In the coming days and weeks, Mike Maccagnan's vision for the New York Jets -- his long-term plan, if you will -- should start to come into focus.
With free agency looming, the second-year general manager has two philosophical roads he can travel. He can stay the course, trying to squeeze another year or two out of a team built largely on players older than 30. It would mean an all-in mentality for 2016 -- i.e., restructuring contracts to create cap room and plugging holes with older veterans. It would stunt player development and hurt the Jets' cap situation in future years, but they'd be keeping the window open for the likes of Brandon Marshall, Darrelle Revis, David Harris and New York's aging core.
Or Maccagnan could opt for the other path -- not a total rebuild but a roster-building approach that emphasizes youth. It would mean fewer quick fixes via free agency and a greater concentration on the draft. This would create better cap health in future years and fortify the bottom third of the roster, which should have an immediate impact on the dreadful special teams. It's tough to have your cake and eat it, too, so it could mean a step back in the standings (although they'd never concede that).
I think the Jets will opt for the latter scenario, partly out of necessity. (More on that later.) They've already dropped a couple of hints, with coach Todd Bowles saying he wants to get younger and faster. This might seem like a step back after last year's ultra-aggressive offseason, when they were among the league leaders in free-agent spending, but it's part of their master plan.
Last year was all about establishing credibility and creating a winning culture, eradicating the stink of 2014. The Jets were a broken franchise at the end of the Rex Ryan-John Idzik tenure, a dysfunctional organization with conflicting agendas. It wasn't a good look, and the product on the field was poor. It was so bad that disgruntled fans rented planes and bought billboard space to trash Idzik, who lost the trust of the fan base and, more importantly, his owner, Woody Johnson.
In came Bowles and Maccagnan, a couple of football lifers who won back the fans by attacking the offseason. In free agency, the Jets doled out $76 million in guarantees, the third-highest total in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. They added star power to the roster and, although they didn't win enough games to make the playoffs, it was enough to spin the arrow to the "up" direction. They were required to spend a big chunk of money to satisfy the salary-cap rules, but part of the motivation was to change the perception of the franchise.
In a letter to season-ticket holders this week, Johnson said Maccagnan and Bowles "reinvigorated the team and have us heading in the right direction." That letter was accompanied by a notice that season tickets are increasing by 4 percent, the first price hike since 2011. Hey, it's a business. Perception doesn't pay the bills.
So the question is, what now?
With a foundation set, Maccagnan and Bowles can shift to a long-range view. This isn't to suggest they didn't do it last year; in fact, they made only two financial commitments last offseason that extended beyond a year -- Revis and Buster Skrine. Most of the big contracts were essentially one-year, prove-it deals. That was by design. The game plan was, "Let's get good fast and re-evaluate." How they tackle this offseason will set the course for years to come.
Two problems: They have only six draft choices and a limited amount of cap space. They can't blame the cap issue on Idzik; that's on Maccagnan, who overpaid for Revis and Skrine. Revis and Muhammad Wilkerson are eating up 20 percent of the entire cap ($32.7 million in cap charges), a ridiculous number for two nonquarterbacks.
There is a way to increase their flexibility, an avenue they will explore: trading Wilkerson. He's their best asset, and dealing that asset would unlock $15.7 million in cap space (the amount of his franchise tag) and bring back a high draft pick. This is reminiscent of the 2013 offseason, when the Jets refused to pay Revis and decided to cash in their top bargaining chip. They didn't win anything without him.
Will the Jets trade Wilkerson? It's a fantasy-football scenario. It's hard to pull off a tag-and-trade under ideal circumstances, and this isn't an ideal time. Wilkerson is rehabbing a surgically repaired leg, and it's a historically good draft for defensive linemen, hurting his market. In the end, they'll probably end up keeping him.
Does that mean it'll be all-in again in '16? Or will they try a retool on the fly? Maccagnan has reached a fork in the road. He can take solace in knowing the road won't have a nasty billboard calling for his head.