While the trade of Darrelle Revis seemed inevitable I think there was still a sense of shock when it finally went down and he became a Buccaneer. The situation illustrates one of the most difficult parts of building and, more importantly, maintaining a high quality team in a salary cap sport. This was clearly the issue at large between the Jets and Revis. I don’t think that there was anyone in Florham Park that disagreed with the fact that Revis was the best cornerback in the NFL. Im not even sure anyone disagreed that he was the best defensive player in the NFL. But this isn’t baseball and there was clear disagreement between what the value of the best defensive player in the NFL should be worth.
There will be many who state that the Jets poor decision to extend Mark Sanchez created a salary cap nightmare that forced them to deal Revis due to cap problems. Others might point the finger at David Harris or Santonio Holmes. None are really true. All will likely be gone in 2014 with minimal cap penalties. Sanchez this year counts for $12.853 million nowhere near the top of the NFL. The Jets could have fit Revis without issue. The question becomes at $16 million a season is it worth doing?
Assuming the salary cap grows at about 2% a year, Revis will occupy an average of 12.6% of the Buccaneers cap over the next 4 seasons. Everyone agrees that this is a QB driven league and, unless you plan to just use draft picks on your QBs, they are paid highly. Joe Flacco, who has never thrown for 4,000 yards in a season just received over $20 million a year based on a playoff run. Matt Schaub who has won nothing got over $15 million. For the Revis move to work the Buccaneers are expecting Josh Freeman to take that next step. You are not spending that high on your secondary to bring in a rookie to take over. So lets be conservative and say he barely passes Schaub and earns $16 million. Receivers still make a good chunk of change and they have a Grade A player in Vincent Jackson. Jackson earns $11.1 million a year. So essentially you have now made the choice to invest around 34% of your allocations in 3 players. If you had one of the next best corners making just under $10 million the number changes to 29%. That’s a major difference.
Due to salary cap constraints you can not build a team by purchasing high priced free agents and hoping to fill in the holes around them with low cost rookies and low cost players near the end of their careers. It simply doesn’t work. By the time the low priced rookies are really able to contribute the high priced veterans make that turn past 30 and the play typically begins to decline. Cap penalties for release ensue and the team spends a lot of money to never accomplish anything. In some ways that is what happened with the Jets as their drafts from 2008 thru 2010 all more or less busted making it impossible to maintain the success of 2009 and 2010 with the aging roster.
You have to work the other way around in the NFL. First get the building blocks in place on low cost rookie deals and then augment those players with veterans. The Jets were successful with that formula when they drafted their core and depth players in 2006 and 2007 and then paid high prices for players like Bart Scott, Alan Faneca, Calvin Pace, Damien Woody, and Kris Jenkins. It culminated in two back to back championship games. Tampa Bay has many of those young players from recent drafts making a move for Revis a reasonable risk, but the Jets are not in the same place.
The Jets have officially waved the white flag on the past and begun the complete tearing down of their team. This is what happens in the salary cap league. There is no real middle ground anymore when it comes to team building. Either you have the youth in place and spend or you don’t. When you don’t you have to do everything in your power to rebuild your team as fast as possible from the ground up. You can’t overspend at that point at any position until you get the team ready to make that next leap.
While none of this means miracles cant happen as it pertains to the Jets season, the planning has been clear. The Jets have signed no long term contracts this season. No attempts were made to extend players like Antonio Cromartie beyond 2014 even though it would have yielded significant cap relief. The team did not rework the contract of C Nick Mangold which would have made cutting or trading him more difficult in the future. With the way the market has turned the Cromartie and Mangold deals represent positional overspending, specifically Mangold. You have to protect your teams flexibility when that occurs.
With the trade of Revis official the Jets will have replaced 12 starters from their 2012 season. Some such as Scott were no brainers. Others indicate an age issue. Shonn Greene will be 28. LaRon Landry will be 29. Mike DeVito will be 29. Dustin Keller will be 29. You don’t want to get in deep and long term on players who will be over 30 by the time you think you are going to fix the ship. You can find lower cost older players or more upside younger players to fill those voids.
By the time 2014 rolls around the Jets will potentially replace 17 of the 22 starters from the 2012 season. That is a dismantling of a team. If they jettison Sanchez, Holmes, and Cromartie their team salary, including this years draft, will only be $61 million for 40 players under contract. At a $124 million dollar cap that is nearly $51 million in cap space. From a long term planning perspective you hope to have your young building blocks in Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples, and both of this years two number 1 draft picks in place. Maybe you get something out of Jeremy Kerley, Kenrick Ellis, Demario Davis, or Stephen Hill. At that stage you can begin to augment your team with veterans who will be 28 years or so of age in 2014 and meet the needs of the team based on your own personnel, coaching staff, and leaguewide trends not past preferences.
The NFL is very impatient and in order for GM’s and coaches to keep their jobs the long rebuild is not something that will be tolerated in most cities. What is good though is that most teams will give a new GM an opportunity to break things apart. The Jets did this in 2006 when they gave new GM Mike Tannenbaum permission to trade the teams best player and cut Pro Bowlers like Kevin Mawae for the long term healthy of the club. John Idzik is getting that same opportunity and like Tannenbaum before him he is looking to do it quickly because he knows he will be out the door if he doesn’t get the job done.
You never say never in this league and maybe 2013 will see the Jets shock the world, but there is a clear path here to getting something in place in 2014 just 2 years into Idzik’s stint as GM. By 2015 they would definitely be in a place to make some noise with major cap room if they don’t use it in 2014. But it all relies on the draft. If Idzik misses on those two draft picks this year the Jets have a chance to fall back into pre-1998 obscurity by clearing a bunch of cap space for a team with no building blocks in place to drive the success of the team. If that happens the team could be faced with the same tough choice they just had with Revis as Wilkerson and Coples could seem to be too high of a cost on yet another rebuilding team. That’s the vicious cycle of salary cap football.
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.