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If Duane Brown returns, how should NY Jets configure their OL?

Max Mitchell, NY Jets, PFF, Film, Duane Brown
Max Mitchell, New York Jets, Getty Images

The New York Jets may face an interesting dilemma with three tackles to fill two spots

Having tackle depth is a luxury foreign to the New York Jets.

After all, these same Jets had to resort to playing a fourth-round developmental rookie in Week 1 of the 2022 season. They were forced to sign a guy who was initially brought in to be a backup to be their starting tackle in Week 1, only to see him go on injured reserve.

Still, after a woeful offensive line showing against the Ravens, the Jets held up pretty well against the Browns. Myles Garrett and Jadaveon Clowney certainly had an influence on the game, but they didn’t wreck it in the same way they did against the Panthers and in so many games last season.

On Friday, Brown was seen at practice doing work on a side field, which is welcome news.

However, the prospect of Brown’s return presents the Jets with an interesting choice.

George Fant has been ping-ponged around from left tackle to right tackle with abandon, and it has shown in his play. He has allowed nine total pressures in two games, per Pro Football Focus. He’s also been called for two penalties, and, although one was a bogus holding call against the Browns, he could have been called for several false starts that the referees simply missed.

Meanwhile, rookie Max Mitchell has exceeded expectations. Instead of the total disaster at right tackle that most prognosticators expected, Mitchell has held his own. Although he’s allowed seven total pressures and two sacks, his 6.1% pressure rate is better than Top 10 rookies Evan Neal (6.4%), Charles Cross (7.1%), and Ikem Ekwonu (9.3%). That pressure rate is still well above the 5% league average for tackles, but it’s better than the Jets could have hoped for.

Brown is not eligible to play before the Jets play the Dolphins at home in Week 5. Head coach Robert Saleh‘s assertion that he “hopes” Brown will play this season does not make it sound encouraging that Brown will even come off injured reserve at that time.

Though the discussion is moot until Brown is ready to suit up, it’s still an interesting thought exercise: what should the Jets do at tackle if and when Brown returns to action?

Option 1: Leave things as they are

Offensive line play takes a while to gel. We already saw Laken Tomlinson play far better in Week 2 than Week 1 after having a terrible week against the Ravens. The Jets trended in a positive direction overall, and if that continues, they may not want to rock the boat. Let Fant gain consistency at left tackle and Mitchell learn on the fly on the right side.

This option is dependent on the continued play of Fant and Mitchell. Fant has been pretty awful so far, but as mentioned, he was switched back and forth a bunch of times this offseason. After preparing to be the right tackle all through preseason, he was suddenly thrust back onto the left side a few days before the season opener.

According to several offensive linemen, such a switch is like learning to use a fork with the opposite hand (to sanitize a cruder description). You can get accustomed to the change, but it takes time and repeated reps. That’s what Fant has been up against.

In Week 3, Fant goes up against Trey Hendrickson. Although Hendrickson had 14 sacks last season and 13.5 the year before, he has none in two games to start 2022. Following seasons in which he posted pressure rates of 13.3% and a whopping 16.5%, respectively, Hendrickson has posted a mere 4.5% rate so far this year.

Hendrickson did not face elite tackles, either, going up against Dan Moore Jr. of the Steelers and rookie Tyler Smith of the Cowboys. Moore allowed a 7.0% pressure rate last season, and Smith was thrust into the starting tackle spot after Tyron Smith went down. Furthermore, Hendrickson is not an overly explosive pass rusher, and Fant has had success against that type of rusher in the past. Still, Fant allowed a 9.5% pressure rate against the Bengals last year going up primarily against Hendrickson, so it’s a matchup worth monitoring.

Fant has a chance to right the ship after a rather ugly start to 2022, but he earned a bit of a leash with his stellar play in 2021, particularly in pass blocking. Meanwhile, if the Jets are serious about Mitchell as a tackle of the future, they may want him to learn in a trial by fire in his rookie season. They’ve been helping him out with a lot of tight end chipping, and they may continue to do that as the season goes on.

Option 2: Brown at LT, Fant at RT

Duane Brown has been a left tackle throughout his career. You’re not going to ask a 38-year-old to suddenly switch to a position he’s never played. If Brown returns, it’s going to be on the left side.

However, that would mean moving Fant again. Although Fant was not any worse at RT than LT prior to 2021, just that switch would be a net negative for the Jets’ line. In the long run for the season, there is no guarantee that Fant would be any better than Mitchell on the right side. Furthermore, it would take away the opportunity for development from Mitchell, while Fant is certainly not going to be the Jets’ right tackle next season.

As for Brown, he’s clearly on the downside of his career. His Pro Bowl selection last year was a nod to his career production, not an actual representation of his 2021 play. Although his eight sacks allowed may have been partially a function of playing in front of Russell Wilson and Geno Smith, two of the most sack-prone QBs in the league, he was still in the 42nd percentile among tackles with a 5.64% pressure rate allowed. He was an average run-blocker, too, ranking 39th out of 64 tackles with a 69.6 PFF run-blocking grade.

