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NFL Team Report - New York Jets - INSIDE SLANT
Fourteen months ago, John Idzik was drawing a paycheck from the Seattle Seahawks. Last month, he hosted the Denver Broncos at the New York Jets' team facility before Super Bowl XLVIII.
Looking back paints a clear picture of where the Jets want to go.
"We're tracking," said Idzik, who is entering his second year as general manager of the Jets. "We take a lot of positives from our 2013 experience but we've got to build on that."
At the event one year ago, he was peppered incessantly by more than 40 media members regarding the future at quarterback and a soured relationship with cornerback Darrelle Revis.
"Who?" Idzik said with a manufactured smile "Where we are one year later, is it's much easier for us as a staff this year."
Idzik settled one of the team's most pressing questions in January, a contract extension for coach Rex Ryan. Ryan had one season at $3 million remaining on his deal, but in a conversation with owner Woody Johnson prior to the season finale at Miami learned he would be asked to return for a sixth season.
Together, there are myriad questions left to answer entering the new league year, which kicks off March 11. The Jets could have as much as $24 million under the projected salary cap of $130 million, a number that would rise to up to $50 million if high-priced veteran quarterback Mark Sanchez, wide receiver Santonio Holmes and cornerback Antonio Cromartie are released.
"Our guys, our pro department, has done a great job of giving us a list of several guys," Ryan said. "The coaches, we're just now getting through that, the evaluating of not only our players but potential free agents. We've done that. We're ready for it to begin and we'll see what happens."
The Jets are discussing contracts with some of their own pending free agents. The combine often includes sessions with agents, planned or by happenstance, laying groundwork for upcoming talks. Kicker Nick Folk, tight end Jeff Cumberland and outside linebacker Calvin Pace are likely to get some re-signing consideration from the Jets.
Idzik and Ryan believe some were surprised with their picks in the 2013 draft, including quarterback Geno Smith in the second round. Ryan, who during Super Bowl week said that he "couldn't say" Smith was his starter entering this season, didn't elaborate Thursday.
Asked to assess the quarterback group, Ryan said he preferred to focus on Smith's final few games, a month in which Smith proved to the coaching staff he was of NFL timber. Ryan said only Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was better on game-ending drives. Point of fact, Smith was 3-4 in the Jets' final seven games, but was not sacked or intercepted in his final two starts -- wins over the Browns and Dolphins that got the Jets to 8-8.
"If you look at the quarterbacks that led last-minute winning drives, only two NFL quarterbacks had five game-winning drives to close out games and that was Tom Brady was one and Geno was the second one. I think that's encouraging to me," Ryan said.
Sanchez is technically still a part of the team but his $13.1 million salary-cap figure and $2 million roster bonus all but guarantees he'll be released next month. Ryan said his only dialogue since midseason with Sanchez was about his health, not any business decisions or what's to come.
"We tend to let things play out," Idzik said, declining to comment on whether Sanchez has begun throwing. "We still have some time there. I know one thing for sure: Mark is diligently handling his rehab. We'll just let that take its course."
NFL Team Report - New York Jets - NOTES, QUOTES
--While coach Rex Ryan emphasized the positives of quarterback Geno Smith, carefully cherry-picked stats can't cover up the warts of Smith's often-rocky rookie season -- nor conceal the potential danger in putting too much emphasis on his fast finish and/or his penchant for directing the Jets to comeback wins.
In December, the Jets beat Oakland and Cleveland, each of whom finished 4-12, and strife-ridden Miami, which was 8-6 through 14 games but lost its last two games by a combined 39-7.
Of Smith's five game-winning drives, only one came against a winning team. The other four came against three 4-12 teams -- Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Cleveland -- as well as 6-10 Buffalo.
And the Jets ran the ball 12 times in 13 plays in their game-winning overtime drive against New England on Oct. 20 -- a march that was extended by the infamous "pushing the pile" penalty on the Patriots' Chris Jones that negated Nick Folk's missed 56-yard field goal.
In addition, as solid as Smith was down the stretch, he was the worst quarterback in the league for much of the first three months. He endured a seven-game stretch from Oct. 13 through Dec. 1 in which he had one touchdown and 11 interceptions while enduring three in-game benchings.
"He had some rough spots, as the rest of us did," Ryan said. "But I like the way he finished."
But just in case the way Smith finished was the aberration, the Jets seem sure to add legitimate competition -- whether in the form of a rehabbed Mark Sanchez, a veteran free agent or a high draft pick -- during the spring and summer.
Smith's backups last season were the raw Matt Simms and the perpetually inactive David Garrard, which meant a permanent benching for Smith was never an option no matter how badly he played in October and November.
"We're not opposed to any kind of competition," Idzik said. "That's what we thrive on. You guys, you've heard -- we're going to try to build that competition. No matter who it comes from, we want it at every position on our roster. That's how we feel like we improve."
--Speaking of competition, there's little doubt wide receiver Stephen Hill will face plenty of it as he tries to hang on to his roster spot, never mind his starting job.
Hill, whom the Jets selected in the second round of the 2012 draft, has ended each of his first two NFL seasons on injured reserve with knee injuries. He missed the Jets' final four games in 2013 and was an extreme afterthought before that: Hill had just one catch for two yards in his last four appearances of the season and had 11 receptions for 109 yards in his final nine games.
"Certainly he's got the raw tools that you look for," Ryan said of the 6-foot-4 Hill, who ran a 4.36 in the 40-yard dash at the combine two years ago. "His development obviously was hindered this year. We were expecting big things."
