Commentary

Free-agency primer: New York Jets

Gang Green will be busy trying to make 8-8 roster younger, healthier, better

Updated: March 12, 2012, 6:39 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

The lineup has holes, several holes. And Mike Tannenbaum has some money to burn. That means ... well, do we really need to spell it out?

No one can do more with less, and now Tannenbaum -- the New York Jets' aggressive general manager -- actually has some salary-cap room to be more than a token visitor in the free-agent market. The Mark Sanchez contract extension provided $6.4 million in cap relief, putting them about $13.5 million under the projected cap. (Keep in mind that about one-third of that is needed to sign draft picks.)

Finally, after a tumultuous offseason marked by locker-room dissension and upheaval on the coaching staff, the Jets can start the process of upgrading an 8-8 roster.

The top questions facing the Jets as they head into free agency, which begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday:

1. Are they going to make an immediate splash?

The Jets aren't going to chase the big names -- Peyton Manning (old news), defensive end Mario Williams, wide receiver Vincent Jackson -- but that doesn't mean they will do the wallflower thing. It's not in their DNA. Don't forget, the trading period also begins and the Jets have a history of deal-making. The player in most demand is tight end Dustin Keller, but it's hard to imagine them parting with one of their core players.

[+] EnlargeJarret Johnson
AP Photo/Nick WassThe Jets might make a run at Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson.

2. What are the Jets' biggest needs?

They need a safety (or two), an outside linebacker to replace Bryan Thomas (an injured free agent), a wide receiver to complement Santonio Holmes, a running back to complement Shonn Greene, a right tackle to put Wayne Hunter on the bench, a backup quarterback, a blocking tight end, a kicker and maybe an inside linebacker (if Bart Scott is dumped).

Otherwise, they're in great shape.

Obviously, they're not going to fill every need in free agency, but we know how Tannenbaum operates. He doesn't want to go into the draft with any crater-like holes in the lineup. Good luck with that.

3. Of their 11 unrestricted free agents, are there any the Jets can't afford to lose?

Yeah, nose tackle Sione Pouha, one of the heart-and-soul players on defense. You can't run a formidable 3-4 defense unless your nose tackle can occupy blockers, and that's what Pouha does best. And for his unique talents, the Jets and the 6-foot-3, 325-pound three-year starter agreed to a new three-year deal on Monday.

4. Are they finally going to bring in some competition for Sanchez?

Yes and no. With $20.5 million in guarantees over the next two seasons, Sanchez is the clear-cut starter, so there will be no competition, per se. But the Jets will try to upgrade the No. 2 spot, with former Dolphins starter Chad Henne expected to be their top target. He already knows the offense, having played under coordinator Tony Sparano in Miami. Some league insiders believe Henne is ticketed for the Jets.

Because of the Sanchez commitment, the Jets are a less attractive destination for quarterbacks in the No. 1/No. 2 category, but they might be able to sell Henne on the idea they'd be the ideal place for a one-year career rehab before looking for a long-term gig. In 2013, the Jets can move Greg (Loose Lips) McElroy up to No. 2.

Two good football men, Jerry Angelo and Bill Polian, lost their jobs after last season because they didn't have adequate backup plans for the Bears and Colts, respectively. Tannenbaum doesn't want to leave himself vulnerable to the law of averages after three injury-free years with Sanchez.

5. What do they hope to add on defense?

That's simple: Speed. The lack of speed on all three levels of the defense showed up in the worst moments last season (see the Victor Cruz and Tim Tebow touchdowns).

They want to add a safety with coverage ability, especially with the emergence of the Patriots' tight ends. Look for the Jets to target LaRon Landry (Redskins).

They also need more speed at outside linebacker. Aaron Maybin is fine in his limited role, but they covet an every-down 'backer who can handle the multiple responsibilities of the position. Jarret Johnson (Ravens) is a Rex Ryan favorite from their days together, and he's on their short list.

6. What do they need on offense to help Sparano run his system?

Sparano believes in a strong running game, heavy play-action and vertical passing.

The Jets haven't had a legitimate vertical threat since Braylon Edwards, so they're definitely in the market for a big target with long speed. Get in line and get ready to pay. Thing is, it's hard to imagine them investing big money at receiver with $15 million already guaranteed to Holmes, so the draft might be the way to go.

By the way, Edwards is a free agent, but he has a knee issue that bears watching. He could be a post-draft option.

Sparano also likes a two-back offense, and right now his options are Greene, Joe McKnight and Bilal Powell. They don't see McKnight as an every-down back and Powell is an unknown. As a result, Ronnie Brown -- one of Sparano's old Dolphins -- is a possibility.

7. Did the Jets learn anything from last season?

We'll find out, but you have to think they will avoid players with character issues. They need to incorporate some of the Eric Mangini philosophy, putting an emphasis on unselfish, team-oriented players. In other words, forget about Randy Moss.


