For all the talk of the New York Jets being on the ascent following an 8-8 season last year, the truth was they displayed plenty of holes even in surpassing external expectations.
Those holes technically grew larger in the 48 hours leading up to the start of the new league year as the Jets released two of their most recognizable names: Cornerback Antonio Cromartie and wide receiver Santonio Holmes. They also lost tackle Austin Hwoard to the Raiders.
The transactions came as no surprise. The Jets not only freed up a total of $17.75 million in cap space by releasing Cromartie and Holmes, but also shed themselves of their two biggest underperformers on the roster.
Still, making the easy decision to cut two of the holdovers from the Jets*most recent AFC Championship Game squad doesn't make the task ahead of general manager John Idzik any simpler.
The Jets finished .500 last year despite a burnable secondary and an almost non-existent wide receiver corps, which is not exactly a recipe for sustainable success in the aerial-happy modern-day NFL. With nearly $40 million cap room, Idzik must address those needs over the coming weeks.
The famously methodical Idzik didn't make any quick strikes as free agency opened Tuesday. The Jets reportedly contacted free agent cornerbacks Alterraun Verner, a Pro Bowler last season with Tennessee, and Vontae Davis, who has started for both Miami and Indianapolis, but lost out on both players as Verner landed with Tampa Bay and Davis returned to the Colts.
A reunion with Darrelle Revis -- sure to be released by the Buccaneers by Wednesday afternoon -- would certainly mollify an impatient fanbase, but a second marriage between Revis and the Jets would certainly involve plenty of fence-mending on both sides.
The Jets are sure to check in on just about every free agent receiver, though Idzik is more likely to find a true no. 1 wideout via the receiver-loaded draft than on the open market. Landing a complementary piece with upside such as Hakeem Nicks, Golden Tate or Emmanuel Sanders to team up with the solid if unspectacular holdovers Jeremy Kerley and David Nelson would provide Geno Smith the weaponry he sorely lacked last season.
Speaking of Smith, finding him some legitimate competition may be the toughest challenge Idzik faces this spring. Smith's impressive final month was preceded by a seven-week stretch in which he played the position as badly as it can be played.
But with only the raw Matt Simms and the banged-up David Garrard behind him, Smith's job was never in real danger. That lack of depth may have cost the Jets a playoff spot, and an inability to secure an NFL-caliber backup could impede the Jets*progress if Smith is unable to maintain or build on his performance last December.
Yet Smith's presence as a potential franchise quarterback likely to win any training camp battle may make it difficult for Idzik to lure the likes of Michael Vick, Josh McCown and Shaun Hill, who qualify as the best options in a frightfully thin quarterback market.
Of course, merely pursuing and signing outside free agents is just one of the many chores Idzik will juggle over the coming days. While he was able to retain tight end Jeff Cumberland and kicker Nick Folk, both linebacker Calvin Pace and right tackle Austin Howard failed to sign extensions with the Jets and hit free agency Tuesday afternoon.
While the Jets got Pace back on their terms last year -- and were rewarded by Pace, who racked up a career-high 10 sacks -- young and durable right tackles such as Howard don't come cheaply. Idzik will either have to pay dearly to bring Howard back, or add yet another item to their shopping list. Welcome to NFL free agency, where holes sometimes appear quicker than they are patched.
--Two of the few offensive weapons the Jets possessed last year will be back in the green and white.
Tight end Jeff Cumberland, who finished second in the NFL in yards after the catch (6.35) last season, signed a three-year extension worth a reported $27 million on Saturday. Cumberland has shown a knack for big plays and for finding the end zone the last two seasons, during which he's collected 55 catches for 757 yard and seven touchdowns.
Kicker Nick Folk, on whom the Jets applied the franchise player tag, agreed to a long-term extension shortly after free agency opened on Tuesday. Folk nailed 33 of 36 field goals last year, including game-winners against the Buccaneers, Falcons and Patriots, and provided Rex Ryan a valuable weapon as he tried to win games with an offense that emphasized ball control and field position.
--Even by the short attention span standards of the NFL, Antonio Cromartie's descent from Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback to unemployed free agent was a rapid one.
Cromartie was cut by the Jets on Sunday, a mere 15 months after concluding a brilliant 2012 season in which he cemented himself as the best cornerback in football. But a series of nagging injuries last year sapped him of his explosiveness, turned him into an easily exploitable liability and made his departure a foregone conclusion.
