The New York Jets might have to use the trade market for an OT upgrade at some point
While things have not reached a state of panic just yet, the New York Jets‘ offensive tackle situation is becoming increasingly bleak as the regular season inches closer.
Recovering from shoulder surgery, projected starting left tackle Duane Brown remains on the PUP list and is at least two weeks away from a return to practice. All signs indicate he will be ready for the season opener, but even if he’s healthy, the 38-year-old Brown isn’t necessarily an ideal starter at this stage of his career. Brown struggled last year and has missed multiple games in five of the past eight seasons. The Jets initially pursued him as a backup when he first visited in 2022 – now he’s set to start in front of Aaron Rodgers.
With Brown sidelined, the Jets’ first-team offensive tackles have been Billy Turner (LT) and Max Mitchell (RT). Suffice to say, it would be one of the worst duos in the league on paper. Turner is a fringe starter who was signed to be a backup swing tackle. Mitchell is a second-year player who was drafted in the fourth round of last year’s draft and struggled as a rookie. Early indications of Mitchell’s progress are concerning; he was bullied by Cleveland’s backups in the Hall of Fame Game.
Former first-round pick Mekhi Becton has been unable to break into the starting lineup despite Brown’s absence. While Becton is reportedly in great shape and played excellently during his very short stint in the Hall of Fame Game, he began experiencing knee soreness after just a handful of plays and had to exit the game. His durability continues to be a dark cloud that looms over anything he does.
Another concern is that Becton has not taken any reps at right tackle during camp, so it doesn’t seem he is being considered as an option to replace Mitchell at that position. This would eliminate the possibility of a Brown-Becton starting duo, which most people figured was New York’s best potential combo at this position. Now, Brown and Becton both appear to be locked in at left tackle, leaving Turner and Mitchell as the only apparent options at right tackle.
Is this OT unit really going to last through the season? Let’s hope it does for Rodgers’ sake, but color me skeptical.
Overall, things are not looking too dandy for a position group that bears an enormous amount of responsibility in protecting the franchise’s most important asset. If the Jets are serious about protecting their prized investment, they may have to look elsewhere for OT help at some point.
There aren’t any enticing tackles sitting around on the free agent market right now, so the trade market might be Joe Douglas‘ best bet.
If Douglas is extremely concerned, he could seek a trade at some point within the next few weeks, but he doesn’t necessarily have to rush. The Jets could also swing a deal mid-season if things go haywire early. After all, Rodgers said that creating flexibility for potential mid-season trades was one of his primary motives in taking a $35 million pay cut.
“I wanted to make sure that if somebody valuable came available [during the season] that we’d be able to get him,” Rodgers said.
Here are three potential trade targets at the OT position to keep an eye on.
James Hurst, New Orleans Saints
James Hurst was signed by the Ravens as an undrafted free agent out of North Carolina in 2014. Joe Douglas was a scout for Baltimore at the time. A 2015 article from the Ravens’ website stated that one of Douglas’ primary responsibilities was organizing and coordinating the undrafted free-agent signing process, and the article lists Hurst as one of the success stories that emerged from Douglas’ tenure in that role.
Now 31 years old, Hurst is a 10th-year veteran with 135 games and 80 starts under his belt. He also started three playoff games for Baltimore.
Hurst is a versatile lineman who has taken snaps at every position except for center. His most common position is left tackle (2,898 snaps), followed by left guard (1,540), right tackle (825), and right guard (23).
In 2022, New Orleans used a first-round pick on Northern Iowa tackle Trevor Penning with a plan for Hurst to hold down the fort at left tackle until Penning was ready. Once Penning landed on injured reserve prior to the season, Hurst’s starting spot was solidified. Hurst ended up starting 15 games at left tackle for New Orleans, maintaining the job over Penning even after he returned in November.
Entering his second season, Penning is now practicing with the Saints’ starting offense and will take over for Hurst at left tackle. Hurst has been relegated to the backup swing tackle role behind Penning and right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, potentially making him expendable.
For New Orleans, there are financial incentives to trading Hurst. The veteran is in the final year of a three-year deal, but there are void years tacked onto his contract that will cost New Orleans a few million dollars of cap space in 2024. If they trade Hurst now, the Saints can clear $2.728M in 2024 cap space, per Over The Cap’s calculator.
As a team that is currently projected to be $62.3M over the cap in 2024 (per OTC), every penny is valuable. The Saints would also open $5.5 million in 2023 cap savings by trading Hurst.
Knowing that Penning is their future and they likely will not re-sign Hurst after this season, the Saints could view it as worthwhile to trade Hurst now so they can reap the cap savings and draft-pick compensation instead of losing him for nothing.
