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Free agent G Ezra Cleveland offers NY Jets an enticing decision

Ezra Cleveland
Ezra Cleveland

Ezra Cleveland offers the New York Jets a much different profile than other free agent guards

We’ve already reviewed the profiles of four free agent guards: Kevin Zeitler, James Hurst, Kevin Dotson, and Jon Runyan.

There are a few common themes between these players. Three of the four (save for Dotson) are much better pass blockers than run blockers. Of those three players, arguably the two best options of the bunch for the New York Jets – Zeitler and Hurst – are both over 30 years old.

Today, we are going to discuss a free agent guard who offers a much different profile than any of the guards we have broken down so far: Ezra Cleveland.

Currently aged 25 years and nine months old, Cleveland is the youngest unrestricted free agent offensive lineman among the 48 who played at least 350 offensive snaps last year. This gives him the potential to be a long-term solution, unlike some of the other players we’ve broken down so far.

In addition, Cleveland displayed a balanced skill set between the run and pass games in 2023, contrary to the other guards we’ve analyzed, who typically leaned toward the pass game.

If you’ve been browsing the internet looking at “top free agent” lists, Cleveland is a name you’ve probably noticed fairly often. For instance, Pro Football Focus has him ranked as their No. 5 free agent guard.

Cleveland is an enticing free agent prospect. Does he live up to the hype? Let’s dig into his profile to see if he’s a worthy target for the New York Jets.

Jets free agent profiles:

Basic info

  • Age: 25.7
  • Height: 6-foot-6
  • Weight: 312 pounds
  • College: Boise State
  • Experience: 4 years (Drafted Round 2, Pick 58 by Minnesota in 2020)
  • Teams: Vikings (2020-23), Jaguars (2023)
  • Previous contract: 4 years, $5.54M (Rookie contract)

Measurables

  • Data from 2020 Combine (via Mockdraftable)
  • Percentiles among all-time offensive line prospects

  • Height: 6’6″ (78th percentile)
  • Weight: 311 pounds (50th)
  • Arm length: 33.375in (42nd)
  • Hand size: 9in (2nd)
  • 40-yard dash: 4.93s (96th)
  • Vertical jump: 30in (74th)
  • Broad jump: 111in (89th)
  • 3-cone drill: 7.26s (97th)
  • 20-yard shuttle: 4.46 (94th)
  • Bench press: 30 reps (82nd)

Cleveland recorded a Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 9.98/10 when evaluated as a guard. His performance at the combine was one of the best we’ve ever seen from an offensive lineman.

Role

Cleveland began the 2023 season as Minnesota’s starting left guard. He started the Vikings’ first six games at left guard before missing two games due to a foot injury. After that, he was traded to the Jaguars for a 2024 sixth-round pick.

Cleveland was a backup for his first three games in Jacksonville. He made his starting debut in Week 13 at left guard. Cleveland would start five games for the Jaguars: four at left guard and one at left tackle.

Prior to 2023, Cleveland started all 34 games at left guard for Minnesota from 2021-22. In his 2020 rookie season, Cleveland started nine games at right guard.

2023 performance

Great start to the year in Minnesota

Before suffering a foot injury near the end of Minnesota’s sixth game (which would be his last game as a Viking), Cleveland was on his way to the best season of his career.

Through Week 6, Cleveland had allowed 10 pressures on 265 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. This is a pressure rate of 3.83%, which was on pace to be his career-best. For perspective, the 2023 league average for guards was 5.2%, and a 3.83% rate would have ranked 14th-best out of 78 qualifiers at the end of the season.

Cleveland also had a 72.8 run-blocking grade at PFF, which ranked seventh-best out of 60 qualified guards through Week 6. He was helping the Vikings run the ball to his side with solid consistency. Minnesota generated positive EPA (Expected Points Added) on 41.7% of its designed rush attempts to the left side from Weeks 1-6, which ranked 10th-best in the NFL over that span.

Major collapse after the injury and trade

Following his foot injury and ensuing trade to Jacksonville, Cleveland endured a rough finish to the season.

Across seven games with the Jaguars, Cleveland allowed 18 pressures on 261 pass-blocking snaps, a pressure rate of 6.9%. For perspective, that would have ranked 64th out of 78 qualified guards at the end of the season.

Cleveland’s run blocking also collapsed, as he had a 48.2 PFF run-blocking grade with the Jaguars. This ranked 53rd out of 60 qualified guards from Weeks 11-18.

