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The NY Jets’ ideal starting O-line entering 2024 regular season

Tyron Smith
Tyron Smith

The New York Jets can build a strong offensive line if they use their resources properly

Without a doubt, the New York Jets’ top priority in the 2024 offseason will be their offensive line. The Jets will have to be smart when mapping out their plan to fix it, though. They cannot rely on aggressiveness alone to get the job done.

Unlike some offseasons in the franchise’s recent past, the Jets won’t be able to solve the problem by simply going out and spending wildly on the best free agents they can find (not that this approach ever worked, anyway). Currently ranked 20th with only $7.6 million in cap space, per Spotrac, the Jets will be operating on a tighter cap-space budget than usual. That number will obviously increase after some cuts, trades, and restructures, but the bottom line is that New York will not be anywhere near the top of the NFL in purchasing power this year.

The Jets’ limited cap space is not the only obstacle they will have to overcome in their quest to fix the offensive line. They will have to sift through a fairly weak market of free agent offensive linemen that lacks high-quality options. On top of that, New York doesn’t have much draft capital to work with. The Jets currently rank 23rd in the combined value of their draft selections, per Tankathon. After picking 10th overall, the Jets won’t be on the clock again until the 72nd pick, and after that, not until the 112th pick.

These obstacles would not have had much of an impact if the Jets only needed one or two new starters. With three starting spots to fill, though, the Jets have a difficult road ahead of them. It’s clear that New York will have to be economical with its resources to sufficiently rebuild the offensive line.

With that in mind, this would be my best-case scenario outcome for the Jets’ offensive line.

Returning starters: Joe Tippmann (C), Alijah Vera-Tucker (RG)

Before we get into the new additions, let’s begin by discussing how the Jets should handle their in-house options.

Joe Tippmann and Alijah Vera-Tucker are the only starters that I see on the current roster. It is difficult to justify keeping Laken Tomlinson after a season where he led all guards in pressures allowed (51) while performing similarly poorly in the run game. The Jets can save $8.1 million by cutting him. That money can go towards a much better guard.

As for Vera-Tucker’s position, I would like to see the Jets keep him at right guard. I believe he is at his best on the inside. His short arms are less of a detriment in pass protection at guard than they are at tackle. Plus, his elite athleticism has proven to be a massive advantage in the run game. He consistently beats interior defensive linemen off the ball and gets across their faces to seal the lane. He also does an excellent job of climbing up to block linebackers in space.

Here are some examples of Vera-Tucker maximizing his athletic advantage against interior linemen and inside linebackers when playing guard.

It’s also worth noting that Vera-Tucker suffered both of his season-ending injuries at tackle. That could be a fluke unrelated to the position he was playing, but you cannot underestimate the mental effect it could have on him if he lines up at tackle again. I’d like to keep Vera-Tucker at a position where he feels comfortable.

Tippmann seems penciled in as the starting center. The Jets spent a second-round pick on him and he delivered with a promising rookie season despite the messy situation around him. They seem to believe in him as the center of the future.

So, as things currently stand, we have Tippmann at center and Vera-Tucker at right guard. That leaves the left tackle, left guard, and right tackle spots to be filled.

Here’s my ideal scenario for filling those spots.

Left tackle: Sign Tyron Smith (2 years, $26 million)

You can check out my in-depth breakdown of Tyron Smith here (and Andrew Fialkow’s film breakdown here), but the bottom line is this: While Smith carries a lot of risk due to his injury history, his elite-level talent makes him a better gamble than arguably any other tackle on the free agent market.

In a perfect world, it would be nice if the market included tackles who were similarly talented to Smith without the injury history. That’s not the reality. Whoever the Jets sign, they will have to accept some red flags. In that case, why not gamble on the guy who has Hall-of-Fame-level ability when on the field?

Smith has missed at least three games in eight consecutive seasons and is 33 years old. That’s terrifying, especially for a Jets team that has dealt with offensive line injuries to an unfathomable degree. But Smith is still extremely good at football. In 2023, he allowed the second-lowest pressure rate (3.4%) and the second-lowest sack-plus-hit rate (0.4%) among tackles who played at least 500 pass-blocking snaps. The man allowed one sack and two hits on 536 pass-blocking snaps.

The good news about Smith’s injury history is that he generally avoids major injuries and is typically healthy for the playoffs. He’s played at least 11 games in six of the past eight seasons and was available for all six of the Cowboys’ playoff appearances in his 13-year career.

