Players always talk about the non-financial intangibles when they enter free agency, about their desire to find the right situation and play for a winner. But the truth about free agency often is this: Money talks.
Still, the real top players in the market sometimes have choices to make when the money is close, and that's where things could get interesting for Mike Maccagnan and the New York Jets. He's got the money to spend to begin the makeover his roster (approximately $37 million in cap space and maybe more to come). But if his top targets end up with multiple, lucrative options, does the Jets GM have the rest of the package to lure those players to New York?
It could be an interesting question right off the bat with a report already emerging that the Chicago Bears are ready to battle the Jets for free-agent quarterback Mike Glennon. Not that the Bears are in great shape -- they're coming off a 3-13 season and have missed the playoffs the last six seasons just like the Jets. Maybe Glennon, or any player, could make the argument that the Jets are the more attractive spot between the two.
But the Jets' optics aren't good. Whether they want to use the 'R-word' or not, they're in a full rebuilding mode, and even Maccagnan admitted that they need a quarterback, a left tackle, a tight end, pass-rushing help and a cornerback. You can probably make it two tackles and, perhaps, add a center and safety to the list. They also have a coaching staff that was just shaken up with a brand new offensive coordinator.
Plus, if this season goes wrong, they could end up starting over with a new coach and GM next year.
So yeah, money talks, but for the real top guys, they might need a little more. It will be up to Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles to sell the Jets' plan. Depending on how quickly things move, they might have to explain to a top tackle or cornerback how they plan to fill their gigantic hole at quarterback since a top player with options might not want to commit to a few years of seeing how the Christian Hackenberg thing plays out. And when they talk to Glennon, Tyrod Taylor or any free-agent quarterback, one big question they're likely to ask is: "Who's going to protect my blindside?"
Maccagnan is going to need answers and options and some smooth talking. Because he's not just the guy doing the buying, he's going to have to do a lot of selling, too.
The Jets, as SNY has reported for weeks, are going to pursue Glennon. Taylor could be a secondary target assuming the Buffalo Bills don't pick up his option. Aside from secrecy, there's a reason that Maccagnan and Bowles keep leaving all their options open and met with just about every top quarterback at the combine. It's because, as Bowles said last week, free agency can get "crazy."
They have money to spend, but at some point, you don't want to spend stupidly. The market for underwhelming quarterbacks was set by Brock Osweiler last season at four years, $72 million with $37 guaranteed. Glennon is in that unproven potential category, and if a couple of quarterback-desperate teams go after him, who's to say he can't get a bigger deal? At some point, common (and fiscal) sense has to prevail.
That brings us back to this don't-dismiss-it option: Geno Smith as the Jets' starting quarterback in 2017. A team source insisted the Jets haven't ruled it out. It will depend on where he is in his recovery from ACL surgery, his desire to return and whether the Jets are able to land anyone else. But Bowles and Maccagnan don't hate him. He's a former second-round pick and was slated to be their 2015 starter and the Jets turned back to him last year. They've never really gotten a chance to see what he can do.
A one-year marriage so he can either reestablish himself as the Jets' quarterback of the future, or to just be a place-holder for Hackenberg (or someone else) is not completely off the table.
The Jets, according to an NFL source, are going to be in on the market for left tackle Russell Okung, who ironically signed with Denver last year to replace Ryan Clady, whom the Jets signed and later cut. The 6-foot-5, 310-pound Okung might be the best left tackle on the market and is looking to cash in after he made just $8 million on the self-negotiated, much-criticized, incentive-laden contract he signed last season.
After quarterback, Okung might be the top player on the Jets' free agent radar. Arizona Cardinals safety Tony Jefferson is another player the Jets are going to target, a source confirmed. There's already a report that Jefferson could command a deal worth $7 million per season.
The Jets plan to tender restricted free agent cornerback Marcus Williams at the second-round level, according to NJ.com. Considering it could cost more than $2.85 million for one year (the official amounts haven't been set yet), that's an extraordinary show of faith by the Jets in the former practice-squad player. The 5-foot-11, 196-pounder has nine interceptions in 34 career games, including six in 2015 and two last year.
The Jets are also expected to tender restricted free agent center Wesley Johnson, a source told SNY. He seems like a candidate for the second-round tender (which guarantees the Jets would get a second-round pick back as compensation if another team signed him and the Jets declined to match), though it wasn't immediately known what the Jets planned to do.
Their other restricted free agents are TE Brandon Bostick and DT Mike Pennel.
The Jets and Dallas Cowboys reportedly talked about a Sheldon Richardson trade at the deadline last season, so don't be surprised if it happens again. The Cowboys, according to a source, were going to try to pry Jason Pierre-Paul away from the Giants if he had become a free agent and they still need a pass rusher. Some of the top ones are franchised, leaving the market thing.
Taking a one-year flier on Richardson makes sense for them, coming off a 13-win season and feeling ready for a Super Bowl run. If Richardson works out, they can sign him to a long-term deal. If he gets into trouble or regresses, they owe nothing beyond the $8.069 million for 2017.
The top of the draft appears to be secondary heavy, which could be good for the Jets. But they also might be faced with a difficult choice if running back Leonard Fournette is still sitting there for him at No. 6.
At his meeting with the media last week, Maccagnan talked about how the general feeling in scouting is that teams can find good running backs in later rounds, that they don't normally want to take them with a first-round pick. He said the exception were for the rare, game-changing talents -- like Adrian Peterson or Ezekiel Elliott.
To many, Fournette is in that category. The 240-pounder also set a record for 240-pound running backs with a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the combine, which gives him an even more enticing combo of power and speed. The Jets do have Matt Forte and Bilal Powell, but both will be financially expendable after the season. So is Fournette too good and rare for Maccagnan to pass up?
Here's one more question for Maccagnan and the Jets that a lot of NFL personnel were asking at the combine: If free agency doesn't work out the way they hope, would the Jets really use a high first- or second-round pick on a quarterback? Again? Not only would it be the third time in five years (Smith in the second round in 2013, and Hackenberg in the second round last year), but wouldn't doing it again mean they're admitting Hackenberg was a mistake before he even gets into a game?
It's hard to imagine any GM giving up on a second rounder before he gets on the field. But if they feel that way (and for what it's worth, Jets coaches and executives insist they don't), it would be better to fix the problem than make it worse by forcing him into the starting job.