Ca(m)p Position Battles: Mark Sanchez vs. Geno Smith

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2013 Cap Hit – Sanchez: $12,853,125; Smith: $912,655
Amount Remaining on Salary – Sanchez: $40,475,000 ($19,250,000 guaranteed); Smith: $5,019,603 ($3,068,784 guaranteed)

Although this will get plenty of national media coverage, the battle between New York Jets quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith for the starting job may not be the most interesting storyline to a diehard football fan. However, there is much at stake cap-wise. Mark Sanchez, much lamented for his performance as a starter in 2012 (attributed to the “butt-fumble” and beyond), still could be a viable option as a starter this year. While Rex Ryan has shown in past and present press conferences to have an inexplicable fondness for the beleaguered Sanchez, if the Jets wish, they can have him off the books by the end of the season. Why not give him a shot at the beginning of the season to attempt to recreate some of the magic from his back-to-back AFC championship game appearances (2010-2011, albeit surrounded by a more talented roster)?
The Jets can however wait on Geno Smith. Thanks to both the new CBA and Geno’s plummet to the second round in the 2013 NFL Draft, Geno has a very team-friendly contract, so the Jets can afford to let him study the game in a backup role. Additionally, contrary to the wave of young quarterbacks that have set the league on fire in the last few years (Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and, to a lesser extent, Andy Dalton), Smith is considerably less polished coming into the league. It does not seem to be beneficial to throw him under fire amidst the circus that is the New York Jets. In my opinion, the Jets should give him time to study and observe from the sideline. For the time being, keep Sanchez on the field until it becomes unbearable (I would say at least 5 weeks). It could not go worse than it did last year. Sorry Jets fans, that’s as optimistic as I could get.

Due to the impatience of the Jets’ fan base and organization, however, Geno Smith could start as soon as Week One. Rex Ryan could be, after all, coaching for his job.

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The Benefits of Starting the Young QB

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Yesterday Brian Costello of the NY Post had a piece discussing starting rookie Geno Smith over battered starter Mark Sanchez and focusing instead on Smith and the future. It’s a great piece with an interesting comparison between Sanchez and the Mets Oliver Perez, but it also got me to think about reasons why teams in a situation like the Jets should start a rookie quarterback.

We all know that the NFL is a QB driven league. For the most part teams with above average QB play are the teams going to the playoffs. In my opinion 8 teams that made the playoffs last season had high level QB play and at least 3 more had passable play.  Teams with sustained success typically have very good QB play. Maybe Sanchez can be a passable QB, but most likely he has no chance of having that happen in NY, especially on a team under a major roster overhaul. The Jets need to assess what they have moving forward at the position.

While in the NFL you never say never, most people do not give the Jets a chance at making a real run at the playoffs. Most would rate the Jets as one of the worst 5 teams in the NFL, with some saying it was the least talented roster in the NFL. I’d disagree with that latter statement but on paper this does not look like a good football team. The odds are higher that the Jets end up with the number 1 pick in the draft than raising a Super Bowl trophy above their heads this year.

The 2013 draft was a poor group of QB’s with only 1 player going in the first round. One would assume 2014 has to be better. A team like the Jets needs to evaluate what they have as much as possible to prepare for the 2014 draft. While some will say that its crazy to think that 1 year of evaluation means anything in a league where most players are given 3 or 4 years before a decision is made, the point is not so much to make a final determination but to at least get an educated opinion on the player.

If Geno Smith fails as a starter it doesn’t mean his career is over by any stretch of the imagination. John Elway was awful as a rookie. So was Eli Manning. But sometimes a player as a rookie can be so good that an organization knows that they have a star on their hands such as Dan Marino or, to a lesser extent,  Ben Roethlisberger.  Playing the rookie gives you insights into how much they learn week to week. How they handle failures. How they handle their teammates and pointing blame in failure. Are they processing information better in week 16 than they were in week 4?

The new CBA has changed the whole evaluation process in my mind. Thru 2010 when you made an investment in the QB position you were stuck. Matt Stafford has cap charges in excess of $20 million. The Rams have made incredible investments in Sam Bradford. From a financial perspective a team could not draft a QB at the top of the draft and then afford to draft another QB in the 1st or even second round. You were already allocating so much to the position, but in terms of cap and time, that putting another high priced player on the team that could ride the bench was not feasible.

Times have changed. The highest cap charge Andrew Luck will ever have on his rookie contract is just over $7 million. At the same point in their career Bradford would have cost around $13 million with more to go. Now while I would never expect any team to potentially abandon ship on the number 1 overall pick after just a year, financially a team can now do it.

An average starting QB in the NFL will likely earn around 12 million a year and a backup maybe 3. So teams are willing to allocate around $15 million to the position if you don’t have a superstar. Under the old system that simply means you get Bradford and a backup. Now?  Its up to the GM. You could grab Luck with the number 1 overall pick and then go out and grab next years top QB prospect as well if you wanted to. The allocation per year would be around $11.5 million for both players.  That’s still less than an average NFL starter with no upside plus his backup allocation.

When you are working with a lower level draft pick like Smith the money is even easier. Smith will average  around $1.25 million a year with the Jets. That’s nothing money in the NFL. But if the team falters with Sanchez and then decides to pass on a QB because they think they might have something in Smith the results can be catastrophic. You can not afford to pass on a QB prospect because you see some things in practice that look nice about a player. You need evidence. You need proof.

Teams such as the Jets and the Raiders are clearing out millions and millions in cap room for 2014. That money is going to be there to spend provided they feel they have the building blocks in place for the team. Smith could be a building block and your best chance to determine that comes from playing him. If he shows you enough despite a losing record you at least have a reasonable argument to now pass on the QB prospect in 2014 and sell that pick to the highest bidder. The rookie wage scales have made those picks valuable and it is a kings ransom for a highly regarded prospect.

If Smith doesn’t show the promise it changes your whole philosophy. You are going to draft the QB high. It doesn’t mean Geno is sunk, he simply competes the next year. If he makes the leap, you have a very tradable commodity sitting on the bench. If he fails to make the leap you have your guy ready  to go and your allocated dollars at the position are still well within reasonable limits.

Getting a feel for Smith will only strengthen your offseason planning. If Smith looks reasonable the Jets may decide that overspending is worth doing to quickly rebuild the team. Many free agents only have a shelf life of 2-3 years so you only want to go that route if you know you have a team ready to make the jump. If you are going with a rookie again you are going to temper your spending, looking maybe at a few young pieces coming off a team in bad cap shape or simply carrying the money over to the following year when you feel more comfortable with the QB situation. The Buffalo Bills should be following this same plan as they have major decisions to be made next year with high priced veterans.

Teams with a dim outlook for 2013 have no reason to look to the past to try to win an extra game or two in the present and dilute the decision making process in the future. This is the time to gain as much real information as possible about a potential QB of the future. Financially teams can keep swinging now at the most important position on the team.  Starting a player like Smith is only going to help you maximize your financial investments in the future.

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Podcast: Sanders, RFA Tags, Jets and More

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This week we take a look at Emmanuel Sanders and the Steelers, the Jets and Darrelle Revis and Chris Ivory, plus some talk about the CBA.

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