Jets' rebuilding plan comes into focus, with $100M in 2019 cap room

The only big contract extension on the horizon for the Jets belongs to Leonard Williams. Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

Here's a look at what's happening around the New York Jets:

1. Plenty of green: The first wave of free agency is over, and here are the spending numbers for the Jets: They doled out $187 million in contracts, including $81 million guaranteed at signing. These totals include their players who re-signed, namely quarterback Josh McCown and cornerback Morris Claiborne.

It sounds like a lot of money -- and it is -- but they avoided the three dirtiest words in sports: They didn't mortgage their future.

The front office, led by general manager Mike Maccagnan, did a nice job of maintaining financial flexibility in 2019. Of the 18 players who signed contracts in the past three weeks, only two received deals that include guaranteed money in 2019: cornerback Trumaine Johnson ($8 million) and linebacker Avery Williamson ($6 million).

As a result, the Jets' nest egg is big enough to hatch a T-Rex. Right now, their projection for 2019 is a league-high $109 million in salary-cap space, according to overthecap.com. The only big contract extension on the horizon belongs to Leonard Williams, who is signed through 2019 (including his fifth-year option).

"It's a nice problem to have," CEO Christopher Johnson said at last week's NFL meetings.

The Jets were willing to spend a big chunk of it (see: Kirk Cousins), but the free-agent quarterback said no to their offer of $90 million guaranteed. In the long run, they will be better off without Cousins -- assuming they pick the right quarterback in the upcoming draft.

The Jets' rebuilding plan is starting to crystallize, and it looks like they're in the middle of a three-year project that started last year.

  • Year 1: Rip it apart and start over.

  • Year 2: Get the quarterback.

  • Year 3: Hit the ground running, with the quarterback surrounded by a team that should be bolstered by three drafts and two years of big spending in free agency.

The Jets still need "parts and pieces," Maccagnan said, but they have more parts and pieces than they did a year ago at this time. By 2019, they should be locked and loaded, ready to contend. No excuses.

2. Bruuuuuuce: Yes, retired coach Bruce Arians will visit training camp this summer as Todd Bowles' guest. No, the so-called quarterback whisperer won't be coaching. It's strictly a social call. Bowles said his former college coach/boss/mentor will be wearing flip-flops and sunglasses and enjoying some R&R.

"He’ll be his usual charismatic self," Bowles said with a laugh. "You’ll have more entertainment with him than you will with me. I can tell you that much."


3. Skeptical Kiper: It doesn't sound like ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. loved the Jets' decision to trade up. Speaking on a national conference call, he said the Jets "gave up" three potential starters, in a reference to the three second-round picks it cost to swap places with the Indianapolis Colts.

"[They traded] three starters for the third-best quarterback, which is a hefty sum to pay," he said. "[It's] a hefty price to pay, a lot to give up. Obviously, they feel good about that third quarterback, whether it’s [Josh] Rosen or whether it’s [Baker] Mayfield." That is based on Sam Darnold and Josh Allen already being off the board.

"They have to feel good, or you don’t make this deal," Kiper said. "I’m telling you: They’re losing three starters. You're taking three starters off your football team to get a quarterback. They have to like three -- a lot -- to make this deal."

They do. Based on what I'm hearing, the Jets have three ranked very highly on their draft board. My hunch is they end up with Allen or Mayfield.

4. Mirror images: This year's free-agent class is eerily similar to the offseason haul in 2015. Consider:

Big-ticket cornerback -- Darrelle Revis then, Johnson now.

Second-tier corner -- Antonio Cromartie then, Claiborne now.

Middle linebacker -- David Harris then, Williamson now. Same contract, too.

New veteran quarterback -- Ryan Fitzpatrick then, Teddy Bridgewater now. Both coming off leg injuries.

Big-bodied wide receiver -- Brandon Marshall then, Terrelle Pryor now.

What does this all mean? Beats me; it just seemed interesting.

5. Tight spot at tight end: Call me a cynic, but I can't believe the Jets will go into the season with Eric Tomlinson, Jordan Leggett and Neal Sterling as their tight ends, as Bowles suggested this week. They tried to keep Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but he received a better offer from the Jacksonville Jaguars (two years, $10 million). The Jets believe Leggett can replace him as the receiving tight end in their West Coast offense, but that's a leap of faith because he has no regular-season experience. His rookie season was a washout because of a knee injury.

"Before he got hurt," Bowles said, "we saw a lot of good things in the spring."

6. Bad optics: This flew under the radar because of everything else going on, but the Jets -- plagued by a rash of arrests in recent months -- signed linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis, who was arrested in January for misdemeanor marijuana possession. The incident occurred in Johnson County, Kansas. He played last season for the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Jets say they're concerned whenever a player breaks the law, but this isn't what you call putting your foot down, is it?

7. Mandate, shmandate: To his credit, Christopher Johnson refuses to give a playoffs-or-bust ultimatum to Bowles and Maccagnan for 2018. He said it would be "counterproductive," and I agree. Unless the motivation is to create headlines, why would an owner do that?

"I'm more hopeful we're going to be there," Johnson said at the NFL meetings, "but I'm not putting out a playoff mandate."

8. Spotlight on D-Lee: On Adam Schefter's podcast, Bowles said the defensive player he expects the most growth from is linebacker Darron Lee. He said Lee's play in the second half of last season was "outstanding," but the "next step for him" is to become a vocal leader, especially with Demario Davis gone.

Lee still acts young -- he was benched for a full game after showing up late for a practice -- and now, in his third year, it's time to show "maturation," Bowles said. The talent is there, but he could end up on the trading block next year if he doesn't get it together.

9. Farewell, Tanner: There was no big announcement, only a tweet from his wife, but Tanner Purdum's retirement last week deserves a mention. He was the Jets' long snapper from 2010 to 2016. Over seven seasons, he made 1,046 snaps (punts, field goals and extra points), and I can't recall any major blunders.

Former special-teams coach Mike Westhoff said he was initially concerned about Purdum's strength. Westhoff teased him about a lack of muscle definition, saying his biceps weren't big enough to have both initials tattooed on his arm. Westhoff signed him up for boxing classes at a gym near the Jets' facility.

"Give the kid credit," Westhoff said. "He worked really hard at it, and he changed his whole body. He got so much better."

10. The final word: "Everybody is trying to knock off the big dog. They're the big dog. Until they get knocked off, everybody else is fighting. We’re going to try to knock them off." -- Bowles on the New England Patriots