Marcus Maye’s injury makes for tricky free agency situation with Jets

The Jets have money to burn, urgency to address the NFL’s worst-ranked defense and a premium in-house free agent who might need a soft landing spot coming off injury.

That has all the makings of the Jets re-signing Marcus Maye. The only question is whether that ship might have sailed beyond the point of what makes sense for both sides.

When Earl Thomas flipped his middle finger at the Seahawks sideline in 2018, it set the bar for a broken relationship between a safety and his team, after an injury elevated a contract dispute into a free-agency conundrum. Maye, who ruptured his Achilles on Nov. 4, and the Jets haven’t reached that point of no return, but that doesn’t mean the past is forgotten.

At this time last year, the prevailing opinion in NFL circles was the Jets made a mistake by not extending Maye’s contract before they traded Jamal Adams, thus increasing Maye’s leverage in negotiations. But then, last offseason Maye took a calculated gamble — which he lost — when he declined an extension offer in the neighborhood of $11 million per year and played on the one-year, $10.6 million franchise tag. Maye’s agent was campaigning for a trade just before the injury.

Marcus Maye is a free agent.
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Maye, who will be 29 years old when free agency opens, possibly will be left looking at a one-year prove-it deal in the range of $5 million-$6 million, according to CBS Sports contracts expert Joel Corry.

“My idea would be to get back to where the tag number was through incentives — primarily playing time,” said Corry, a former NFL agent. “He was probably looking for $13 million per year before the injury, and if he can bounce back to the level he was at in 2020, then he should be able to get there again. Another reason why he might want to wait is the 2023 cap environment.”

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NFL teams are operating with a conservative cap estimate of at least $225 million in 2023, according to Corry. That’s up from about $208 million in 2022 and a pandemic-depressed $182.5 million in 2021.

With about $48 million in available salary-cap space and a need at safety that only would grow larger without Maye, the Jets could make a reduced prove-it offer. That would allow Maye to focus on his rehab in familiar surroundings without worrying about learning a new defense before his second shot at improving his walk-year production above 46 tackles, one sack and no interceptions in six games.

Marcus Maye
Marcus Maye is helped off the field after rupturing his Achilles.

That’s a good idea in theory, less so in practicality.

“Most players would view that this way: If I’m going to play for less, it’s going to be for someone else,” one longtime NFL personnel executive said. “I would not want to be the first team to offer less, because then you will be the bad guy. I think someone will pay him [respectable value] because I don’t think the Achilles will affect his play long-term.”

In 2021, Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah had a career-best season one year removed from a torn Achilles and Rams running back Cam Akers returned to action just five months after he tore his Achilles. It changed how the injury and recovery timetable are viewed.

Pro Football Focus ranked Maye as the No. 4 free-agent safety — 22 safeties are included in the top-200 free agents — and projected a one-year, $6 million contract ($4.5 million guaranteed). That represents a moderate increase over the contract the Eagles gave to safety Anthony Harris as a flier off his disappointing season playing on the franchise tag in 2020.

Marcus Maye hauls in an interception.
Marcus Maye hauls in an interception.
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“A Super Bowl matchup of two players coming off Achilles tears kept this one-year flier number for Maye perhaps a bit stronger than it may end up being in reality,” PFF salary-cap analyst Brad Spielberger said.

The Eagles could be a top suitor for Maye because both their starting safeties are free agents and older than Maye, while Philadelphia’s defensive backs coach, Dennard Wilson, was Maye’s coach with the Jets in 2017-20. The Ravens, Lions, Saints and Commanders will be players in the safety market.

If Maye were healthy, PFF’s projection would’ve been for about a three-year, $30 million deal, according to Spielberger, who cited recent three-year deals for Jimmie Ward ($28.5 million) and Tashaun Gipson ($22.5 million) as age-29 comparisons.

Eight safeties have inked free-agent contracts or extensions worth more than $14 million per year since 2019, but that group combined for 23 Pro Bowl and nine First-Team All-Pro selections before signing. The two highest-paid safeties are Adams ($17.5 million per year) and 32-year-old Harrison Smith ($16.5 million per year).

“Smith gave hope to players in terms of being able to get paid as an older safety, which would give me more comfort in a prove-it deal,” Corry said. “Although they do two different things, when Adams gets $17.5 million per year and Maye has played with him that factors into the equation in his mind. Not that he’s going to get that much, but ‘I’m not half of what he is.’”

Maye hasn’t been a Pro Bowler or an All-Pro, which was reflected in the Jets’ offer being in the same ballpark as John Johnson’s top contract (three years, $33.75 million) last offseason.

“The safety market in free agency was brutal last offseason for Maye and others, and might look the same again,” Spielberger said. “Labeling them all as ‘safety’ is not accounting for the very different playing styles that the position encompasses, but nevertheless it could be hard for a team to pay up for any of the available options if they know there are so many solid players available.”

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