Even as he returns, Duane Brown remains a mysterious player for the New York Jets
After spending all of training camp on the PUP list, New York Jets offensive tackle Duane Brown appears to be on the verge of a comeback. According to The Athletic’s Dianna Russini, Brown is undergoing tests today, and if cleared, the Jets will take him off the PUP list. They are aiming for him to return to practice this week.
The Jets are hoping to get LT Duane Brown back this week. The veteran is undergoing tests today and if cleared, he’ll be removed from the PUP list, per team sources. The Jets should know more tomorrow.
— Dianna Russini (@DMRussini) August 21, 2023
Brown’s return will shore up the Jets’ starting left tackle position, which has been a revolving door during his absence. Billy Turner, Max Mitchell, and Mekhi Becton have all been in the blind-side mix. The expectation is that Brown will immediately slide in as the Jets’ first-team left tackle when he returns, ending the drama at this spot.
And with Becton making a strong push for the Jets’ first-team right tackle job, it looks like the Jets’ Week 1 starting offensive line may finally cement itself this week – just in time for Aaron Rodgers to make his Jets debut against the Giants on Saturday.
Brown’s long-awaited arrival brings stability to a unit that has been playing musical chairs over the past few weeks. But even once he’s back, there is still another mystery around Brown that must be solved: How effective is he actually going to be this year?
Brown is entering his 16th NFL season and will turn 38 years old at the end of this month. While Brown is one of the most accomplished offensive linemen of his generation (five Pro Bowls and three All-Pro appearances), it is fair to wonder what he has left in the tank at this point of his career.
Projecting Duane Brown’s 2023 impact
It’s important to remember that, while Brown is now viewed as the Jets’ starting left tackle, that is not how the Jets viewed him when they first began showing interest in him.
When the Jets first brought Brown in for a visit last August, the plan was for him to provide security behind George Fant and Mekhi Becton. Brown was not pursued to be an upgrade in the starting lineup.
Two days after Brown’s visit, Becton went down with a season-ending knee injury, wildly increasing Brown’s leverage. The desperate Jets would sign Brown to a two-year, $22 million deal, which probably well exceeds the number they initially planned to give him.
Brown tore the labrum in his left shoulder soon thereafter and missed the first four games of the season. He bypassed surgery and returned to start at left tackle over the next 12 games, only missing the season finale in Miami. Brown played 100% of the snaps in 11 of his 12 appearances.
We learned after the season that Brown was not fully healthy following his return from the shoulder injury. Brown was playing through pain all season and earned immense praise from Robert Saleh for his effort. Saleh estimated the vast majority of players would not have played through the pain Brown did, especially with his money for the season being fully guaranteed.
“Duane is a freaking rock star, man,” Saleh said. “The way he fought through pain and injury, and he did what I’d say about 90 percent of players probably wouldn’t have done, in terms of playing when he didn’t have to.”
So, keep all of that in mind as we evaluate Brown’s 2022 production. He was certainly not close to peak condition.
Brown underwent shoulder surgery after the year, which is the reason he’s been out of practice. The hope is that Brown can enter the 2023 season in far better condition than he was throughout 2022.
Fighting through the shoulder injury, Brown had an up-and-down 2022 season.
The shoulder injury affected him the most in the run game, where he generated very little movement and was consistently beaten for stuffs in the backfield. In my charting of the Jets’ run-blocking film, I rated Brown as the team’s least efficient run blocker among the eight offensive linemen who played at least 200 snaps. His 1.03-to-1 ratio of assists (37) to stuffs allowed (36) was approximately half of what I estimated to be the NFL average (2.0-to-1).
Pro Football Focus agreed with my conclusion. With a run-blocking grade of 44.4, PFF ranked Brown as the second-worst run-blocking left tackle in the league among the 31 players to log at least 500 snaps at left tackle.
However, Brown managed to perform respectably in pass protection. Brown was credited with allowing 23 total pressures on 450 pass-blocking snaps. That’s a pressure rate of 5.11%, which ranked 15th-best among 31 qualified left tackles.
Brown’s pressure rate is particularly impressive considering he played the majority of his games (8 of 12) with Zach Wilson under center. Wilson tended to hold the ball for a very long time, ranking third out of 33 qualified quarterbacks with an average time to throw of 3.07 seconds.
Due to his bad habit of holding onto the ball, Wilson created a lot of pressured dropbacks that would not have occurred with other quarterbacks under center (namely Aaron Rodgers). It’s fair to assume Brown was actually slightly better than his pressure rate suggests because of the negative effect Wilson likely had on the number. Some of the “pressures” wouldn’t have happened with Rodgers in Wilson’s shoes; Rodgers would have already gotten the ball out before the pressure arrived.
Here’s the bottom line for Brown’s 2022 season: he was slightly above average in pass protection but awful in the run game.
What should the Jets expect from him in 2023?
Brown’s recovery from the shoulder injury provides optimism that he can improve upon his 2022 season. Brown was clearly not healthy in 2022. Now, he will get a chance to enter the season fresh.
The run game is where Brown should benefit the most. His performance as a run blocker in 2022 was a major outlier compared to the rest of his career. Prior to 2022, Brown never had a PFF run-blocking grade lower than 62.1 in any of his first 14 seasons. Even in 2021, Brown appeared to be a fairly average run blocker for a starting left tackle, placing 15th out of 33 qualified left tackles with a 69.6 run-blocking grade. Dropping all the way to 44.4 is something that can easily be explained by a torn labrum.
