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Is the NY Jets’ skill-position blocking a strength or weakness?

NY Jets, Tyler Conklin, Pass Blocking, TE, Tight End
Tyler Conklin, New York Jets, Getty Images

Checking in on the state of the New York Jets’ skill-position blocking

A football team’s offensive line is usually pinned with all of the praise or blame for the offense’s overall blocking quality. Too many sacks are being allowed? It’s on the offensive line. A plethora of holes are being created in the run game? It’s a great job by the offensive line.

But let’s not forget: the five offensive linemen are not the only people who block for the offense. The skill-position players have an integral role in a team’s blocking, too.

While the offensive linemen are surely responsible for the majority of the offense’s blocking quality, there is no question that the tight ends, wide receivers, and running backs play a large enough role to the point where they can make the offensive line look slightly better or worse than it actually is.

TEs and WRs (and fullbacks, for the few teams who still use them) are often tasked with executing important blocks in the run game, specifically on the outside. Some of the NFL’s best outside-running teams, most notably the 49ers, create many of their best runs behind the blocking of their skill-position players. Having strong run-blockers at TE and WR is often what separates the great rushing attacks from the good ones. Running the ball efficiently is an 11-man effort, not a five-man effort.

In pass protection, TEs and RBs are occasionally called upon to provide the linemen with extra help, and they also play a crucial role in blitz pickups.

It’s not always the offensive line’s fault when a big sack is allowed; oftentimes, a TE or RB is to blame. Consider this: according to PFF, TEs and RBs were charged with allowing a combined 96 sacks in 2022, compared to 721 by offensive linemen. That means there was an 11.8% chance that a TE or RB, not an offensive lineman, was at fault for a sack (looking solely at sacks charged to either TEs, RBs, or linemen rather than QBs or other factors).

When you break it down, it can be argued that the collective effort of the TEs and RBs in pass protection is nearly as important as one individual offensive lineman. If 11.8% of sacks were blamed on TEs and RBs, that means 88.2% of sacks were blamed on offensive linemen, which can be split up as 17.6% of the blame for each of the five linemen – not too far ahead of that 11.8% mark. In essence, the TEs and RBs are close to the value of a sixth offensive lineman when it comes to preventing sacks.

The bottom line: skill-position blocking matters.

Let’s analyze the blocking ability of the New York Jets‘ tight ends, wide receivers, and running backs entering the 2023 season.

Tight ends

Pass protection

The Jets used their TEs in pass protection fairly often last season, ranking 10th out of 32 teams with 106 pass-blocking snaps from the TE position. The results were not ideal as their TE unit finished with an allowed pressure rate of 9.6%, placing 26th.

Tyler Conklin led the Jets’ TEs with 62 pass-blocking snaps, placing 11th in the league among TEs. Conklin was credited with allowing seven pressures (one sack), tying him for fifth-most among TEs. His allowed pressure rate of 11.3% ranked 50th out of 54 qualifiers.

However, in fairness to Conklin, I re-watched the pressures he was credited with allowing, and some of them were dubious. There were multiple pressures in which the QB rolled toward Conklin’s side, allowing the defender to easily peel off the block and chase the QB.

This is one of those plays.

Sure, Conklin could probably execute this cut block a little better, but with Mike White rolling toward the side of Conklin’s defender, there is very little Conklin could do in this situation to prevent a sack. It’s an easy play for the defender. Not only that, but Conklin is coming from the back side of the play, making this a nearly impossible block. This sack is more on Mike LaFleur than anybody.

On a different play in the same Buffalo game, there was another pressure credited to Conklin of the same exact nature. Take out these two pressures and Conklin’s season-long pressure rate would decline all the way down to 8.1%, just a smidgen above the positional average of 7.0%.

This highlights one of the big problems with evaluating skill-position blocking based on pressures allowed: it’s such a small sample of plays that one or two questionable pressures here or there can completely change the narrative on the player’s blocking performance over the course of the season. And since pressures are subjective, it is a statistic that is prone to some controversial conclusions.

Conklin has shown in the past that he is a talented pass-blocker. His Vikings film is littered with impressive one-on-one reps against big-name edge rushers. There are not many tight ends who have plays like these two on their tape.

The Vikings had a ton of trust in Conklin’s pass blocking. He led all tight ends with 98 pass-blocking snaps in 2021.

Because of his proven talent as a pass blocker, I think the Jets had enough trust in Conklin to give him a lot of high-difficulty pass-blocking assignments, and that seemed to negatively affect his statistics. This also applied in his 2021 season with Minnesota: Conklin was credited with allowing 10 pressures, but when you watched his film, it was apparent that his assignments were tougher than the typical tight end’s. All pressures are not created equal.

Preferably, Conklin will improve his pressure numbers in 2023, but he should still be viewed as a plus in pass protection due to his ability to handle difficult assignments. Regardless of what his pressure numbers of PFF grades say, Conklin’s pass-blocking film is impressive.

