Where does Max Mitchell fit into the New York Jets’ offensive line plans?
The New York Jets took an oddly conservative approach to their offensive tackle conundrum this offseason. It was a massive weakness entering 2023 – many considered it to be the team’s No. 1 weakness – but the team elected to mostly ignore the issue. As things stand, Duane Brown and Mekhi Becton are the favorites to protect the edges for Aaron Rodgers in Week 1. It’s a highly suspect duo, to say the least.
Could Max Mitchell shake things up?
Mitchell was taken by the Jets out of Louisiana in the fourth round of the 2022 draft. A rash of injuries caused Mitchell to be tossed into the fire for five starts at right tackle in his rookie season. For Mitchell, playing at all was never part of the ideal first-year plan for a rookie who needed a lot of development coming out of the Sun Belt conference, let alone starting five games. Despite the difficult circumstances, he showed occasional flashes of promise.
Mitchell’s rookie year came to an early end due to the discovery of blood clots in his right leg and lung, landing him on the non-football injury list. Fortunately, his recovery has gone smoothly and he will be good to go for training camp. Mitchell fully participated in OTAs.
Going into 2023, it currently appears that Mitchell is slated to be a backup for the Jets. However, with the uncertainty in the starting lineup, it feels likely that Mitchell will make at least a couple of relief starts in the regular season.
That would not be surprising at all. But I raise you a more stunning proposition: Is there a chance for Mitchell to make a run for a starting spot?
Brown and Becton are ticking time bombs for the Jets. If both players manage to enjoy a season that features good health and worthwhile production, it would be a minor miracle. Even if one of the two manages to have that kind of season, I think the Jets would feel lucky.
Brown will turn 38 years old in August and had his entire 2022 season affected by a shoulder injury that he suffered shortly before the season opener. Brown missed the first four games and then played through the injury over the next 12 games, clearly hampering his performance. He missed the Jets’ final game and had shoulder surgery after the season.
It’s promising that Brown is healthy going into 2023. Most likely, he will play much better than he did in 2022 if he manages to stay healthier. But the man is about to turn 38 years old and has missed at least four games in four of the past seven seasons. The odds of Brown having a healthy season are not strong. And even if he does stay healthy, how much does he really have left in the tank?
Sure, we can write off Brown’s performance in the 2022 season due to the effects of his shoulder injury. The problem is, Brown was already showing signs of serious decline prior to that. In 2021, he allowed eight sacks – equal to the total he allowed over the past four seasons combined, and his most in a season since his 2008 rookie year. It was also his lowest-graded season at PFF since 2008.
As for Becton, Jets fans know the deal at this point. The former No. 11 pick has played one game in the past two years, and even when he was “healthy” as a rookie, he was still constantly getting injured. While Becton played 14 games in his rookie season, he came off the field due to injury in six of those, which means he played 100% of the snaps in just eight games.
Becton has played eight injury-free games in three years. Talented as he may be, the Jets should expect absolutely nothing from Becton until he gives them any reason to believe otherwise. There’s also the issue of Becton’s constant social media drama, which cannot sit well with the culture-valuing regime of Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh.
It is difficult to comprehend why the Jets were content to roll with the Brown/Becton duo. They should have made at least one substantial investment to upgrade this position.
Nevertheless, here we are. While the predicament is alarming for Aaron Rodgers and the Jets’ offense, it presents a fantastic opportunity for someone like Mitchell to climb up the depth chart.
Can Mitchell beat out Billy Turner and Carter Warren to be the next man up if Brown or Becton get injured?
This next one might be a little too optimistic – but is there a possibility Mitchell could outperform Brown or Becton significantly enough to steal one of their starting spots even if they don’t get injured? Robert Saleh has yet to make any definitive statements on who will be starting, so anything is possible until Saleh etches the lineup in stone.
For either of those things to happen, Mitchell will have to take a major step forward in his second season.
Evaluating Max Mitchell’s rookie season
Mitchell’s performance in 2022 seems to be somewhat overrated by fans. Perhaps it’s fair to say he wasn’t quite as disastrous as a fourth-round Louisiana product should have been, but he was still poor. It was clear he had a long way to go until he was starter material. Mitchell needs to play much better than he did in 2022 if he wants to show the coaching staff that he can be trusted as a starter.