The Jets may no longer be expecting anything out of Hill. The New York Daily News reported this week that the Jets are "skeptical" Hill -- who was drafted by former general manager Mike Tannenbaum -- can emerge as a reliable receiver.
And with the draft loaded with wide receivers -- NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock called it "the best wide receiver draft I've seen in years" -- and the Jets expected to actively pursue veteran receivers in free agency, Hill may be squeezed off the roster by the opening week of the season, if not sooner.
Tannenbaum's replacement, John Idzik, didn't mention Hill by name when he said what the Jets look for in a wide receiver. But his comments certainly didn't seem to indicate a great deal of faith in Hill.
"I don't know if it's just wide receivers -- just in general, we go by the moniker 'Play like a Jet, act like a Jet,'" Idzik said. "We want passionate players. We want smart players (who are) not only instinctive but (who also) know their position. You can see that in their play. You want aggressive, physical play. And of course you look at their production in different circumstances: Big games, inclement weather."
Hill will find out over the next few months if he gets one more chance to prove to the Jets that he can produce, regardless of circumstances.
--Ryan also has high hopes for cornerback Dee Milliner, one of two first-round picks last year.
"Somebody said it during the year that they thought by the end of the year he would be the top corner that came out in that draft class," Ryan said. "He had some ups and downs, but that was based on the fact that he no minicamps because he had the surgery, then he's going into training camp and he was hampered with an Achilles' injury and then a hamstring injury. But really he's kind of learning on the run. Sometimes you put him down to watch a little bit and then he came back. I knew he'd come back strong. I saw it on the practice field.
"He was going like this (pointing up). I think by the end of the year he ended up winning the last month of the season he was voted the top NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month. I think that's really encouraging. It's all about confidence when you play that position and certainly he closed out the year - we matched him against (Josh) Gordon, we matched him against Mike Wallace. I think he did more than hold his own."
--There seems little doubt the Jets will part ways with Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes and Mark Sanchez. But it's likely the Jets will hold off on officially releasing three of their best-known -- and highest-paid -- players for as long as possible.
"We're not going to get into what we may do in a couple of weeks," Idzik said. "Suffice to say that we take those decisions very seriously. Players that mean a lot to us -- be it one season, two seasons, three seasons, whatever it is -- they meant a lot to the Jets.
"We like to wait and really have all the information that we feel is necessary in order to make a sound decision. And so we'll take advantage of time."
All the time in the world won't change the most vital information about Cromartie, Holmes and Sanchez: By releasing them, the Jets will save a whopping $26 million.
Though all three are goners, it is possible that Sanchez and, particularly, Cromartie could return. Sanchez could provide the experienced veteran competition for Geno Smith while Cromartie, coming off the worst season of his career and approaching his 30th birthday, has acknowledged he's a likely cut and expressed interest in re-signing with the Jets at a lower salary, a la Calvin Pace last year.
Holmes? There's a better chance of the Jets playing in Shea Stadium next season than Holmes ever wearing the green-and-white again.
--One team may draft Michael Sam. Thirty-two teams are going to field questions about him at the scouting combine.
Sam, the Missouri alum and reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, announced Feb. 9 that he is gay, which sets him up to become the first openly gay player in NFL history.
Because of his undersized nature -- he is just 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds -- Sam is viewed as a mid-round prospect who may have to move off defensive end in the NFL.
Given the possible position change, Ryan didn't want to comment Thursday on whether or not Sam would be a good schematic fit for the Jets. But he said he had no doubt Sam would fit in well in the Jets' locker room.
"I think he'd be welcomed -- it would be no different than any other player we have," Ryan said, "One thing I know for sure is you're going to have 53 different players. Different religious beliefs; different (in) what they look like, height, weight, married, single, any of these. Everybody's different.
"The main thing we always talk about is respect in our locker room. And even though everybody's different, it's a respect thing. If a young man is a good football player and a good teammate, that's all we ask. He'd fit in just like the rest of our guys."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Who?" -- Jets general manager John Idzik, who offered a rare tongue-in-cheek response when asked about all the Darrelle Revis questions he fielded at last year's scouting combine. Idzik traded Revis to Tampa Bay prior to last April's draft.
NFL Team Report - New York Jets - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Jets placed the franchise tag on placekicker Nick Folk Friday. The franchise tag for kickers is $3.556 million.
Folk made game-winning field goals against Tampa Bay and Atlanta this past season. He made 33 of 36 field-goal attempts in 2013 and was 3-for-3 on attempts of 50 yards or more.
Folk set the franchise record for most consecutive field goals from the start of a season (23).
FREE AGENT UPDATE
Scheduled to be unrestricted in March
--CB Aaron Berry
--RG Willie Colon
--WR Josh Cribbs
--TE Jeff Cumberland
--LB Jermaine Cunningham
--DT Leger Douzable
--G Vladimir Ducasse
--QB David Garrard
--FB Lex Hilliard
--RT Austin Howard
--CB Ellis Lankster
--LB Josh Mauga
--OLB Calvin Pace
--S Ed Reed
--RB Darius Reynaud
--CB Isaiah Trufant
--TE Kellen Winslow
WIDE RECEIVER: The Jets need receivers in the worst way. Jeremy Kerley's 43 catches were the fewest by the Jets' leading receiver since 1979.
CORNERBACK: The Jets may need a long-term replacement for Antonio Cromartie. At the least, competition is required for an oft-burned unit.
LINEBACKER: Vets David Harris and Calvin Pace had outstanding seasons, but the Jets need to find their successors sooner than later.