The New York Jets are looking to add a top veteran QB, which comes along with other tough salary cap decisions
Is the salary cap really a figment of the imagination?
Or is it a figment of this year’s dreams only to turn into a nightmare down the line?
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Ask Mickey Loomis of the New Orleans Saints and Les Snead of the Los Angeles Rams. These two general managers have led many fans to believe that the cap simply doesn’t exist. After all, the Saints begin each offseason close to $50 million in the red, and suddenly, a few days later, they have enough cap space to sign more players.
Meanwhile, the Rams locked up Aaron Donald and Matthew Stafford to large contract extensions last offseason after having Jalen Ramsey already at a hefty number, yet they still managed to sign Bobby Wagner and Allen Robinson to seemingly big contracts.
It’s instructive, though, that the Rams released Wagner after just one year. The salary cap is as much of a myth as the guaranteed money in a deal and how it’s spread out. The construct is not so much the cap itself as the gyrations of contract design in the NFL.
That brings us to the New York Jets. The team is currently $264K over the cap, per, well, Over the Cap. The free agents they may want to bring back include Connor McGovern, Sheldon Rankins, Quincy Williams, and Kwon Alexander. They have holes at tackle, center, defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety that will need to be filled.
The biggest factor here is obviously the quarterback position. Whatever Derek Carr’s contract ends up at, it will be north of $30 million per year. Even if some cap maneuvering pushes the largest hit past 2023, the Jets don’t have any cap space right now. They will need to find it.
Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, has a strange contract that could lead his first-year cap hit to be as low as $15.8 million. There’s no way to predict exactly what a restructure would look like if he left the Packers. Regardless, though, that’s still cap space the team would need to clear to bring Rodgers aboard.
The team’s most obvious cut candidates from a financial perspective are Carl Lawson and Corey Davis. Releasing both players would save the Jets $25.9 million in cap space with just $1 million in dead cap combined.
However, as we have explored recently, there are significant reasons why the team might want to retain both players. In Lawson’s case, it’s largely about the lack of confidence that the other edge defenders the Jets have can come close to replacing his two-way production.
With Davis, it’s more about the fact that the top of the free-agent receiver market is expected to command money that blows away what Davis is owed while not even matching his production.
Now, if the Jets do keep one or both of these players, there will certainly be a contract restructure involved. To me, it seems more likely that Davis’s would come in the form of an added void year or years to spread out his cap hit. For Lawson, I think the Jets would actually give him an extension and add a little more money to his deal while lowering his per-year cap hit.
Beyond these two players, the next likely cut candidates are Jordan Whitehead and Braxton Berrios, two players who underperformed their contracts. I do think the Jets will let Berrios go since they can likely find a more productive WR4 for the $5.2 million that they would save by releasing him.
Whitehead is a tricky case. He has a $10.2 million cap hit in 2023, which is very steep for a safety whose sole ability is periodic splash plays in the run game. He does not fit the Jets’ need for a hybrid safety who can play deep and hold his own in coverage.
Furthermore, cutting Whitehead would save the Jets $7.2 million with a $3 million dead cap charge, which is a more than reasonable number for which the team would release him. However, there is some reason to think that the Jets might not want to replace two safeties in one offseason, and they could just retain Whitehead.
Additionally, cutting Whitehead wouldn’t really save the Jets money since they will most likely need to use that $7.2 million or more to replace him in free agency. Unless they plan on picking Brian Branch at No. 13, they likely will not be taking a plug-and-play Day 1 starter in the draft.
One way or another, releasing a player that will need to be replaced for roughly the same free agent cost would not really help the Jets.
Releasing Zach Wilson would actually lose cap space, either pre- or post-June 1. The only way to save money on his contract is to trade him post-June 1, which would split his dead cap into $5.7 million each in 2023 and 2024 and save the Jets about $3.9 million in 2023. It’s not much of anything for cap purposes and also wouldn’t be relevant to the free agency period.
Duane Brown could be released as a post-June 1 cut to save $9.7 million in 2023 with about $1.6 million dead over each of the next four seasons. However, Robert Saleh made it very clear in his press conference that the Jets want Brown back.
So how are the Jets going to clear cap space if they can’t cut anyone?
Here’s where we get to the “salary cap is a myth” part of the story: contract restructures. They can range from simple to majorly complicated. The Jets are going to have to restructure someone’s contract this offseason even if they release both Lawson and Davis. If they hang on to both, though, there will likely be more players whose contracts are reworked.
Part of the question, though, is how far Joe Douglas wants to go. If he wants to maintain cap flexibility, which has been his goal until now, he will push as little money as possible into the future. He even made a point of that in his Combine press conference, noting that the team doesn’t have a lot of prorated money.
