The New York Jets are facing a serious salary-cap crunch, one that goes deeper than what you see in the column marked "cap room." Their salary structure is so out of whack that it screams, "Fix me!" And they just might, with a blockbuster move.
By now, most folks who follow the Jets know they're only about $2 million under the cap. In other words, they're searching the kitty for spare change. There's no shame in that. After all, they've spent a lot of money over the past 13 months, trying to improve the roster. That's what you wanted, right? That's why you wanted the fiscally conservative John Idzik out of the general manager's chair. You got your wish and now you have an aggressive GM in Mike Maccagnan.
The real problem is how the money is distributed. The Jets have a top-heavy salary structure, and it's not healthy.
The three highest-paid players -- Darrelle Revis, Muhammad Wilkerson and D'Brickashaw Ferguson -- are eating up $46.8 million, roughly 30 percent of the entire cap. The other 48 players counting against the cap occupy the remaining 70 percent.
In other words, there's Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg ... and everybody else.
The Jets aren't unique in this respect. In fact, their Big Three ranks sixth in the NFL in total cap charges. They're being outspent by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals. The Steelers lead the pack, with $51.5 million devoted to their three highest-paid players.
But there's a difference between those five teams and the Jets, and it's quite significant: Each one has a quarterback in its top three and the Jets don't. Right now, they're spending a league-low $2.3 million at the quarterback position, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
So to recap: The Jets are spending with the big boys, but none of the big checks are going to a quarterback. They're paying two players on the decline, Revis and Ferguson. Wilkerson is an ascending player, but he can't get a long-term contract. Does this make any sense? Of course it doesn't.
This isn't entirely Maccagnan's fault because he inherited the Ferguson contract, but he gave the big deal to Revis and he's had more than a year to address the Wilkerson situation. He could lower Wilkerson's cap charge by negotiating a long-term contract, but the organization shows no inclination to making it happen.
All of which leads us to this conclusion: Something has to give.
The Jets can't re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick (or a Fitzpatrick replacement) and pay their draft picks under the current cap situation, which means a big salary dump is on the way. Revis isn't going anywhere because his salary is guaranteed, so it has to be Wilkerson or Ferguson.
Trading Wilkerson would clear $15.7 million, the amount of his franchise tag, but it'll be hard to get equal value for him because of the complexities of a tag-and-trade. He has considerable say in the matter because he won't sign off on a trade unless the new team meets his contract demands.
Cutting Ferguson would save $9.7 million, but that would make little sense unless they can secure a replacement -- i.e. drafting a left tackle in the first round. There are three top-shelf left tackles in the draft, and the chances of one slipping to the Jets at No. 20 aren't great.
The Jets don't have total control of the Ferguson and Wilkerson scenarios, which puts them in a bind. Their options: Go into the season with Gates, Buffett and Zuckerberg, weighing down the entire operation, or make a desperation move to clear the cap space.
Don't be surprised if it's the latter.