
UPDATE: The Eagles have confirmed that Sanchez has signed a one-year contract.
Sanchez, who was released last Friday by the Jets, will become a backup to Eagles starter Nick Foles. Sanchez is said to be about 80 percent healthy, but he's making good progress and should be ready for late-spring practices.
"Guys, the tattoo is still there," he said, rolling up his sleeve to provide a partial peek. "I'm not going to say anything about the Sanchez tattoo. It was my tattoo and it's still my tattoo."
For those not familiar with Ryan's celebrated body art, the tattoo is an image of his wife wearing a Sanchez jersey. The tattoo was done back in the good old days, when Sanchez still was the Jets' franchise-type quarterback, but it didn't become a news item until January 2013, when he was photographed by a paparazzi on vacation in the Bahamas.
"I may alter it, who knows?" Ryan said. "I'm going to put 75 on it, to honor Winston Hill. That's the idea. That's what I'm going to do."
The Jets made the long-anticipated move last Friday, cutting ties with Sanchez after five seasons. Ryan claimed "there was always the possibility that Mark could've come back to our team," but I'm not buying that one. I think he was a goner, no matter what.
Ryan said it was difficult to release his former starter -- this from someone who once vowed that Sanchez would be his quarterback for as long as he coached the team. Ryan still believes Sanchez can be a starter in the league. It won't happen right away because he's expected to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, where he'd serve as a backup to Nick Foles.
"I hope he ends up in a good situation for him," said Ryan, commeting for the first time since Sanchez's release. "I hope it all works out for him. He's a tremendous young man. I have a lot of admiration for him. Obviously, I want him to do extremely well. With that being said, I don't want him in our division."
Ryan turned a bit nostalgic.
"I don't know if we were only rookie head coach and rookie quarterback to go to back-to-back championship games or not, but we're certainly on a small list," he said. "I think that's a pretty good accomplishment. He played a lot of good football. Unfortunately, people remember one play. Mark played well for us. We had some success, albeit not what we wanted -- ultimate success but we did have some success."
Sanchez wrote "We shared some incredible moments together that I'll never forget" and that he "gave everything I had to win the Lombardi Trophy.
"I only regret that we couldn't bring it home for all of us to share, especially for those guys in the locker room and for my friend Aiden."
That was a reference to Aiden Binkley, who formed a friendship with Sanchez during the young fan's struggle with a rare form of cancer. Aiden died on Dec. 30, 2010.
"I'd say that there is interest," Rams coach Jeff Fisher told USA Today Sunday at the owners meetings in Orlando. "I can't say how much. But there certainly would be interest. I don't have a backup with experience on the roster right now."
The Rams make sense on a number of levels. Starter Sam Bradford is coming off ACL surgery, his backup is the inexperienced Austin Davis and the coordinator is Brian Schottenheimer -- yep, that Brian Schottenheimer. He was the Jets' coordinator for Sanchez's first three seasons in the league. It also doesn't hurt that Fisher and Sanchez are USC alums.
Sanchez, in the final stages of his recovery from shoulder surgery, is expected to take his time before making a decision. The Jets cut Sanchez last Friday after five seasons with the team.
2. Ready, set, compete: Obviously, the brass wants Smith to succeed, building on his promising finish last season, but this will probably be presented as an open competition. It'll make for a compelling training-camp battle: the talented, but unpolished, Smith versus the cagey vet looking for one last shot at glory. It brings back memories of Vinny Testaverde's arrival in 1998. If Smith buckles under the pressure, it'll tell the organization he's not their guy. Their hope is that Vick's presence, on and off the field, will elevate Smith to a higher level. They believe Vick can mentor Smith; he wouldn't have received that from Sanchez.
3. The Marty Factor: This doesn't happen without Marty Mornhinweg, the offensive coordinator. Because of Mornhinweg, the Jets had "inside knowledge" of Vick, according to Idzik. They wouldn't have signed one of the most polarizing players in NFL history if they didn't have someone on staff who knows Vick and what makes him tick. Mornhinweg and Vick spent four years together in Philadelphia from 2009 to 2012. His familiarity with Mornhinweg's system is another plus. It should make for a seamless transition, another reason for Smith to worry about his job. You can't accuse the Jets of babying Smith, a la Sanchez.
4. Potential risks: Vick's checkered past -- nearly two years in jail for his involvement in a dogfighting ring -- will surely be dredged up at the outset, perhaps even causing animal-rights activists to protest, but it will die down as long as Vick continues to carry himself in a mature fashion. This won't be similar to the Tim Tebow circus. Football wise, yes, it could spark a quarterback controversy, but it's worth the risk, especially for coach Rex Ryan, who might not survive another playoff-less season. Bottom line: Vick upgrades the position.
5. Depth chart: It means that Matt Simms, the No. 2 quarterback, will be knocked down to third string. The Jets like his potential, but they could draft a quarterback in the later rounds to provide competition.
6. Is D-Jax next?: The Jets reportedly inquired about Vick's former teammate, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who is said to be on the trading block. A lot of people are connecting the dots, speculating this means they will pursue Jackson, but the Jets were interested in Vick before Jackson became available. Trading for Jackson, who has a huge contract and character issues, would be a serious curveball by Idzik.
"At this time, I would like to announce my retirement from the NFL," McElroy tweeted. "Thank you to Marvin Lewis, the Brown family and the entire Cincinnati Bengals' organization. The fans make this decision especially difficult, as you have provided so much joy throughout my career. Playing in the NFL was my lifelong dream; therefore, I must also thank the New York Jets for providing me with my original opportunity. The future is bright, and exciting things are on the horizon! God bless to all."
McElroy, who led Alabama to a 14-0 record and the BCS championship as a junior, was a seventh-round pick of the Jets in 2011. He was thrown into the three-ring, quarterback circus in 2012, when they had Sanchez and Tebow. McElroy's shot was fleeting. On Dec. 2, he replaced an ineffective Sanchez and helped the Jets to a come-from-behind win against the Arizona Cardinals in quite possibly the ugliest game ever played.
Three weeks later, the Jets' quarterback controversy exploded when Sanchez was benched and McElroy -- not Tebow -- was named to start against the San Diego Chargers. McElroy was battered in the loss, as he was sacked 11 times. He suffered a concussion, but it wasn't diagnosed until a few days later, prompting Rex Ryan to replace him with Sanchez for the finale. McElroy, perhaps knowing he'd never get another chance to prove himself, wasn't forthcoming with regard to the concussion symptoms.
He lost his third-string job last summer to Matt Simms. As a member of the Bengals' practice squad, McElroy received a shout out from the coaching staff for preparing a detailed scouting report on the Jets, which they used in Week 8 -- a 49-9 win by the Bengals.
His final NFL statistics: Two games, 19-for-31, 214 yards, one touchdown, one interception.
McElroy, who posted one of the highest Wonderlic scores in history, is exceptionally bright and has talked about a career in TV or politics. His transition to the "real world" should be seamless. Like he said, the future is bright.
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South
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.