If you're a New York Jets fan, make a little note on your fridge-sized schedule or put a reminder in your Outlook calendar: A few minutes after halftime of the Week 7 game between the Jets and Patriots this upcoming season, Mark Sanchez will have made a little more than $5 million toward his total cap hit of $12.85 million for 2013. That number is notable for this reason: That $5 million is what Geno Smith is going to make over the four years of rookie deal he'll sign with the Jets -- total.
It won't matter if Smith has Jay-Z or Jay Mohr as his agent -- that total is locked in. At that point, remind those who think drafting Smith was a mistake, or not a big need -- as Joe Namath stated this week -- that what the Jets will pay Sanchez for nearly 50 percent of what should be his last, lame-duck season, they'll likely pay Smith on the entirety of his first contract. This means that at its highest point, Smith's first deal will never represent a cap hit of even 2 percent of the Jets total salary cap.
And whether Smith ever becomes a great player, a good player, or merely a quality backup, New York's decision to draft him where it did was a smart one. Maybe he wasn't a "need" by the technical standards of Namath's definition -- yes, Sanchez is available to start football games. Namath and so many suffering Jets fans have been exposed to so much lunacy in decision-making at the QB position that it's easy to forget that smart franchises don't find the best QB value when it's a huge need -- they find it and have the chance to develop a player when it's not.
The decision on Smith, and New York's draft strategy as a whole, actually makes a lot of sense, and there a number of reasons why. Here are five:
1. They maximized the chance to compete now
So many fans clamor for teams to draft with the goal of mending a roster weakness that they often overlook the value of maximizing a strength. As you see in the chart at right, over the past eight NFL seasons, Rex Ryan has run defenses that never once have fared worse than No. 7 in the NFL in total defense (total yards allowed per game).
Normally I'd rely on a more advanced look at defensive efficiency, but this one is very telling because it in part takes into account what the offense is doing. If you have a below-average offense, as the Jets have had, it can often make defenses look even worse. Offenses that can't stay on the field leave defenses even more exposed, and the Jets went three-and-out on offense over 26 percent of the time last season. They ranked 32nd in that category the year before, 18th in 2010 and 22nd in 2009. Even going back to 2008, the Ravens were a below-average 18th. And yet Ryan still manages to consistently put together defenses that will always keep teams competitive, regardless of what the offense provides.
The Jets' new management inherited a salary cap mess and wasn't going to be able to dramatically upgrade the offensive personnel this offseason by shopping for top offensive talent (to the extent it even exists in free agency), nor was it going to be able to get talent to affect a dramatic shift from the draft, especially after St. Louis moved up in front of the Jets to No. 8 overall to take Tavon Austin. So the Jets opted to strengthen their biggest competitive advantage and got the best cornerback (Dee Milliner) and a defensive lineman (Sheldon Richardson) who would help a master schemer in Ryan do more on defense. Remember this: If anything has allowed Sanchez to claim the "winner" label in New York, it's been the defense, not his own play, because he simply has never been above average. This is a fact. And what the Jets did in Round 1, while it could be perceived as a detriment to the offense, actually will do the team plenty of good.
2. They maximized draft board value
The Jets had internal conversations about taking Smith at No. 13 overall before ultimately settling on Richardson. And while you can quibble about whether they should have taken an early-impact offensive threat such as tight end Tyler Eifert at that spot, we can all agree that by taking Smith at No. 39 overall, they'd won a pretty big hand of draft board poker. Regardless of what you think about Smith, the Jets smartly gauged that in a year without certain impact talent at QB, and due to depressed need, QBs would drop. Whether Smith is good or not, the low cost of getting him at No. 39 overall mitigated any risk. It was somewhat reminiscent of when the Bengals waited out a QB run of quarterbacks in 2010 and still got a player they really liked in Andy Dalton in Round 2.
3. They factored in their own offensive resources
Regardless of whether the Jets drafted a wide receiver in Round 1, they couldn't figure to get more impact from any wideout in 2013 than they'll get from a healthy Santonio Holmes. Holmes is no star, but he had 103 catches in his first two years in New York, and was at least on pace for 80 last season before he went down in Week 4. As I've said before, Stephen Hill's route tree in the Georgia Tech was a cactus, and he also figures to be improved after a year of frustrating seasoning in the NFL.
You can argue that the Jets offense in 2013 should be better mostly because mathematically it couldn't get any worse, but you don't just draft based on statistical need -- you draft and acquire based on reasonable assumptions about gains you'll get from current personnel.
4. They made a reasonable cost/benefit decision
As I noted before, the previous Jets administration made so many quizzical decisions at QB from a cost/benefit standpoint, fans might not realize what a sensible one looks like. In taking Smith at No. 39, and having already upgraded the roster in a couple key spots, the Jets aren't paying for assumed performance from Smith -- they're paying very little for what could be a great deal of on-field value, even if it's merely insurance. Namath says they had bigger "needs," but no team assumes they'll get major first-year impact from a Round 2 pick. The 2012 draft provided a lot of early returns from Round 2, but only a third of those picks were consistent starters, and a number of those were at more fungible positions such as linebacker and along the offensive line, where players can be shifted around.
Smith's ability to fill a need at QB isn't just reflected in the state of the 2013 roster. Choosing him is also reflected in the possible needs for 2014. Which brings us to a final point.
5. They drafted a player -- they didn't marry him
This is pretty simple: If, after a year of evaluation, and maybe even some starts, the Jets don't feel Smith is the starter of the future, so what? At that point, even in a worst-case scenario, they have a backup they aren't going to commit more than 1.5 percent of their salary cap to over the next four seasons, and they also have a low-cost QB commodity who could be dealt for future draft picks. If the season is a total disaster, and next offseason we're looking at a situation where Sanchez is no longer on the roster and Smith isn't the clear answer going forward, the Jets haven't put themselves in a situation where they can't either target a QB in free agency or once again in the draft. Options remain wide open.
In a way, the selection of Smith reminds me of what the Lions faced in 2007 when they decided to draft Calvin Johnson. Smith and Johnson are by no means comparable talents, but consider the situation. The Lions had drafted Charles Rogers, Mike Williams and Roy Williams in previous years, and even the selection of Johnson seemed laughable. But it wasn't because of Johnson, it was because of the situation and team he was headed to. Johnson was a great prospect, but you had to assume the worst because of Detroit's absurd history with the position.
Smith was a perfectly logical pick at his price point, and he goes to a team that, while perpetually dysfunctional at the position, really does need a QB like him to develop and is making reasonable personnel moves under a new decision-maker. And whether Smith succeeds or fails won't diminish that fact. That Week 7 reminder will be helpful to understand why.