2023 must not be a revolving door at tackle
Another offseason, another Jets’ offensive line overhaul.
Time is ticking on Joe Douglas‘s reputation as a builder from the trenches. In his four seasons as Gang Green’s general manager, the team’s offensive line has ranged from revolving but decent to unwatchable. 2022 showed an awful lot of the latter, reaching a crescendo in Week 18 when the likes of Dan Feeney, Mike Remmers, and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif made a mockery of the term “pass protection.”
Some of the problems on the offensive line come down to prayer. Douglas signed Laken Tomlinson to a contract that is unimpeachable in 2023, and he will need to reap what he sows. As bad as Tomlinson was, the hope is that with a better (and the same) left tackle beside him, he can recapture at least some of his form from San Francisco, even if that form was not nearly as impressive as his contract would have you think.
Outside of Tomlinson, though, the only other surefire Jets’ starting offensive lineman for 2023 is Alijah Vera-Tucker. AVT is returning from a season-ending triceps tear suffered in Week 7. However, as devastating as the loss of Vera-Tucker was, there isn’t too much reason to be concerned about his return from injury. The Jets’ heart and soul should be back and better than ever.
Michael Nania discussed the Jets’ options at center for next season. Bringing back Connor McGovern is a possibility, but it might behoove the Jets to bring in a cheaper option, particularly if they can find one that is more consistent in pass protection.
However, all of this must start with the tackle position. The bookends are considered the most important spots on the offensive line because they are the first line of defense for the QB, usually against the opponent’s best pass rushers. The Jets have been searching for a consistently solid left tackle since D’Brickashaw Ferguson‘s heyday, and the other side has been a revolving door, as well.
George Fant’s injuries made him unable to replicate his stellar 2021 season, and Duane Brown’s age and injury caused him to be a liability, as well. In between, the Jets saw tackle appearances from AVT, Max Mitchell, Conor McDermott, Cedric Ogbuehi, and Mike Remmers.
Clearly, the Jets need an overhaul at tackle. The question is threefold: how many tackles do the Jets need, who should they bring in, and how will they pay for it?
There are many moving parts in the Jets’ tackle situation for 2023. They are all intertwined, which means that it is difficult to predict which decision might be made and in what order. These factors will determine how many tackles the Jets need to acquire in the offseason. Let’s start with the tackles currently on the roster.
The big story that covered a lot of the Jets’ 2022 offseason was Mekhi Becton‘s return from injury. Becton’s weight issues, mental state, and distance from the team all caused a media frenzy that had daily twists and turns. The saga ended with Becton’s fractured kneecap during training camp, which knocked him out for the entire season.
At the team’s final media session following the season, Becton showed up and stated that he was “real skinny” and in a better mental state than he had been in years. He weighed in at 370 pounds, which is just seven pounds above his NFL Combine number. The Jets said they are moving Becton back to left tackle, his natural position, and his tweets indicate that he fully expects to retake the position.
In Becton’s rookie season, he posted a 5.6% pressure rate, 1.9% sack + hit rate, 3.1% pass game blown block rate, 0.7% run game blown block rate, and a 0% stuff rate. Those run-blocking numbers are masterful, and the pass-blocking numbers were average on the whole with plenty of room to improve.
Obviously, Becton will be over two years removed from that form come 2023. Therefore, relying on him to play a meaningful role in the offense in 2023 could be a job-killing move for Joe Douglas. The Jets’ GM already made that mistake last offseason, not signing a quality swing tackle before Becton’s injury forced him to overpay for Duane Brown. Douglas must have an ironclad plan in place to account for injuries or simply poor play after two years away from NFL action.
The Jets hoped that Max Mitchell would never see the field in 2022, as he was a fourth-round developmental pick. Instead, he was their starting right tackle in the season’s opening game. Mitchell had a bit of a roller coaster year, enduring a serious knee injury, returning to start against the Vikings but seeing just a few snaps before being benched, and then being shelved for the season due to blood clots in his calf and lungs.
Although Jets fans were excited about Mitchell, the fact was that he really struggled on the field in both run-blocking and pass protection. He posted a 6% pressure rate, a 2.5% sack + hit rate, a 4.0% blown block rate in both run- and pass-blocking, and a 1.0% stuff rate in 2022. All of those numbers are significantly below average for a starting tackle. There is a reason that he was a developmental pick. He is not ready to be a starter in the NFL. Mitchell must add weight and strength to avoid being bull-rushed into the QB.
There are many who believe that the Jets will head into 2023 with a competition between Becton and Mitchell for a starting tackle position. I believe that would be foolhardy.
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At 38 years old and coming off a season played with a torn rotator cuff, Duane Brown could very well retire this offseason. He said that he’s going to take the time to decide, but he will likely need surgery for the rotator cuff.
Michael Nania detailed the pros and cons of cutting Brown should he decide to return. Releasing him with a post-June 1 designation would clear a fair amount of cap space. However, if the Jets do decide to keep him, it cannot be as a starter. As Michael broke down, Brown was possibly the Jets’ worst run-blocker this past season, and that is not going to get better with time.
If Brown retires, the Jets will have a $6.3 million dead cap hit in 2023.
Joe Douglas has to be thankful that he did not lock up George Fant last offseason. As Robert Saleh said, Fant played this season on one leg, and it showed. He just never looked like the same player from last season, and it was easy to see on film that his knee was a big reason for it.
