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What level of OL play do NY Jets need to be successful?

Mekhi Becton, NY Jets, OL, Return
Mekhi Becton, New York Jets, Getty Images

The question is how much is enough on the OL

When the New York Jets hired Joe Douglas as their general manager, one of the biggest reasons was for his emphasis on building a team from the trenches. As a former All-Atlantic offensive tackle at the University of Richmond, his first priority was to build up the offensive line.

Heading into his fourth offseason and fifth season with the team, Douglas hasn’t necessarily seen the success he had hoped for. The Jets’ offensive line has been decimated by injuries and crippled by miscommunication, lack of effort, poor play, and, perhaps, some bad coaching.

Now that Nathaniel Hackett and Keith Carter have replaced Mike LaFleur and John Benton, Douglas’s main job is going to be to find the Jets a quarterback they can win with. However, not far behind is the offensive line. In 2022, the team’s performance up front further magnified the execrable QB play. Even the best passers will often struggle without an offensive line, but when the quarterback is below average, a bad offensive line is the kiss of death.

The question is how to quantify the word “improve.” There is a vague mandate to “get better.” However, how much better must the Jets’ offensive line be to garner success?

2022 pass-blocking

Pro Football Focus has a metric called pass-blocking efficiency (PBE), which measures pressure allowed on a per-snap basis with weighting toward sacks allowed. To detract from its accuracy, the Lions, known for having one of the most dominant offensive lines in the league this season, ranked 14th in pass-blocking efficiency. Although this metric is not perfect, as allowing or not allowing a sack is not always within a lineman’s control, it gives a fair estimate of how a particular player performed as a pass-blocker beyond just looking at their raw pressure rates.

In 2022, the teams with the highest PBE included the Buccaneers, Eagles, Packers, Falcons, and Panthers. Those teams finished 11th, 9th, 14th, 19th, and 28th in pass DVOA, respectively. Meanwhile, the bottom five teams in PBE were the Vikings, Bears, Rams, Commanders, and Titans. They finished 15th, 30th, 25th, 26th, and 20th in pass DVOA.

Though there is a general trend toward better passing on teams with better PBE, it is not as if the strongest pass-blocking teams automatically yielded the best passing results. In fact, the top five teams in pass DVOA were the Chiefs, Bills, 49ers, Dolphins, and Lions; they finished 10th, 18th, 21st, 6th, and 14th in PBE.

Overall, the teams with top-10 PBE averaged a pass DVOA ranking of 12.5. Teams with a middle-10 (12th-21st) PBE averaged a pass DVOA ranking of 14.8, while the bottom-10 PBE teams were at 21.8.

It’s interesting to note that while there is only a 2.3-point difference in pass DVOA ranking between the top-10 and middle-10 pass-blocking teams, that difference increases to 7.0 when the line reduces from middle- to bottom-10.

Now, obviously, a quarterback can help his offensive line as much as the line can help the quarterback. A QB getting the ball out quickly and the ability to maneuver the pocket or scramble out of it will make their offensive line look better. However, it seems that this difference helps only so much between the best and more mediocre offensive lines, while the bottom lines have passing games that struggle significantly more.

This would support the hypothesis that there is not a huge offensive leap between having an average or slightly above-average line vs. having a dominant one, at least where pass-blocking is concerned. The returns are somewhat diminishing between the top-15 and top-5 offensive lines, certainly.

Run-blocking

It is much more difficult to quantify how good an offensive line is in run-blocking. Looking at just the running back’s output is short-sighted, as is including QB scrambles and other mitigating factors. Offensive line metrics are notoriously difficult to isolate; in fact, this year’s NFL Big Data Bowl is focused on just that, and it has been a significant challenge thus far, as heard from many of the participants.

The best ways we have available to isolate the value of run-blocking compared to running backs are by comparing rushing yards before contact and expected rush yards with overall rushing efficiency.