Ultimately had an average year when combining both stints

Cleveland ended up having a very average season in both facets when combining his Minnesota excellence with his Jacksonville struggles. He finished 2023 with a 5.3% pressure rate, ranking 46th out of 78 qualified guards, and a 60.4 PFF run-blocking grade, placing 33rd.

His combined average ranking between the two categories: 39.5, which is smack in the middle out of 78 players.

Cleveland was also about average in the penalty department. He committed three penalties on 749 offensive snaps, an average of 4.0 penalties per 1,000 snaps. That’s slightly better than the positional average of 4.9.

Comparing 2023 performance to previous track record

Cleveland’s hot start to 2023 as a pass-blocker was an extremely promising sign in his development, as he had largely struggled in pass protection across his first three seasons.

From 2020-22, Cleveland allowed 110 pressures on 1,815 pass-blocking snaps, a pressure rate of 6.1%. He had an especially rough season in 2022, allowing 53 pressures on 759 pass-blocking snaps (7.0%). That was the third-most total pressures allowed among guards.

So, outside of his first six games in Minnesota this year, Cleveland’s pass protection has been subpar. His cold finish to the season in Jacksonville was a reversion to his previous career norms. The hot start he enjoyed with the Vikings is an outlier.

In terms of run blocking, Cleveland has always been highly regarded in that department ever since his rookie year. Through his first three seasons, his career average run blocking grade was 73.8. He had a huge year in 2022, ranking fourth among qualified guards (min. 500 snaps) at 80.3.

Cleveland’s run blocking success through Week 6 with Minnesota was a continuation of what he had always done with the Vikings. His fall-off as a run blocker in Jacksonville is an outlier.

Cleveland also has a good track record with penalties. For his career, he has been called for 12 penalties on 3,465 offensive snaps, an average of 3.3 per 1,000 snaps.

Scheme fit

Cleveland’s run blocking decline in Jacksonville was largely due to him being a bad fit in their scheme. There is strong evidence suggesting that Jacksonville was an awful match for his skill set.

As we saw earlier from his testing numbers, Cleveland is an outstanding athlete. He has unique speed and agility for an offensive lineman. This has translated to the field. Cleveland has proven himself to be an excellent zone blocker in the NFL, as zone blocking schemes are perfect for maximizing his athletic traits.

Minnesota was a very heavy zone-running team during Cleveland’s time there. Jacksonville was the polar opposite, relying heavily on gap-running concepts.

From Weeks 1-6 in Minnesota, 58.9% of Cleveland’s run-blocking snaps were charted as zone runs, per PFF, ranking 10th-highest among 60 qualified guards. This was a continuation of the past few seasons. Cleveland was at 61.9% in 2022 (4th of 64) and 69.4% in 2021 (3rd of 70).

But from Weeks 11-18 in Jacksonville, Cleveland’s zone rate stooped all the way to 31.9%, ranking 57th out of 60 qualified guards.

It’s no surprise that the scheme change led to a decline in production for Cleveland. Over the full season in 2023, he finished with the sixth-best zone-blocking grade (79.3) and the second-worst gap-blocking grade (39.8). So, yeah, it wasn’t the smartest move on Jacksonville’s part to try and squeeze Cleveland into a gap scheme.

While the Jets are not as zone-heavy as the Vikings were in Cleveland’s tenure, they do tend to lean in that direction. Laken Tomlinson, who played every snap for the Jets in 2023, ranked 29th out of 64 qualified guards with a 50.8% zone rate. So, Cleveland would fit much better in New York than he did in Jacksonville.

Still, it seems an extremely zone-heavy offense, like the one ran in Minnesota, is his best fit.

However, it’s possible that New York could become that type of offense with a full season of Aaron Rodgers and Nathaniel Hackett. The Jets’ offense clearly altered its identity after Rodgers’ injury, and that seeped into the run game. When Rodgers and Hackett last played a full season together, the Packers’ run game was zone-heavy to a similar degree of Cleveland’s Vikings.

In 2021, Green Bay’s 17-game starting guard Royce Newman finished 13th out of 70 qualified guards with a 63.4% zone rate. This suggests the Jets could go back to being a zone-heavy team in their idealistic Rodgers-Hackett offense – which would make Cleveland a perfect fit.