It comes down to whether the Saints would deem the reward worthy of the risk. The Saints hope Penning is their future, but until he proves anything, they might prefer keeping Hurst as insurance for 2023. Hurst’s cost is not bad at all for what he brings to the team this year.
Throughout his career, Hurst has consistently performed well as a pass blocker and poorly as a run blocker. He’s stuck to this script on a consistent basis – in each of the past four seasons, Hurst rated as an above-average pass blocker and below-average run blocker in PFF’s system.
The story remained the same for Hurst in 2022. His run blocking was still a weakness (60th out of 66 qualified tackles in PFF’s grading system) but he was good in pass protection (16th of 66).
La’el Collins, Cincinnati Bengals
In 2022, the Bengals signed former Cowboys right tackle La’El Collins to a three-year, $21 million deal with hopes he could provide an upgrade at right tackle. Collins struggled through 15 starts until suffering a season-ending knee injury. Initially reported as a torn ACL and MCL, Collins later added that he tore his PCL, too.
Despite it all, Collins is aiming to return this season. Collins, 30, remains on the PUP list but was optimistic earlier this offseason when discussing his outlook for 2023.
“I can’t give you a timetable,” Collins said in April. “I’m not the guy that makes the ultimate decision. But at the end of the day, I feel like if I had to play today, I could put a brace on it and I could go to work. I know my knee is locked in and stable. Dr. ElAttrache is the best in the business. I feel great. … I know I’m going to go into this season a whole lot healthier than I was last year.”
Collins was already back to working on pass-set drills in May.
— DB (@bengalsdrake) May 24, 2023
The Bengals signed former Chiefs tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to a four-year, $64 million contract earlier this offseason, penciling him in as the second starting tackle alongside Jonah Williams. Whenever Collins returns, he will probably be the Bengals’ swing tackle. Perhaps Cincinnati would be willing to take whatever it can get for the recovering tackle after a disappointing season.
It goes without saying that Collins is a risky player. We do not know when he will return or how well he will play once he does. He also carries a prior history of durability issues, as he missed the entire 2020 season with a hip injury.
But as a player who was producing elite numbers not too long ago, Collins could be worth the gamble for New York if he can be acquired for a reasonable trade package.
The 2022 season was a down year for Collins. Prior to joining the Bengals, though, Collins established himself as one of the game’s best right tackles for the Cowboys. Collins ranked as PFF’s third-best right tackle in 2019. In 2021, even after missing all of 2020, Collins still ranked fifth-best at his position in PFF’s system.
Collins would be a swing for the fences, contrary to a reliable floor-raiser like Hurst. He is also someone the Jets probably wouldn’t think about trading for until they know he is healthy, which means he would be a mid-season trade target.
Every player has a price. If Collins’ price is right, he could be an attractive mid-season trade target for the Jets.
Picture this: the Jets reach the trade deadline, their right tackles have been struggling, Collins has returned to the field as Cincinnati’s backup, and the Bengals are willing to deal him for a Day 3 pick. In this scenario, rolling the dice on Collins beats the alternative of just crossing your fingers that Billy Turner or Max Mitchell will suddenly figure things out. Even a significantly declined version of Collins might be an upgrade for New York.
Collins’ skill set makes him particularly enticing as a mid-season addition. While he was also an excellent pass blocker at his peak, Collins’ run blocking has always been his most consistent trait. Collins’ ability to create holes in the run game would be a very helpful addition to the Jets’ offense at a point of the season where the weather starts becoming a bigger factor.
Yosh Nijman, Green Bay Packers
An undrafted free agent out of Virginia Tech in 2019, Yosh Nijman has developed into a reliable backup swing tackle for the Packers.
Nijman has played in every Packers game since 2020. He jumped from zero starts over his first two seasons to eight starts in 2021 and 13 starts in 2022. The Maplewood, NJ native offers two-way versatility, having started 11 games at right tackle and 10 at left tackle.
Nijman is probably not a long-term solution, but he has played well enough to the point where he could be considered an upgrade over some of the league’s bottom-tier starting tackles (which is what the Jets might be throwing out there).
Like Hurst, Nijman is known as a quality pass blocker but a poor run blocker. In 2022, Nijman ranked 53rd out of 66 qualified tackles in PFF’s run blocking grade. However, he was considered a top-half pass blocker, placing 31st in PFF’s pass blocking grade.
Green Bay’s offensive line situation is up in the air. Nijman has a chance to start but could end up being a backup again as he engages in a tight competition against Zach Tom and Josh Myers, two young players who the Packers recently drafted. With Nijman up for unrestricted free agency after the year, perhaps Green Bay would be open to trading Nijman for the right price if he does not end up starting.
The Jets have already brought in numerous former Packers. It wouldn’t be a shock to see them target another. His familiarity with Nathaniel Hackett’s scheme and Aaron Rodgers should make his transition seamless.