However, sometimes a team decides to go all-in. That’s what the Dolphins did in 2022 with their trades for Tyreek Hill and Bradley Chubb and the signing of Terron Armstead. It’s what the Saints did for years under Drew Brees and have still been doing since he left, trying desperately to extend their championship window.
Most importantly and sometimes tantalizingly for other teams, the Rams did it in 2021 and won a Super Bowl. It created a model to go all-in and come out with the prize, making the inevitable consequences worthwhile.
If you ask the Rams whether their 2022 malaise was worth it for their 2021 championship, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Donald would certainly say yes.
That being said, what if the team had not come out with the ring and would still be saddled with cap purgatory? What if they had lost to the Bengals and were now faced with trading Ramsey just one year later after they released Wagner?
There are definitely risks involved in the “all-in” contract restructuring strategy. At some point, there is too much dead money on the cap for the team to be able to keep playing the game. That’s usually when the team gets torn down, with top players either traded away or released.
How far is Douglas willing to go? He’s generally a pretty savvy businessman, which leads me to believe that he will not take that kind of reckless approach. However, the willingness to trade for Aaron Rodgers demonstrates a much more aggressive mindset this offseason than in years past.
With that being said, here are some of the players whose contracts could be restructured. I am not saying that any particular one will be, though I will speculate on the most likely players.
Even so, predicting how much money the Jets push into future years is also very hard to do. A team will not always do a maximum restructure, and knowing why they chose the amount they did is difficult for a non-capologist like myself.
However, with the knowledge that I do have, let’s go through the maximum savings that the Jets can create by restructuring various players’ contracts.
The simplest form of a restructured contract in the NFL is taking base salary and converting it into a signing bonus. When a player signs a contract, their signing bonus is paid out immediately; however, the cap hit is spread out over five years or the length of the contract, whichever is shorter.
Converting the base salary into a bonus pays the money to the player upfront (as opposed to over the course of the season as game checks) while spreading out the cap hit for that money over multiple years.
This is what the Kansas City Chiefs did mid-season in 2022, which fueled speculation that they were gearing up to try to sign Odell Beckham Jr.
Last year, when I wrote an article explaining Mosley’s contract restructure, a fan asked why the player would agree to it if it makes the team more likely to release him later on. I responded that the team can do this without actually consulting with the player, but I think it is fairly self-understood why this is beneficial for the player, anyway: he gets his money upfront.
Either way, here are the players whose base salaries would enable the Jets to save the most money by restructuring most of the salary into a bonus.
1. C.J. Mosley
Just by the pure numbers, C.J. Mosley‘s $17 million base salary in 2023 begs for a restructure. There is no way that the Jets can carry him with a $21.5 million cap hit in 2023.
However, they’re highly unlikely to cut him for a few reasons: first of all, they love Mosley and consider him the leader of their defense. Almost as importantly, though, the Jets would have a $14.9 dead cap charge in 2023 if they cut him.
If they designated it as a post-June 1 cut, that charge would be split up as $4.5 million in 2023 and $10.4 million in 2024, which is likely still more dead money than a team would want to eat.
Therefore, a restructure is almost certainly in order. This really is kicking the can down the line with Mosley, since he will cost them quite a bit of dead money when he’s no longer on the roster. But if they like him as much as they say they do, that most likely won’t be the case until 2025.
If the Jets did a maximum restructure for Mosley’s contract, keeping in mind that the minimum veteran base salary is $1.165 million, this would be the breakdown:
- $17 million 2023 base salary becomes $1.165 million
- $15.835 million is spread over the remaining years of the contract (2023-24, plus the two void years in 2025-26), adding $3.96 million in bonus/restructure to each of those years.
- Mosley’s 2023 cap hit is reduced from $21.476 million to $9.601 million
- Total cap space cleared: $11.875 million
Will the Jets push this to the max? I’m not sure. It leaves over quite a bit of dead money in 2025-26 (possibly over $9 million in 2025 and $6 million in 2026), as well as a hefty cap hit in 2024 ($25.4 million). But they will definitely do something to reduce Mosley’s 2023 cap hit at least a bit.
2. John Franklin-Myers
John Franklin-Myers has a 2023 base salary of $11.4 million and a total cap charge of $12.4 million. These are the max restructure numbers.
- $11.4 million base salary becomes $1.080 million (veteran minimum for five years experience)
- The remaining $10.32 million is spread over 2023-25, which are the years left on the contract.
