The New York Jets could target the center position early in the 2023 NFL draft
Yesterday, we analyzed how well the top offensive tackle prospects in the 2023 NFL draft might fit the New York Jets’ offensive scheme. Today we are turning our attention to the center position – another gaping hole on the Jets’ offensive line.
In yesterday’s breakdown, we looked at three specific categories that I surmised could potentially serve as valuable signals in determining which offensive linemen the Jets might prefer to draft:
- Performance in the broad jump (Both the Jets and Nathaniel Hackett’s teams have favored linemen who performed well in the broad jump, as it showcases the explosiveness that is highly valuable in an outside-zone running scheme.)
- Average-sized frames (The Jets have mostly targeted average-sized linemen rather than abnormally large or small offensive linemen.)
- Zone-run percentage in college (Drafting a prospect who played in a zone-heavy offense could allow for a smoother transition into the Jets’ offense.)
Let’s take a look at the top center prospects in the 2023 NFL draft and see how they stack up in these categories. Here are the prospects we will be analyzing today:
- John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota
- Steve Avila, TCU
- Luke Wypler, Ohio State
- Joe Tippmann, Wisconsin
- Olusegun Oluwatimi, Michigan
- Ricky Stromberg, Arkansas
Of the Jets’ four opening-week starting offensive linemen in 2022 who participated in the broad jump, all four of them recorded a result that ranked above the 60th percentile all-time at their position. Their average percentile rank was 73.5. Hackett’s Broncos also had four opening-week starting offensive linemen who had a broad jump number to their name, and their average percentile rank was 68.8.
During Hackett’s three years in Green Bay, the Packers drafted three offensive linemen who participated in the broad jump, and their average percentile rank was 76.3.
Clearly, the broad jump is important to outside-zone teams.
Here are the broad jump performances of our six center prospects:
- Ricky Stromberg: 111 in. (93rd percentile among C)
- Olusegun Oluwatimi: 110 in. (90th percentile)
- Luke Wypler, Ohio State: 106 in. (77th percentile)
- John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota: 104 in. (62nd percentile)
- Steve Avila, TCU: 98 in. (26th percentile)
- Joe Tippmann, Wisconsin: Did not participate
Avila’s woeful broad jump performance is a red flag. However, he performed well in other areas as he still managed to record a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 8.46/10 despite his broad jump. Still, explosion is what the Jets and Hackett seem to value most, and he came up short there.
The other four prospects who participated in the broad jump each met the Jets’ apparent threshold. Stromberg and Oluwatimi stood out with elite performances.
Tippmann did not participate in any combine drills, so it is difficult to quantify his athleticism relative to other prospects, but most scouting reports praise his athletic skills.
The Jets had seven offensive linemen in 2022 who I would consider “noteworthy investments” – i.e. draft picks or starter-level free agents. As opposed to backups, these are players who might signal the Jets’ preferences when scouting linemen. I think we can learn more about what the Jets value in offensive linemen by looking solely at the players they drafted or signed to starter-level contracts rather than lumping in the backups they scooped off the scrap heap (such as Cedric Ogbuehi, Nate Herbig, Dan Feeney).
Here are the seven notable investments on the Jets’ offensive line last year, and their size rankings for their respective positions:
*Weights shown are the players’ listed weights for the 2022 season.
- Duane Brown: 6’4 (8th percentile among T), 315 lb (56th percentile), 34¼ in. arms (59th percentile)
- Mekhi Becton: 6’7 (91st percentile among T), 363 lb (98th percentile), 35⅝ in. arms (95th percentile)
- Max Mitchell: 6’6¼ (86th percentile among T), 307 lb (35th percentile), 33½ in. arms (46th percentile)
- George Fant: 6’5 (30th percentile among T), 322 lb (74th percentile), 34⅞ in. arms (78th percentile)
- Connor McGovern: 6’4 (68th percentile among C), 306 lb (64th percentile), 32⅞ in. arms (37th percentile)
- Alijah Vera-Tucker: 6’4½ (61st percentile among G), 308 lb (34th percentile), 32⅛ in. arms (8th percentile)
- Laken Tomlinson: 6’3 (19th percentile among G), 315 lb (59th percentile), 33⅝ in. arms (63rd percentile)
When it comes to height and arm length, the Jets have not shown any noticeable preferences. They will take chances on short-armed players like Alijah Vera-Tucker and they are fine with relatively short players like Duane Brown and Laken Tomlinson. At the same time, they also added some very tall and very lengthy players. This tells us that we should not expect the Jets to strongly consider height or arm length in their scouting, be it a good or bad trait on a prospect’s resume.
The Jets’ most noticeable tendency comes in the weight department, where they have largely tended to stay near the middle of the pack. Outside of Mekhi Becton, each of the other six linemen ranked no lower than the 34th percentile and no higher than the 74th percentile in weight at their position. In other words, six of the Jets’ seven noteworthy investments weighed in the middle-50% at their position. This suggests we should expect the Jets to most likely focus on players who are not unusually large or small.
