Offensive line injuries seem to be a recurring theme for the New York Jets
An autopsy of the New York Jets‘ 2023 season will reveal many reasons for its demise. The most convenient of them is, of course, Aaron Rodgers‘ season-opening injury, which completely took the wind out of the sails for the rest of the year. That is undoubtedly true.
Still, it’s fair to question whether Rodgers could have succeeded with the state of the rest of the offense. That begins (but certainly does not end) with the offensive line, which has been in shambles from Week 1 and progressively worsens each week. Though poor play dominated it to a large extent, the sheer magnitude of the injuries along the line makes it difficult to believe that any offense could function in such an environment.
Unfortunately, this is familiar territory for the Jets. In 2022, their offensive line was also decimated by injuries, and that, arguably more than anything else, derailed their season.
When an extreme pattern repeats itself, it’s fair to ask if there’s any underlying reason. Why has the Jets’ offensive line been beset by an abnormal level of injuries for two consecutive seasons? Is it just bad luck, or is there something more at play?
The Jets’ starting five heading into 2022 training camp were George Fant, Laken Tomlinson, Connor McGovern, Alijah Vera-Tucker, and Mekhi Becton. To that point, the tackles were the ones with clear injury concerns. Fant had knee surgery in the offseason and missed much of training camp. Becton was returning from knee surgery (the wrong one, as it turned out) and was significantly overweight.
Becton’s injury issues trace back to the draft process. There were rampant indications that weight was an issue for him. He already had one tremendous weight fluctuation in college. He was 364 pounds at the Combine, already a yellow flag. Douglas chose to take the prospect who was both more raw and more of an injury risk. Becton may not have been injured in college, but the writing was on the wall that it could be an NFL problem.
By contrast, the interior offensive line seemed exceptionally healthy. Tomlinson had played 100% of offensive snaps in the three years prior to joining the Jets and never played fewer than 97% of snaps in the prior five seasons. McGovern had not played fewer than 98% of snaps in the prior four seasons. Vera-Tucker played 100% of snaps in his rookie season and did not have a prior injury history in college.
Still, not only did the Jets have two tackles at high risk for reinjury and clearly not completely healthy, but they also had no depth at the position. Fourth-round developmental prospect Max Mitchell was not ready to be on the field, no less a Week 1 starter. Their only other tackles at the start of training camp were the inept Conor McDermott and Chuma Edoga.
Sure enough, Becton went down early in training camp, forcing the Jets to scramble for a starting tackle. At that point, Duane Brown was the only remotely starting-caliber tackle available, so the Jets had to commit to the 37-year-old for two years to secure his services.
Brown himself had been injury-prone throughout his career. He missed at least four games in 2017 and 2019, though he did not miss any in 2020-21. Despite that, his age was an automatic injury risk. The Jets therefore closed training camp one injury away from Mitchell taking on a starting role. Mitchell did have a clean injury history from college, though.
Unsurprisingly, Brown tore his rotator cuff in practice during the week before the season opener. He went on injured reserve and chose to rehab and return rather than have season-ending surgery. Mitchell stepped into the starting lineup, while Fant moved over to left tackle.
It was evident from Week 1 that Fant had not recovered from his knee surgery. The Jets seemed to know this throughout the offseason, as Fant routinely received veteran rest days. They played with fire from the outset, and they got burned.
The two less predictable injuries were those suffered by Vera-Tucker and Mitchell. A torn triceps seems like a fluky injury, and Vera-Tucker had been durable previously. Mitchell, also lacking an injury history, dislocated his knee in Week 4 and missed six weeks. Shortly after his return, he was diagnosed with blood clots in his calf and lung and missed the remainder of the season.
Cedric Ogbuehi, brought in at the end of September, also went down during the season. Ogbuehi injured his groin in Week 12 and went on injured reserve. He had an extensive injury history in the prior seasons, including pectoral and calf issues that kept him out for nine games in 2020 and a biceps strain that forced him to miss six games in 2021 before Seattle released him. He then signed with the Ravens and missed two more games due to a thigh injury.
Heading into 2023, three of the Jets’ five offensive linemen had an injury history to be wary of: Brown, Becton, and Vera-Tucker. According to Douglas, Becton was not even in the starter conversation heading into training camp. This indicated just how poor the Jets’ tackle situation was before the season.
Additionally, their primary backup right tackle, Mitchell, was coming off season-ending blood clots on top of his prior leg injury. Their other backup tackle, Billy Turner, dealt with knee issues from 2020-22 and missed some time in 2021-22 with them. Carter Warren, another fourth-round developmental prospect, had missed nearly the entire 2022 college season due to a meniscus tear.