Yards before contact

PFF has a metric called yards after contact per attempt (YCO), which measures how much yardage a back generated after he was first contacted. If we subtract YCO from a back’s actual yards per carry, we can determine his yards before contact (YBC). Doing this on a team level and finding the YBC per attempt rate may give us some idea of how much push an offensive line generates in the run game.

Obviously, there are more parts to run-blocking than just the five linemen, as the tight end(s) and receivers also play a role. A back’s vision may also have an impact on when he is first contacted. However, it certainly gives us a thumbnail estimate to work with.

The main thing we’re looking for is the correlation between yards before contact per attempt and overall rushing efficiency, which we will measure if the offensive line’s impact leads to better overall rushing output. I chose to use Expected Points Added (EPA) per play rather than rushing DVOA because this will allow us to isolate non-quarterback runs. QB runs do not provide much data about the quality of the offensive line unless they are designed runs, and those are difficult to isolate.

Here are the results:

  • Top 10 YBC – median EPA rank: 12.5
  • Middle 10 YBC – median EPA rank: 12
  • Bottom 10 YBC – median EPA rank: 24

These results are actually astounding. When measuring yards before contact compared to EPA, there appears to be practically no difference at all between having a top-10 offensive line and a middle-10 one. A bottom-10 line, though, has a devastating effect on an offense’s rushing efficiency.

Expected rush yards

NFL’s Next Gen Stats tracks a metric called Expected Rush Yards (xRY), which tracks how many yards the ball carrier would be expected to gain based on the blocking setup when he receives the ball. I have my suspicions about the accuracy and validity of the metric, as going through it on a play-by-play basis compared to the film often yields a suspect result.

However, when aggregating over a season’s worth of data, some of that inaccuracy should balance out to a metric that has at least some value. Therefore, I calculated each team’s expected rush yards per attempt, which can separate the offensive lines that provided great rushing opportunities for their backs from those that did not. Comparing that data to actual rushing efficiency can give us some idea of whether better blocking will yield significantly superior rushing results.

  • Top 10 xRY/attempt – median EPA rank: 12.5
  • Middle 10 xRY/attempt – median EPA rank: 17.5
  • Bottom 10 xRY/attempt – median EPA rank: 21

This metric does show some more noteworthy differences between offensive lines and is more consistent with what I expected. To this point, all broader NFL analytical breakdowns have shown that a running back’s impact is dependent on his run-blocking to a large extent, which is what led to the widespread perception that running backs don’t matter. While the larger data does not quite support that conclusion, this sample does demonstrate that a better offensive line will, on average, yield more efficient rushing than a mediocre one, and considerably more efficient rushing than a poor line.

2022 Jets offensive line

Obviously, the complete decimation and meltdown of the Jets’ offensive line was a disaster. Every time one lineman got healthy, someone else took his place on injured reserve. In total, the Jets started six tackles, and 11 different linemen played over 60 snaps for the team.

Most teams decimated by this level of injury would struggle on the line, and the Jets were no different. They allowed 192 pressures on 689 pass-blocking snaps, per PFF, the seventh most in the league. Their pass-blocking efficiency ranked 22nd. For a team that played that many different linemen, the overall numbers aren’t as ugly as they could have been, but the film is uglier.

It was in run-blocking, supposedly the Jets’ strength heading into the season, that things really got nasty. Jets backs averaged just 1.25 yards before contact per attempt, tied for 25th in the league. Against Jacksonville, the team netted one rushing yard in the first half and not a single yard before contact the entire game. The RBs were hit in the backfield on virtually every play for the last three weeks.

Still, when Mike White played against Minnesota, the Jets held their own against the best pass-rushing duo in the league. There were isolated games (first Miami game, first Buffalo game, Chicago) in which the line looked competent. As Robert Saleh said, the wheels simply fell off at the end of the year.

Jets RBs

The Jets will likely head into 2023 with Breece Hall, Bam Knight, and Michael Carter as their backfield trio. They could potentially re-sign Ty Johnson, as they seem to like him more than fans do. Regardless, let’s focus on the top three and what they could bring to the table from a rushing perspective.