- 2023 cap hit is reduced from $12.4 million to $5.88 million
- 2023 cap savings: $6.52 million
3. Laken Tomlinson
Even if Laken Tomlinson had played to the level the Jets had hoped for and expected in 2022, his almost $17.4 million cap number for 2023 was a restructure candidate.
Tomlinson’s $12.7 million base salary in 2023 could be restructured as follows:
- $12.7 million base salary becomes $1.165 million (veteran minimum)
- $11.535 million is spread over the remaining two years of the contract (2023-24)
- 2023 cap hit is reduced from $17.36 million to $11.592 million
- Cap savings: $5.768 million
This may not be as much as the Jets want, so they could add void years to the deal to create more cap savings. I’m not going to get into the weeds with that, though.
4. D.J. Reed
D.J. Reed might actually be the player the Jets are the most likely to restructure simply because they’re far more likely to still want him around in 2024. It’s scarier to restructure Tomlinson and make it harder to cut him after 2023.
Reed’s 2023 cap hit is $14.155 million (per Over the Cap). Restructuring would make these changes.
- $10.5 million base salary becomes $1.080 million (vet minimum)
- $9.42 million is spread over 2023-24
- Reed’s new 2023 cap hit is $9.445 million
- 2023 cap savings: $4.71 million
5. Carl Lawson
I’m including this later on because it’s hard to know what the Jets will do. A restructure would most likely include a contract extension. I’m going to try to guess what an extension would look like.
Lawson’s 2023 cap hit is currently $15.7 million.
- 2-year contract extension worth $10 million, bringing the total contract to three years, $25.7 million.
- Lawson’s 2023 cap hit is reduced to roughly $8.5 million, which saves the Jets $7.2 million in 2023.
6. Duane Brown
- Brown’s $9 million base salary would become $1.165 million (vet minimum)
- $7.835 million would be spread over the remaining actual year and void years of the contract (2023-26)
- Brown’s new 2023 cap hit is $5.406 million
- 2023 cap savings: $3.594 million
7. C.J. Uzomah
- C.J. Uzomah’s $8 million base salary would become $1.165 million (vet minimum)
- $6.835 million would be spread over 2023-24
- Uzomah’s new cap hit is $6.905 million
- 2023 cap savings: $3.407 million
8. Tyler Conklin
- Tyler Conklin’s $6.1 million base salary would become $1.080 million (vet minimum)
- $5.02 million would be spread over 2023-24
- Conklin’s new 2023 cap hit is $5.06 million
- 2023 cap savings: $3.378 million
9. Corey Davis
With Davis, I’m assuming that the Jets will just add a void year or two to his deal to spread out the cap hit. They could also sign an actual extension, but I don’t think they want to pay him any more money since they’ll likely release him after 2023.
Right now, Davis’s contract is one year, $11.2 million. The Jets could simply add a void year in 2024 or even two in 2024-25 and shave off a few million to spread out over that time.
They could also ask him to take an actual pay cut, although it’s fair to wonder whether that would be worthwhile to him with the WR market as expensive as it is right now.
Can the injury-prone Davis, coming off a lackluster statistical season, make more than $10.5 million (his actual 2023 cash earnings) on the open market in 2023?
10. Braxton Berrios and Jordan Whitehead
Both of these players could possibly be given the choice of a pay cut rather than a release. Berrios would be more likely to take it than Whitehead, as he’s coming off a statistically poor year in which he underperformed severely as a returner as well as a receiver.
Whitehead, meanwhile, could still potentially command a decent amount on the open market due to his penchant for splash plays in the run game.
What will actually happen?
My guess is that the Jets will extend Lawson, restructure Mosley, JFM, Davis, and maybe Brown, and cut Berrios. I’m really not sure what they’ll do with Whitehead.
The team can save roughly $39 million from those moves, by my estimate. At that point, whether they make more moves would depend on how they would structure the quarterback’s contract and what they plan on doing with Quincy Williams and Rankins.
I imagine that McGovern will not be re-signed. It’s time that the Jets go the draft route for a center. Berrios can probably be replaced by a guy like Olamide Zaccheaus.
There would still be other considerations, like signing draft picks, replacing the backup defensive tackles, finding at least a free safety, replacing the punter, and re-signing Greg Zuerlein (or finding another kicker).
The finer details are for the general manager and his staff to iron out. However, this is just a glimpse behind the curtain of the decisions that the Jets must make this offseason.
Of course, we could come in a few days and find out that both Lawson and Davis were cut to make room for the new quarterback. It’s impossible to know exactly what Douglas will do.
My sense, though, is that the team will want to balance financial health with putting the best product on the field, and right now, that product likely includes both Lawson and Davis.
With that, our math lesson is concluded for the day.