On the interior, Tomlinson and McGovern both played virtually every snap in 2022. However, second-round pick Joe Tippmann missed the NFL Combine and the Wisconsin pro day with a hamstring injury. Wes Schweitzer, the other interior lineman, had missed a game here and there but was overall healthy throughout his career.
Still, if you’re counting, that was five starters and four backups to worry about injury-wise. The starting tackles were the most worrisome, but there were injury concerns across the board.
The injuries to McGovern, Schweitzer, and Tippmann are the most unusual, although Tippmann had a thigh injury in training camp. Vera-Tucker’s Achilles tear likely connects back to his ankle injury during training camp, just as Rodgers’ traces back to his calf injury.
The Jets’ offensive line injuries are truly baffling in comparison to the rest of the NFL. In 2023, the Jets’ Week 1 starters have played an average of 61.4% of their total offensive snaps, the second-lowest mark in the NFL. The only team lower is the New England Patriots.
Of course, this comparison is not scientific, as it does not include starting offensive linemen who missed Week 1 but have since returned or went down for the season before Week 1. It also does not consider players who were benched due to poor performance. Still, it provides a thumbnail analysis of how decimated the Jets’ line is.
Consider the Jets’ crosstown rivals, the New York Giants. Their offensive line has been destroyed since Week 1 when Andrew Thomas hurt his hamstring. Thomas missed seven games and has not looked like his usual dominant self when on the field.
Not a single Giants offensive lineman has played in all 11 games, and only one Week 1 starter has played more than eight games. They played guard Josh Ezeudu out of position at tackle for several weeks before he landed on injured reserve. They also pulled Justin Pugh off the couch to start at guard, only to be forced to kick him out to tackle upon another onslaught of injuries.
And yet — even the Giants have gotten a higher average snap rate out of their Week 1 starting five at 68%.
This many injuries?
Sharp Football Analysis tracks the players on injured reserve from each team. This does not include players who missed time with injury but avoided injured reserve or others who already returned from IR. Still, it gives another glimpse into the leaguewide injury picture.
The Jets are tied for the most offensive linemen currently on injured reserve after being placed there during the season. They have four linemen currently on IR: Brown, McGovern, Schweitzer, and Vera-Tucker. Becton could possibly join them depending on the severity of his ankle sprain. The Giants are the only other team with four offensive linemen on IR.
It is more difficult to distinguish players who went on IR before the season. Some were expected to be on the roster but suffered season-ending injuries, while others were not expected to make the roster. Including players on IR who are ineligible to return, the Texans (6) and Giants (5) are the only teams with more combined linemen on IR than the Jets.
There are other teams with severe injuries to top offensive linemen. Most notably, both Browns tackles are currently on injured reserve: Jack Conklin for the season and Jedrick Wills for at least another three weeks. Abraham Lucas is still on IR for the Seahawks, while fellow 2022 draft pick Charles Cross missed several games earlier in the season. As mentioned earlier, the Giants’ only capable offensive lineman, Thomas, missed seven games.
Still, considering both the number and severity of the injuries, the Jets’ line is the most torn apart.
The elephant in the room
Whenever the discussion turns to injuries, fans and players point to the artificial turf as the source of all evil. The players cite data showing an increased likelihood of non-contact injuries on turf compared to grass. The NFL has another viewpoint.
The fact that the Jets and Giants both suffer from these injuries seems to support the players’ view. Both teams play at MetLife Stadium with artificial turf; ergo, that must be the root of the problem.
The holes in this supposition are twofold, though. For one, not all injuries occur in the home stadium; a more thorough study of where the injuries occurred is necessary. Additionally, the majority of the injuries were contact rather than non-contact, which makes sense in the trenches.
Let’s take a look at the Jets’ offensive line injuries, whether they were contact or non-contact, and where they occurred.
- Duane Brown (hip): contact, home (turf)
- Connor McGovern (kneecap): contact, home (turf)
- Wes Schweitzer (calf): contact, home (turf)
- Joe Tippmann (thigh/quad): contact, home (turf)
- Alijah Vera-Tucker (Achilles): contact, Denver (turf)
- Mekhi Becton (ankle): contact, Buffalo (turf)
- Billy Turner (finger): contact, Los Angeles (turf)
Although three of these injuries are in the lower leg, all of them came on contact. Therefore, it’s difficult to say that the turf caused the injuries, especially because the data is about non-contact ones.
The turf is definitely an issue. Garrett Wilson escaped with a mild injury after his foot stuck in the MetLife turf during the Eagles game. He blasted the turf after the game. That was exactly the kind of play that could have caused a severe non-contact injury.
