Two hours after announcing Cotchery's release, the Jets added a twist to the sudden departure of the popular wide receiver, with coach Rex Ryan revealing that Cotchery had requested to be cut or traded.
Ryan declined to provide any specifics, except to say he tried to change Cotchery's mind. This had been building for several months. Cotchery, unhappy with his role as the No. 3 receiver, approached the organization after last season and asked to be traded, sources said.
The final straw apparently was the Plaxico Burress signing, which happened last Sunday. At that point, the Jets gave Cotchery's agent permission to speak to teams about a potential trade, a league source said.
"It was tough," Ryan said a few hours after the move. "J-Co wanted to ... he asked for a trade or to be released and that's what happened."
Cotchery apparently grew weary of watching the team acquire other receivers. A year ago, it was Santonio Holmes. The classy Cotchery never complained publicly about being dropped to the No. 3 role, drawing praise from teammates and coaches for unselfishness.
Despite offseason back surgery, Cotchery expressed a desire to regain his starting job, especially with Holmes and Braylon Edwards headed to free agency. The Jets re-signed Holmes for $50 million and let Edwards walk, but instead of turning to Cotchery for the No. 2 job, they made a frantic pitch for Burress. They gave Burress a $3 million contract, considerably more than Cotchery's 2011 salary of $1.8 million.
"He feels disrespected by the moves from the past two years, with the trades and being relegated to the third receiver," a player close to Cotchery said. "He wants a fresh start. I don't blame him one bit."
Ryan said he had no plans to release Cotchery, adding that the possible addition of free agent Derrick Mason had no bearing on the decision. Mason met with team officials Thursday at the facility. The Jets, along with two other teams, are pursuing the veteran wideout, a source said.
Cotchery spoke to reporters Thursday morning, saying it was always his "dream scenario" to finish his career with the Jets. But he also seemed unhappy with his situation, telling ESPNNewYork.com, "It might be a good thing for me to move on. Change is good."
He couldn't be reached after Ryan's comments. Cotchery, through a team spokesman, said he would comment Friday.
"The bad news is Jerricho Cotchery is no longer a Jet," Ryan said. "That's tough, there's no doubt about it."
Ryan wouldn't say much else. Quarterback Mark Sanchez said he was talking to Cotchery for a few days, "hoping I could change his mind." Cotchery wasn't cleared to practice -- the Jets wanted to go easy with his surgically repaired back -- but he was close to returning, Ryan said. So his ouster doesn't appear to be health-related.
In a matter of days, the Jets' receiving corps has undergone a dramatic facelift. Three of the top four receivers from last season are gone -- Edwards, Cotchery and Brad Smith, who signed with the Buffalo Bills. The group consists of Holmes, Burress and a lot of question marks. The Jets won't try to talk Randy Moss out of retirement, a source said.
Their vulnerability at the position was highlighted Thursday, when Burress missed his first practice because of an ankle injury. He said he rolled his left ankle Wednesday while practicing pass routes with Holmes. If the Jets don't land Mason, there will be a serious void.
"I think we'll be just fine," Sanchez said. "We have all the right pieces in place. ... It's a great opportunity for me to bring along the young guys.
It would seem like bad business to release a proven player without a replacement lined up. Ryan declined to address that question. The Jets organization has a great deal of respect for Cotchery, so it's possible they simply granted his wish.
But Mason-to-the-Jets, once considered a virtual slam dunk, still is up in the air.
"I'd like to have Derrick, there's no question," Ryan said.
Burress, a former Michigan State star just as Mason was, was all for the possibility of him joining the Jets.
"I love D-Mase," Burress said. "He's a Pro Bowl receiver, had a lot of success in this league. He's been consistent since Day 1 that he stepped in here. If he does come here, it would be great. I would love to have him. It would be another Spartan in the building. I welcome all Spartans."
Cotchery has witnessed plenty of stunning departures in his seven years with the Jets, but he always clung to the romantic notion that he'd be different, that he'd able to finish his career with the team that drafted him.
Cotchery, 29, is one of the most respected players in the locker room, and word of his impending departure stung some players.
"It's tough because he's done a lot of things for this organization," cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "I hope it doesn't happen."
Said Sanchez: "He's the ultimate teammate and the ultimate competitor. That's why it hurts to see him leave."
For five seasons, Cotchery was the Jets' most dependable receiver, but his play slipped last season; he committed a team-high nine drops. Unbeknownst to anyone outside the team, he played the entire season with the disc condition, opting to put off surgery to help the team.
Cotchery finished with 41 catches, 433 yards and two touchdowns, his worst numbers since becoming a full-time player in 2006. He missed two games because of a torn groin, an injury that occurred on one of the most memorable plays of the season.
It happened while he was running a pass route against the Cleveland Browns. He felt excruciating pain in his groin, but he kept playing and hopped nine times in an attempt to get open. He was spotted by Mark Sanchez and made a diving catch, his extended body horizontal to the ground -- a huge play in the game. Afterward, several teammates remarked that it one of the best catches they'd ever seen.
On his final day as a Jet, Cotchery was in a reflective mood as he discussed his past and future. As a young player, he remembered how respected veterans such as Curtis Martin and Chad Pennington took time to mentor new players. Cotchery said he always envisioned himself in that role, mentoring young Jets.
But he also recognizes the cut-throat nature of the business.
"I've been here a long time and I've seen a lot of things," he said. "I thought Chad Pennington would be a Jet forever, but one night in the preseason, he's gone in the hotel" -- a reference to the August 2008 trade that brought Brett Favre.
"I love being a Jet," he continued. "But this happens, man. That's life. I'm ready to move on."
Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.