By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
NEW YORK — As the New York Jets began their salary-cap purge Tuesday, they still faced their two most difficult offseason decisions: What to do with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow.
The Jets cleared about $31 million in salary cap space by cutting veteran linebackers Bart Scott and Calvin Pace and three other players. Safety Eric Smith, backup offensive lineman Jason Smith, and tight end Josh Baker also were released Tuesday. The moves were expected because New York entered the offseason more than $20 million over the cap for the 2013 season.
They were the first significant personnel decisions made by new general manager John Idzik, who was hired to replace the fired Mike Tannenbaum last month.
Idzik will be plenty busy this offseason. The Jets are hamstrung by the contract of starting quarterback Sanchez, who is coming off a miserable season but is guaranteed $8.25 million next season. He would cost the Jets a $17.1 million cap hit if they cut him.
So Sanchez will almost certainly be back, unless the Jets can trade him. If Sanchez returns, he will likely have to compete for the starting job, and the Jets will be in the market for a quarterback in free agency or the draft.
Tebow, who barely played after being acquired from Denver in a trade last year, is expected to be released soon. The Jets advertised Tebow as a do-everything addition to their offense, but he rarely was asked to do anything by coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, who since has been fired by Ryan.
Ryan praised the players released, particularly Scott, Pace and Eric Smith, who at various times were integral parts of a strong defense that slumped the last two years.
“Every one of these players was a major contributor to our football team,” Ryan said. “I was very impressed with Jason this past season, while Bart, Calvin and Eric have been an instrumental part of our defense for the past four years. “
Scott, one of Ryan’s favorite players and one of the league’s top trash talkers, has been slowed by injuries and had surgery in the offseason to repair torn ligaments in his right big toe. The 32-year-old linebacker had just 60 tackles last year and saw his streak of 119 consecutive games end because of the toe injury.
Scott was due to make $6.9 million next season, and saves the Jets $7.1 million on the cap with his release. There’s a chance Scott could come back at a lesser salary, but Demario Davis, the team’s third-round draft pick out of Arkansas State last year, is expected to slide into Scott’s inside linebacker role opposite David Harris.
Scott spent his first seven NFL seasons in Baltimore along with Ryan, and followed the coach to New York when Ryan was hired in 2009. Scott signed a six-year, $48 million contract, and was a playmaker in his first two seasons with New York, helping the Jets reach consecutive AFC championship games.
But he slowed on the field the last few seasons, and had issues off the field. When the team was cleaning out its lockers following the regular-season finale in 2011, Scott made an obscene gesture in front of a cameraman and was fined $10,000 by the team. He also criticized fans for being harsh on the team by telling the Daily News that they were probably “picked last in dodgeball all through high school.” He also told Newsday that they probably couldn’t make it through “a high school practice.”
Pace, a 2003 first-round pick by Arizona, spent his first five seasons with the Cardinals before signing a six-year deal with the Jets in 2008. He had seven sacks in his first season in New York, and eight the following year, but never became the dominant pass rusher the Jets envisioned.
He struggled with various injuries and his role changed at times, limiting him to 13 sacks — including just three last season — in the last three years. The 32-year-old Pace has 42 career sacks, and played mostly at outside linebacker for the Jets.
Bryan Thomas, the team’s other starting outside linebacker, is also a free agent and might not be re-signed.
Jason Smith was acquired from St. Louis shortly before the season opener when the Rams and Jets swapped struggling right tackles. New York sent Wayne Hunter to the Rams.
Smith, the No. 2 overall pick in 2009, was a backup all season to Austin Howard. He came in as an extra blocker or as a jumbo tight end, and his release — because of a roster bonus of $11.25 million due to him — was expected. He saves the Jets $12 million in salary cap space.
Smith’s career was plagued by concussion problems and ineffectiveness with the Rams. He was limited to only 29 games in his three seasons in St. Louis, but played in all 16 games in New York.
Eric Smith has been with the Jets since 2006, when they drafted him in the third round. He was an occasional starter at safety, including 14 games in 2011, and also was a special teams standout.
Releasing the hard-hitting Smith saves $3.5 million.
Baker played for the Jets in 2011, making three receptions. He went on injured reserve after injuring his right knee last August and did not play in 2012.
The Jets have 12 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents next month, including safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell, running back Shonn Greene, tight end Dustin Keller, wide receiver Braylon Edwards, defensive lineman Mike DeVito and offensive linemen Brandon Moore and Matt Slauson.