The New York Jets’ George Fant-Mekhi Becton conundrum
Arguably the greatest success story of the New York Jets‘ 2021 season has been George Fant. The 29-year-old is becoming a star offensive lineman in his sixth NFL season. Fant has allowed pressure on just 3.1% of his snaps in pass protection this year, the third-lowest rate among left tackles.
So, the Jets have their left tackle of the future, right?
Not so fast. Things get tricky when you consider that Fant’s success has come as the injury replacement for Mekhi Becton, who exited the Jets’ season opener with a knee injury and went on to miss the rest of the season. Fant, meanwhile, began the year as the Jets’ right tackle.
General manager Joe Douglas signed Fant to a three-year, $27.3 million contract ($13.7 million in guaranteed) in the 2020 offseason with the team having holes at both tackle spots. Fant had experience playing both left and right tackle for the Seattle Seahawks.
The following month, Douglas selected Becton with the 11th overall pick. Becton also had experience playing both tackle spots, but it was at left tackle where he blossomed into an elite prospect during his final season at Louisville, so the Jets ended up penciling Becton in at left tackle while placing Fant at right tackle.
Becton enjoyed a promising rookie year in which he fought through various ailments to showcase an immensely high ceiling. Even as a 21-year-old rookie in need of more development, he was still already playing at the level of a top-10 left tackle.
Mekhi Becton PFF grades and ranks among left tackles from Weeks 11-17 of 2020
78.3 pass blocking grade (9th)
72.4 run blocking grade (10th)
One of 6 LTs ranked top-10 in both: and the only rookie of the group#Jets
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) April 22, 2021
Fant, meanwhile, had a year that could be best described as “decent”. His performance level ranged from average to below average. He got a couple of starts at left tackle in relief of Becton but was not noticeably better or worse than he was at right tackle.
This year, Fant has taken an enormous leap forward. The former college basketball player has figured out how to maximize his unique athletic talents. In pass protection, he is quick off the ball, has smooth feet getting into his set, and does a great job of getting his hands on defenders. Fant uses his buttery movement skills to shut down speed rushers, consistently running them up the arc and past the quarterback.
In the run game, Fant is not quite as dominant or consistent as he is in the passing game, but he has gotten much better and more impactful there, too. He is making plays in space as a run blocker more consistently than he used to, taking better angles in space and doing a better job of engaging aggressively to create movement.
Fant’s development has created a difficult situation for the Jets once Becton returns healthy in 2022. Do they stick with their original plan of Becton at left tackle and Fant at right tackle? Or, do they keep Fant on the left side and move Becton to the right?
One of the biggest bummers regarding Becton’s inability to return to the field this season is the fact that, after Fant’s excellent start to the year, we did not get to see whether he could carry over his elite play to the right tackle position (with Becton presumably sliding back in at left tackle upon his return). Fant only got a few snaps at right tackle in Week 1, and that’s likely going to be all we get for the year.
Becton’s return would have allowed us to get the answer to the key question New York must answer in order to solve their left tackle-right tackle debate: is Fant actually better at left tackle or can he be just as good on the right side?
We don’t know the answer to that right now, because as I mentioned earlier, Fant did not play any better when given the chance to start at left tackle in 2020. Until proven otherwise, his leap to stardom is a 2020-to-2021 leap, not a right-to-left leap.
If the answer is that Fant is legitimately a significantly better player on the left side, the Jets may want to try Becton out on the right side and see if he can produce over there. Why mess up a sure thing? Fant is dominating at left tackle, so roll with it, regardless of what you invested in Becton. Make the less proven player have to adapt.
But if the answer is that Fant can play at a similar level on either side, then the Jets will probably just stick with their initial plan and put the two tackles back in their original spots.
There are arguments for both sides.
Argument for keeping Fant at LT, moving Becton to RT
Fant himself has said that he is more comfortable at left tackle.
In 2020 – after Becton was drafted – Fant told the media that he left Seattle in hopes of playing left tackle and explained that he thinks he offers more at that spot.
