Navigating Free Agency: Pre-Emptive Strikes

mark-sanchez-picture_485x367While we didn’t get this together last week, we wanted to continue this series.

There are rumblings that a CBA deal is in the offing that could be voted on by owners as soon as today in Chicago.  If this works?  Hooray.  But if so, now comes the hard part for Mike Tannenbaum.  With a large looming free agent class, it’s hard not to start thinking about a helter-skelter free agency period that could be starting around July 4th. With that in mind, we’re going to run down what we see as some potential outcomes for the Jets with all their many moving pieces in a new series, Navigating Free Agency. 

Last week we looked at some of the worst case scenarios that could play out in the new CBA for a GM to deal with, and those specifically facing Mike Tannenbaum.  While some of them might come to pass, it’s safe to say they won’t all happen in one year to the Jets. Even if they did, the Jets have the flexibility to make it work without losing most of their biggest impact free agents.

But how?  For the Jets their worst-case would involve a low cap number, say a rollback to the $117 million.  While that number might seem extreme, it does represents the “best case” for some of the stingier owners — so we’ll use that as a baseline, but wouldn’t be shocked if there’s a cap in 2011, that it’d be much higher.

Right now, if you were to add up all the current Jets players under contract (around $100 million) along with the assumed salary figures for their rookie class (around $4 million) AND even throw in David Harris at his expected franchise tag value (around $10 million) that puts the Jets at $114 million against the cap. 

Seems close right?  While it looks like there’s not a lot of room for Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Antonio Cromartie, not to mention role players like Brad Smith, Eric Smith, James Ihedigbo, etc.?  Some quick work can take that number way, way down.

Step One: Get Down & Dirty With Sanchez’s Salary

As it stands right now, Mark Sanchez is slated to make $17 million from the Jets in total compensation during the 2011 season based on his contract.  Including 2011, Sanchez has three years left on his rookie deal, and while the Jets might be slow to extend hard values to that rookie deal just yet, I’m sure they’ll ask Mark, a true team player, to convert his $14 million in 2011 salary to what is sometimes referred to as an “option bonus.” An option bonus would split that salary over the next three seasons (2011, 2012, 2013) while still paying it to him in the 2011 fiscal year.  If the team is pressed, the Jets might even tack a dummy year or two onto the end of Sanchez’s wild contract to help shave that number even lower … effectively taking the Jets cap figure down around $9 million. 
New Cap Status: Roughly $105 million

Step Two: A Franchise Player No More
David Harris has been a team player and has waited his turn for his new contract.  With a franchise tag draped around his neck, it’s obvious the Jets value Harris, and more importantly value not competing with other teams for his contract.  I expect the Jets want him to continue to be a big part of the defense for a years to come.  But the Jets are staring down the barrel of a $10 million salary for Harris in 2011if they don’t do a longer term deal. The Jets have to get Harris to sign a deal that makes use of bonuses to give Harris money closer to the front of the deal, but from a cap perspective, spread that same money over the remaining years of his contract.  I expect the Jets to try and get his cap value at or under $4 million for this season to give them adequate breathing room to sign other players and the best way to do it would be with use of bonuses.
New Cap Status: Roughly $99 million

Step Three: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Bryan Thomas
At this point I think we’re getting into contingency territory.  If the Jets really wanted to cut Bryan Thomas, they would have done it when they jettisoned Damien Woody, Kris Jenkins, Jason Taylor, Vernon Gholston and Ben Hartsock. 

Since the Jets are wise, they held onto a guy who can still be a serious contributor, but whom also is from a cap perspective, a big and “clean cut.” Whereas players like Kris Jenkins had “dead money” accelerated into the 2010 fiscal year, thus cleaning the 2011 books based on the rules, it made sense for the Jets to rid themselves of players like Jenkins that would be a financial burden along with a being productivity question mark in 2011.

I like Bryan Thomas a lot, but if the team is pressed, they won’t value him at the $3.7 million figure he has coming in 2011 when weighed against their other offseason priorities.  Thomas has the highest cap savings still remaining for the Jets and they’ll use it if they feel they need it.
New Cap Status: Roughly $95-96 million

Step Four: Get Wild With It
This seems the least likely, but if the Jets are still worried about making their cap figures work, they have a handful of players making north of $2.5 million in salary this season that they might be able to tap on their shoulders and impress on them the importance of helping make some cap space by converting salaries to option bonuses.  Of course, some might be more hesitant than others based on how previous contract negotiations went, but it’s an option to extend contract to some lesser players, most likely in attempts to keep some of their own guys.
SALARIES — Revis: $7 million, Ferguson: $5.6 million, Scott: $4.9, Pace: $3.8 million, Moore: $2.7 million
New Cap Status: Roughly $??? million

Assuming the Jets take the first three steps to get to $95 million against a presumed worst-case cap figure of $117, that would give the Jets $22 million to work with to sign three of the Jets major free agents, along with a host of other role players from the Jets own roster, or from elsewhere.  While it doesn’t leave a lot of room for the likes of a Nnamdi, it’s enough and as we’ll see tomorrow, will help us understand just how long the Jets plan to keep some of their free agents based on how they structure those new deals.

Tomorrow: Who Gets What, And For How Long?