If Fant would accept a smaller deal and return as a backup, the Jets might as well try to negotiate with him. He still does have the upside of that 2021 season. However, once more, the team cannot rely on him as a starter even if he does come back.
The Jets’ best offensive lineman presents a bit of a dilemma for the team. AVT has now played both tackle and guard positions, and he’s performed admirably in all four spots. However, it is clear that his ceiling as a guard is an All-Pro, while he is a solid but not spectacular tackle.
Surprisingly, AVT’s pass-blocking was actually better as a tackle than a guard in 2022, while his run-blocking was superior as a guard. If he can pass block well as a tackle, perhaps the Jets should consider moving him there. After all, it is easier to find a quality guard than tackle in free agency or the draft.
I would maintain, though, that AVT should be left at guard, for several reasons. First, having an All-Pro guard is not something to be taken lightly. Vera-Tucker’s run-blocking was sorely missed throughout the season, and if the Jets want to get back to a dominant running game, they need AVT pulling and leading the way.
More importantly, though, AVT did not face elite edge rushers during his stint at tackle. Due to his short arms (33 1/8 inches), there is still a good chance that he will struggle against rushers with elite bend. That is why AVT was moved from tackle to guard in the NFL to begin with.
AVT provides far more value as an All-Pro guard who can kick out to tackle if needed than as a tackle who can also play guard.
One interesting possibility is allowing Becton and Mitchell to compete for a starting tackle spot while using Vera-Tucker as the fallback option if neither wins the job. This could save the Jets the need for two tackles, allowing them to sign a mid-level guard in free agency and use their cap dollars elsewhere. However, it is also risky, as having AVT at tackle would pretty much automatically mean a less-capable guard, as well.
Ultimately, the Jets need replacements at both tackle positions, and it makes sense to bring in two of them, one in the first round of the draft and one via free agency.
Free agency options
There are a number of tackles available in free agency, each coming with pros and cons. Some of them may well be hit with the franchise tag, which would eliminate them as options. Let’s take a look at the breakdown.
|69 qualifiers (average)||Mike McGlinchey, 49ers||Yosh Nijman, Packers||Kaleb McGary, Falcons||Jawaan Taylor, Jaguars||Andre Dillard, Eagles|
|2023 season age||29||27||28||26||28|
|Spotrac estimated market value||$10.7 million||$3.2 million||$17.7 million||$5.8 million||N/A|
|Zone/gap system||60% zone||64% zone||80% zone||50-50 split||56% zone|
|Games/snaps played||17/1,036||17/756||17/1,051||17/1,095||5/37 (did not qualify)
713 snaps career
|Pressure rate (5.39%)||4.54% (23)||6.25% (50)||3.68% (12)||2.74% (5)||10.1%|
|Sack + hit rate (1.73%)||1.51% (28)||1.34% (22)||1.74% (34)||0.68% (9)||2.3%|
|Blown block rate - pass blocking||3.3% (T-27)||3.9% (33)||3.1% (26)||1.4% (T-3)||6.7%|
|Blown block rate - run blocking||1.1% (T-14)||2.7% (T-59)||2.9% (T-64)||1.3% (T-19)||2.3%|
|Opponent run stuff rate||0.4% (T-12)||1.0% (T-53)||1.0% (T-53)||0.5% (T-21)||1.2%|
|Penalties||10 (T-56)||10 (T-54)||5 (17)||7 (T-37)||3|
First of all, notice that most of the tackles available have done more zone blocking than gap, per Pro Football Focus. Perhaps that would have some influence on the Jets’ choice of coordinator, particularly since the players they’ve already acquired over the past two offseasons were brought in specifically to fit the zone system.
Additionally, there is a clear hierarchy in terms of options. Jawaan Taylor is the best two-way option, followed by Mike McGlinchey. After that, Kaleb McGary can be an average or above-average pass-blocker, but he is a liability in the run game; Yosh Nijman and Andre Dillard seem to be two-way liabilities, on the whole. Nijman’s and Dillard’s stats are about the equivalent of Max Mitchell’s and far worse than Mekhi Becton’s from 2020, which would make signing them not worthwhile.
McGlinchey may be the best target, after all, but he’s going to be costly. I see very little possibility that the Jaguars let Taylor go, as he was a real find this season. McGary is an interesting name since pass-blocking is the foremost concern with a tackle, but his listed market value would obviously be prohibitive for New York.
It is overwhelmingly likely that the Jets will draft a tackle with their first-round pick. Who that tackle will be is less certain. Ian Roddy listed the top candidates in Pete Skoronski, Broderick Jones, and Paris Johnson Jr.
It would also be interesting to see what would happen if the Jets like multiple tackle prospects; do they possibly trade down a few slots in the first round and nab an extra mid-round pick? This will depend on if they have a clear preference and what happens before their pick. It would also be a fascinating add to their ability to trade back into the first round and possibly add a coveted safety prospect, such as Antonio Johnson.
The Jets will need to bring in two new tackles this offseason, and both of those should ideally be starter-level. It’s going to cost them premium financial and draft capital, but the offensive line must be fixed for the Jets to be successful in 2023. After the quarterback position, this is the most important key for the team in 2023. Joe Douglas’s job likely depends on it.
Next Article: NY Jets’ tale of the tape: Derek Carr vs. Lamar Jackson
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