The Jets’ running game plummeted with the losses of Hall and Alijah Vera-Tucker. While it is difficult to isolate the impact of one loss over the other, it is noteworthy that the Jets’ run game was decent in 2021 with Vera-Tucker, dominant at times with him in 2022, and then horrific without him. This was despite the fact that Bam Knight showed flashes of tremendous ability in gaining yards after contact in the absence of Hall.

Among 67 backs who had at least 50 carries, Hall ranked second with 4.13 yards after contact per attempt. However, he ranked 23rd with 1.663 yards before contact per attempt, indicating that he often outran his line by a significant margin.

Still, Hall also benefited from more space to run than his fellow backs. Carter and Knight ranked 65th and dead-last, respectively, in yards before contact per attempt, recording marks of 0.825 and 0.788. Some of that may have been due to poor vision, especially in Carter’s case, but vision can only get a rusher so far when he’s hit in the backfield.

Then again, Carter’s mark in yards before contact was not all that much better in 2021. Last year, he ranked 58th out of 77 backs (25th percentile, min. 50 rushes) with 0.980 yards before contact per attempt. Obviously, that’s better than his 0.825 number and fourth-percentile finish this season, but it’s still not great. The primary difference in Carter’s case was what he did after he was contacted: in 2021, he ranked 16th (80th percentile) with 3.37 yards after contact per attempt, whereas in 2022, that decreased to 2.7, which ranked 53rd (22nd percentile).

Knight was a rookie, which means there is no basis for comparison. His yards after contact per attempt average was not much better than Carter’s, ranking 46th (33rd percentile) at 2.74. Neither back was able to outrun their line.

However, what’s interesting is the number of tackles both backs broke. Despite having a down year, Carter still ranked 13th with 0.228 missed tackles forced per rush, and Knight led all backs with a 0.341 mark. Although Carter’s number did decline somewhat from 2021, when he ranked third with 0.265 missed tackles forced per rush, that is still a well above-average mark. (Hall ranked 26th with 0.200.)

All three backs have shown that they have significant potential. Carter did have a down year, but he remained hard to bring down on the first tackle. Knight showed promise, while Hall looked like a star. Obviously, they will all benefit from an improved offensive line. With Hall returning, even if his elite-level burst is somewhat diminished due to his ACL tear, there should be some instant juice in the run game. Even Carter and Knight, though, can see large gains from relatively minor improvements due to their ability to break tackles, which will likely turn into extra positive yardage with better blocking.

Possible quarterbacks

At this point, the most likely Jets’ quarterback for 2023 is Derek Carr or Aaron Rodgers. With the hire of Nathaniel Hackett as offensive coordinator, Rodgers moved into a tie with Carr on the betting markets, signifying a belief that Hackett was brought in to lure Rodgers to New York. (We know how that turned out in Denver, though.) Jimmy Garoppolo is considered the third-most likely option.

How do Rodgers, Carr, and Garoppolo perform under pressure?

In general, a quarterback’s pressure numbers are not stable from year to year, so there is fluctuation. However, there are some QBs whose vision and poise will allow them to get the ball out quickly and accurately enough to beat pressure. Let’s take a look at their numbers over the past two years.

Derek Carr 2022Aaron Rodgers 2022Jimmy Garoppolo 2022Derek Carr 2021Aaron Rodgers 2021Jimmy Garoppolo 2021
Pressured dropback rate (rank)36.0% (27/34)26.7% (4)29.3% (9)34.8% (23/35)26.0% (3)28.2% (7)
Yards per attempt6.5 (T-9)5.8 (T-19)5.4 (T-22)6.8 (T-7)5.1 (T-30)7.4 (3)
Completion %50.9% (11)47.0% (17)57.1% (2)53.8% (7)38.4% (32)59.0% (3)
TD:INT6:44:45:35:98:38:6
Turnover-worthy play rate3.9% (12)5.2% (T-21)3.7% (9)7.4% (31)3.8% (10)9.4% (33)
ADOT10.6 (16)13.4 (T-5)8.4 (32)10.5 (T-19)11.9 (10)8.8 (32)
On-target rate66.9% (10)64.4% (17)65.3% (14)70.3% (7)54.5% (34)72.4% (2)
Pressure-to-sack ratio13.8% (4)20.4% (19)18.8% (15)16.7% (15)20.0% (24)21.6% (26)
Average time to throw3.27 (15)3.89 (30)2.96 (1)3.30 (12)3.64 (T-25)3.12 (T-6)
QB rating73.7 (12)62.6 (20)77.5 (9)63.9 (24)67.9 (20)83.9 (5)

