New York Jets OT George Fant is more captivating than you think as the 2022 season approaches
You read the title correctly: I truly believe that a soon-to-be 30-year-old offensive tackle is the most fascinating player on this young and flashy New York Jets team heading into the 2022 season.
George Fant is such an interesting player for so many reasons. He is surrounded by a boatload of compelling storylines.
I thought Fant was the Jets’ best player in 2021. He provided elite pass protection on the blind side throughout the entire season, finishing the year having allowed only 18 pressures on 594 pass-blocking snaps (3.0% pressure rate). The only left tackles in the NFL who allowed pressure on a lower percentage of their pass-blocking snaps than Fant were future Hall-of-Famers Andrew Whitworth and Tyron Smith.
You would think a player who may have been his team’s best performer last season would have a more secure future with the organization, but the impending free agent appears to be frustrated with his lack of a contract extension.
That’s the off-field drama. In addition to that, Fant’s on-field future is peppered with riveting questions, which we will get into.
Here are the many George Fant storylines that will make him a captivating player to watch in 2022.
1. The left tackle competition with Mekhi Becton
This is the most obvious storyline surrounding Fant. Most Jets fans are aware that Fant will be competing with Mekhi Becton for the team’s starting left tackle spot. It will be an intriguing competition between a pair of high-level talents.
After being selected 11th overall in the 2020 draft, Becton was chosen as the team’s left tackle over Fant despite Fant openly telling the media that one of his goals in free agency was to join a team where he could play left tackle.
“That was my thing, leaving Seattle I wanted to play left tackle,” Fant said shortly after Becton was drafted. “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.”
While it was apparent that his heart was on the left side, Fant made it clear that he was willing and ready to play on either side.
“I will say this: I’m versatile. I can play both sides. I played 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.”
Becton held down the left tackle spot throughout 2020 while Fant played on the right side – though Fant did replace Becton at left tackle in two games while the rookie was out due to injury. Becton performed well (when healthy) and showcased elite potential while Fant had an up-and-down season that could be described as average at best.
In 2021, the two players retained their roles for the season opener. But once Becton went down with what became a season-ending knee injury in Week 1, Fant moved to left tackle for the remainder of the season, and it’s on that side where he enjoyed his breakout year.
Will Becton win back the spot that he only lost due to injury? Or will Fant build upon his outstanding season and prove that he deserves to keep the role?
This duel is going to be a good one. Get your popcorn ready. (Although, considering that “watching” the battle will mostly consist of scrolling through practice updates on Twitter, maybe the popcorn won’t be necessary. But if eating popcorn while reading tweets is your thing, I won’t judge.)
2. Is Fant actually better at left tackle?
On the surface, it seems obvious that Fant is clearly better at left tackle. He said himself that he prefers to play there and he had his breakout season there. Easy-peasy.
But I’m not so convinced that Fant can’t be just as good at right tackle.
Prior to 2021, there was no statistical evidence that Fant was better at left tackle. Fant had played a lot of games on both sides throughout his career with the Seahawks and Jets, and, sure enough, his performance on each side was not too different.
Here are Fant’s numbers in games he started on each side from 2016 to 2020:
- Left tackle (18 starts): 10.2% pressure rate allowed, 54.4 average overall PFF grade
- Right tackle (14 starts): 5.6% pressure rate allowed, 55.7 average overall PFF grade
It appears that Fant played at a similar level regardless of which side he was on. Fant’s average overall grade at Pro Football Focus was actually 1.3 points better on the right side, which is a marginal difference.
However, Fant’s pass protection was substantially better at right tackle. Fant’s 5.6% pressure rate at right tackle is an approximately league-average number for the tackle position (it’s equal to the 2021 NFL average for tackles), but his 10.2% pressure rate at left tackle is terrible. That would have been the worst mark among qualified tackles in 2021.
Considering the large disparity in his pass protection but the small disparity in his overall grade, it’s clear that Fant’s run-blocking is what made up the gap. He was better in the run game at left tackle than he was at right tackle.
The bottom line is that we had not seen Fant showcase a significant difference in his overall play based on where he lined up prior to 2021.
With this knowledge of Fant’s pre-2021 splits, my argument is that Fant would have broken out in 2021 regardless of which side he was on. That is for this reason: In football years, it was just the very beginning of his prime.
While Fant was 29 years old last season and will be 30 this year, his age does not match up with his football experience in the same way that it does for most NFL players.
Fant did not start playing football until 2015, his redshirt senior year of college at Western Kentucky. He previously played four years of basketball for the Hilltoppers. The 2021 season was only his seventh as a football player in any capacity.
I think there is a real chance that Fant would have enjoyed a similar breakout in 2021 even if he remained on the right side. He is finally reaching the football-experience level that many of his peers hit in their early twenties.
Perhaps it is the stage of Fant’s developmental arc that facilitated his breakout, not his side change. If that is the case, maybe the Jets can feel good about moving Fant back to the right side and allowing Becton to reprise his role on the left side.