Conklin had plenty of standout one-on-one moments for the Jets in 2022, including this rep against Myles Garrett where he holds his own.

Conklin is also an effective block-and-release player. This makes him a useful piece for assisting tackles who need help, such as rookie RT Max Mitchell on this play against Cleveland. Conklin creates a ton of movement on Jadeveon Clowney before releasing into his route.

C.J. Uzomah played 38 pass-blocking snaps in 2022 and allowed three pressures, giving him a 7.9% pressure rate that ranked 32nd among 54 TEs. His career pressure rate is 7.0%, which is equal to the 2022 positional average.

However, two of the three pressures allowed by Uzomah were sacks, including this horrendous blunder against Buffalo. Uzomah appears to lose connection to the servers for a moment, standing idle as A.J. Epenesa runs by him unblocked for a strip-sack.

On the positive side, Uzomah is capable of using his excellent length to provide good protection on the edge when he engages in a one-on-one battle. Here is a solid one-on-one rep from Uzomah on the left edge to help set up a third-down conversion.

Based on his film in 2022 and prior to joining the Jets, I view Uzomah as an okay pass blocker. He doesn’t have the great flashes of Conklin and occasionally makes big mistakes, but he seems to execute with solid consistency overall.

Jeremy Ruckert‘s pass blocking cannot be evaluated as he only played three pass-blocking snaps in 2022 (no pressures allowed).

Run blocking

I studied every run-blocking snap from the Jets in 2022 and tallied the performance of each blocker, giving them credit for assisting positive runs and blaming them for allowing stuffed runs. The results are published here.

I thought Conklin had a great season in the run game. By my charting, I credited Conklin with 30 assists and 12 stuffs allowed, giving him a 2.5-to-1 ratio that ranked third-best on the team.

While Conklin’s blocks are rarely flashy or overpowering, Conklin consistently executes his assignments and generates just enough movement to get the job done. He was rarely beaten.

Here, Conklin motions across the formation pre-snap and then kicks out the edge defender to open up a hole for Michael Carter up the middle.

This time, Conklin pins Myles Garrett inside to open up the edge for Breece Hall. Additionally, check out Jeremy Ruckert leading the way at the second level.

Conversely, I thought Uzomah struggled mightily as a run blocker in 2022. In my film study, I credited him with 29 assists and 26 stuffs allowed, a ratio of 1.16-to-1. For reference, I estimated the league average ratio would be 2.0-to-1 if I conducted this study for the entire NFL. Based on his total net impact compared to expectations, I calculated Uzomah to be the third-most harmful run blocker on the Jets ahead of only Laken Tomlinson and Duane Brown.

Uzomah looked reckless in the run game, playing with poor technique that caused him to frequently whiff on blocks. He often ducked his head, dove into blocks, or leaned into blocks.

Here, on the left edge, Melvin Ingram beats Uzomah inside with a swim move, blowing up the play for a six-yard loss.

This time, Uzomah comes in motion and tries to throw a cut block on Ingram. Uzomah telegraphs the block as he ducks his head and flings himself at Ingram. Ingram reads it and easily dodges Uzomah, proceeding to stop Michael Carter for a one-yard gain.

The offensive line blocks this play well, but watch Uzomah on the right edge. Look how far he allows the edge rusher to push him inside. This causes the inside lane to close in on Zonovan Knight, and he gets tripped up by Uzomah’s man. With a more forceful edge-setting block from Uzomah, this could have been a much better run.

Uzomah’s run blocking was one of the offense’s most overlooked problems in 2022. While he has never been an elite blocker for the TE position, he is capable of much better than what he gave the Jets last year.

In Cincinnati, I thought Uzomah was a fairly average run blocker with a boom-or-bust aspect to his game. He was inconsistent, but with his tremendous size and athleticism, Uzomah’s peak moments often jumped off the screen. These highlight moments were enough to balance things out.

Uzomah did provide a few of those noticeable highlight moments in New York, but not nearly as often as he did with the Bengals, and his propensity for mistakes rose significantly. His consistency went from middling to poor.

The Jets need Uzomah to rebound in 2023 – or they need Ruckert to step up and take his place.

Ruckert’s season-finale blocking performance against Miami was more impressive than anything Uzomah showed in 2022.

Wide receivers

Among their three skill position units, the Jets’ WRs have the best outlook in the blocking department. They are poised to enjoy some of the best run-blocking in the league at WR.

This is all because of two men: Corey Davis and Allen Lazard.

Not only do Davis (6’3, 209) and Lazard (6’5, 227) both have impressive frames for the position, but they have proven over the course of their careers that they have the technique and tenacity to maximize their frames in the run game.

