The offensive line struggles could be a serious issue for the New York Jets
Who can forget the New York Jets offensive line futility in 2022?
The team put out 10 different starting offensive line combinations, plus seven mid-game changes. They played seven different tackles and six guards. Of those, only one performed his job effectively: Alijah Vera-Tucker.
Heading into 2023, Vera-Tucker was supposed to be back at guard. Both Robert Saleh and Vera-Tucker had stated as much. However, with the Jets’ tackle struggles in training camp, that tune is starting to change.
Asked on Thursday about his level of worry over the blocking woes, Saleh responded:
“My optimistic side will say, ‘We’ve got time, Duane [Brown]’s coming back, there’s still a lot of pieces we’ve got, we’ve got some cards in our back pocket,’ but yeah, as a coach, you wanted it done yesterday. We want these guys rolling… But I also understand all the different moving parts and verbiage and new scheme, and Keith [Carter, the offensive line coach] has a different style to the way he coaches and his technique, so there’s a learning curve… But yeah, I’m a coach. I always wanted it yesterday.”
Asked if Vera-Tucker is an option at tackle, Saleh answered, “We’re going to play our best five. If that’s how one of them shakes up, then it’s something we’re going to have to talk about.” He praised Vera-Tucker’s abilities and versatility but cautioned that Vera-Tucker’s ceiling is at guard.
It’s somewhat surprising that Saleh would admit this, but it speaks to his level of alarm. He was lukewarm about Mekhi Becton, commenting that he needs to build confidence and trust his knee while staying on the field more. A pressure-filled joint practice with Carolina highlighted the concerns.
What if the Jets need to move Vera-Tucker to tackle? How will that shake out for the rest of the line?
Tackle vs. guard
Saleh’s assessment of Vera-Tucker concurs with that of most of Jet X’s writers. The main reason for the difference in Vera-Tucker’s ceiling at guard and tackle is his arm length. His 32 1/8-inch arms are in the eighth percentile among offensive linemen. Edge rushers tend to have longer arms (33 1/2 inches) than interior rushers (33 1/10 inches), and it is easier to compensate for the length difference with good technique when on the inside.
It’s not that Vera-Tucker is a bad tackle. He performed admirably in his three-game stint there in 2022, holding down the fort and allowing Breece Hall to thrive. He has Pro Bowl potential there. However, his run-blocking takes a hit against edge rushers, and there are concerns about his ability to hold up in pass protection against elite players.
Even in 2022, Alex Highsmith gave Vera-Tucker some trouble. This year, the Jets face the likes of Von Miller, Leonard Floyd, Bradley Chubb, Jaelan Phillips, Matt Judon, Haason Reddick, Micah Parsons, Demarcus Lawrence, Myles Garrett, Za’Darius Smith, Khalil Mack, and Joey Bosa. It would be an extremely stiff test for him.
Still, perhaps Vera-Tucker can still hold up at tackle better than any of the other Jets options. If he can be an average tackle, it might lower the ceiling of the line, but it would certainly raise the floor significantly. If the argument is that an offensive line is only as good as its weakest link, placing Vera-Tucker at tackle might improve the weakest link (which would presumably be at guard).
One factor to keep in mind is who would replace Vera-Tucker at guard. In 2022, it was Nate Herbig, who was a sieve down the stretch. In 2023, the Jets signed Wes Schweitzer as Herbig’s replacement, so he would have the inside track on the job. The problem is that Schweitzer is likely worse than Herbig. Although he’s a better guard than center, he’s not the player you want as your starting right guard.
The Jets do have other replacement options, though. Connor McGovern played guard for his first year and a half in the league, posting PFF grades of 48.5 and 60.2. Joe Tippmann practiced at guard in college. Therefore, they could potentially use one player at center and the other at guard. However, this is not an ideal option, either.
The team has two other guard options, as well. Billy Turner has played more guard than tackle and is better inside. Trystan Colon-Castillo has played guard for short stints and looked decent there. Colon’s 30 1/2-inch arms are shorter than those of 99% of NFL offensive linemen. However, his film has been better than his measurables. He held up pretty well in the Hall of Fame Game.
In my opinion, if the Jets look for another internal guard option, Colon should have an advantage over Schweitzer and Turner, and possibly the centers, as well.
Free agent guard options
Unlike at tackle, there is actually one decent guard option available on the free-agent market. If the Jets were inclined to go in that direction, former Broncos guard Dalton Risner is still available.
Here are Risner’s career Pro Football Focus grades as a pass-blocker and run-blocker.
- 2019: 69.8 pass-blocking (30th/65), 60.3 run-blocking (32nd)
- 2020: 69.6 pass-blocking (20th/63), 53.7 run-blocking (52nd)
- 2021: 73.6 pass-blocking (13th/66), 63.2 run-blocking (40th)
- 2022: 72.6 pass-blocking (20th/64), 53.4 run-blocking (49th)
However, there’s an interesting dichotomy between Risner’s statistics and his PFF grade in 2022. Risner’s strong pass-blocking grade seems to be at odds with his 4.8% pressure rate, which was worse than the guard average of 4.3%. His run-blocking also seems like a significant liability, although he’s always graded out better as a zone blocker. Overall, his run-blocking was atrocious in his 2022 under Nathaniel Hackett.
If the Jets want a solid pass-blocking guard, it seems that Risner could be a decent option, at least by the grades. If the Jets move Vera-Tucker to tackle and do not sign Risner, it will likely be because of Hackett’s experience with Risner in 2022.
