Laken Tomlinson is someone the New York Jets should value highly in free agency
The New York Jets have a vacancy at right guard, and luckily for them, the 2022 free-agent market is filled with intriguing options at the guard position.
Former San Francisco 49ers left guard Laken Tomlinson is among the most tantalizing of those options.
For many reasons, Tomlinson should be one of the first players targeted by Jets general manager Joe Douglas once the free agency dam breaks at 12 p.m. ET on Monday.
Contract estimation for Laken Tomlinson
Let’s get an idea of how much Tomlinson will cost before we dig into the many appealing aspects of his profile.
Pro Football Focus estimates that Tomlinson will earn a three-year, $31.5 million deal ($10.5 million per year). That would currently rank as the 12th-largest contract among guards in terms of total value and the ninth-largest in terms of average annual value.
It’s a reasonable projection for Tomlinson, who just turned 30 in February but has the production to warrant eight figures annually on a multi-year deal.
However, the comparable contracts signed by similarly-aged guards are all over the place, making it difficult to project exactly where Tomlinson will land.
In 2021, accomplished 31-year-old guard Kevin Zeitler signed a three-year deal with Baltimore worth only $22.5 million ($7.5 million per year) despite still being a solid starter, whereas 30-year-old Joel Bitonio signed a three-year extension with Cleveland that netted him $48 million ($16 million per year).
Tomlinson’s recent track record of production falls in-between the levels Zeitler and Bitonio were performing at prior to signing their contracts. Zeitler had declined to a merely above-average level while Bitonio was playing at a star level. Tomlinson, as we’ll find, settles somewhere in the middle of those benchmarks.
With that in mind, PFF’s three-year, $31.5 million projection is a realistic estimation. If he were to move off that number in either direction, I think it would be more likely he earns a higher number than a lower one, but for the sake of this breakdown, we’ll operate under the assumption that he’ll be getting around $10.5 million per year on a multi-year contract.
Laken Tomlinson’s New York Jets scheme fit
The first positive that comes to mind when envisioning Tomlinson with the Jets is his scheme fit.
Tomlinson has plenty of experience in the Jets’ offensive scheme after playing under Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco for the last five years. The first four of those were shared with current Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who served as the 49ers’ passing game coordinator.
Not only does Tomlinson have experience playing in the wide-zone run scheme, but he has experience dominating in it.
Tomlinson earned a zone-blocking grade of 82.0 at Pro Football Focus in 2021, which ranked 11th-best out of 69 qualified guards. It was no fluke, as in 2020, he ranked fourth-best out of 67 qualifiers with an 86.6 zone-blocking grade.
The only other guards to post an 80.0+ zone-blocking grade in each of the past two seasons were Wyatt Teller, Zack Martin, Ali Marpet, Chris Lindstrom, and Brandon Scherff.
It’s fascinating that Tomlinson has become such a great zone-blocker despite his lackluster athleticism. Tomlinson did not impress at the 2015 combine, posting lackluster numbers in most drills.
Tomlinson especially struggled in the three-cone drill, which is a solid indicator of short-area quickness and thus a trait that teams have tended to value in zone-scheme interior offensive linemen. His 8.16-second time ranks at the 12th percentile all-time among guards.
Evidently, Tomlinson has figured out how to thrive on lateral run-blocking concepts in spite of that deficiency.
Laken Tomlinson is a genuinely good guy. Here, he gives Darius Leonard a free ride to a local pumpkin patch. Selfless. pic.twitter.com/6wjQ3IftLT
— KP (@KP_Show) October 26, 2021
Since 2019, San Francisco ranks sixth in the NFL in rushing yards (129.8 per game) and second in rushing touchdowns (64), and nobody has played more offensive snaps for the 49ers over that span than Tomlinson (3,249). The Duke product has been a driving force in helping the 49ers establish themselves as the rushing juggernaut that the world knows them as.