“That was my thing, leaving Seattle I wanted to play left tackle. I feel really comfortable at the position. I think that’s where I offer the best abilities and (I’m) able to help the team the most,” Fant said. “I will say this: I’m versatile. I can play both sides. I played the the right tackle side as well and do a pretty good job at that side as well, so I’m just right now ready for the opportunity to go out there and start … I’m just excited to get there and just play, so it’s not about the position, it’s about getting on the field.”
There is also the point of chemistry. Fant had a whole year to play alongside rookie left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker. While it was supposed to be Becton building that chemistry with Vera-Tucker, forming a potentially devastating duo of first-round blockers, that’s not what happened. Fant got the reps and made the most of them.
Allowing Fant and Vera-Tucker to continue developing alongside one another might be a more prudent path than making Vera-Tucker start all over again with Becton. It depends on how much offensive line coach John Benton and the Jets value the chemistry aspect of things and whether they think making such a switch would actually be that big of a deal.
Becton’s durability and the effect of his injuries is another question here. Since Becton is proven to be considerably less durable than Fant, it has to be taken into account how much of an effect Becton’s injuries would have based on where he and Fant line up.
If you keep Fant at left tackle and move Becton to right tackle, then in the event of a Becton injury, you would only need to have a backup take over at right tackle. Fant could stay put at left tackle. Only one position switch would be required.
If Becton plays left tackle and gets injured, now you’d have to make Fant move from right tackle to left tackle and have a backup come in for Fant at right tackle – two position switches. That is a whole lot of extra movement for the offensive line to have to deal with. Remember that the guards next to each tackle are affected, too, not just the tackles themselves. Chemistry is key in the trenches.
Finally, there is the point of each player’s skillset and the general consensus of which skills are more valuable at each position.
Fant’s game leans toward pass-blocking while Becton’s leans toward run-blocking. Typically, left tackles are known to lean toward pass-blocking (it’s more important to have pass protection on the quarterback’s blindside) while right tackles lean toward run-blocking. Leaning into this would suggest playing Fant on the left and Becton on the right.
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Argument for keeping Becton at LT, moving Fant to RT
Fant is still exceedingly young in football years. He did not pick up the game until his fifth year of college. This is just his seventh year playing the sport whereas many of the guys around him have been in pads for over two decades.
With that in mind, perhaps the 2021 season was always destined to be Fant’s breakout year regardless of which side he played on.
When Douglas acquired Fant, it was not a very well-received signing because Fant did not have nearly enough tangible production to warrant the contract he received. Over four years with the Seahawks, Fant only had 18 starts at offensive tackle, and he struggled in most of those games. Most of his playing time (including 10 of his 28 “starts” was as a tight end/extra offensive lineman.
Douglas’ decision to sign Fant was entirely projection-based. You could see the sky-high upside within him when watching his tape. With his raw gifts, there was no telling how good he could become with some more development.
Fant was 27 years old when he put pen to paper with New York. Usually, it’s silly to expect a 27-year-old athlete to have his best days ahead of him.
But this was a rare case. As a player so uniquely new to the sport, it was plausible to think that Fant still had more growing to do.
So, what if this is just Fant’s breakout year as a football player? In that case, he probably would have been just as good on the right side?
There is also the point of Becton’s college production at Louisville. While Becton did play plenty of reps on both sides over his first two seasons, it was not until he became a full-time left tackle in his third season that he began performing at an elite level.
So, yes, while Fant is looking better at left tackle, Becton’s resume leans toward left tackle, too. And since Becton is the higher-ceiling player (Becton has the ability to match Fant’s pass protection while being far more dominant in the run game), perhaps the Jets would rather keep Becton at home on the blindside, feeling there is more to be gained with him there than Fant.
What should be done?
Ultimately, I think the plan is simple. The Jets should allow Becton and Fant to rotate between left tackle and right tackle in practice with the first-team offensive line throughout the offseason. See how things go and take it from there.
No matter how things pan out, let’s make one thing clear: this is a great problem to have. The Jets have two offensive tackles with top-tier ceilings. It is going to be hard to mess this up.