The Jets breathed a little more life into their season by squeaking by the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, which means they still have a few more games to care about before they focus on 2017.
But that doesn't mean they should ignore any offers they get for defensive end Sheldon Richardson before the NFL trading deadline on Tuesday. In fact, they should trade him - if the price is high and right.
That's not likely to happen, of course, but there are teams out there that want him and several have called the Jets to ask about him, an NFL source confirmed to SNY. Richardson is by far - and understandably -- the Jets' most marketable commodity. It is not clear, though, if they would seriously consider dealing him, or how high their asking price would be if they would.
Now, on the surface, it seems a little crazy for the Jets to trade a 25-year-old pass rusher who was the 13th overall pick in the NFL draft just three years ago. If nothing else it feels counterintuitive in a league where the two most important components to winning teams are quarterbacks and defenders who can disrupt those quarterbacks.
But the Jets are in an unusual position with a glut of pass rushers (theoretically, anyway) and no clear quarterback beyond the end of this season (perhaps the most significant factor in anything they choose to do). Richardson is expensive and nearing the end of his contract, which means he's only going to become more expensive in a few years. He's also a troublesome player who has already been suspended twice. And the glut of defensive linemen has clearly confounded Jets coaches, which is why Richardson has lined up so often at outside linebacker (seemingly to the detriment of the entire defensive scheme).
So if a team was interested in solving the Jets' schematic and financial issues and was offering up a first-round pick, would the Jets do it? They certainly should. They should even consider it if a team is offering up a second-round pick - though they'd have to be a little choosy, since the offers will come from contenders, so that pick is not likely to end up near the top of the round.
A deal would help the Jets in the future. It would clear some cap space in case they need to pursue a quarterback. Yes, it would hurt their defense for the rest of this season and it might signal surrender for anyone who believes they're still in the playoff race at 3-5. But Richardson has 1 ½ sacks this season after going without a tackle in Sunday's win in Cleveland, and is on a defense that was only ranked 16th in the NFL going into the weekend. So really, how much could it hurt?
In the end, it seems unlikely a deal will be reached by the deadline, or that the offers would be high enough to really entice the Jets. But if there is an offer good enough the Jets at least have to think about it and would be justified in doing it.
Here are all the factors involved:
The talent: Richardson is good, there's no way around that. Forget his disappointing 1 ½ sacks this season. He had five in 11 games last season and eight the season before, and there's a feeling around the league that the 2013 first-rounder is has only scratched the surface at age 25. But the Jets also have Wilkerson, a 2011 first-rounder who is only 27, and Leonard Williams, the sixth overall pick last year who is only 22 and who some scouts believe will be by far the best of the three.
The financials: The Jets picked up the fifth-year option on Richardson's contract in May, meaning they're on the hook for a little more than $8 million for 2017. Then he's a free agent in 2018. But they also signed Wilkerson to a five-year, $86 million contract with $53.5 million guaranteed. Wilkerson will make $14.75 million next season with a salary cap number of $18 million, meaning he and Richardson will account for $26 million in cap space in 2017. That's a lot, especially if the Jets need cap space for a quarterback.
It's also interesting to note that the Jets set up Wilkerson's deal so that his $16.75 million salary in 2018 doesn't become guaranteed until March, 2018 - the same time Richardson is a free agent. So they gave themselves a chance to choose between the two of them then - which is also about the time they'd be making the decision on whether to pick up the fifth-year option on DE Leonard Williams for 2019. Smart.
And by the way, in 2018, Williams' cap number will be about $6 million and Wilkerson's cap number will be $20 million, so it's hard to see them keeping both of them and re-signing Richardson to what surely will be a megadeal.
The glut: The Jets have had two games where their pass rush looked great - Week 1, when Richardson was out, and last week when Wilkerson was out. This isn't a 4-3 defense where they could get away with a heavy rotation where they all get snaps at defensive tackle, so they're stuck doing things like putting Richardson at linebacker. Todd Bowles doesn't think that's a big deal, but Richardson looks uncomfortable when he's out there and the defense clearly suffers. It's nice to have the depth, especially if someone gets hurt, but when they're all healthy the Jets haven't figured out a good way to use all of them effectively at the same time.
The troubles: Don't think it's a non-factor that Richardson served a four-game suspension in 2015 for violating the league's drug policy, and got another game in 2014 for violating the personal conduct policy by leading police on a high-speed chase. Any future suspensions would be longer, so committing big money to him instead of Wilkerson or Williams carries some risk.
The salary cap: According to Spotrac, the Jets are currently projected to be about $11 million over the 2017 salary cap, but that's based on the 2016 cap number and that's likely to increase by at least $10 million in 2017, if history is any indication. Still, the Jets will have some offseason cutting to do. And if they need to go sign a quarterback, they'll have a lot of cutting to do.
The decision: Trading Richardson would send a signal to the locker room that 2016 is over, though they may already know that anyway. It was a longshot even before they escaped disaster against the Browns. But the choice really comes down to this: Do they want to keep the trio of Richardson, Wilkerson and Williams together for 2017 - almost certainly the final year all three of them will be together - or do they use Richardson as a chip to help them build up other positions in 2017?
That chip could prove to be extremely valuable to their future if the price is high enough.