Potential guard upgrades await the New York Jets in free agency
If you’ve ever listened to a single Joe Douglas press conference you’re probably familiar with his inside-out roster-building concept. Douglas believes you start in the trenches and move out from there.
We’ve seen that philosophy play out over the last two years with his free agent and draft selections. In 2020, Douglas signed George Fant, Greg Van Roten, and Connor McGovern to multi-year deals while taking Mekhi Becton in the first round of the draft.
In 2021, Douglas decided to turn his focus to the defensive side of the ball, signing Carl Lawson to a three-year, $45 million contract. Douglas then signed Vinny Curry and Sheldon Rankins to round out the defensive line before making another addition to the offensive line with Alijah Vera-Tucker in the first round of the draft.
Put simply, Joe Douglas cares about the trenches and that’s not going to change. He said as much in his post-season press conference when he reiterated that in New York they are always going to prioritize winning in the trenches.
Some of his signings have been positive. Fant is coming off the best season of his career and although not a popular opinion, McGovern has been solid. Rankins didn’t have a great year but he wasn’t bad either. AVT already looks like a premier run blocker but he’ll need to show more in pass protection in year two.
On the flip side, you have Greg Van Roten, who’s been pretty bad and should be cut this offseason to save $3.5 million on the cap. Although Becton showed promise as a run blocker in 2020 he wasn’t overly reliable as a pass protector and missed nearly the entire 2021 season through injury. I still have faith in Becton, but unless he exceeds the play of Tampa Bay’s Tristan Wirfs who was taken after him, that selection will always be questioned.
I think it’s safe to assume that the Jets’ focus will again be on solidifying the trenches. One position to focus on is that right guard spot.
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was brought in mid-season, and while he brought some respectability to the spot, he is going to be a free agent and it’s likely the Jets will look to find a longer-term solution.
They could opt to focus on that position in the draft if they love someone like North Carolina State’s Ikem Ekonwu who can play guard or tackle, or Boston College’s Zion Johnson who is a good scheme fit. Or, they could look to free agency – but who’s available?
Here are three guards (besides the obvious option of Washington’s multi-time Pro Bowler Brandon Scherff) that I’d be taking a look at this offseason.
Connor Williams – Dallas Cowboys
It helps to play next to Tyron Smith and on the same line as Zack Martin and La’el Collins, but Connor Williams has been as dependable as they come ever since he was drafted out of Texas in the second round of the 2018 draft.
Still only 24 years old, Williams has played over 3,500 snaps for Dallas over the last four years and he’s coming off a season where he gave up just one sack and 13 total pressures. That gave him the third-lowest total of pressures allowed out of 63 guards who played at least 600 snaps.
His Pro Football Focus run-blocking grade of 76.7 ranks him as the 11th-best run-blocking guard, too. He’s never played on the right side of the line, but he has plenty of athleticism and the Cowboys run more zone than gap schemes, similar to the Jets.
There’s one big red flag for Williams; actually, to be more precise, there are 15 little yellow flags for Williams. That’s how many times he was penalized this season, which was the second-highest amount among guards in the NFL.
Williams was flagged 15 times through his first three years in the league, so is this just one of those seasons? Or is it the start of a worrying trend? That’s a question that needs answering.
Laken Tomlinson – San Francisco 49’ers
Laken Tomlinson isn’t as young or as productive as Williams, but he’s an interesting option for the Jets.
He’s only just going to turn 30, which is relatively young for an offensive lineman. If you got him on a three-year deal you’d still be able to draft his replacement, perhaps someone that needs a little development like Cole Strange from Chattanooga.
Tomlinson has been in the league for seven seasons and he’s been productive every single year.
In 2021 he allowed two sacks while allowing 24 pressures, ranking him as a top 10 guard in the league according to PFF. He was also highly touted as a run-blocker with his 75.0 grade rating him as the 14th-best guard in the league.
Obviously, there are some scheme similarities between the system that the Jets run in New York and the one being run by Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, and that would help. Considering the injury issues the Jets have experienced, bringing on a guy who’s played over 1,000 snaps a year for five years straight is also desirable.
Andrew Norwell – Jacksonville Jaguars
I know what you’re thinking, why on earth would you target someone on a team worse than your own? That’s a very fair and valid point, but the offensive line works as a unit and Andrew Norwell has been on a bad unit.
The Jaguars actually renegotiated his contract to make him a free agent after the 2021 season and if I were them I wouldn’t be letting him go considering they have a franchise QB to protect. But if I’m Norwell I probably wouldn’t mind getting out of there.
Norwell has largely been a very consistent guard in both pass protection and run-blocking for eight years and that kind of experience is something to lean on. He’s still only 30 so he has enough juice left in the tank for a few more years and he’s coming off a 1000-snap season where he gave up three sacks and 24 pressures.
Like Dallas and San Francisco, Jacksonville ran more zone plays than they did gap plays.
While Norwell wouldn’t be my first choice he’s a cheaper option that would still be an upgrade over what the Jets had in 2021. Like Tomlinson, it would allow the Jets to draft his eventual replacement and develop him.
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