Florham Park N.J. - For the final time this spring, the New York Jets took the practice field without either defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson or quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. One has a pending franchise tag while the other remains unsigned; both are displeased with managment for what they believe is a lack of financial retribution. This has been the drama surrounding the Atlantic Health Jets Training Facility. This has been the broken record of questions Todd Bowles tolerantly answers on a daily basis who recently all but said "enough is enough." But, football is also a business and the business side of the game is leaving the organization in a predicament with two impactful players on the Jets' no-fly list.
There is not one person at 1 Jets Drive that believes Muhammad Wilkerson is not talented nor deserves a major salary raise. Managment loves him here as do the fans. But, there is a blurred line when it comes to designing a new contract that would lock up the Temple alum for the long term in green and white. It is perplexing to understand the ongoing saga as the team loves Wilkerson and everything he brings but refuses to provide evidence why a deal cannot be reached. Certainly, Wilkerson is asking for a boatload of money that would handcuff the organization into a salary cap oblivion. That is a legitimate reason. But, if the team had the choice to pay Wilkerson or Fitzpatrick, the safer bet would be to sign the dotted line with the defensive end.
This does not mean it is smart to throw guaranteed money in either direction. Out of the aforementioned two players, Wilkerson is the safer bet. But, there are plenty of ways to handle this situation, creating a darker cloud of uncertainty around the organization's front office. In a perfect world, a compromise can somehow be met between both parties. In reality, it does not seem a deal will get done.
The promising sign has been the performances of those who are under contract. With Fitzpatrick staying true to his financial demands, Geno Smith has taken this opportunity to instill trust from his coaches and teammates. The 25-year-old still has untapped potential and with weapons on offense like Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, and Matt Forte, maybe it is time to give Smith the chance with a capable unit. On the defensive side of the ball, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams are projected to be their typical dominant selves while the emergence of young players like Lorenzo Mauldin, Jordan Jenkins, Darron Lee, and Erin Henderson have opened up the door for Bowles to be creative with pass rush packages.
It is June, the players are still not wearing pads so true judgements cannot be fully determined. But, as of now, the current roster has played strong enough to support Mike Maccagnan's case against substantial contracts for Wilkerson and Fitzpatrick. It is early, but it seems as if the Jets can survive without Wilkerson or Fitzpatrick allowing those players to be expendable. This permits Maccagnan to get creative with his roster and explore trading Wilkerson to another team with assets that he believes can help in other areas the team may lack.
For the first time in recent memory, the Jets have quality depth at all positions. If Wilkerson refuses to play, Richardson, Williams, and the rest of the defensive unit will pick up the pieces and perform to their highest levels. If Fitzpatrick remains unsigned, Smith will have a chance to prove skeptics wrong and take advantage of the offensive weapons he lacked in his rookie campaign in 2013.
It is not a question of affection for Wilkerson and Fitzpatrick; the Jets love them. Both fit in this system perfectly and have built strong connections in the locker room with their teammates and coaches. It is a question for how long and how much? It is important to keep your best players but also important to be smart with your money. If it came down to the two, Wilkerson is the safer bet to sign long-term. But, Mike Maccagnan is going to have to roll up his sleeves and get creative with his roster if he wants to put the best product on the field and in the bank.
Joe Barone is a staff writer for JetsInsider.com/NYJScout.com. He can be reached on Twitter (@28JoeBarone) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org)null