FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Life’s a lot easier as an NFL general manager when your needs are obvious, when you have a ton of salary cap room, and when you can buy your way out of problems the way Mike Maccagnan did last year.
Need a secondary? Here’s a pile of cash, and say hello to Darrelle Revis, Buster Skrine, Antonio Cromartie, and Marcus Gilchrist. Need a big-time receiver? A fifth-round pick, a new contract and — poof! — here comes Brandon Marshall. Need a backup quarterback for Geno Smith? A conditional seventh-round pick (that turned into a sixth) for Ryan Fitzpatrick will do the trick.
But Year 2 has been a much more restrained and far more complicated scenario for Maccagnan, who was selected as the NFL’s General Manager of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America. There was no mad dash at the start of free agency. Giants GM Jerry Reese was the winner of that race when he doled out more than $200 million in contracts for four defensive players within hours after the signing period began.
And with the draft beginning Thursday night, Maccagnan still has plenty of decisions to make, none of them without a high degree of difficulty. Unlike last year, when the answers were obvious, the narrative has turned into the questions he now faces.
Does he take an edge rusher at No. 20 overall, say Shaq Lawson of Clemson or Noah Spence of Eastern Kentucky? Or does he take Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch and view him as the team’s quarterback of the future, a decision that could cloud Fitzpatrick’s future with the team? Or will he go after a young tackle to begin replenishing his aging offensive line?
Does he use Mo Wilkerson, who has been designated the team’s franchise player, as trade bait for a bold move up the board? While he wouldn’t say whether he has offered Wilkerson in any trade scenarios, Maccagnan did acknowledge he looked into moving up to the No. 1 slot held by Tennessee before the Titans made a deal with the Rams. The Titans can use help along the defensive line, so it’s not a stretch to think that Wilkerson wasn’t at least mentioned as part of a deal.
And what about Fitzpatrick? Maccagnan consistently has said he wants to re-sign the 33-year-old quarterback, who is coming off a career year. But the GM is not budging enough for Fitzpatrick’s liking, so the logjam continues. It’s no risk for Maccagnan, because Fitzpatrick won’t get anywhere close to what the Jets are willing to pay, likely in the $10-million-a-year range. So there’s no harm in waiting out Fitzpatrick; in fact, the greater risk lies for Fitzpatrick, who could find himself without a team — or at least with a lesser contract value — if the Jets make a move for a quarterback in the draft.
Maccagnan thus walks a fine line as he continues his offseason re-tooling, which last week featured a trade for Broncos left tackle Ryan Clady to fill in for the retiring D’Brickashaw Ferguson. He wants to build a competitive team for 2016, but also has an eye toward a more sustainable roster in the years beyond. Which is where the draft comes into play, because his theory — the correct theory — is that the backbone of your team is created by taking the right players on draft day.
He wore his best poker face during a meeting with reporters on Friday afternoon, during which he didn’t give away his intentions, instead leaving the door open for myriad possibilities. As he should.
“I understand how the process works,” said Maccagnan, a longtime NFL executive who previously had been the right hand man for Texans GMs Charley Casserly and Rick Smith. “I’ve been in the league for 26 years, but the interesting thing is the nuances, when you go from one chair over [in the front office].”
There has been some outside pressure, especially when it comes to re-signing Fitzpatrick, but Maccagnan seems oblivious to the calls from some (not here, by the way) to give the quarterback what he’s asking.
“It’s like playing chess,” he said. “As long as you have moves left, you feel comfortable, to a degree. That’s just the way it works. We feel like we’re making decisions that will help the team long-term. Part of those decisions are trying to get a deal done with Fitz, which is our intention. But we have to do it with the best intentions of the team.”
Translation: We’re not going crazy on a deal for a quarterback who had his career year at age 32 and had his worst game of the season when they needed him most with the playoffs on the line. Fitzpatrick figures to be back, although it may not happen for a while, because the Jets simply aren’t going to meet his demands.
It could be a week of clarity for the Jets, although there are no guarantees. The feeling here is that they don’t find a suitor for Wilkerson, who most likely will wind up playing on a one-year deal. But if the right offer comes along, then parting ways with a player who is asking for J.J. Watt money when he doesn’t play like the Texans’ star defensive end is at least an option. But only if the return is worthwhile. And with neither of the top quarterbacks available now that the Rams and Eagles have moved into the top two spots, it’s doubtful a good enough deal is out there.
In the end, Maccagnan hopes to finish draft week with a promising class of rookies to add to a veteran team coming off a 10-win season. Between now and then, there could be some intriguing moves that define the franchise in the years to come.
“We spend a lot of time preparing,” he said, “If we have options, we’ll be prepared to move on them if necessary.”