By Ernie Palladino
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The Jets declining to pick up running back Chris Johnson's $500,000 option for 2015 had less to do with the $3.5 million of salary cap they cleared than the overall backfield picture.
When the dust of the housecleaning settles and free agency begins March 10, that move could become one of new general manager Mike Maccagnan's most valuable decisions in the transformation of Rex Ryan's green-clad cadre of sad sacks into Todd Bowles' legitimate playoff contender.
It all depends on what Maccagnan makes of it.
He needs a home run threat to put alongside Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell.
Now armed with nearly $49 million of cap space, the fourth-most comfortable cushion in the league according to OverTheCap.com, the Jets will basically have their pick of a talent-rich field that includes C.J. Spiller, DeMarco Murray, Justin Forsett, Ryan Mathews, and Shane Vereen, among others.
Even though Johnson looked nothing like the running back who put together 1,000-yard performances in each of his first six seasons with the Titans, the 663 rushing yards he put up still were good enough to help the Jets form the league's third-best ground attack.
The problem was consistency and the lack of a screen game. With Johnson lacking his old explosiveness, especially as the powerful Ivory's primary backup, the offense often had no alternative to Geno Smith's flawed air game.
What the Jets need is a back who can catch passes as well as run. Vereen, Spiller, and Mathews would seem to be great fits, though it would appear unlikely New England will let go of the running back who made so many big catches for them en route to their fourth Super Bowl championship under the Brady/Belichick tandem.
Then again, the Patriots have a habit of letting talent leave. Still having to slice nearly $5 million to get down to the cap ceiling, they may have to do some further contract restructuring if they want to bring back Vereen. Also, there's that matter of the $20 million option they hold on cornerback Darrelle Revis. They have until 4 p.m. on March 10 to decide whether to keep him or set him free.
Let's assume the Pats will keep Vereen, though. Mathews might be a good pickup, and the Jets wouldn't have to overpay for him. He caught 50, 39, and 26 passes before injury curtailed his 2014 season halfway though. Despite that, he still averaged 4.5 yards on the ground and caught nine passes for a 7.7-yard average.
It's hard to believe the Ravens will part with Forsett, now that the Ray Rice era has slunk into the annals of domestic violence, so the 44 catches that went along with his 1,266 rushing yards become irrelevant.
But Spiller remains a mystery. He's definitely a different style runner than Ivory. The last two seasons have seen a downturn in his career, and Ryan may want no part of him in Buffalo. Bowles might, however, especially now that Chan Gailey is running a spread offense for him.
Spiller had his best season under Gailey in 2012, rushing for 1,244 yards and six touchdowns while catching 43 passes for 459 yards and two touchdowns. That's 28 receiving yards more than the entire Jets backfield produced last season, a number that ranked the running backs 29th in the league.
If Spiller can return to any semblance of his 2012 form, he could well replace Ivory as the primary back, thereby adding an explosiveness Johnson could not. Also, he could make Ivory even more effective by saving that runaway truck some of the pounding that comes from constant colliding with linebackers and knocking safeties into the third row.
The Jets need a home run threat. Of course, they also need a quarterback who can hit that home run threat consistently, but that's a story for another day. If Spiller shows any signs of remaining healthy, a quality he hasn't had the last two years, Maccagnan might just go for him.
He'll certainly have the cap room to get him.
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