With a 2014 cap figure of $14.98 million, Cromartie would have been a candidate for release -- or at the very least a dramatically restructured contract -- even if he'd maintained his 2012 level of play last year. Now he'll look to make a fraction of that on the open market, where Cromartie hopes his reputation and relative youth (he turns 30 in April) turns him into a hot commodity.
His confidence certainly appears unshaken: Cromartie told ESPN Radio in New York on Sunday that he expected to be "Ethe Antonio Cromartie of old in 2014" and that he wanted to play eight more seasons.
Cromartie also said he hadn't given up hope he could return to the Jets on a smaller deal, a la Calvin Pace last spring.
"The door is still open and that's how I look at it," Cromartie said. "I'm going to test the market to see where my numbers are."
--There were no such sentiments from either side following the Jets*release of Santonio Holmes on Monday. Unlike Cromartie, Holmes was never an asset for the Jets -- especially once he parlayed a decent 2010 (52 catches for 746 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games) into a five-year, $45 million deal immediately after the 2011 lockout.
He made $24 million over the last three years, during which he had just 94 catches for 1,382 yards and 10 touchdowns over the last three years. As ESPNNewYork.com noted, that works out to $255,319 per reception.
Worse yet, Holmes missed 17 games the last two seasons due to foot and hamstring injuries from which he was increasingly slow to recover. His familiar churlishness remained, which made his parting gesture -- an Instagram posting in which he said "Efarewell to a great fan base and organization" -- particularly ironic. Learning to say hello as he said goodbye notwithstanding, there will be no second act of "Tone Time" in Florham Park.
--Any doubt that John Idzik's first major move as Jets general manager -- trading malcontent cornerback Darrelle Revis to the Buccaneers prior to the draft last April for a pair of draft picks, one of which he turned into NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson -- was a masterstroke disappeared earlier this week, when the Buccaneers began fielding trade offers for Revis.
If the Buccaneers -- who fired head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik after going 4-12 in Revis*first season in Tampa Bay -- can't find a taker for Revis, they'll almost certainly release him before he is owed a $1.5 million roster bonus on Wednesday. Revis is due $16 million in 2014, but none of it is guaranteed and he is reportedly balking at the prospect of taking a pay cut to facilitate a trade.
Alas, in typical Jets luck, even a savvy move comes with some downside.
Per the terms of the trade, the 2014 pick the Buccaneers send to New York is a third-rounder if Revis is on the Tampa Bay roster as of the third day of the league year. If he is cut or traded before that, the pick becomes a fourth-rounder.
So assuming the Buccaneers dump Revis before Wednesday, the Jets get the 100th pick in May's draft instead of the 69th. Last year, the 69th player selected was cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who was an immediate difference maker for Arizona before suffering an INJURY HERE. Back in 2003, the Cowboys used the 69th pick to select tight end Jason Witten, who may be headed to the Hall of Fame. He'd be the third Hall of Famer to begin his career as the 69th pick in the draft.
The 100th pick last year was, coincidentally, used by the Buccaneers to select defensive tackle Akeem Spence, who had one sack. The best active player selected 100th overall is Bears running back Michael Bush, who has accounted for more than 4,300 all-purpose yards in seven seasons. No Hall of Famer has ever been picked 100th overall, though 2001 draftee Rudi Johnson did rack up 5,979 rushing yards and 1985 draftee Mark Bavaro became one of the most popular players in New York Giants history.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--WIDE RECEIVER: The Jets*top receiver last year was Jeremy Kerley, who missed four games yet still led the team with 43 catches for 523 yards. The Jets need a no. 1 and a no. 2 receiver, but they'll take a pair of no. 2s and call it a massive upgrade.
--CORNERBACK: Antonio Cromartie is gone, Dee Milliner is anything but a sure thing and the Jets*continued ascent rests on finding a stud to solidify a sieve-like secondary.
--QUARTERBACK: John Idzik is learning the only thing harder than finding a franchise quarterback is finding a decent backup. Might Mark Sanchez be the answer here?
FRANCHISE PLAYER: K Nick Folk (tendered at $3.556M; signed 4-year contract March 11).
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--RB John Griffin (not tendered as ERFA) was cut after getting hurt early in training camp in 2012 and spent 2013 on injured reserve with a broken leg suffered in the exhibition opener. The Jets aren't likely to give him a third look this summer..
