FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Before heading off to the scouting combine at the end of the month, the New York Jets' front office will meet to plot its free-agent strategy. For a change, they actually have some tough decisions on which players to re-sign -- and that's a good thing.
That certainly wasn't the case last year. Not one of their 19 unrestricted free agents received a multiyear contract to return to the Jets -- safety Marcus Maye played on the franchise tag -- and only three landed multiyear deals with other teams. Guard Pat Elflein, linebacker Jordan Jenkins and edge rusher Tarell Basham went elsewhere, none of whom blew up the ATM.
Let's take a look at the current 19 players on expiring or voiding contracts, ranking them in three categories:
Priority free agents
All-Pro kick returner Braxton Berrios and defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi would attract the most interest if they hit the open market. The Jets want to keep both players and have been talking to their agents -- for several months, in Fatukasi's case -- but there's a good chance they get to market.
"Obviously, we love Braxton," coach Robert Saleh said. "I’ve always sat up here and said it’s our job as a coaching staff to make [general manager] Joe Douglas’ job as hard as possible with regards to re-signing people."
Berrios, 26, is a fan favorite who made a lot of money with his strong finish (four touchdowns in his last three games), but is he a full-time receiver or a gadget player/return specialist? How the Jets answer that question will determine how much they're willing to pay.
In the five games in which he played at least 50% of the offensive snaps, Berrios averaged 5.4 receptions and 50.4 yards per game, which projects to 92 and 857 over a full season. No doubt, his agent is selling Berrios' upside, fueling speculation he could be seeking a deal in the $9 million-a-year neighborhood. It would be a surprise if the Jets go that high, considering they paid their WR3 and WR4 -- Jamison Crowder and Keelan Cole, respectively -- $5.5 million apiece.
Fatukasi, who turns 27 on March 4, is a durable, high-character player who led the defensive line with 16 run stuffs (tackles for no gain or loss on run plays). In fact, he ranked fifth in the league in run-stuff percentage (5.75), according to NFL Next Gen Stats. On the downside, he was a first- and second-down player who didn't affect the quarterback (zero sacks). It's the sack stars who get the big money.
So how much is a top run stuffer, in the prime of his career, worth as a free agent? Fatukasi is thought to be seeking about $8 million per year, not an outrageous number when you consider Dalvin Tomlinson got $10.5 million per year last year from the Minnesota Vikings. The Jets, with big money invested in Carl Lawson, Quinnen Williams and John Franklin-Myers, might not be willing to go that high. It's not an easy call. Their run defense wasn't very good, so he'd be a tough one to lose.
The 'maybe' crowd
There's decent talent in this group, but four of them will be in the 29-31 age group by training camp -- Maye, Crowder, tackle Morgan Moses and guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. The market usually isn't robust for players in that category, with exceptions. The Jets have varying degrees of interest in each player, with a lot depending on asking price and what the market dictates.
Frankly, it would be a surprise if Maye returns; a lot has happened (none of it good) since last offseason's franchise tag. He got bad advice and misplayed his hand by spurning the Jets' long-term offer (a reported $20 million in guarantees) even after his DUI arrest, which he hid from the Jets for several months. (League discipline in the form of a suspension is likely.) Then he suffered a torn Achilles' tendon in November.
GM Joe Douglas was noncommittal when asked at the end of the season whether the team wanted Maye back. He called Maye a “valuable member of the team,” but added, "Any decision that we make, in regards to Marcus or any other player on expiring contracts, the decisions are going to be made in the best interest of the team now and moving forward."
Maye's rehab is said to be going well, but he's probably looking at a one-year, prove-it contract. He has some support within the organization, and they could probably get him at a reasonable price, but it sounds like this relationship has run its course.
Crowder was the Jets' leading receiver in each of the last three seasons, a period in which he caught 132 passes out of the slot (eighth in the league), but he probably will move on. The first warning sign came last offseason, when he had to take a $5 million pay cut. His durability is a question, as he missed nine games over the last two years with soft-tissue injuries. If they lose Crowder and Berrios, it means Elijah Moore could be the slot.
Moses and Duvernay-Tardif, two Douglas' better acquisitions, formed a solid right side in the run game. Starting in Week 11, when Duvernay-Tardif replaced Greg Van Roten at right guard, the Jets averaged 5.19 yards per rush over the final eight weeks, No. 2 in the league. During that span, they averaged a league-high 6.7 yards on runs to the right side, per ESPN Stats & Information.
Duvernay-Tardif isn't a long-term answer, but you can win with him. Look for them to take a wait-and-see approach. He will be free to sign with any team when his contract automatically voids next month. He recently mentioned that a medical-licensing deadline in Canada could interfere with his ability to play in 2022, but that matter has been resolved.
The fifth player in the "maybe" group is quarterback Joe Flacco. Saleh is on record as saying he will be "vocal" about re-signing Flacco, 37, who seemed to embrace the backup/mentor role. Flacco made $3.5 million last season, so you have to believe he's looking for at least that much. There could be competition, as several teams will be in the market for a QB2.
Low-priority free agents
They should start off by re-signing kicker Eddy Pineiro, who was 8-for-8 on field goals and 9-for-10 on extra points. It's a small sample size, but he's Adam Vinatieri compared to his recent predecessors. The rest of this category consists of depth players who will hit the market. If a player gets an offer from the Jets, it probably will be for one year.
The group includes a former draft pick (defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd) and 2021 free-agent additions who didn't work out for various reasons -- Cole, tight end Tyler Kroft, center Dan Feeney, running back Tevin Coleman, linebacker Jarrad Davis and safety Lamarcus Joyner. The others are fullback Nick Bawden, safety Will Parks, tackle Greg Senat and tackle Conor McDermott, a solid depth player who provided one of the highlights of 2021 -- a touchdown catch.