Laken Tomlinson’s good pass-blocking gives him a strong all-around game
Tomlinson complements his excellent run-blocking with similarly impressive pass-blocking.
In 2021, Tomlinson ranked eighth among left guards in PFF’s run-blocking grade (75.0) and ninth in PFF’s pass-blocking grade (75.2).
Thanks to his two-phase prowess, Tomlinson had the fifth-best overall PFF grade among left guards (75.9).
Laken Tomlinson pancaking Von Miller in pass pro pic.twitter.com/NX41IoGqWb
— Mike (@bengals_sans) February 22, 2022
It wasn’t anything new to see Tomlinson pass-blocking at a solid level. While this was Tomlinson’s career-best PFF pass-blocking grade, he has consistently placed in the category’s top-50%. Here are his pass-blocking grades over the previous few seasons (ranks among guards with 400+ offensive snaps):
- 2021: 75.0 (15th of 78)
- 2020: 62.2 (35th of 74)
- 2019: 69.3 (31st of 74)
- 2018: 74.1 (23rd of 71)
Tomlinson gave up 24 pressures on 598 pass-blocking snaps in 2021, a pressure rate of 4.01% that ranked 25th-best out of 68 qualified guards.
While that was a career-high – signaling that regression could be on the way – it actually wasn’t a huge outlier for him at all. It isn’t far off from his career average of 4.88%. For reference, that’s almost identical to the 2021 league average for guards (4.94%). Tomlinson has been very stable in this category on a yearly basis, always performing either slightly better or slightly worse than average.
Expect Tomlinson to continue pass-blocking around a league-average level going forward. But if he maintains his 2021 performance in the passing game, he has the potential to be an upper-echelon protector, coupling that up with his run-blocking to be a tremendous all-around guard.
Age is not a huge concern for Laken Tomlinson
While Tomlinson turned 30 years old in February, he has a more optimistic future outlook than the majority of players at his age.
Tomlinson has been getting better in recent years, not worse. His overall PFF grade of 78.8 in 2020 was a career-high by a wide margin, and he backed it up with a 75.4 overall grade in 2021, which is still 6.7 points better than any of his five career seasons prior to 2020.
Ranking fourth among left guards at PFF in 2020 and fifth in 2021, Tomlinson joins Joe Thuney, Ali Marpet, and Joel Bitonio in the group of four players to rank in the position’s top-five in each of the past two years (perhaps this signals Tomlinson may actually earn a deal closer to Bitonio’s $16 million per year).
Durability is another plus on Tomlinson’s side. Tomlinson has never missed a game in his career due to injury. The only game he missed was back in Week 1 of 2017, when the 49ers sat Tomlinson out because they had acquired him in a trade from Detroit only 10 days earlier.
The one concern regarding Tomlinson’s age is that the Jets would be asking him to move over to right guard after he’s played his entire career at left guard (save for one start at right guard for the Lions in 2016). That is definitely a question mark to keep in mind, although we’ve seen many players in recent history show that switching sides is doable.
Joe Douglas, New York Jets would be wise to place Laken Tomlinson atop their free agency wishlist
Laken Tomlinson checks all of the boxes for New York. He is a scheme fit, he can play at a high level in both phases, and he’s durable. Sure, he’s no youngster, but his track record cancels out the concerns that tend to accompany older players.
Of course, everything comes down to price. If Tomlinson sniffs the Joel Bitonio tier – somewhere north of $15 million per year – that might be a bit rich for the Jets’ blood considering how many other holes they have to fill. Tomlinson is good, but is he good enough to eat up nearly half of the Jets’ $35.45 million in effective cap space? That, I’m not so sure about.
However, if Tomlinson comes at a reasonable cost, the Jets need to put themselves at the forefront of the race for his services.
Adding Tomlinson would complete the construction of an offensive line that would enter 2022 with legitimate top-10 potential, all while allowing the Jets to enter the draft with one less glaring need to worry about.