The Jets always knew that something had to be done with D’Brickashaw Ferguson and his $14 million cap charge this year. They had a few options as to how to approach the contract. They decided to choose a risky one which was to wait out free agency likely in hopes of backing Ferguson into a corner to get a better deal for the next two seasons while also wrapping it up as a story of him doing a solid for a team that needs cap space for a quarterback. The tricky part with that approach is that a player drafted so highly as Ferguson that has had such a long career as a starter can always fall back on retirement when asked to take a steep pay cut. Ferguson did just that leaving the Jets with no left tackle in 2016, but will create $9.093 million in cap space.
Every team is faced with situations like this one. It was clear two years ago that Ferguson was beginning to trend down from his status as an above average left tackle to average territory. For such an important position this is when many teams will take the approach to draft a left tackle of the future and play him at right tackle for a season. If the veteran turns it around you hopefully now have two solid bookends and a future plan for succession. If the veteran doesn’t at least you have a name you hope can develop right away. The Jets instead ignored it and watched as last year he dropped from average to below average with nobody on the roster to replace him.
I don’t blame Jets for asking for a pay cut, it’s the timing that I think was a mistake. Going into the free agent period I always thought the Jets would ask him in February about redoing his deal, one that would guarantee two years of vastly reduced salary. This would allow the Jets to hopefully have a competent tackle on the blindside and develop another that was drafted. If he refused you had to cut him and call his bluff on the retirement threat. At least if you did that you had options in free agency to replace him.
I have to believe seeing the way the Jets slow played this that there was a strong internal belief that Ferguson would accept the pay cut which is surprising to me. In my mind the retirement was 50/50 from day 1 and the Jets left themselves no protection if he did retire. The Jets don’t pick high enough in the draft to just say “well there is someone we like at left tackle” to absolutely bank on the draft. They needed free agency as an option and they let that get away.
Seeing how free agency broke down it was clear that Ferguson’s value was going to be around $5 million a season, if not less. Maybe that was part of the waiting game on the Jets end thinking that as the market priced itself the Jets would have a stronger hand to play when negotiating his salary downward. Id say if Ferguson was 29 playing on a $7 million a year contract that would have worked, but not after essentially 10 years on two high priced deals. The Broncos, who are in the identical cap situation as the Jets, took a much more realistic view of the landscape. They went out and signed Russell Okung to a $5 million contract with an option for future years rather than banking on Ryan Clady being willing to do the contract dance with them.
How the Jets were not players for Okung and Kelvin Beachum or even a Donald Penn type is beyond me. That’s why I have to believe they were caught off guard by this. Now their options in free agency are names like Will Beatty and Jake Long. Clady will likely come up as a trade possibility. Some may say Joe Thomas but the Browns will ask a lot for him so I don’t see that especially if the Jets are looking for long term cap flexibility.
The Jets had apparently tried to spin the paycut request into a “money needed for Fitzpatrick” story but that was just trying to come out not looking like the bad guy when asking the veteran for a paycut. The main driver in the timing of this is the fact that offseason workouts start shortly and Ferguson can earn $750,000 by attending workouts. The Jets had to do something before that. Maybe a Fitzpatrick signing is imminent but I would not buy for a second that this was the driver for any action, plus the Jets have plenty of ways to make cap room.
While Ferguson had leverage of retirement in this situation, most players do not. This is one of those situations that drives an agent crazy. The Jets had known for months that this was where this was headed but waiting to address it until all options were also wiped out for the player since most other teams have all addressed their needs at left tackle. Generally guards are the positions teams are slotting in faces on over the summer much more so than left tackles.
The situation also illustrates why, from a team perspective, you should always be proactive at addressing cornerstone positions before players begin their declines. Not only does it give you some leverage in a negotiation but it also has a successor in place. You never want to wait for the car to break down before you fix it, but that is the Jets plan with their line.
The Jets have essentially ignored the offensive line since 2010, when they spent a 2nd round pick on Vlad Ducasse. They have virtually no youth on the line and will likely begin a period now of constant flux as they rebuild it. Nick Mangold, who was drafted alongside Ferguson in the 2006 draft, will be next. It would be surprising if the Jets did not try and address that this season and playing that player at guard for the time being.
As a fan its completely baffling that the Jets would spend pick after pick after pick along the defensive line and do nothing on the offensive side. For 2008 and 2009 it was understandable as they had the two high draft picks on the team plus veterans Alan Faneca, Brandon Moore, and Damien Woody. Once Woody retired in 2011 the Jets had to begin to rebuild but never have.
Since 2006, when the team drafted Ferguson and Mangold in the first round, the Jets have drafted two linemen in the top 3 rounds of the draft- Ducasse and Brian Winters. That’s it. Out of 22 picks just two on an offensive line that was getting older and struggling to find talent. Over that same period they had drafted 6 defensive linemen, 3 cornerbacks, 3 linebackers, 2 receivers, 2 tight ends, 2 quarterbacks, a safety and a running back in those first three rounds. If we go back to 2011 when the Jets should have started on the offensive line we have 10 defensive players selected, essentially a full unit. On offense they addressed QB, WR, and TE but only have Winters as the guy to offer protection. Its not really a strategy for long term success, in my opinion.
Where will the Jets turn from here? Who knows but I really think they gambled here and lost. Even if they do make a trade for Clady and keep their fingers crossed that he can avoid IR they have to start focusing on the line in the draft and having that as a solid backbone of the team. For Mike Maccagnan I think this is his first major misstep as GM in formulating a strategy. He has another big test with Muhammad Wilkerson looming and Mangold next year. Hopefully this will be a lesson learned that helps him and the Jets front office improve for the future.