TOP UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: Keep 'em or dump 'em?

Plaxico Burress, 6-5, 232, 10 years

Most compelling reason to re-sign him: He was the most significant reason for the Jets' improvement in the red zone. You can't teach 6-5.

Potential snag: After last season's chemistry problems, the Jets need to change the vibe in the receivers' room.

Most compelling reason not to re-sign him: Burress will be 35 and he can't get open between the 20s. It's time to move on.

Possible replacement: Laurent Robinson (Cowboys), Robert Meachem (Saints) or a draft pick.


LaDainian Tomlinson, 5-10, 215, 11 years

Most compelling reason to re-sign him: It's never a bad thing to have a future Hall of Famer in your locker room, especially one with Tomlinson's professionalism.

Potential snag: Tomlinson, who will be 33, still can be a dependable third-down back, but he's pretty much used up as a running back in the base offense.

Most compelling reason not to re-sign him: He brings plenty of intangibles to the huddle, but it's time to let the young bucks take over.

Possible replacement: Ronnie Brown (Eagles) or a draft pick.


Jim Leonhard, S, 5-8, 188, 7 years

Most compelling reason to re-sign him: He's the quarterback of the secondary. When he's not on the field, it just isn't the same.

Potential snag: Leonhard is recovering from major knee surgery and may not be at full strength until training camp. The Jets will take a wait-and-see approach.

Most compelling reason not to re-sign him: Durability issues. He finished the past two seasons on injured reserve with serious leg injuries.

Possible replacement: LaRon Landry (Redskins) or a draft pick.


Bryan Thomas, LB, 6-4, 265, 10 years

Most compelling reason to re-sign him: He's a sturdy, blue-collar player who keeps his mouth shut and knows how to set the edge in run defense.

Potential snag: Thomas is recovering from Achilles tendon surgery from last October. There might be some down-the-road interest, but it will be hard to re-sign him.

Most compelling reason not to re-sign him: That's a tough injury to overcome, especially for a 33-year-old linebacker.

Possible replacement: Jarret Johnson (Ravens) or a draft pick.


Nick Folk, PK, 6-1, 222, 5 years

Most compelling reason to re-sign him: Familiarity. Folk has been around for two years and the Jets know his strengths and weaknesses.

Potential snag: The kicking market was watered down with five franchise tags, meaning there could be more competition for even an average kicker like Folk.

Most compelling reason not to re-sign him: He doesn't have a big leg and that comes into play with the new kickoff rule.

Possible replacement: Neil Rackers (Texans), Jay Feely (Cardinals).


Mark Brunell, QB, 6-1, 215, 19 years

Most compelling reason to re-sign him: He's a big brother to Mark Sanchez and he holds a mean clipboard.

Possible snag: There's a new offensive coordinator in town, and Brunell -- hand-picked by former coordinator Brian Schottenheimer -- doesn't fit anymore.

Most compelling reason not to re-sign him: Aside from his birth certificate (age: 41), the Jets want a more viable No. 2 QB.

Possible replacement: Chad Henne (Miami).


ON THE RADAR (free agents the Jets are expected to pursue)

Chad Henne, QB, 6-3, 230, 4 years (Dolphins): The Jets flirted with Peyton Manning, but they really want Henne. Obviously, he'd be Mark Sanchez's backup. He played for Tony Sparano and knows his offense. It's a natural fit -- assuming Henne is OK with No. 2 status.

Jarret Johnson, OLB, 6-3, 260, 10 years (Ravens): Rex Ryan loves the guy. Johnson, overshadowed by the Ravens' many stars, would immediately improve the perimeter run defense. He'll be 31, so that's a concern. The Colts, coached by former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, also figure to be interested.

LaRon Landry, S, 6-0, 213, 5 years (Redskins): He's the best safety in a watered-down market. The former No. 1 pick is a very good blitzer and stout against the run, but there are questions about his pass coverage and durability. He's coming off an Achilles injury.

Jameel McClain, ILB, 6-1, 250, 4 years (Ravens): If the Jets jettison Bart Scott, they can reach back to their feeder program -- Baltimore -- for a younger replacement. He's only 26 and improving.

Vernon Carey, RT, 6-5, 340, 8 years (Dolphins): No matter what the Jets say about Wayne Hunter, there's no way he will be their opening day starter. Carey will be 31, and his best days are behind him, but he could be a hold-the-fort player. Another Sparano guy from Miami.

Ronnie Brown, RB, 6-0, 233, 7 years (Eagles): This would be a reach, but the Jets are looking for a No. 2 back and Brown knows Sparano's system from Miami. But he's 30 and has lost a step. He rushed for only 136 yards last season.

Laurent Robinson, WR, 6-2, 192, 5 years (Cowboys): The journeyman receiver broke out last season with 11 touchdowns and a 15.9-yard average. One-year wonder or late bloomer? He'd fill the need for a vertical threat, but it could get too pricey.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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