Free and not so easy - Metro US

Free and not so easy

As he stood at the podium following the Jets 24-19 loss to the Steelers in the AFC championship, linebacker Jason Taylor hinted he had just played his final game in a Jets uniform.

“The team you saw tonight is never going to be [again],” Taylor said. “It’s over.”

It appears over for more than just the 14-year NFL veteran Taylor. Not only is the Jets’ future clouded by the ongoing labor negotiations which might lead to a lockout, but the team must make a number of decisions on key playmakers this offseason.

“You wish you could have everybody back, but we all know the business and we know things happen,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said. “We wish we could, but it won’t.

Revis was one of the key re-signings last offseason, as the Jets made all the right moves in shelling out long-term deals to left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold.

The Jets had homefield advantage in those dealings, as all three players had been drafted by general manager Mike Tannenbaum. This offseason, though, Tannenbaum will have to convince rentals like cornerback Antonio Cromartie, wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards to stay put.

“There’s going to be some guys that are going to make a lot more money than we can afford to pay, but it doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate them, because we do,” coach Rex Ryan said. “There’s probably going to be a guy who may retire [and] a guy that for whatever reason we move on from. I think this is a heck of a football team, and I would love to have this entire group back next season. I recognize that’s not realistic.”

As long as they can keep a few of the main cogs in place, the Jets should be right back in the mix for a third straight trip to the AFC championship. No piece is bigger than leading tackler David Harris, who is reportedly Tannenbaum’s top priority. The Jets seem willing to shell out the $9 or $10 million per year to keep the bruising linebacker.

Priority must also be given to re-signing Cromartie, if only because the Jets gave up a second-round pick in this spring’s NFL draft to obtain the cornerback from San Diego. Plus, no other cornerback on the roster is ready to play opposite of Revis. Few players in the league offer the physical matchup of Cromartie, a truly athletic cover player with freakish intangibles. He also showed his wide range of abilities in the AFC wild card game where he twice had big returns on second half kickoffs in place of the injured Smith.

And while he proved this year that he isn’t quite the “Sanchise,” it became obvious throughout the season that quarterback Mark Sanchez benefited from the play and development of both Edwards and Holmes as targets.

It’s been Holmes, however, who despite his reputation for off the field issues has created a ruckus on it for the Jets. Several times in the season, including late-game comeback wins at Detroit and Cleveland, Holmes made clutch catches to help the Jets win. In fact, the Jets began calling the fourth quarter “Tone Time” due to his late-game heroics. Holmes is the first playmaker at wide receiver Sanchez has had in the league and he developed a strong chemistry with his quarterback that helped carry the Jets through the season.

Edwards in turn offers Sanchez a big target to hit, an imposing and physical wide receiver who seems to have gotten over his penchant for dropped balls. There’s also Smith, who was one of the top kickoff returners in the league this past year and his ability to play the Wildcat and wide receiver make him a valuable commodity.

The Jets have finally become a team players want to be a part of. Unfortunately, they just can’t keep them all.

Take the Schott

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has taken much criticism for some pathetic play calls in the AFC championship.

Rex Ryan insists Schotty isn’t going anywhere, though. “Yes, absolutely,” Ryan said when asked if he’ll remain as OC.

Even though his play calling may be atrocious and unbalanced at times, there’s no denying Schottenheimer has been the biggest factor in the maturation of Mark Sanchez. Therefore Ryan, Sanchez’s biggest fan, won’t dare make a change.

“I’m confident we have the right people in place, from the trainers to … the coaches, and we’ll get the right players,” Sanchez said.

Ranking the Jets’ top free agents

1 Antonio Cromartie
With him, the Jets have two of the top 15 cover corners in the league. You have to like Cromartie’s steady improvement in the system, and he’s head and shoulders above 2010 first-round pick Kyle Wilson, who may not be physical enough to be an every down corner. Cromartie must be signed long-term — if only for his hatred of Tom Brady.

2 Santonio Holmes
Despite the character issues, Holmes is a game-breaker and the only truly explosive player on the Jets offense. He’s developed such a great chemistry with Mark Sanchez, and if you take that away there’s a good chance the Jets’ young quarterback takes a step back next season.

3 Braylon Edwards
Much like crosstown quarterback Eli Manning benefitted from the physically imposing Plaxico Burress, Edwards gives Sanchez a big target to hit on third down. Expect teams like the Rams or Seahawks to make a run at him. If he bolts, the Jets will make a hard push to keep Brad Smith.

4 Shaun Ellis
Despite his age, 33, the Jets can’t afford to let go of the one consistent pass-rusher. And who knows, Ellis could return with an All-Pro season, much like John Abraham did for Atlanta this year.

5 Brad Smith

A reliable kick returner and perhaps the team’s best athlete, he’s not a must-get but certainly gives the offense more than a wrinkle. Smith is also a big-play threat.

6 Trevor Pryce

See above: Ellis, Shaun. Besides being a good locker room guy, Pryce deepens the defensive line.

7 Brodney Pool

After some rough goes early on, Pool settled in well late in the season and showed maturity. He’d be nice to bring back but not a must get.

8 David Harris

He’s Tannenbaum’s top priority, not ours. We’d let him walk. While he led the team with tackles, the steady and reliable Harris isn’t the same type of playmaker at linebacker as a Patrick Willis. At the right price, he’d be great to keep but his statistics might mean that he’d look for too much money to justify his production. If they re-sign Cromartie and Ellis, you can plug in a cheaper linebacker along Bart Scott and he’d produce adequately enough.

9 Steve Weatherford

The punter’s ability to directionally punt repeatedly changed field position for the Jets and turned a loss of downs into a pin back for the other team. Of course, he didn’t help himself with a shaky postseason.

10 Jason Taylor

The Jets defense lacks pass rushers and while the unit would benefit from another season with the Canton bound linebacker, his numbers only justify the veteran’s minimum. He’s probably as good as gone.

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