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Thursday, April 10, 2014
Frugal Jets raise stakes in 2014 draft

By Rich Cimini
ESPN.com

John Idzik and Rex Ryan
Will Jets GM John Idzik draft the starting-caliber cornerback that Rex Ryan needs?
The biggest cliché you will read or hear over the next few weeks will be from NFL experts explaining that this will be a critical draft for (insert any team name).

Hello? They're all critical because they happen only once a year.

The second-biggest cliché will be from smart-alecks like me reminding you it's a cliché.

That said, I'll probably incur a penalty flag for writing this, but there are special cases -- see the New York Jets -- where there is simply no way to minimize the importance of a particular draft.

This is one of those years for the Jets. Because of their deliberate approach in free agency -- some might say cheap -- they have raised the stakes for the upcoming draft. May 8-10 will be the three biggest days of the year for a franchise in Stage 2 of its rebuilding project.

Despite having enough salary-cap room to pay an entire small-market baseball team, general manager John Idzik chose to save most of his money, counting on a bountiful draft to fill the many holes on the Jets' roster.

You might say he's putting most of his eggs in one basket, and it happens to be a complete dozen -- 12 draft picks. He'll have yolk on the face if he blows this draft, because he passed up a lot of potential upgrades in free agency.

Many fans are restless because they are not accustomed to this way of doing business. Under Idzik's predecessor, Mike Tannenbaum, the Jets owned the New York back pages in March, titillating the fan base with sexy trades and expensive signings.

Tannenbaum knew how to feed the beast, but there was a method to his madness. His research told him they were better off spending the money on proven commodities instead of stockpiling draft choices, figuring the bust rate of draft picks -- especially in the late rounds -- didn't validate the risk-reward.

In the past six drafts under Tannenbaum, 2007 to 2012, the Jets added 31 players -- an average of roughly five per year. If Idzik keeps his full allotment of choices, which includes four compensatory selections and a pick from the Darrelle Revis trade, he'll be up to 19 picks in two drafts.

Tannenbaum's plan damn near worked, as the Jets reached back-to-back AFC Championship Games in 2009 and 2010, but the talent base eventually eroded and he was fired. Now they have the anti-Tannenbaum in Idzik, building at a glacial pace through the draft.

"The football offseason is like an event, a circus act, and fans in general want to see something," a longtime personnel executive said this week. "With John, he takes the air out of the balloon. It's not exciting, but he does it his way. You have to respect that."

Idzik's way is similar to those of the Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, three successful organizations that rely on the draft more than free agency. In Wisconsin, you're more likely to see a March thaw than a flurry of free-agent signings. The signing of Julius Peppers last month was a stunning departure from the norm, a rare walk on the wild side by GM Ted Thompson.

Their usual philosophy: Draft. Develop. Extend. In other words, use your money to re-invest in your homegrown talent.

"He's modeling those organizations," the former personnel executive said of Idzik.

Idzik has to yet to make a long-term commitment to an ascending player, although you could make the case that the Jets haven't had anyone worthy of a contract extension. That will change when defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson gets a new deal, this year or next. For now, the objective is to find more Wilkersons.

Their list of needs is long, perhaps too long, considering they began free agency with close to $40 million in cap room. They upgraded the No. 2 wide receiver spot by signing Eric Decker, and they fortified the quarterback position by adding Michael Vick. But where are the playmakers? If the Jets are counting on Decker to be a difference-maker, they misspent their guaranteed $15 million.

Defensively, the personnel is worse than it was at the end of the season, specifically at cornerback. The mistake wasn't cutting Antonio Cromartie and making no effort to re-sign him; after all, he played poorly last season. No, the mistake was failing to come up with a better replacement than the aging and injury-prone Dimitri Patterson.

Defense will drive the Jets as long as Rex Ryan is the coach, and his defensive system is driven by cornerbacks. Idzik knows that, but he obviously held back in free agency, knowing he has an XXL draft to attack the team's weaknesses.

The second-year GM and his revamped scouting department enjoyed a solid first draft, so there is hope, but the challenge is greater this year because the expectation level is higher. If you're going to be frugal in free agency, you had better own the draft.

The Jets need to come away with a starting-caliber cornerback, a potential No. 1 receiver and a pass-catching tight end. With six choices among the top 137, they have the bargaining chips to wheel and deal. Idzik has enough ammo to take control of the draft, cherry-picking the players he covets most. A Justin Gilbert-Allen Robinson-Jace Amaro troika would be a nice start.

This is a critical draft for the Jets. Sorry about the cliché, but it's the truth.