Logically, it makes sense that Brown’s shoulder injury would affect him more in the run game than in pass protection. Run blocking is about generating outward force to move defenders, whereas pass blocking is about sitting back in a guarding position and keeping defenders in front of you.
It’s conceivable that a player can still pass-block effectively with a bum shoulder if he has good footwork and technique. In the run game, though, you need enough raw strength to move people around. If you can’t throw a violent punch, it will be tough to create any displacement when trying to kick out an edge defender, regardless of how good your technique is.
If Brown’s repaired shoulder allows him to boost his run blocking back to a league-average level, it would be a massive win for the Jets. At that point, all Brown would have to do is replicate his 2022 performance in pass protection and he would be a rock-solid top-15 left tackle in the NFL.
Brown even has some room for error in the passing game because of what we discussed earlier regarding the quarterbacks. The switch from Wilson to Rodgers should naturally improve the pressure rates of each offensive lineman. This means that even if Brown performs a little bit worse, Rodgers should balance it out to keep Brown’s production around the same level it was at last year.
While the optimistic scenario could certainly play out for Brown, there are also reasons to be concerned about his outlook for 2023. These concerns mainly have to do with his age.
Every longtime NFL veteran smacks into a wall at some point. Their production suddenly falls off a cliff and descends to depths they have either never hit before or haven’t reached since their rookie year. Few players quit while they’re ahead. Most keep going until they hit this wall.
When a player gets to the career stage Brown is currently at, any year could be that wall-hitting year. Father Time is undefeated and you never know when he’s going to strike. A player could look great one year and completely implode the next.
So, yes, Brown will be healthier going into this season than last, but what if this is the year where his physical tools fall off, anyway? In that case, even a fully healthy Brown might perform similar to or worse than the Brown we saw last year.
Brown was already showing signs of decline before 2022. His overall PFF grade (a questionable and highly subjective statistic, but the only one we have for offensive linemen, so it’s our best bet) in 2021 was 71.5, the lowest he had posted since his 2008 rookie year. It also represented a 15.8-point drop-off from his 2020 grade of 87.3, representing the largest year-to-year decline of his career.
While Brown’s 13.7-point dip in 2022 to a career-low 57.8 grade can be explained away by his shoulder injury, it does continue the trajectory he began in 2021. It’s not completely impossible that Brown is simply falling off.
We can adjust his 2022 production upward to account for the injury. However, considering the fall-off was so significant, it’s possible that a healthy Brown still would have performed worse than he did in 2021, in which case Brown would have been on a two-season downward spiral entering 2023.
Brown’s market demand in 2022 serves as evidence that NFL teams collectively viewed him as a subpar starter going forward following his 2021 performance. Remember, he probably wouldn’t have landed a starting job in 2022 if not for Becton’s injury. The league wasn’t chomping at the bit to sign him as a starter. Only the most desperate team in the league had a place for him in the starting lineup.
The Jets would be thrilled if Brown can match the league-average season he had in 2021. But for a 38-year-old player, it isn’t easy to replicate a season that happened two years earlier.
Until Brown takes the field this year, we won’t know whether he has another 2021-esque league-average season left in the tank or if he is out of gas. Neither the optimistic path nor the pessimistic path can be proven as the more likely outcome. With a player at this stage of his career, you simply have no idea what you’re getting until he plays.
There are also durability concerns with Brown. While he will be healthy going into the year (barring any setbacks), Brown carries a decent amount of in-season injury risk. He’s missed multiple games in five of the past eight seasons. As he enters his age-38 season, he’s probably not getting any sturdier.
Brown carries a wider spectrum of possibilities than many realize
Brown is viewed as a pillar of stability for the Jets’ shaky offensive line. In reality, Brown is just as much of a wild card as any other player on the unit.
There is a realistic scenario where Brown plays like a top-15 left tackle. At the same time, there are realistic scenarios where Brown either declines to the bottom tier of starting left tackles or struggles to stay on the field.
Brown’s wide range of potential outcomes makes him a vital player for the Jets offense.
Looking solely at on-field ability, Brown probably has the lowest floor among the Jets’ projected starters (Tomlinson, McGovern, Vera-Tucker, Becton) due to his age. Because of this, if Brown maintains a league-average level of play at left tackle, it significantly raises the floor of the entire offensive line. A Jets offensive line that includes Brown playing at an average level would have a good chance of being at least an average unit as a whole.
Many contend an offensive line is only as strong as its weakest link. It’s up to Brown to raise that bar. Perhaps Tomlinson or McGovern can be inserted into that conversation, but a bad left tackle harms his offense far more than a bad interior lineman, so I give the nod to Brown. He is the man who must ensure the offensive line does not have a gaping blind-side hole that can be exploited by the opponent’s best edge rusher all game long.
Brown will be tested straight out of the gate. Von Miller (possibly), Micah Parsons, and Matt Judon loom over the first three games. Brown must be ready immediately. There’s no time for the Jets to wait and see what version of Brown they’re getting. If he isn’t the guy they need him to be, they will pay the price.
Just for the sake of helping them finally establish what their starting lineup will look like, getting Brown back will be huge for the Jets, but the veteran still has plenty to prove on the field.