Another guard on the market is Michael Schofield III. With the Bears in 2022, Schofield played in 10 games (five starts) and posted a 75.0 PFF pass-blocking grade. His overall 66.9 grade ranked 24th out of 70 guards (min. 400 block snaps). In 2021 with the Chargers, he was a full-time starter and posted a 75.2 pass-blocking grade with a 59.5 run-blocking grade.
Still, this begs the question of why he is still on the market. It may be simply that he wants a starting gig entering his age-33 season. However, it could also be that his PFF grade is misleading, particularly considering how Justin Fields ran for his life for most of 2022.
The pipe dream for a possible trade is Zack Martin, the All-Pro Cowboys guard who is unhappy about his contract. However, his contract is not tradable, and the Cowboys are highly unlikely to do it.
Kevin Dotson of the Steelers is an interesting name. The signing of Isaac Seumalo appears to have moved him to a backup. Nate Herbig was also signed to decent backup money. Dotson is a free agent after the season. He posted a 77.6 PFF pass-blocking grade in 2022, which ranked 10th among all guards. He allowed just 16 pressures on 686 snaps, a 2.3% rate that was well above average.
Still, the fact that the Steelers signed Seumalo with a player like Dotson on the roster gives significant pause. Part of the issue is likely his 61.6 run-blocking grade, which ranked 34th. His overall 65.4 grade ranked 27th, which is not bad. He did allow four sacks, which tied for the 13th-most among guards. Perhaps that’s an inkling of what could show up on his film (considering that Laken Tomlinson had a 70.2 PFF pass-blocking grade in 2022). However, given his situation, Pittsburgh might be willing to part with him.
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Better tackle or guard options?
The key question is if the Jets are better off with Vera-Tucker at tackle and one of these options at guard vs. leaving Vera-Tucker at guard and trading for a tackle. Michael Nania listed three decent tackle trade options in the Saints’ James Hurst, the Bengals’ La’el Collins, and the Packers’ Yosh Nijman.
In terms of quality of play, acquiring one of those options is infinitely preferable to moving Vera-Tucker. The ceiling of the Jets’ offensive line is at its best with Vera-Tucker at guard, where he was playing like an All-Pro. He can still be a potential Pro Bowl tackle, but that’s selling him short as a player.
Still, if the teams are unwilling to part with their players or the price is too high, the Jets could have no choice. Risner is available as a free agent, which means that the only price is money and not assets.
There is a sentiment among some analysts that the Jets will wait until the season starts to make a move. I believe that would be foolish. The Jets know their offensive line is a huge problem. Unless someone starts to stand out at right tackle (assuming Duane Brown can hold up on the left side), they need to get the position figured out before they face the Bills in Week 1. Remember, Mike White broke his ribs against the Bills sans Von Miller. With Leonard Floyd in the mix, this cannot be a wait-and-see scenario.
The Jets could decide to move Vera-Tucker to tackle and start one of their internal guard options. If so, the battle at guard should be between McGovern, Tippmann, and Colon, in my opinion. Schweitzer and Turner should be the last resorts.
How good is good enough?
A general offensive line question is how good it must be to succeed. Not only have there been issues with pass protection in training camp, but there was very little running room against the Panthers, as well. As mentioned above, there is significant evidence for the weakest-link theory of offensive line play. Therefore, having even one suspect tackle position could be a tremendous liability.
It’s not as if the Jets’ left guard and center positions are stalwarts, either. The team is relying on a bounce-back from Tomlinson, and McGovern has his own issues in pass protection. Tippmann is a rookie. The last thing the team needs is as many as four question marks along the line. Perhaps putting Vera-Tucker at tackle could alleviate some of that. Even if his individual ceiling is higher at tackle, perhaps the line’s ability to be decent at multiple positions is more important than having a great player and a terrible one.
The Jets are definitely better off if they can have Vera-Tucker at guard. The operative word, though, is “can.” It becomes all the more urgent when considering that Aaron Rodgers is a much less effective passer when under pressure. Although he throws many screen passes and quick dump-offs to avoid pressure, he also likes taking deep shots more than most quarterbacks. He won’t be able to do that with the Jets’ current offensive line setup.
What will happen?
In an ideal world, Brown would man the left side and Becton the right. However, Becton hasn’t been taking any reps at right tackle. He says that it still hurts his knee. After playing only seven blocking snaps in the Hall of Fame Game, Becton is simply not reliable.
Max Mitchell has been clearly demonstrating that he is not an option, either. After playing better than expected but still poorly as a rookie, he looks the same heading into Year 2. He simply does not have the strength to hold up as a starter. It was abundantly clear against Cleveland’s backups. Unsurprisingly, Rodgers was frustrated with Mitchell during the Carolina joint practice.
If Mitchell has been bad, it seems that Turner has been even worse, so he’s not a viable tackle. Carter Warren did not look NFL-ready against Cleveland.
The Jets likely must make some move. The main options are either moving Vera-Tucker to tackle or trading for one. It’s infinitely preferable that they make a trade sooner rather than later. In that way, Becton is still a back-pocket option in case he can stay healthy, and Vera-Tucker remains at his dominant guard position.
Still, it appears ever more likely that Vera-Tucker may end up at tackle. That was not a scenario the Jets wanted to happen in 2023. Joe Douglas deserves criticism for letting the situation get to this point.
The title of this article may seem hyperbolic. However, what happens with the Jets’ offensive line could truly be the defining issue of their 2023 season.