FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Traditionally big spenders, the New York Jets are expected to dial it back this year in free agency. They’re operating with less salary cap room than usual and have fewer positional needs than in recent years.
They’re also waiting on a decision from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who would eat up $15.8 million in cap space and $59 million in actual cash for 2023 under his existing contract. There’s a good chance it will be restructured, but it still would have a significant impact on their offseason approach. If not on Rodgers, they will spend it on another quarterback.
It sounds like they have a two-pronged plan for free agency.
“As far as defense, [it’s] just making sure that we can run it back with the guys we have,” coach Robert Saleh said. “Then, offensively, [it’s] seeing if we can be judicious in our approach.”
As of Friday, the Jets were $1.5 million above the salary cap, according to the website Over The Cap, but that didn’t include the $5 million savings for releasing wide receiver Braxton Berrios. Teams must be cap compliant by March 15, the start of the league year.
They’ve already made one addition, agreeing Thursday to acquire safety Chuck Clark in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens. The trade won’t become official until March 15. The Jets now have two longtime starters under contract in Clark and Jordan Whitehead, but they play the same position — strong safety. It has fueled speculation they could move on from Whitehead, but that probably is contingent on them finding another safety in free agency.
After examining which of their own free agents they might keep, let’s project which outside free agents they could pursue, breaking it down by position:
Center: With starter Connor McGovern poised to hit the open market, the current offensive line resembles a bagel — it has a hole in the middle. Ethan Pocic (Cleveland Browns) might be the best center in free agency, but a more cost-effective alternative could be Jake Brendel (San Francisco 49ers), 31, who played 98% of the snaps last season. Ben Jones, released by the Tennessee Titans, is interesting because he played for new Jets line coach Keith Carter, formerly of the Titans. Thing is, Jones, 33, suffered two concussions last season and might consider retirement.
Wide receiver: If the Jets land Rodgers, the names to watch are Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb, a couple of his BFFs from the Green Bay Packers. The Jets could be looking for a third receiver to join Garrett Wilson and Elijah Moore, depending on whether Corey Davis becomes a cap casualty. Lazard, 27, is coming off his best season (60 catches, 788 yards). At 32, Cobb’s best days are behind him, but the Jets need a backup slot receiver after releasing Braxton Berrios. Worth noting: They reportedly attended Odell Beckham Jr.’s workout in Arizona on Friday. Overall, it’s regarded as a poor free agent crop.
Safety: The Jets need a ball-hawking, middle-of-the-field presence to complement Clark. They could slide Whitehead into that role, but that isn’t his forte and the defense would be vulnerable in pass coverage with two strong safeties in the lineup. Free safety Lamarcus Joyner, 32, who led the team with three interceptions, is heading to free agency. Jimmie Ward (49ers), 31, would be a nice fit as a hold-the-fort player. Saleh, formerly the 49ers’ defensive coordinator, was instrumental in Ward’s development, switching him from cornerback to safety. Ward, who had three interceptions last season, is one to watch.
Defensive tackle: The Jets have only two interior linemen under contract — Quinnen Williams and Tanzel Smart. That’s a concern. Problem is, really good defensive tackles usually don’t hit the market, and the ones who do tend to be overpriced. One possibility is Larry Ogunjobi (Pittsburgh Steelers). The Jets showed interest last offseason before he landed in Pittsburgh, where he started 16 games. The Jets have three of their own poised to become free agents, including Sheldon Rankins. They will be the top priority.
Linebacker: There are a few moving parts here. Quincy Williams and Kwon Alexander are pending free agents and C.J. Mosley has an enormous cap charge ($21.5 million) that needs to be reduced. The team is negotiating with Williams to keep him off the market. As Saleh said, the Jets would like to keep as many players as possible from a defense that ranked fourth in yards allowed. Tremaine Edmunds (Buffalo Bills) is a player Saleh has long admired — he once called him “a unicorn in the linebacker world” — but he’s only 25, a former first-round pick and acquiring him would carry a steep price tag. Azeez Al-Shaair (49ers), with 22 starts over the past two seasons, is another player Saleh is familiar with.