Looking at the plays sidelining the Jets’ offensive linemen, though, none seem related to the turf. In general, linemen tend to get hurt from contact injuries in the trenches rather than non-contact ones while running or cutting. Think of Becton’s 2021 season-ending injury for which he blamed Greg Van Roten; Van Roten clearly rolled up on his knee. Something similar seemingly happened to Becton in the Jets’ 32-6 loss to the Bills.
Even the opinion among some in the NFLPA, which is that a change from the player’s usual playing surface can cause non-contact injuries, doesn’t hold water here. All the injuries came on turf. All were contact. Several were not in the lower leg. Just as with Rodgers’ contact injury, attributing the injury to the turf seems like a case of searching for something to blame rather than a valid criticism.
Teams playing on turf
It’s worth noting that the teams with the most injured offensive lines mostly play on turf. The Giants, Jets, Texans, and Patriots all have turf fields, while the Browns play on grass. Again, this does not explain which stadium the injuries occurred in, but it is interesting nonetheless.
Bad offensive lines?
A hypothesis to examine springs from Becton’s aforementioned 2021 kneecap injury. The number of Jets offensive linemen who have been injured after being contacted by a teammate seems extreme. Is it possible that worse offensive lines or offensive linemen are more prone to injury due to poor play? For example, we’ve seen multiple Jets offensive linemen end up flat on their backs or faces throughout the season. Does that make them more likely to get injured or injure others?
It may seem farfetched, but the reasoning behind it is the Jets and Giants. Both teams came into the season with tremendous offensive line questions, and both have suffered countless injuries there. Does poor performance beget injury?
For lack of a more scientific method of comparison, Pro Football Focus’ preseason offensive line rankings approximate the talent of each offensive line heading into the season. Comparing those rankings to the season-long snap rate of Week 1 starters, there is little correlation between the two (r^2 = 0.09).
This was a longshot hypothesis, but it’s worth ruling out as a possible explanation for the breadth of the Jets’ offensive line woes. Admittedly, though, the method was completely nonscientific.
Aside: NFL-wide problem
In 2022, analysts across the league wondered why offensive statistics were down. Some attributed it to the trend of playing two deep safeties, making it more difficult to open up the passing game. Others pointed to a proliferation of tackle injuries.
This season, we’ve seen much of the same. With an NFL-record 10 rookie quarterbacks starting a game, it’s unsurprising that offenses are once again struggling. However, offensive line play certainly has a role, and it’s evident in the numbers.
In 2022, the average pressure rate allowed by starting offensive tackles was 5.5%. In 2023, it’s up to 6.2%. At guard, the rate has gone up from 4.4% to 4.8%, and at center from 3.1% to 3.9%. Poor offensive line play seems ubiquitous.
In that sense, perhaps Douglas simply did the best he could with the options available, none of which were all that good. For example, Orlando Brown Jr., whom Douglas offered more money than the Bengals did, has a 6.4% pressure rate, while even Jawaan Taylor is at 5.5%.
Still, the combination of performance and injuries largely removes this excuse.
The Jets’ tackle situation in 2022 and 2023 is attributable to both injury and the complete lack of a contingency plan. I have excoriated Douglas for leaving the cupboard bare at tackle. Not only did he fail to upgrade the talent, but he also did not consider that every single tackle on the roster had at least moderate injury concerns, including the ace up his sleeve, Vera-Tucker.
In the interior of the offensive line, the luck of the draw still seems confounding. McGovern stayed healthy on the Jets’ miserable line in 2022. The assumption was that he, at least, would be spared from the injury monster. Schweitzer’s injury was likewise not foreseeable. With both Schweitzer and Tippmann as interior offensive line backups with center/guard flexibility, Douglas did a decent job building the depth there.
Still, taking a bird’s-eye view of the issue, there’s plenty of room to blame Douglas for the injuries besetting the offensive line. There are multiple overlapping factors underlying the offensive abomination (pun intended) the Jets have put forth this season. Considering how Breece Hall’s rushing performance has fallen off since Vera-Tucker’s injury, though, it’s fair to wonder if the offensive line woes are at the root of it all.
(Incidentally, this should settle the question about whether Hall’s or Vera-Tucker’s season-ending injury in 2022 was a bigger loss. Credit Robby Sabo for being right on that one.)
I have been a bigger critic of Douglas than most over the last two seasons. He has four offseasons as the Jets’ general manager under his belt. Rarely does an executive last into his fifth season without putting a winning product on the field. At this point, Douglas cannot fall back on injury as an excuse for what has gone wrong in 2023. Yes, the injuries are a factor, but many of them were actually likely to occur.
Douglas’ case to survive this debacle is thin (and perhaps spelled R-O-D-G-E-R-S). If he does make it through, he must move mountains to fix this disaster, which is partially of his own making.
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