By my charting, Davis was the most efficient run blocker on the Jets last year, recording a 3.5-to-1 ratio of assists (21) to stuffs allowed (6).

Davis is a highly willing blocker who takes great angles to his defenders and finishes with physicality at the contact point.

The same qualities can be seen in Lazard’s game.

There isn’t much to write home about beyond Davis and Lazard, although the rest of the unit certainly isn’t terrible in the run game.

Denzel Mims has blocking potential thanks to his size (6’3, 207), but his effort and technique are inconsistent. Garrett Wilson is a limited blocker due to his size (6’0, 192), although he works as hard as he can. Mecole Hardman is even smaller than Wilson (5’10, 187) and will rarely be asked to make key blocks. However, it should be noted that Hardman’s ability to threaten defenses in pre-snap motion can help create running lanes – essentially having the same effect as good blocking.

Overall, with Davis and Lazard leading the way, the Jets’ WR unit should be formidable in the run game.

Running backs

Breece Hall did a nice job in pass protection over a small sample size last season, allowing one pressure over 22 pass-blocking snaps. He ranked 15th-best out of 73 qualified RBs with an allowed pressure rate of 4.6%.

With excellent size for the position and a willingness to block, Hall has the potential to be an outstanding pass-blocker.

Hall also displayed great instincts and awareness in his rookie season. On this play, he may have prevented a safety with an impressive heads-up block. There are a lot of moving parts here, so watch the play first (from both angles) and then we’ll get into it.

Pre-snap, you can see Hall eyeing the right side of the Jets’ offensive line (this is clearer in the end-zone camera angle). He notices No. 31 drop to the line of scrimmage. At this point, Hall knows that if No. 31 blitzes (which is likely based on his alignment), the Jets will have a free rusher coming in unblocked. Hall knows this because he is aware that the RG (Nate Herbig) is going to pull, which means the RT (Alijah Vera-Tucker) will be left in a 1-on-2 situation. So, Hall knows he has to get over there and help AVT if No. 31 blitzes.

Post-snap, once Hall confirms No. 31 is coming, Hall ignores the play fake so he can get over and pick up his man. AVT kicks out to take No. 31, leaving No. 91 unblocked straight up the middle. Hall goes for the cut block and successfully puts No. 91 on the ground, buying Zach Wilson enough time to scramble and throw the ball away. This should have been a disaster. Hall’s fantastic awareness and heads-up reaction saved the day.

Beyond Hall, it’s a mixed bag. There is one other running back on the team with a positive outlook in pass protection, but there are two backs who require improvement in this area.

Zonovan Knight joins Hall in the positive column. Knight, like Hall, performed well in a very small sample during his rookie season. Knight was credited with allowing zero pressures over 18 pass-blocking snaps. Here’s a strong pickup from Knight.

On the negative side are Michael Carter and rookie Israel Abanikanda, who carry significant red flags in pass protection.

In 2022, Carter pass-blocked on 56 snaps (15th among RB) and allowed the second-most pressures among RBs with 11. His pressure rate of 19.6% ranked third-worst out of 73 qualifiers.

Unlike Conklin, Carter’s film does not do anything to excuse his pressure numbers. His mistakes were usually egregious.

Carter whiffs badly on this attempt to stop the linebacker off the edge.

Judging from Carter’s initial movement after the snap (he hops forward instead of outward), I’m not sure he recognized the linebacker as a potential threat until after the snap. Ideally, you’d like to see Carter square up and absorb the rusher in this situation rather than trying to cut him, but because Carter didn’t see him until too late, all he could do was dive and try to cut him down as a last-ditch prayer.

Awareness in pass protection can be a problem for Carter. The Dolphins fool him here with a well-disguised blitz.

No. 29 hides behind the outside linebacker and doesn’t show himself as a blitz threat until just before the snap (he deserves credit for timing the snap very well). If you watch Carter’s eyes pre-snap, you can see that he’s not looking in No. 29’s direction at the moment he starts rushing toward the line. Carter is unaware of No. 29 as a threat until well after the snap, and by then it’s already too late. In an ideal world, Carter would recognize No. 29 pre-snap, ignore the play fake (like Hall did in the earlier clip), and get over to pick up No. 29.

Carter’s struggles in 2022 were a continuation of his 2021 rookie year. He is the only RB in the NFL to allow three sacks in each of the past two seasons and leads all RBs with six sacks allowed over that span.

Abanikanda struggled with pass blocking in college. In 2022, he ranked 182nd out of 199 qualified FBS running backs with an allowed pressure rate of 14.8%. He gave up two sacks in each of the past two seasons. Considering Abanikanda also has issues with drops and overall receiving production, it does not seem likely he will play many snaps in the passing game as a rookie.

If Hall and Knight can stay healthy, the Jets should be fine. But if they have to call on Carter and Knight for a significant number of pass-blocking snaps, there could be trouble.

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