Durability

Cleveland has played in 62 out of 67 possible regular season games in his career (92.5%), which is about 15.7 out of every 17 games. He also appeared in Minnesota’s lone playoff game.

One of Cleveland’s five missed games was not due to injury; he was inactive in Week 1 of his rookie season. Outside of that, Cleveland has only missed time on two different occasions. He missed two games with an ankle injury in his rookie year and two games with a foot injury in 2023.

Projected cost

Spotrac offers an extremely optimistic projection for Cleveland’s market value, pegging him at $13.3 million per year. This is based off comparisons to Elgton Jenkins ($17M per year), Ben Powers ($12.9M), Nate Davis ($10M), and Alex Cappa ($8.8M).

PFF offered a more conservative estimate at $9.5 million per year.

Spotrac’s projection might be a little high, but I don’t think it’s out of the question. PFF’s projection seems like a reasonable floor.

Cleveland has a bevy of traits that tend to get offensive linemen paid on the open market. For one, he quite simply has started a lot of games over the past few years. That alone is often enough for linemen to fetch some dough. It shows durability and it suggests that his former teams had faith in him.

Cleveland’s second-round pedigree will also earn him some money. Highly-drafted linemen tend to profit off their draft billing for the rest of their careers (hello, Andre Dillard).

On top of all that, Cleveland has a historically impressive athletic profile and has proven he is proficient in a zone-running scheme, which is becoming increasingly prevalent in the NFL. Many teams will covet an uber-athletic zone blocker, but if you’re a mauling gap-blocker, your market will be limited to a select group of teams.

Flag Check

I recently wrote a pair of articles that analyzed what the Jets can learn from their hits and misses in free agency. The idea was to determine which green flags and red flags at the time of the signings turned out to be the best predictors of what would happen.

Let’s take a look at Cleveland’s profile and see which aspects of it are reminiscent of the Jets’ hits (like D.J. Reed and Tyler Conklin) and which aspects are concerningly similar to the Jets’ whiffs (like Laken Tomlinson and C.J. Uzomah).

Green flags

Cleveland’s consistent run-blocking production over four seasons is a great sign when projecting his long-term sustainability. In some ways, you can argue that an offensive lineman’s run blocking is more indicative of his true performance level than his pass blocking.

The reason I say that is because pass-blocking metrics such as pressures and sacks allowed can be heavily influenced by outside factors, whereas in the run game, metrics like PFF’s run blocking grade are focusing solely on the player’s individual blocking performance regardless of how the play turned out.

If a lineman plays with a quarterback who holds the ball too long, receivers who can’t get open, an offensive coordinator who doesn’t give the line much help, or some combination of these things, it’s going to make his pass-blocking numbers look worse regardless of how he is actually playing. But run blocking production should be able to translate (as long as he is in the right scheme to maximize his strengths).

The success of the team’s runs will vary based on the player’s surroundings. As an individual, though, his run blocking shouldn’t look better or worse based on the situation, whereas the situation can have a huge impact on how often a player’s pass-blocking mistakes jump off the screen.

So, with all of that in mind, I’d be intrigued by Cleveland’s four-year consistency as a run blocker if I were a prospective team. That shows me he is a legitimately talented blocker, backing up his second-round pedigree and the potential that he displayed at the 2020 combine.

Cleveland’s durability is an important green flag. He’s stayed very healthy throughout his career. It’s possible that his 2023 foot injury affected his performance down the stretch of the season, but it shouldn’t be something that lingers into the future.

I also think it’s promising that Cleveland was showing substantial improvement as a pass blocker at the start of 2023. He’s still only 25 years old, and it was just his fourth season, so he’s young and inexperienced enough to where it could have been his true breakout rather than a random outlier.

His downturn after that is concerning, but he did suffer an injury and change teams – joining an offense that he did not fit, no less – so perhaps those obstacles clouded the fact that he was in the process of building a legitimate breakout year.

Red flags

My biggest concern with Cleveland is his pass-blocking resume. As we’ve discussed with previous free agent targets, if the Jets had to choose one phase for their offensive linemen to favor, it would definitely be pass protection. Keeping 40-year-old Aaron Rodgers in one piece is the single most important goal for the entire organization.

With four seasons and 54 starts under his belt, Cleveland has been mostly underwhelming as a pass blocker outside of his hot start to 2023. As I mentioned earlier, there are legitimate reasons to be hopeful that he was on his way to a full breakout season, but he ultimately wasn’t able to do that. For now, Cleveland is a below average pass protector until proven otherwise.