--WR Vidal Hazelton (not tendered as ERFA) spent last season on injured reserve and will be looking to latch on with his fourth NFL club this spring.
--OLB Garret McIntyre (not tendered as RFA) has carved out a niche for himself as a jack-of-all-trades backup along the line and isn't likely to find a better deal elsewhere.
--TE Konrad Reuland (not tendered as ERFA) was establishing himself as a decent special teamer before going on injured reserve in November, but Mark Sanchez's ex-high school teammate will be allowed to walk.
--CB Isaiah Trufant (not tendered as RFA) remains a key special teams contributor, even at age 31, and is a candidate to return on a low-risk, one-year deal.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--CB Aaron Berry suffered a torn ACL in the opening days of training camp and hasn't played in an NFL game since December 2012. Given the litany of off-field issues he had before signing with the Jets in October 2012, it seems unlikely even the cornerback-starved Jets will offer him any guaranteed money.
--RG Willie Colon, who signed a $1.2 million contract prior to last season, was set up for a nice payday before suffering a torn triceps in the season finale against the Dolphins. Now the oft-injured Colon, who missed 36 of 48 games between 2010 and 2012, will likely have to settle for another one-year deal somewhere. The Jets can certainly use the help at guard, but they seem likely to let Colon test the market.
--WR Josh Cribbs provided an immediate upgrade to the Jets' kick and punt return units after joining the Jets as a street free agent in October, but his season ended with a torn pectoral muscle Dec. 1. The Jets may be interested in bringing Cribbs back, but at 31, he's not likely to receive any guaranteed money.
--DE Leger Douzable was a solid backup along the line for the Jets last season and should appeal to New York on a low-cost, one-year deal.
--G Vladimir Ducasse, a project for two administrations, will be somebody else's task after failing to emerge as a starter-caliber talent. Someone is sure to take a flier on the former second-rounder.
--QB David Garrard declared Tuesday on Twitter that his knee is 100 percent, but if the backup-starved Jets didn't make him a game-day active in the weeks following his un-retirement last October, it's hard to imagine anybody else signing him for anything more than mentoring duty.
--FB Lex Hilliard missed last season with a broken scapula and lost any chance at regaining his job after rookie Tommy Bohanon emerged as the Jets fullback. The nearly 30 year old may find it difficult to get a training camp invite.
--LB Josh Mauga is a valuable special teams contributor, but he hasn't played since October 2012 due to pectoral and back injuries. Odds are he'll have to continue his career elsewhere.
--LB Calvin Pace, who was a salary-cap victim in February 2012, re-signed at a lower rate and ended up collecting a career-high 10 sacks. He's expressed interest in finishing his career with the Jets, but he could be gone if someone overpays based on how the 33 year old fared as a carefully utilized situational pass rusher.
--S Ed Reed played seven games for the Jets but tied for the team lead with three interceptions, which says far more about the Jets*decimated secondary than it does Reed. He was a liability as an every-down player and made it clear he still thinks he's an every-down player, so Reed will move on if he plans on continuing his career.
--RB Darius Reynaud was signed in December to replace Josh Cribbs as the Jets' kickoff and punt returner but was only active for two of the final four games, which doesn't bode well for his chances of returning.
--TE Kellen Winslow made far more news off the field than on it during his one year with the Jets. Given the condition of his knees, the size of his ego and his tattered reputation, he may find it difficult to continue his career anywhere.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--LB Nick Bellore (tendered at $1.431M with no compensation) led the Jets with 27 special teams tackles last year. The Jets seem likely to match any reasonable offer.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
--TE Jeff Cumberland: Potential UFA; $5.7M/3 yrs, $1M RB 2014.
--LB Jermaine Cunningham: Potential UFA; $730,000/1 yr.
--K Nick Folk: Franchise FA; $12M/4 yrs, $2.1M RB.
--CB Ellis Lankster: Potential UFA; $1.6M/2 yrs, $155,000 RB.
--CB Darrin Walls: Potential RFA; 2 yrs, terms unknown.
--CB Ras-I Dowling: FA; $1.23M/2 yrs.
--CB Antonio Cromartie (released).
--WR Santonio Holmes (released).
--T Austin Howard: UFA Raiders; $30M/5 yrs, $15M guaranteed.
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