Is Brown-Fant at left and right tackle the Jets’ best tackle combination at this point? Possibly. After all, that’s how they had planned to start the season, and Fant has given no indication that he’s a better left tackle than Brown thus far.

Option 3: Brown at LT, Mitchell at RT

This would be quite a bold move by the Jets. It would make George Fant their swing tackle a year after posting one of the best pass-blocking seasons among all tackles in the NFL. It would certainly mean that they’re going to move on from him in free agency.

However, I highly doubt the Jets will do this unless Fant continues to struggle mightily and Mitchell keeps improving. Fant earned a reasonably long leash last season, and when he’s on, he’s steady as a rock on the left side. Brown is 38 years old with no upside at this point. If the Jets like what they see from Fant, they could consider re-signing him to be the left tackle for the foreseeable future.

Future offensive line outlook

It’s interesting to keep in mind what the Jets’ offensive line will look like beyond 2022, especially at tackle. Fant is a free agent who clearly wants to play and be paid as a left tackle. The Jets don’t know what they’re going to get from Mekhi Becton and certainly cannot rely on him to start next season.

Currently, the only surefire starters on the 2023 offensive line are Laken Tomlinson and Alijah Vera-Tucker. Despite fans’ hatred of Connor McGovern, he’s a league-average center who’s done quite a capable job so far this season (ridiculous ineligible man downfield calls notwithstanding), and he’s likely worth re-signing if the price is right.

When the Jets drafted Mitchell, it’s hard to say when, exactly, they imagined him contributing. It certainly wasn’t his rookie season, since he played against inferior competition throughout college. He still could use some more bulk and power in his frame. However, he’s been thrust into the starting role ahead of schedule, making it likely that he’ll be a big part of the Jets’ right tackle discussion next season.

Duane Brown is under contract for 2023, and his $11.6 million cap hit and $6.3 million in dead cap for next year make it likely that he’ll be on the roster. But in what capacity? Do the Jets really want to run with a 39-year-old as their first option at left tackle? That’s highly unlikely. It is far more likely that the Jets keep him on as a backup.

From a forward-looking angle, it makes more sense for the Jets to evaluate both Fant and Mitchell as tackle options for 2023. The only way they get that evaluation is if both continue to play.

Most likely 2022 outcome

It’s hard to say what’s most likely, as a lot of it depends on the play of the current tackles. This week may be a better litmus test than the previous two since the Jets are playing a Bengals defense that is talent-poor overall. Next week, the Jets face a Steelers defensive line that looks a lot less intimidating without reigning sack king T.J. Watt.

My best guess is that the Jets will roll with what they currently have. They’re not going to want to ping-pong Fant yet again. Mike LaFleur and Robert Saleh understand the importance of offensive line continuity, something the Jets have had precious little of.

I doubt that 2023 considerations will have too much of an impact in the Jets’ choice. It’s too early in a pivotal season for Zach Wilson to allow next year to influence current decisions.

It’s on Fant and Mitchell to prove that they deserve to stay put. The upcoming game against the Bengals may go a long way in making that determination.

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Adrian Roston
1 year ago

Shoulder injuries are tricky. I haven’t been expecting him to return at all.

Braden Bethwaite
1 year ago

Continuity is key and underrated by an alarming amount of fans… Fant and Michell all season for me. Also I never really understood the McGovern hate, I hope he gets a second contract.

1 year ago

Fant is a decent LT… against weaker competition. But that was last year and last year isn’t this year.

1 year ago

Fant has also had to go up against a serious step up in the level of competition he’s been facing at pass rusher. As Hendrickson’s previous subpar competition can explain his dip in production, Fant, as I pointed out numerous times leading up to this past April’s draft, had equally faced JAGs on the edge during his “breakout” last season. Fant was essentially a parent racing toddlers in 2021. This year, he’ll practically be a 50 year old trying to keep up with 19 year olds. In short, the shoe’s on the other foot.

1 year ago

Fant’s struggles have a lot more to do with his knee than his technique. Whatever off-season surgery he had on it seems to have been more serious than we were led to believe.

1 year ago
Reply to  Reprocity

I agree, I think it’s the injury that’s bothering him more than the position switch. It also kept him from getting reps in the preseason.

Mike Palazzo
1 year ago

I like option 1 the best. I think its going to get better as the season moves along for them. If brown does come back any point in the season then he will be what he was originally signed for. As a back up. My question to you is when Zach is cleared to play. Do we put him in if Flacco is the hot hand? He seems to have decent timing with his receivers and that Gelling I believe will get better as the season progresses.

1 year ago
Reply to  Mike Palazzo

I think Rivka’s conclusion is spot on. The current starting Tackles continue to play as long as they remain at least adequate. The sample size so far is too small to as yet draw any real conclusions. As for Zach, he should play as soon as he is 100%, but not before. This season is still mainly about him.