It would be risky for the Jets to place that type of player in front of Rodgers. Considering the immense importance of Rodgers’ health, you’d rather see them fill a starting spot with a safer player like James Hurst, who isn’t a good run blocker but has a long track record of solid pass protecting ability.

Banking on Cleveland to sustain his early-2023 progress in pass protection is a dangerous roll of the dice for a team that cannot afford to mess around when it comes to protecting their quarterback/coach/owner/general manager.

The scheme fit is also something to keep in mind. While the Jets will not place Cleveland in a predicament akin to the one he faced in Jacksonville’s gap-heavy offense, it’s also unclear whether they will give him quite as comfortable of an environment as Minnesota did.

If the Jets are going to revisit the 2021 Packers’ zone tendencies, then by all means, Cleveland would fit tremendously, but if they maintain their 2023 tendencies, Cleveland would only be an “okay” fit rather than a great one. And when you consider his potential cost alongside his pass blocking concerns, “okay” isn’t good enough.

The whole appeal with Cleveland is his uber-athleticism and elite zone blocking. So, if you don’t run an extremely zone-heavy offense, it’s not a worthwhile investment.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Vikings – who drafted Cleveland and saw him every day for four years – traded Cleveland for a sixth-round pick instead of keeping him and trying to re-sign him.

To be fair, Cleveland was drafted by a different regime, and maybe they didn’t expect to re-sign him anyway and wanted to recoup something. Still, he couldn’t have been overly impressive if Minnesota dealt him mid-season for a sixth-rounder.

The verdict

I’m going to say “no” on this one.

The Jets have to keep Aaron Rodgers safe. That’s the only thing that matters. They are not in a position to gamble on offensive linemen who aren’t proven in pass protection.

This is especially true at Cleveland’s projected cost. He’s probably going to get one of the largest contracts in free agency among offensive linemen. If the Jets are going to pay that type of money to a lineman, it should be an established veteran like Tyron Smith or Kevin Zeitler who has proven themselves to be a star in pass protection.

Cleveland’s youth, durability, athleticism, and zone blocking are appealing traits, but he’s one season removed from allowing the third-most pressures among guards. With that on his resume, I don’t think the Jets can justify rolling the dice on him at the cost of around eight figures per season.

I would rather see the Jets save a few million and go after a cheaper, pass-favoring guard like James Hurst or Jon Runyan. They won’t offer nearly as high of a ceiling in the run game, and in the case of Hurst, he isn’t a long-term solution, but these players are far safer bets in pass protection, and that should be the Jets’ top priority.

If Cleveland’s market dips to a price range around where Hurst and Runyan will likely land – I’m thinking $5-7 million per year – then perhaps there is a conversation to be had.

Again, let’s be clear: Cleveland is an appealing target. It would be nice for the Jets to sign someone who can be a solution for years to come and remain in his twenties throughout the entirety of his contract.

It’s also exciting to think about the holes he could create for Breece Hall in the outside run game, especially playing alongside another excellent athlete in Joe Tippmann. And there is real upside in the passing game. If the Jets’ coaches watch Cleveland’s 2023 film and truly believe he will develop into a quality pass-blocker, maybe it would be worth taking a shot on him for a mid-tier starter contract.

Still, even in that scenario, I’d advise them to avoid rolling the dice and focus their attention on the more proven pass blockers that the market has to offer.

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dudizt
dudizt
4 months ago

I don’t think he gets that much money but I could be wrong. I feel like him being traded for a 6 is an indication of his value but free agency drives up value

Jets71
Jets71
4 months ago

I think you hit on something with the potential “holes he could create for Breece Hall.” The pass blocking will improve if the team can run the ball consistently, and not get into 2nd and long when DL’s can just tee off. The Jets offense hasn’t had the ability to keep defenses “off balance” for as long as I can remember (save for a game or 2 here and there), so I’m not as concerned with taking a really good run blocker on the OL. Pass blocking is great but without the ability to run the ball, no matter how good players are the pass protection will only last so long. If you can pound on a team for a couple of quarters even poor pass blocking OL’s become “good.”

That being said, at this point based on your breakdowns I’m in for Smith, Hurst and Onwenu as free agent signings. Left to right: Smith, Hurst, Tipmann, AVT, Fuaga….

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