After a year of big spending the Jets had a relatively quiet offseason, but still have plenty of questions that linger. Unlike most teams there are still a good deal of moving parts on the Jets despite the fact that the prime free agency period is complete. Today, I’ll look at some of those questions today as they pertain to Ryan Fitzpatrick, Muhammad Wilkerson, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, and the relative health of the Jets salary cap.
Can the Jets and Ryan Fitzpatrick Strike a Deal?
By now everyone knows the story between the Jets and Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, off a career season, is hoping to cash in for over $15 million a year, which is the going rate for a starter in today’s NFL. The Jets are rumored to be offering in the ballpark of $7 million with incentives that can boost the pay higher. It is a high stakes game of poker, but one where nobody has an ace in a hole and both are being forced to bluff. Eventually one side will need to fold, but which will it be?
When looking at the short term things look bleak for the Jets. They have tried to say they would be fine starting Geno Smith, but everyone knows that they have almost no desire to do that. One of the big benefits of Fitzpatrick last season was the way the team responded to him and his energy on the field. Smith, in his two years of starting, had problems doing that. He missed team meetings, seemed aloof on the sidelines, and was just a guy playing quarterback, not the leader of a team. Rey Ryan tried to replace him as starter and Todd Bowles seemed more than happy to have Fitzpatrick as starter over Smith. He isn’t a guy they want, he’s just a guy they have under contract. Their other quarterback, Bryce Petty, was considered a project when they drafted him and is likely not ready to play.
Free agency offers no options. Jimmy Clausen, Mike Vick, Matt Flynn, Charlie Whitehurst, and Josh Freeman are the best names. Smith is a better option than those players which is why he is, right now, the bluff for the Jets. The Jets could not even claim with a straight face they could find a quarterback in free agency. They also have a veteran roster which makes it unlikely that they draft a QB with the intention to start. If they were to do that they would need someone to fall and run a pretty conservative offense to ease the rookie in.
There will likely be three names (maybe four) thrown around in trade rumors, some real and some probably a figment of the imagination (in this case mine). The most expensive, and talented, of the four is Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers. Kaepernick would cost the Jets over $14 million, or a bit less than what Fitzpatrick is supposedly currently seeking. But the Jets would need to part with draft picks for him and I don’t know if you want to give up a second rounder and another late pick for a player who seems to receive many of the same criticisms Smith gets. I’m not sure Kaepernick would survive the scrutiny of the NY media and then you have a far more expensive version of Smith on the roster.
The second set of names are Brian Hoyer and Josh McCown. Both fit the Fitzpatrick mold as physically limited players who have been around the league but often gain support of teammates because of the effort they put in. Both are likely out as starters and will be available for trade, probably for a low cost, similar to how the Jets acquired Fitzpatrick last season. Neither makes much money- Hoyer makes $4 million and McCown $4.375 million- so they fit in with the Jets current cap situation quite easily.
However both are big injury risks and are less likely than Fitzpatrick to play in 16 games. There is also the fact that the Jets had an opportunity to acquire both last season as free agents but opted instead to pursue Fitzpatrick in a trade. That can actually be some leverage for the Fitzpatrick side since he know he was thought of better internally last year and that was before a good season.
I guess there is an outside chance of trading for Nick Foles, who was nothing short of a disaster last year. The Rams already paid him a $6 million roster bonus which should make a move like that highly unlikely, at least until the summer. To do that kind of trade you would need to do a problem for problem trade where you prepay Dee Milliner’s roster bonus though even then I don’t think the numbers would work out.
Fitzpatrick really has no bluff in his back pocket that makes logical sense. Denver traded for Mark Sanchez. Houston (who was never going to take him anyway) signed Brock Osweiler. San Francisco seems content with Blaine Gabbert if they trade Kaepernick. His only possible team he could argue may want him is the Rams, and you would think if they wanted him that badly he would have already signed there. Really his leverage is simply that the Jets have no short term answer and if not him then who else?
Is anyone right or wrong in their approach? Not really. If the Jets are at $7 million that would be on par with the recent Chase Daniel and Robert Griffin contracts. I would imagine similar incentives that would max the contract out in the $11-$12 million per year range. That’s a fair offer from my point of view considering that Fitzpatrick has been nothing more than a spot starter for all of his career with the exception of a short period in Buffalo. It would be $2-$3 million more than most players in his position would receive from a team.
That said if the Jets are conceding that Fitzpatrick is the starter and not competing for a position then he should seek starter money. Every veteran starter in the NFL earns at least $16 million a year with the exception of Foles who is just over $12 million. All are well over $7 million.
Normally I would say the team holds the advantage here but I think Fitzpatrick can wait this out and get closer to the $10-$12 million range. The PR backlash against the Jets would be very bad if Fitzpatrick walks from the team. The Jets used all of last year to recover from a great deal of negativity and Smith coming out of that tunnel to start the year would get the team off to a bad start.
Fitzpatrick also runs little risk by holding out this way. If the Jets were to move on he should still be able to secure a high level backup contract in the $4 million range. If the Jets are offering $7 million, he’s only risking $3 million while hoping for the possibility of $8 million or more over the Jets current offer. Teams like the Cowboys or Ravens who went through a nightmare at QB when their starters went down should be more than happy to pay that for Fitzpatrick. Almost his whole veteran career was spent in the $3 million a year range so Im sure he would be content with that if it goes that far. That’s a better fallback than the Jets going with Smith or Hoyer.
The one thing that the Jets need to be careful with is contract length. They are better off looking at the Bradford/Foles type of deal than doing a longer term one to aid with the cap. Fitzpatrick is what he is and a few games for a QB in his 30s shouldn’t change his value from a $5M QB that fights year by year for a job to a $15M QB that is promised the starting job for the next 4 years. The $7 million offer indicates the Jets don’t see him as anything more than a replaceable starter and they should not budge off that thought by doing a long term deal.
On any short term deal the team is going to have the possibility to go back in year 2 and get better terms if the player regresses. That probably won’t happen on a longer term deal where a team has less leverage because of bonus acceleration and contractual guarantees. In that respect they may still end up with $14M over two years, the team just has to give in for one year on APY.
My guess by the start of May, Fitzpatrick will be a Jet again on a two year contract with a base value around $22 million with incentives that can reach $30 million with playoff wins.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.