Somehow, Garoppolo’s numbers look the best overall minus that ugly turnover-worthy play rate from 2021. That’s a big caveat, especially since he has always faced much less pressure than average in San Francisco. You can live with the tendency to put the ball in harm’s way when it doesn’t happen that often, but when it’s happening 36% of the time (as it did to Carr this year), the QB better be able to protect the ball.

It’s interesting to note that Rodgers had poor numbers under pressure in both seasons, even in 2021 when he was the league MVP. He just faced pressure less often than most other quarterbacks. That would suggest he struggles under pressure in general since he had Davante Adams in 2021. Going back a few years, it’s evident that Rodgers has mostly been somewhat below average under pressure for a while, which is surprising for an all-world QB.

Carr performed fairly well under pressure in both 2021 and 2022, but he put the ball in harm’s way at an alarming rate when under duress in 2021. He curbed a lot of that carelessness under pressure in 2022, but it was replaced by some ugly throws when he was kept clean, resulting in a 28th-ranked 3.0% turnover-worthy play rate when he had time to throw. By contrast, in 2021, Carr ranked second with a minuscule 1.3% rate when kept clean, tied with Rodgers.

Overall, with all three of these quarterbacks, giving them better pass protection will definitely matter.

Projected OL improvements

The Jets have only two players on their offensive line who are sure to return in 2023: Alijah Vera-Tucker, their best offensive player, and Laken Tomlinson, whose contract is cut-prohibitive. These two guards are on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of performance.

The assumption in many mock draft circles (Mel Kiper Jr. notwithstanding) is that the Jets will select a tackle with the No. 13 pick in the draft. There is plenty of time for things to change, but as of now, most consider Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. the top tackle prospect available. However, top-tier tackles often go off the board in the top 10, and it’s possible that as many as three or even four are selected before the Jets are on the clock.

Still, Jet X draft expert Andrew Golden has five tackles with first-round grades, including Johnson, his teammate Dawand Jones, Tennessee’s Darnell Wright, Broderick Jones of Georgia, and Northwestern’s Pete Skoronski. Skoronski has short arms (similar to AVT’s at 32 1/4″ to the Jets guard’s 32 1/8″) and may well kick inside in the NFL, and Broderick Jones has a lot of upside but may have some struggles early.

Even if the Jets do take a tackle in the draft, though, it remains to be seen what they will do on the other side of the line. Since Tomlinson struggled without the dominant Trent Williams next to him, it’s of utmost importance for the Jets to upgrade the left tackle spot to try to get the most out of Tomlinson. Perhaps a rookie can step into that role; maybe Mekhi Becton dominates and takes over the slot for good. But the Jets really need the blind side to be anchored for 2023.

Center is one position that I think the Jets can afford to go average on. It’s just not worth paying at the high end of the market right now. Connor McGovern is going to want too much money for his below-average play, as Spotrac has his market value at $12.5 million per year. Even with Nathaniel Hackett’s hire ensuring that the Jets will continue running the wide zone, they just cannot afford to pay a center that amount of money.

Perhaps the Jets try to draft a center, but will that player be able to start from Day 1? The Chiefs struck gold in Round 2 with Creed Humphrey, but current projections for the centers in this year’s draft are all over the map. There is usually more clarity closer to the draft, but it’s going to be hard for the Jets to take a center with a high pick given their needs at tackle, safety, defensive tackle, receiver, and linebacker.

