Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) warms up against the...

Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (26) warms up against the Houston Texans in Houston.  Credit: AP/Michael Wyke

The next and most critical stage of the Jets’ efforts to build a perennial contender is set to begin.

General manager Mike Maccagnan cleared nearly $100 million in cap space to go big-name hunting in free agency. Teams can begin negotiating with players Monday and start signing them Wednesday. The Jets should be one of the busiest teams in the league.

“We have a lot of cap space,” Maccagnan said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine. “We have to plan for what we want to accomplish in free agency. I think we’ll be very active in free agency. There are a lot of different players out there we feel very strongly about that can help us.”

If Jets chairman and chief executive officer Christopher Johnson is serious when he says chasing the Patriots “keeps me up at night,” Maccagnan should be extraordinarily active in chasing game-changers.

The Jets are coming off a 4-12 season after back-to-back 5-11 campaigns. They have a young quarterback in Sam Darnold whom they plan to build around, a new head coach and quarterback whisperer in Adam Gase, and an aggressive new defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams.

Now they need to put players around franchise cornerstones Darnold and safety Jamal Adams that fit the vision of what Maccagan, Gase and Williams see for the Jets.

“We want to add as many playmakers as we can,” Maccagnan said.

Perhaps the biggest playmaker available is running back Le’Veon Bell. He won’t return to the Steelers after turning down a reported five-year, $70 million deal and refusing to sign a franchise tag. Bell sat out 2018.

Bell, 27, would be great for the Jets — or any offense — but at what cost? That is the question for Maccagnan and team officials.

Rumblings from the combine imply the Jets are not going to break the bank for Bell and that Tevin Coleman, 25, who has played the last four seasons with the Falcons, would be a younger, more affordable option with more tread on his tires because Devonta Freeman has been the featured back in Atlanta.

As much as the Jets need difference-makers at key positions, they need players everywhere. They have 28 unrestricted free agents and holes in the backfield, at receiver, on the offensive line, on the defensive line, at linebacker, in the secondary and on special teams.

The Jets will try to re-sign some of their own free agents. Cornerback Morris Claiborne, defensive end Henry Anderson, linebacker Brandon Copeland, returner Andre Roberts and kicker Jason Myers are candidates to return.

The Jets were finalizing a deal Saturday to bring back guard and center Jonotthan Harrison, according to a league source. Harrison started the final seven games at center because of Spencer Long’s snapping issues.

Still, the Jets’ focus in free agency will be to add a running back, edge rusher and versatile linebacker and improve the offensive line to protect Darnold.

After Bell and Coleman — who are represented by the same agency — some of the top free-agent running backs include Mark Ingram and T.J. Yeldon. Isaiah Crowell is under contract, but the Jets could let him go if they’re able to add a running back.

The Jets could grab an edge rusher in the draft in Alabama’s Quinnen Williams or Kentucky’s Josh Allen if the team holds on to the No. 3 pick. They also should be aggressive in free agency with the top players available after DeMarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Dee Ford and Frank Clark had franchise tags applied by their respective teams.

The Patriots’ Trey Flowers, the Rams’ Dante Fowler Jr., the Lions’ Ezekiel Ansah and the Ravens’ Terrell Suggs are options. Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr is someone the Jets are said to be high on because of his versatility.

The Jets have three returning starters on the offensive line: right guard Brian Winters, left tackle Kelvin Beachum and right tackle Brandon Shell. The Jets have interest in Rams guard Rodger Saffold. The Broncos’ Matt Paradis and the Chiefs’ Mitch Morse could be targets at center.

Free-agent quarterback Josh McCown is contemplating retirement. If he doesn’t re-sign to back up and mentor Darnold, the Jets could be in the market for a veteran quarterback.

“How we build this, we definitely want to have a team that’s well positioned so it’s a young core going forward and we’ll compete for the playoffs on a yearly basis,” Maccagnan said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunities in this free agency we’re excited about.”


Free agents the Jets could target:

Le’Veon Bell: Arguably the NFL’s best dual threat running back and impending free agent, but the price tag will be high. Bell turned down a five-year $70-million offer from the Steelers and sat out last season. He’d give the Jets and Sam Darnold a much needed dynamic weapon.

Tevin Coleman: A productive back who has 29 touchdowns in four seasons despite backing up Devonta Freeman most of that time with the Falcons. Coleman, who is represented by the same agent as Bell, wouldn’t cost as much, giving the Jets an opportunity to spread money around to fill their many holes.

Rodger Saffold: Upgrading the offensive line and protecting Darnold will be a main focus and Saffold is the best guard available. He will be in demand after allowing just one sack for the Rams last season.

Trey Flowers: The edge-rusher market shrunk after some top ones received franchise tags. Flowers may be the best one left. He’s only 25 and he’s had at least 6.5 sacks in three seasons with the Patriots. The Jets could address the need for a pass rusher in the draft, but it will be a priority in free agency, too.

Anthony Barr: The outside linebacker played in a 4-3 with the Vikings and showed versatility in pass coverage and rushing the quarterback. He would be a good fit for new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who will be aggressive and move players around.

Dante Fowler Jr.: The Jets had trade discussions with the Jaguars for the outside linebacker before the Jaguars sent Fowler to the Rams. The Jets didn’t want to part with picks when they can sign the former No 3 pick in free agency.

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