NEW YORK — The New York Jets cut ties with their top cornerback — and saved millions of dollars under their salary cap.
Antonio Cromartie, who was entering the final season of his four-year deal, was released Sunday. He was scheduled to cost the Jets’ cap $14.98 million this season, including a $5 million roster bonus that would have kicked in later this month.
With the move, which was expected, New York created about $9.5 million in cap space. There’s a chance the Jets could bring back Cromartie at a lesser salary, unless the three-time Pro Bowl selection chooses to explore free agency. The NFL’s free agency period begins Tuesday.
Cromartie expressed appreciation for the team and its fans in a few posts on his Twitter page.
“I would like 2 thank the Jets organization so much with helpin me grow as leader and a player,” he wrote.
Cromartie, who will be 30 next month, is coming off perhaps his worst season as he struggled with a hip ailment for most of the year while continuing to play as the Jets’ No. 1 cornerback. He still made the Pro Bowl, though, as an alternate.
“I just had a bad year,” he said during an interview with NBC Sports Network in January. “That falls heavily on me and no one else.”
New York could be in the market for a starting cornerback if the Jets don’t re-sign Cromartie because they have just Dee Milliner, the team’s top pick last year who struggled through an up-and-down season, and Kyle Wilson, their 2010 first-rounder who has played in more of a nickel back role. They also claimed former Chargers cornerback Johnny Patrick off waivers last week and have backups Darrin Walls and Ellis Lankster.
The Jets have already shown some interest in free agent cornerback Alterraun Verner, who spent his first five seasons with the Tennessee Titans.
The move with Cromartie could be just the first of a few high-profile players being released this offseason by the Jets. Quarterback Mark Sanchez and wide receiver Santonio Holmes are also likely to be cut because of high salary cap numbers.
Cromartie said a few times at the end of last season that he would prefer to retire as a member of the Jets and expressed excitement about the team keeping coach Rex Ryan around for 2014. Whether he’s a part of Ryan’s secondary next season remains to be seen.
Ryan called Cromartie “one of the finest athletes I’ve ever coached.”
“He was willing to contribute wherever the team needed him to win games,” Ryan said, adding: “He has a passion and enthusiasm for the game and I wish him and his family the best.”
Cromartie’s right hip bothered him at times after he reinjured it in Week 2 of the preseason. The hip issues stem from a 2008 injury in which he actually played through a dislocated hip while with the San Diego Chargers.
Cromartie has had varying degrees of pain the last few years related to the hip, but hadn’t felt sharp pains until late in the season. It appeared at times to have sapped some of Cromartie’s speed, with the cornerback getting beat on some plays he normally wouldn’t have in the past.
When Darrelle Revis was traded to Tampa Bay last April, Cromartie stepped in as the team’s No. 1 cornerback — a role in which he played well when Revis was lost early in the 2012 season with a knee injury.
He spent his first four seasons with the Chargers and was traded to the Jets in March 2010 for a draft pick. Cromartie became a free agent after that season, but after they unsuccessfully flirted with Nnamdi Asomugha, the Jets re-signed him to a four-year, $32 million deal.