The rebuilding of the Jets starts with money.
After last season, they had an NFL-high $89.8 million in salary-cap space for 2018.
After failing to get their No. 1 free-agent target in quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Jets guaranteed $34 million to cornerback Trumaine Johnson and $16 million to linebacker Avery Williamson, plus $15 million in incentives to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. They gave another $3 million to wide receiver Terrelle Pryor and $10 million to quarterback Josh McCown.
Those are just the highlights of a free-agent class the Jets hope will garner them more than the five wins they had in 2017.
But 2019 might be even better. The Jets again are poised to have gobs of money at their disposal after the coming season.
General manager Mike Maccagnan said the team will have a projected $90 million in cap space for 2019, and that number could reach $100 million.
“That’s kind of a nice problem to have, isn’t it?” Jets CEO/chairman Christopher Johnson said. “I’m really happy that we have a lot of flexibility.”
The free-agent class for 2019 is rich with young, talented players, even when quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota — who are expected to re-sign with their current teams — are not included.
Outside of being franchised or signing extensions this season, realistic free-agent targets for the Jets in 2019 will start with running backs Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell, defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and receiver Jarvis Landry. The Jets also have two free agents of their own to try to lock up: defensive end Leonard Williams and guard James Carpenter.
Williams and Donald are among the best 3-4 defensive linemen. Carpenter, if he keeps improving, could be a highly sought player in free agency. But the Jets will have the capital to re-sign their own and perhaps a few other big names.
“The list is impressive,” Maccagnan said of the 2019 free-agent class. “What you tend to do is you go through and try and look at teams and who they anticipate they’re franchising and, of course, if they have that ability. A lot of things can happen between now and then.”
One of the problems with the recent free-agent signings for the Jets was a lack of sizzle; it was more about substance.
Cousins was the best available for any quarterback-needy team. When he decided to sign with the Vikings, the Jets signed McCown and Bridgewater to one-year contracts.
But on St. Patrick’s Day, the Jets made a blockbuster trade, moving from No. 6 to No. 3 in the upcoming draft while giving up three second-round picks to the Colts. Jets officials aren’t saying whom they will draft April 26, but judging from their private workouts and Pro Day visits, they likely will choose a quarterback.
Jets officials have had private workouts with quarterbacks Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield and have one scheduled with Josh Allen this week. Maccagnan said the team already has seen enough of Sam Darnold and doesn’t have plans to hold a private workout for him.
Some of the Jets’ moves in free agency give them flexibility to get out of contracts after one season and create more salary-cap space for 2019. So if players on the current roster don’t step up, the Jets have options.
“We feel pretty good how we positioned ourselves and how it’s going to play out,” Maccagnan said. “I’m very confident from that standpoint, that doesn’t faze me. [In] the [upcoming] college draft, [there are] guys you will [try] and guys that don’t pan out. That’s part of the process. We feel pretty good about this year’s group and where we’re situated.”
The 2019 Free Agent Class
Notable 2019 free agents:
Odell Beckham, WR, Giants
Will he play at MetLife Stadium in 2018? If not, he will be elsewhere with a mega contract.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
He said someone’s gotta pay big money to sign him. Steelers might franchise him or set him free.
Nick Foles, QB, Eagles
He might be a backup to Carson Wentz, but he’s got a Super Bowl MVP on his resume.
Jarvis Landry, WR, Browns
He hasn’t missed a game in four seasons and continues to get better.
Khalil Mack, DE, Raiders
He’s got 40 1⁄2 sacks in four NFL seasons. If the Raiders don’t have him signed by the time they get to Vegas, something is wrong.
Marcus Mariotta, QB, Titans
A talented quarterback with a team on the rise. But he’s just 20-22 as a starter.
Zack Martin, G, Cowboys
The Cowboys re-built their offensive line and he’s one of the key pieces.
Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
If you thought Kirk Cousins got paid, Ryan might break the bank for quarterbacks.
Leonard Williams, DE, Jets
A talented young pass rusher who is only getting better.
Jameis Winston, QB, Bucs
He’s in the same class as Mariotta yet his won-loss record is 18-27.