ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The New York Jets finished the 2015 season with a 10-6 record after a 22-17 loss Sunday to the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. As a result, they missed the playoffs for the fifth straight year. Here are five questions facing the Jets this offseason:
What's missing? The Jets' brain trust will tackle this question once the disappointment subsides, which could take a while. This could've been their year; it should've been their year. They played one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, stayed relatively healthy, produced their best offensive numbers in nearly two decades and got career years out of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall and Muhammad Wilkerson. But they still came up short, blowing a shot when they controlled their own destiny. This was a win-now team, and everything was aligned for a nice January run. That's why this hurts so much for Jets fans. For 2016, the Jets have to figure out a way to maintain what they developed and improve their weaknesses, but it's not easy to take that next step. They'll need to add speed on both sides of the ball, bolster the offensive line and tighten up the special teams. On the positive side, Todd Bowles established his program, making last year's 4-12 disaster a distant memory.
Should the Jets make a long-term commitment to Fitzpatrick? Based on the premise that "long-term" in the NFL means two years, the answer is, yes, they should. Despite a three-interception performance in the finale, Fitzpatrick, a free agent, deserves a new contract as long as it makes sense for both sides. It should be a deal that pays him like a middle-of-the-pack starter for 2016 and 2017, but provides flexibility for the Jets in the future. It'll be difficult for Fitzpatrick to duplicate 2015, but his chemistry with Marshall, Eric Decker and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey is too good to break up. Besides, what's the alternative? Geno Smith? Please. Bryce Petty? Needs more seasoning. The current free-agent market is thin, as usual. As long as he doesn't make outlandish demands -- looking for a contract in the $10 million to $12 million range annually -- Fitzpatrick should be back. Don't look a gift QB in the mouth.
Should the Jets break up their talented defensive line? It'll be a tight squeeze in terms of the salary cap, but they should try to keep the Big Four together. They have to make decisions on Wilkerson and Damon Harrison, both of whom are free agents. They're among the top players at their respective positions, so it would be lunacy to let them hit the open market. Wilkerson, who suffered a broken leg Sunday, probably will wind up with the franchise tag, as the two sides are far apart on a long-term deal. Harrison considers himself the NFL's best nose tackle, so he probably wants to be paid like it, meaning a contract worth more than $4.5 million per year. They have an embarrassment of riches (don't forget about Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams), so they could try to use Richardson as a bargaining chip to obtain draft picks. A lot could hinge on whether he is suspended for an arrest in July.
Which free agents should be the top priorities? Well, we already covered the top three -- Fitzpatrick, Wilkerson and Harrison. The Jets won't have much money left, so they probably will have to say goodbye to running backs Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell and linebacker Demario Davis. The Jets are looking at a complete rebuild at running back; No. 3 back Stevan Ridley also is a free agent. In an ideal world, you'd love to keep Ivory and Powell because of their complementary skill sets, but tough decisions have to be made. Ivory was on his way to a monster year, but he ran out of gas. On Sunday, his role was reduced -- a very curious decision. It's time for the Jets to use a first- or second-day draft pick on a speed back.
What are their primary needs? As Bill Parcells used to say, you're either getting better or getting worse; you never stay the same. The Jets have to evaluate the roster with that in mind. They need to take a hard look at the offensive line, which has three starters in their 30s. The right side needs an upgrade. A fast running back, a competent tight end and two linebackers (inside and outside) are items on the wish list. The Jets have a good team; making it very good is the objective.