Here are the measurements of our six center prospects and their percentile rankings among center prospects all-time:
- John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota: 6’3½ (54th percentile), 301 lb. (38th percentile), 32⅝ in. arms (46th percentile)
- Steve Avila, TCU: 6’3⅝ (58th percentile), 332 lb. (100th percentile), 33 in. arms (50th percentile)
- Luke Wypler, Ohio State: 6’3 (37th percentile), 303 lb. (51st percentile), 31⅝ in. arms (11th percentile)
- Joe Tippmann, Wisconsin: 6’6 (97th percentile), 313 lb. (88th percentile), 32¾ in. arms (50th percentile)
- Olusegun Oluwatimi, Michigan: 6’2⅝ (21st percentile), 309 lb. (74th percentile), 32¾ in. arms (50th percentile)
- Ricky Stromberg, Arkansas: 6’3⅛ (51st percentile), 306 lb. (64th percentile), 33¼ in. arms (74th percentile)
The first thing that stands out is Avila’s weight. At 332 pounds, he is gigantic for a center. For reference, only one NFL center played above 335 pounds in 2022, which was Tyler Larsen of the Commanders. In fact, Avila’s 332-pound frame would tie him as the fifth-heaviest center to play in the NFL since 1995, according to Pro Football Reference’s database.
The Jets’ tendencies suggest they usually don’t target abnormally large players, save for Mekhi Becton, who was a historic outlier from an athletic perspective. While Avila is a good athlete for his size, he isn’t close to matching Becton’s otherworldly size-adjusted athleticism, hence his underwhelming broad jump. I would be surprised if the Jets drafted Avila.
Four of the other five prospects checked in with middle-50% weights, save for Joe Tippmann, whose 313-pound frame ranks at the 88th percentile. It only puts him a few pounds above the norm for centers, though, so I don’t think it’s too extreme to take him off the Jets’ board.
Pro Football Focus tracks the percentage of each player’s run-blocking snaps that are classified as either zone-blocking or gap-blocking.
The Jets project to be a very zone-heavy team in 2023. They were only the 13th-most zone-heavy team in 2022 with a 58.7%/41.3% split of zone-blocking snaps in favor of gap-blocking snaps, but Hackett’s Broncos were sixth with a 65.4%/34.6% in favor of zone. As Green Bay’s offensive coordinator, Hackett had the Packers leaning even heavier on zone; they had a 69.3%/31.7% split in 2021, Hackett’s final season as the OC.
Considering this, it seems fair to think the Jets will have a slight preference for prospects who are already experienced with playing in a zone-heavy offense.
Here are the zone/gap splits of our six center prospects in 2022:
- John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota: 56.4% zone, 43.6% gap
- Steve Avila, TCU: 57.7% zone, 42.3% gap
- Luke Wypler, Ohio State: 71.1% zone, 28.9% gap
- Joe Tippmann, Wisconsin: 36.4% zone, 63.6% gap
- Olusegun Oluwatimi, Michigan: 36.6% zone, 63.4% gap
- Ricky Stromberg, Arkansas: 82.0% zone, 18.0% gap
I don’t think the Jets would necessarily think less of a prospect just because he played in a gap-leaning system, but it’s worth keeping in mind that the Jets might be asking this player to start right away, which could increase the Jets’ valuation of scheme familiarity as they rank center prospects on their draft board.
A player who is already used to playing a heavy dosage of zone-blocking reps might be more prepared for the transition to an instant starting role in the Jets’ offense. That’s not a guarantee – it’s completely possible that a player from a gap-heavy college offense can have the perfect skill set to project well into an NFL outside-zone scheme – but it’s something to consider.
Wypler seems to come the closest to what the Jets’ zone/gap split might look like. Stromberg comes from an extremely zone-heavy Arkansas offense, one that is definitely more extreme than anything he’ll see in the NFL.
Avila and Schmitz leaned zone to a very similar split as the Jets’ 2022 offense. Tippmann and Oluwatimi come from gap-heavy schemes.
Overall, considering everything we looked at today, the only one of these prospects who stands out as a clear non-fit for the Jets is Steve Avila. Joe Tippmann also has some traits that would fall outside of the Jets’ usual preferences: he’s a bit big and comes from a gap-heavy scheme. He also doesn’t have a broad jump to his name that can boost his stock, though his scouting reports suggest he would have hit the benchmark.
Luke Wypler stands out as a realistic candidate on the second day of the draft. With 77th-percentile rankings in both the broad jump (106 inches) and vertical jump (30.5 inches), he earned a “great” explosion grade, helping him to an overall RAS of 9.31. His traditional frame fits the Jets’ tendencies, and his Ohio State offense employed a closer zone/gap split to the Jets’ potential splits under Hackett than any of the other prospects we analyzed.
Ricky Stromberg is an interesting later-round wild card to consider. He’s got the explosiveness and athleticism the Jets covet, as not only did he post a 93rd-percentile broad jump of 111 inches, but he also posted an 89th-percentile vertical jump of 32.5 inches. His overall RAS was 9.57, buoyed by an “elite” explosion grade. To boot, Stromberg comes from a zone-heavy offense (albeit to an extreme) and has ideal size for the Jets’ preferences. Watch out for Stromberg on Day 3 if the Jets have not drafted a center by then.
Schmitz is the consensus No. 1 center prospect. He could go off the board early in the second round or possibly even sneak into the late-first round. In the categories we looked at today, Schmitz wasn’t overly impressive in any category, but he passed every benchmark, which is most important. Regarding his athletic performance, size, and college scheme, there isn’t any reason to think the Jets would be uninterested in him.
Oluwatimi’s gap-heavy scheme is a concern worth noting, but his elite broad jump performance suggests the Jets could end up watching his tape and seeing the explosiveness they covet.
Jets fans: Which center do you want to see the Jets target, and at what point of the draft?
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