Run-blocking was Mitchell’s biggest problem. Defensive linemen routinely bullied him to make stops in the run game. This issue lined up with the primary concern on Mitchell’s pre-draft scouting reports: his lack of strength. Getting stronger is the top priority for Mitchell going into 2023.
Mitchell earned a run-blocking grade of 52.7 from PFF, ranking 70th out of 81 qualified tackles (14th percentile). Based on my film studies, I agree with PFF on this one. I charted Mitchell with a dismal 1.08-to-1 ratio of run-blocking assists to run-stuffs allowed, which ranked second-worst among Jets offensive linemen who started multiple games (Duane Brown was last at 1.03-to-1). For reference, I estimated that the league average ratio would be 2.0-to-1 if I conducted this study for all teams, so a 1.08-to-1 ratio is very poor.
Here are three plays that exemplify Mitchell’s lack of strength in the run game. (Right tackle, #61)
If Mitchell can improve his strength up to an adequate level, he has the potential to be an average run blocker for the Jets. He is a smooth athlete who projects nicely in the Jets’ outside zone scheme. But that athleticism will not matter if Mitchell continues getting steamrolled as often as he did in 2022.
Mitchell showed a lot more promise in pass protection than he did in the run game. It can even be argued that Mitchell’s pass-blocking production was better than what you would expect from a fourth-round rookie from Louisiana. Still, he was below average and needs further development before he can be considered a starting-quality pass protector.
According to PFF, Mitchell allowed 14 pressures on 232 pass-blocking snaps. This gives him a pressure rate of 6.03%, which ranked 49th out of 79 qualified tackles (38th percentile) and is only 0.48% higher than the 2022 league average for tackles (5.55%). All things considered, that’s not too shabby.
There are plenty of promising reps to be found on Mitchell’s pass-blocking tape.
If Mitchell can shave just one percentage point off his 6.03% pressure rate, cutting it down to around 5.0%, he’d be an above-average pass blocker (at least based on this metric). Not only that, but his rate would be better than the career rates of Duane Brown (5.44%) and Mekhi Becton (5.64%).
It’s worth noting that Mitchell’s numbers are slightly inflated by a Week 2 game against Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney of the Browns, which is a daunting matchup for a rookie in his first career road game. Mitchell gave up four pressures in the game (including a strip sack to Clowney). Outside of that game, Mitchell’s pressure rate was 5.46%.
There is one area where Mitchell deserves a lot of credit for his rookie-year performance: the penalty department. He was only called for one penalty in his rookie season, which was a false start in Week 2 against Cleveland.
This is a tremendous accomplishment for a rookie. As you’d expect, rookie linemen tend to be penalty-prone. In 2022, rookie offensive tackles combined for a penalty rate of 0.88%, which is higher than the league average for all tackles (0.77%). Mitchell’s penalty rate of 0.29% was the second-lowest out of the 14 rookie tackles who played at least 100 snaps. Only four of the other 13 players had a penalty rate below the league average.
Max Mitchell needs a lot of work, but his path is clear
Overall, it’s clear that Mitchell still needs quite a bit of improvement before he can be considered a legitimate starting option for the Jets. His run blocking is particularly raw.
Despite the amount of work that needs to be done, Mitchell has a promising opportunity in front of him. His first order of business is beating out Billy Turner and Carter Warren for the top backup tackle spot, but there is a chance for Mitchell to do even more.
Training camp and the preseason will provide a golden opportunity for Mitchell to apply pressure on the Jets’ starting tackles. While the Brown/Becton duo is certainly the overwhelming favorite to start in Week 1, it is not set in stone. Mitchell has a chance to create some difficult decisions for the Jets’ coaches.
I’m not sure how likely it is that Mitchell wins a starting job outright over Brown or Becton – it seems probable that both players will start if healthy – but what Mitchell can do is minimize the amount of leeway that is given to Brown and Becton.
If Mitchell proves to the coaching staff that he has taken a major second-year leap, the rope will be short for Brown or Becton if they struggle to perform. And if one of them gets hurt for a short-term period, I can envision a scenario where Mitchell takes over with a chance to permanently stake his claim to a starting spot if the starter he is replacing was not performing well.
Of course, this whole discussion will be rendered meaningless if Mitchell cannot show progress this offseason. His rookie season proved he still has plenty of holes in his game that need plugging.
But the ball is in Mitchell’s court – more so than many realize. If he wants to establish himself as one of the Jets’ starting tackles of the future, the opportunity is right there for the taking.