Mehta: Jets puzzle gets tricky after their few core pieces

By on January 5, 2016
Manish Mehta

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Tuesday, January 5, 2016, 12:25 AM

Todd Bowles talks to the media after his first season ends wirthout a playoff berth.RICH SCHULTZ/AP

Todd Bowles talks to the media after his first season ends wirthout a playoff berth.

The fallout of the Jets’ feel-good-turned-feel-awful season centers on one inescapable question: Was this just one hell of a magical one-year run?

For all the bouquets tossed at Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles, the organization’s rebuilding phase is far from complete. The Jets were strategically smart — and a little lucky — en route to a 10-win season that ended with familiar heartache, but the truth is that there’s plenty of re-tooling to do this offseason. The sky isn’t falling, but how close are they to sustaining success?

“I think the core is in good shape,” Todd Bowles said the day after the Jets’ 22-17 loss to the Bills kept them out of the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season. “You got a lot of guys that are staples here. … We just got to build around it.”

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There will be tough decisions ahead in free agency — nine key contributors’ futures remain in doubt — and the draft for a veteran roster with a dearth of depth. Maccagnan won’t have the same amount of cash at his disposal this year after doling out $ 180 million in contracts to remake the roster on the fly in 2015. The Jets will be about $ 11-$ 17 million under the projected 2016 salary cap ($ 147-$ 153 million) to bolster a roster that has clear areas of need. They’ll be able to free up a sizeable chunk with a few cuts and contract restructures.

Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mo Wilkerson head the list of impending free agents for a team that was on the 2015 playoff doorstep after a four-win season. All three running backs (Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell, Stevan Ridley) will be unrestricted free agents. Nose tackle Damon Harrison is set to hit the open market. Starting left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who has a $ 14.1 million cap charge next season, will have to restructure his contract if he wants to remain with the team. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie, scheduled to make $ 8 million next season, could be a cap casualty or take a significant pay cut.

“There’s a lot of work (to do),” Bowles said. “The way teams are nowadays with free agency and the draft, you’re going to have a new team every year. There’s going to be about 12-15 new guys on your team. So you just got to try the right mix and try to find the right guys to sign back. Obviously, free agency is a crapshoot and a gamble. Certain guys may try to leave. Hopefully a lot of guys stay. We’re building something here. Everybody understands that. We’ll try to get as many of our guys as we can.”

Maccagnan, who deserves NFL Executive of the Year consideration for his masterful trades and solid free-agent signings, will face an altogether different challenge this offseason. The new regime plugged some of the holes created by John Idzik’s terrible drafts, but many of those moves were designed to be short-term fixes. It might take a few more years for Maccagnan to replenish the roster through his own drafts. The nucleus is solid, but aging. Bowles’ offense set franchise records all over the place thanks to Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and a solid rushing attack.

“You got to find a way to add pieces through free agency, while you’re building your foundation,” Decker said. “I’d say there’s definitely a foundation being built here, (but) this is a business. … Changes happen every year.”

The Jets coach would like Ryan Fitzpatrick back, but he is a free agent coming off a very good season.RICH SCHULTZ/AP

The Jets coach would like Ryan Fitzpatrick back, but he is a free agent coming off a very good season.

The 10-win season guarantees nothing in 2016 and beyond. Although the Jets should re-sign Fitzpatrick, can he replicate his career season that included a franchise-record 31 touchdowns and career-high 3,905 yards? Will the 31-year-old Marshall, who had 109 catches for 1,502 yards and a career-high 14 touchdowns, continue his dominance next year? Will Ivory, who tailed off after a white-hot start to the season, duplicate his first career 1,000-yard season if the Jets re-sign him?

“Every year is different,” Marshall said. “You have the nucleus — the core-to build something great. But you look at what the Carolina Panthers were able to do this year. They had an awesome year at 15-1. Who would have thought … especially with how their season went last year? You look across the board. It’s always that surprise team that makes the jump to good. And then there’s the teams that make the jump to bad that also surprise…. You just never know.”

Schedule analysis can be a dangerous and sometimes foolish endeavor, but Bowles’ team will have a more daunting road, at least on paper, in 2016. The Jets only played four games against teams with a winning record this season (Patriots twice, Washington and Houston). They had the good fortune to face the AFC South and NFC East, the two worst divisions in the league this season. The path next year includes games against the NFC West and AFC North, the top two divisions in the league this season that included four playoff teams. The Jets will also face the Colts and playoff-bound Chiefs in 2016.

A second year in Chan Gailey’s system should help the most statistically prolific offense in franchise history go to new heights if Fitzpatrick returns.

“Our comfort level with each other grew as the season went on,” Fitzpatrick said. “Continuity is a huge thing in this league.”

A complete offseason with Fitzpatrick, who didn’t even practice with the starters until 48 hours before the first preseason game, should help too. The quarterback is a pivotal piece to what will be a complex off-season puzzle for the brain trust.

It’s been a promising start to something that could be special, but there’s more work than you think that needs to be done in the coming months. Changes are on the horizon.

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