Ideally, Mike Maccagnan would prefer to build a team through the draft, to spend time developing his own players, and then paying them before they hit the open market. Spending big in free agency isn't usually the most efficient way to rebuild a program.
But the reality is the Jets have more than $90 million of space under the $177.2 million salary cap, and Maccagnan plans to spend a lot of it.
"We'll be very active on the first day in terms of the higher profile guys," Maccagnan said. "We may sign a big-ticket guy. We may sign a small-ticket guy. It will be very interesting to see how it plays out. I think we're going to be very active in free agency. Everybody is well aware we have quite a bit of cap space to work with. There are quite a few players we're interested in."
The big one, of course, is quarterback Kirk Cousins who figures to get a deal worth near $30 million per season. But he won't be the only top-of-the-market free agent the Jets try to land. They could be shopping in the deep end of the pool of receivers, cornerbacks, and perhaps pass-rushers, too.
But Maccagnan made it clear he's not abandoning his ideals, or his plan to rebuild the Jets. He'll be shopping for young talent who want long-term deals. The idea is to build the Jets into a perennial contender. He's not interested in using free agency as a short-term fix.
"I think we're going to try do things that will help us not only in this coming season but obviously identify players that can help us next year and the year after that, so we continue to build a young group of players," he said. "We're not where we want to be but I do think there is a lot of potential to move that process along as we acquire talent and build this team with an idea that not just we want to do everything for this current season but we also want to lay the groundwork to build it for the next two or three years."
With that in mind, here's a look at some of the free agents to watch, and that the Jets will be watching and discussing when the league-wide negotiating period opens on Monday at noon:
QB Kirk Cousins (Redskins) - He's their No. 1 target, and they are going to go after him big - like with a deal that includes perhaps as much as $60 million up front in the first year, and maybe $90 million plus in the first three. There are two keys to Cousins' deal: How much of the deal will be guaranteed? And is he already locked into the Vikings? A ton of NFL people think nothing will keep him from Minnesota, but the Jets will try.
QB Teddy Bridgewater (Vikings) - They don't love the free-agent options if Cousins is off the board, but the 25-year-old Bridgewater is intriguing. Yes, he's still trying to make his way back from a devastating injury that cost him the last two seasons. But if he can make it back, he's an outstanding talent who seemed on his way to being a star, and he's young and much less expensive. He'll be worth a shot.
QB Josh McCown (Jets) - Expect him back if the Jets don't land Cousins, either to pair with Bridgewater as insurance, or to mentor someone they take in the draft - or perhaps both.
CB Malcolm Butler (Patriots) - They'd like to bring Morris Claiborne back, but he seems to think he'll be in demand on the open market. Butler does too, but coming off a down season and the mystery of his Super Bowl benching, his value may be way down. The latest word is he might accept a one-year, prove-it contract to re-establish his value. That would be worth it to the Jets.
CB Trumaine Johnson (Rams) - The 28-year-old is considered the best cornerback on the market, but the money and years being kicked around figure to be more than the Jets want to spend on him. Also, most expect him to land in San Francisco or Oakland (the Raiders seem more likely after the 49ers signed Richard Sherman).
CB Bashaud Breeland (Redskins) - If Johnson and Butler are unattainable or too expensive, a source said the Jets see value in this small, speedy cornerback who could be a relative bargain.
WR Allen Robinson (Jaguars) - The Jets would like a true No. 1 receiver to take some of the pressure off of Quincy Enunwa, who'll be returning from a neck inury. Unfortunately, the market is thin. Robinson is probably the best available, but he's recovering from a torn ACL. In his two seasons before tearing his ACL, though, he caught 153 passes for 2,283 yards and 20 touchdowns.
WR Sammy Watkins (Rams) - He's never come close to living up to the hype of being the fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft, but he's only 24, and has enough potential that the Rams were considering using the franchise tag on him. They didn't. On the open market, he likely won't be paid like a top receiver, but he could end up playing like one.
RB Jeremy Hill (Bengals) - There are better and bigger-name backs on the market, but the Jets are looking for someone to complement Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire. Not to run their show. So, instead of overpaying for a better talent like Carlos Hyde, they'll look under the radar. Hill was mostly a disappointment in Cincinnati, but he was a 1,000-yard rusher as a rookie in 2014, he's only 25, and at 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, he's the kind of bruising, between-the-tackles runner the Jets apparently want.
C Weston Richburg (Giants) - The Jets haven't seemed to make any progress in re-signing Wes Johnson, which means they'll likely look at the open market. The Giants aren't bringing back Richburg, a former second-round pick who dealt with a bad concussion last season. He'll be 27 in July, and still has tremendous upside in the right place.
C Ryan Jensen (Ravens) - Generally acknowledged as the best center on the market, there could be a bidding war for him. It appears the Jets would prefer Richburg if they can't keep Johnson, and Jensen could be off the market by the time they're ready to move at this position. But he does remain an option.
TE Trey Burton (Eagles) - If they can't get Austin Seferian-Jenkins back at their price, watch them try for this 6-foot-3, 235 pounder who caught 23 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns while being underutilized in Philadelphia. Oh, he also threw the most unlikely touchdown pass in Super Bowl history.