Keith Carter

The Jets made an interesting offensive line coach/run game coordinator hire in Keith Carter, formerly of the Titans. Veteran tackle Taylor Lewan had some less-than-complimentary things to say about Carter, essentially calling his former coach too rough and saying that he worked his veteran linemen too hard.

However, this may be exactly what the Jets need after a completely undisciplined year from virtually every lineman who took the field. The players did not seem overly concerned about their poor performance no matter how many times Robert Saleh said that they had to get better in both blocking phases. For a team that trotted out four long-time veterans for most of the season, the disaster up front was unacceptable. Perhaps a disciplinarian who will hold veterans accountable is in order.

Thinking about players like Tomlinson, whose struggles in 2022 almost defied reason, and Becton, whose weight and motivation have repeatedly been questioned, a tough, no-nonsense coach sounds like the best way to try to keep them in line.

Overall outlook

As much as the offensive line is a priority heading into 2023, it’s important to understand that good is usually good enough when it comes to the offensive line. A middle-of-the-pack run-blocking game with somewhat above-average pass-blocking can get you pretty far if you have the surrounding weapons. With Hall, Garrett Wilson, Elijah Moore, Corey Davis, and Tyler Conklin, there’s plenty of talent there to win if the line can just hold up at a decent level.

Obviously, the line question must be answered along with the quarterback. At the same time, Joe Douglas should not rush to pay big bucks to a free-agent offensive lineman, particularly after the Tomlinson debacle. Even though I have written several times that the Jets need two new starting tackles, it might not be feasible with the team’s cap situation. In that case, their best bet may be to pick the top tackle available at No. 13, maybe sign a mid-tier option in free agency, and then let Becton, Mitchell, Brown (assuming he does not retire), and the rookie battle out an open competition for both tackle spots.

The Jets entered the 2022 season with PFF’s projected 13th-ranked offensive line. If they can actually receive that level of production out of their line in 2023, that will likely be enough to get the most from their other weapons and finally field a truly productive offense on a weekly basis.

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mlesko73
mlesko73
1 year ago

Wow, lots of information. Thank you.

As an ex-OLineman I think I speak for most other OL, I’d rather be run-blocking than pass-blocking. It’s an aggressive act versus a passive one. At the same time I think a great QB can mitigate a poor offensive line better than a great RB can.

Ideally, we draft an OT at 13, we keep Herbig as a backup, AVT is healthy (and a guard), Mitchell resolves his medical issues and gains some weight/strength/confidence, re-sign CMD (only b/c of lack of options). Absolute gravy: Becton returns to anywhere near his rookie form. Sign a mid-tier OT in FA.

I hate that our OLine has failed so miserably under Joe D. I believe in him and the trenches first theory. Last year was excruciating, but the only thing I can really blame Joe D for is relying on Becton too much. The injuries were overwhelming.

I read the article about Lewan’s comments. While it seemed like whining, there could be some real concerns there. It’s a thin line between a coach being strict and demanding, and a coach squashing a player’s resolve. Our team definitely needs accountability, I am hopeful Carter can bring it to this group.

The only reason I’m not happy about Hackett is the apparent continuation of the zone blocking scheme. I think OLineman do better in the gap/power game for the same reason I stated that they prefer run to pass blocking; aggressiveness.

vnick12
vnick12
1 year ago

A variable not covered in your write up is the predictability of play calling. If opposing coordinators can identify tendencies/patterns vs. their opponent, they will set their defenses up to outperform and make the OL stats look worse.

Jonathan Richter
1 year ago

I don’t trust PFFs grades. What we need is someone to do the blocking analysis Nania did for the JETS O linemen for every player/team.

I would bring back McGovern. He never misses play, and with the number of injuries we suffered o the line, that is a valuable characteristic. Ideally, Becton comes back healthy, but we all know that’s a long-shot. I thought Mitchell played well his first 4 games before getting hurt.

I would like to trade Tomlinson. Package him with Elijah Moore to Vegas for Carr. With AVT and Herbig we should be ok at Guard.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jonathan Richter
vnick12
vnick12
1 year ago

Why would you trade players to Vegas when it is common knowledge Carr is going to be cut?

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