3. Did Fant truly break out or was 2021 an outlier?
Now that we’ve brought up the point of Fant’s late start to his football career, it begs a new question: Did he actually break out in 2021 or will that season prove to be an outlier?
Fant had shown fleeting signs of exciting ability throughout his first five seasons but could never maximize his physical traits consistently enough to produce at a high level. He was a high-level backup/low-level starter throughout most of his career.
The production that Fant put together in 2021 was an enormous step forward. His career allowed-pressure rate going into 2021 was 8.0% – nearly triple his 2021 rate of 3.0%.
We still need to see if Fant’s 2021 season is a sign of things to come or if it just proves to be a random season of greatness that he fails to maintain. At 30 years old, he should still have plenty of gas left in the tank – good offensive tackles can usually stay at their peak well into their thirties.
But when a player at Fant’s age makes a leap in production as huge as the one Fant made, it is wise to remain skeptical until they prove it’s for real – even taking into account everything we said about this being the true start of Fant’s prime in terms of football experience.
Yes, I do believe that Fant is truly hitting his football prime, but when considering the sheer enormity of his breakout (improving overnight from mediocre to elite in pass protection), the safest route is to move forward with caution.
This is the devil’s advocate argument to my point about Fant’s lack of football experience. Maybe he has really broken out. But it’s just as possible that 2021 was a flash in the pan. Let’s wait and see. If he shows us two consecutive seasons of high-level play, then Fant can be considered legit.
4. Quality of competition in 2021
As good as it was, Fant’s 2021 season did have one glaring asterisk attached to it – he faced a fairly weak schedule of opposing edge rushers.
Here are the numbers of Fant’s average opponent* in 2021: a PFF pass-rush grade of 63.6 and a pressure rate of 9.5%. That’s not very good. For reference, each of those numbers would have ranked at the 31st percentile out of 62 qualified edge rushers in 2021. The league averages for edge rushers were 67.4 and 10.1%.
*This data sample includes any opposing edge rusher who rushed off Fant’s side of the line on at least 1 snap in games started by Fant at left tackle. It is weighted based on playing time, giving more weight to opponents who played more reps against Fant.
Basically, Fant’s average opponent last season was a 31st-percentile starter. Not too intimidating.
The only three upper-echelon edge rushers that Fant faced were New England’s Matthew Judon (12.5 sacks), Cincinnati’s Trey Hendrickson (14.0 sacks), and New Orleans’ Marcus Davenport (9.0 sacks in 11 games).
Other than that trio, Fant mostly faced mediocre edge rushers who don’t keep anybody up at night.
To Fant’s credit, he was up to the challenge against his toughest competitors of the year. In his four games against Judon (2x), Hendrickson, and Davenport, Fant gave up only four pressures on a pressure rate of 2.4%, which is even better than his season average.
In 2022, the Jets are scheduled to play eight games against teams that ranked top-10 in sack rate last season. A much tougher slate of opponents seems to be coming. Can Fant rise to the challenge if he has to face more high-quality pass rushers than he did last year?
This point goes along with our previous discussion about Fant’s 2021 season possibly being an outlier. Beating up on a collection of low-level opponents can certainly be a recipe for an outlier season.
We’ll learn quickly if Fant can respond to a harder schedule of opponents. Players like Myles Garrett, Trey Hendrickson, T.J. Watt, and Rashan Gary await within the first six games of the year.
5. The contract situation
Fant will become an unrestricted free agent after the 2022 season. This will be a contract year for him.
After how well he played last season, Fant is a strong candidate for a contract extension. Fant himself seems to agree. Earlier this week, Fant wrote “Must be nice” in reply to a tweet that shared the news of Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick’s contract extension.
However, with all of the questions I listed above, you can understand why the Jets might be a little hesitant to extend Fant just yet. Perhaps they want to see the answers to some of these questions before they invest big-time money in Fant.
Jets general manager Joe Douglas seems to be a big fan of Fant. After all, Fant was Douglas’ very first blockbuster free-agent signing as the Jets’ general manager. Additionally, the Jets’ decision to sign Fant to a three-year, $27.3 million contract in 2020 was a major gamble at the time, one that can only be explained by the front office seeing more potential in the player than the rest of the league did.
Fant was a backup swing tackle and quasi-tight end for the Seahawks. It is clear that Douglas, a former offensive lineman, loved what he saw in Fant’s film and decided to take a shot on him. Douglas’ gamble has since paid off.
With all of this in mind, it is fair to think that Douglas would be eager to get Fant extended. Fant is a prototype “Joe Douglas guy”.
If Fant can get off to a hot start this season, quickly answering some of the questions we discussed earlier, perhaps Douglas will get to work on extending him in-season, just as he did with defensive end John Franklin-Myers in October 2021.
The looming contract situation is a dark cloud that hangs over all of the juicy storylines that will define Fant’s 2022 season. Perhaps the motivation of an expiring contract is exactly what Fant needs to ensure he can prove that his elite production is here to stay.
This is going to be the ultimate “prove-it” season for George Fant. I’ll be closely watching all five of the aforementioned storylines to see how they play out.