The Jets cut veteran linebacker David Harris today, just a few days after finalizing a trade to bring Demario Davis in from Cleveland. The Jets will save $6.5 million with the release which is money that the team will likely be banking for 2018 as the full rebuilding of the team continues. The cutting of Harris isn’t surprising but the timing of it I think is really questionable. While the NFL can be very cutthroat there really should be some level of professional courtesy given to players like Harris and this is two times in two years the Jets have done such a thing.
Anyone who is a fan of the Jets knows that Harris has been on the decline for some time. For those who follow my writing on the Jets they know that I have been as down on Harris, especially at his salary level, as anyone. Harris is a throwback kind of player that for the last four or five years has been a liability more often than not with the league going wider and wider in formations with more of a focus on passing rather than running the ball. When the Jets re-signed Harris in 2015 to a $7.1 million contract with $15 million guaranteed I was pretty stunned. It was one of the most generous contracts in the NFL. So I certainly won’t argue any football reasons that Harris should not have been cut.
But what changed between March and June 6 to cause this to happen now? In the last few years Harris hasn’t really changed. He’s been no better or worse than he was back in 2013 or 2014. He was tasked with being the leader of the defense and the coaching staff clearly liked him in the role of “on field coach”. He was again talked up this offseason as the integral part of Todd Bowles defense because he can get everyone in the right position.
Sure the team traded for Davis, but Davis is just a guy. This isn’t like the Jets out of nowhere traded for Luke Kuechly. This is a player not wanted by the Browns. The Jets let him walk last year rather than using him in a 50-50 role with Harris, which probably would have made the most sense for the team. There were plenty of free agents this year that were as good as Davis. The Jets just as easily could have signed a player in March to replace Harris. There is no post June 1 benefit for cutting Harris now the way there was for the Chiefs with Maclin so its not like they needed to wait either.
The whole situation seems eerily similar to what the team did with D’Brickashaw Ferguson last season. Ferguson was strung along as a member of the team until after free agency was over at which point the Jets approached him for a pay cut. He retired instead. That was a situation, just like this one, that should have been resolved in March, giving the player an opportunity to find a job. For guys that have been with the team a decade and been a good soldier you really do owe them that.
After the departure of Nick Mangold this offseason, Harris was the last link to the decent playoff teams of the Jets. Harris, along with Darrelle Revis, Mangold, and Ferguson were considered the core of a team that had a very successful run (by Jets standards at least) for a number of years.
I’d actually be curious to see how younger fans of the Jets react to his departure. As a long time Jets fan I’ve seen some really low lows with this team and this current stretch since 2012 is about as bad as any period I can really remember other than the two Kotite years. But if you are a younger fans whose first real experience with the Jets began anytime from 98-10 you never got to really experience the worst of the worst.
The Jets were, for the most part, decent and at times pretty good during that time frame, contending for the playoffs most seasons. The last few years have basically been an initiation for those younger fans into true Jets fandom of disappointments and Harris is the last man standing from the good period. I could see him being held in pretty high regard by that younger group because he was a big part of the good that seems like decades ago.
The move also continues a bad path for the front office which just sends off this vibe that everything is seat of your pants decision making. Late decisions on Muhammad Wilkerson and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Desperately trying to trade Sheldon Richardson then pulling back on that. The late move on Ferguson. This one now. Successful teams have a vision set before March and are able to adjust on the fly if something great shows up and helps them out. The Jets make it up as they go along.
Despite the lip service being given by the head coach that this is a competitive team the Jets have clearly gone into rebuild mode, more or less going back to the first John Idzik season. If there is a method to their madness maybe it is that the Jets avoided the focus that would have come had they dismantled the team completely in February by doing it piece by piece later on. That would explain the strange contract for Josh McCown, who really has no place on a team.
Going into the offseason I suggested that the team would release Mangold, Revis, Harris, Brandon Marshall, Ryan Clady, Marcus Gilchrist, Buster Skrine, Eric Decker, and Buster Skrine. That would have gutted the entire team and created a ton of cap room which would not have been advisable to spend, but would have looked bad for the Jets if they did not spend it. They waited until after the draft to cut Gilchrist, when they drafted two safeties, and now Harris in June. If I were Decker or Skrine, who would save the team over $13 million combined, I’d be pretty worried. The other veteran with any appreciable savings is Steve McLendon at under $3 million.
The Jets now have around $16 million in cap room and if they released the other two to get .to $29 million they would be around 6th in the NFL. Next year the Jets project to be third in the NFL in cap room with about $60 million to spend. That would effectively put them right back in the same position where they were when Maccagnan was hired in 2015.
Harris’ release will also mark the end of most of Maccagnan’s big moves that won him praise just two years ago. That year, which saw the Jets go a surprising 10-6, saw the Jets sign or trade for Harris, Revis, Marshall, Fitzpatrick, Antonio Cromartie, Gilchrist, Skrine, and James Carpenter. The first six names are already gone and Skrine leaving would be no surprise. Last year the Jets made moves to bring in Matt Forte, Ryan Clady, and McLendon, while also re-signing Wilkerson and Fitzpartick and letting Damon Harrison walk in free agency. This year has been quieter with signings of Kelvin Beachum, Morris Claiborne, and McCown while re-upping Brian Winters.
It’s hard to say if Todd Bowles is or is not part of this process and on board with the decision making going on. Right now his position seems similar to that of Rex Ryan in which Ryan seemed destined to be a fall guy for Idzik during a gutting of the team except Idzik put himself in the crosshairs which saw both get fired. Bowles has to put a happy face on it but it seems he needs a miracle to save his job.
From a contractual standpoint the cut of Harris (and to a lesser extent Jeremy Maclin) are a good lesson in optimizing contract structure rather than just contract value. If these contracts had roster bonuses due in March in them their teams would have been forced to make a move in March rather than waiting until June. There are some agents who are very good at this as you will see in many of their clients contracts 4th and 5th year offseason bonuses. Those are not an accident and agents should be paying attention to that.