This would be a highly risky play, but considering the available options and the Jets’ resources, I still think Smith is the Jets’ best overall option at tackle. Signing him to a short-term deal with limited guarantees in the second year would make sense. I’m picturing something like two years and $26 million with $13 million guaranteed, featuring $11 million fully guaranteed in 2024 and $3 million guaranteed in 2025 with a max value of $15 million if he remains on the team.

That’s just an arbitrary estimate, but you get the idea: Sign Smith to a short-term deal that gives the Jets some leeway to cover for his injury risk, while also offering an amount of upside that is fair to Smith given his All-Pro talent level.

Left guard: Sign James Hurst (2 years, $10 million)

After splurging on Smith, the Jets will have to look for someone in the middle tier of the guard market who can give them bang for their buck. It doesn’t seem likely they will be able to afford an eight-figure annual salary at both tackle and guard, unless they want to skip out on pursuing a high-level receiver (which is highly unlikely).

Fortunately, this is a jam-packed niche in the free agent market. There are a lot of mid-level guards available who can provide respectable production as a starter for only $4-6 million per year.

Of these players, James Hurst is my preferred option. You can check out my in-depth review of Hurst here, but the lowdown is that he is a 10-year veteran who offers loads of experience (95 starts plus 3 in the playoffs), outstanding positional versatility (100+ career snaps at 4/5 OL positions, including at least 2,000 at LT and LG), reliable durability (92% of career games played), and most importantly, a good track record of production in pass protection.

Hurst has consistently provided solid pass-blocking numbers on a yearly basis ever since 2017, a span that includes three seasons in Baltimore and four in New Orleans. In each of the past seven seasons, he allowed a lower pressure rate than his positional average – pulling it off while playing four different positions.

This past season for the Saints, Hurst started all 15 of his games, primarily playing left guard. He allowed the 17th-lowest pressure rate out of 78 qualified guards (4.1%). He did this in a difficult situation, as the Saints’ offense forced Hurst to drop into a true pass set on 50.1% of his pass-blocking snaps (4th-highest). This is why Hurst ranked 10th-best among guards in net pressure rate (seven spots better than his raw pressure rate), which adjusts pressure rate based on TPS frequency.

Lined up at left guard in each of these clips from the 2023 season, you can see Hurst’s ability to help set up big plays downfield by remaining sturdy in one-on-one protection reps.

You won’t get strong run-blocking from Hurst – his struggles in that phase are as consistent as his success in pass protection. But for this Jets team, that’s okay. Protecting Aaron Rodgers is the top priority. The run game will be fine as long as Vera-Tucker and Breece Hall are healthy. There will also be multiple other above-average run blockers on the unit to cover for Hurst.

Hurst’s age (32) and run-blocking woes will limit his value. Over The Cap estimates he is worth about $4.3 million per year on the open market. Going off that estimation, I have the Jets giving him a two-year, $10 million deal in our ideal plan.

Right tackle: Draft Taliese Fuaga with 10th overall pick

You can pick any prospect you want, but the Jets simply have to draft a tackle with the 10th overall pick. It’s hard to picture anything else making sense, unless the Jets somehow address every offensive line spot pre-draft and neglect wide receiver.

The current consensus across the draft community is that the Jets will pick Penn State’s Olu Fashanu, but Oregon State’s Taliese Fuaga is starting to pick up steam.

In January, famed Joe Douglas confidant Daniel Jeremiah had the Jets taking Fuaga in his first mock draft.

A few weeks later, a report surfaced that claimed Douglas is eyeing Fuaga. The Beaver standout then attended the Senior Bowl in Mobile, where the Jets had Jeff Ulbrich in attendance as a coach. New York has developed a reputation for drafting players they worked with at the Senior Bowl. Fuaga proceeded to shine in Mobile and also expressed interest in joining the Jets when asked.

Fuaga has an intriguing resume. He allowed no sacks and only two hits in 12 games this past season (although his 3.4% pressure rate was less impressive, ranking 39th out of 199 FBS tackles). For what it’s worth, PFF graded Fuaga as the best run-blocking tackle in the country. To boot, Fuaga carries that “nasty” label, which the Jets’ offensive line has lacked for years.

Complete starting lineup

If this is how the offseason played out, the Jets’ opening-week starting offensive line would look like this:

  • Left tackle: Tyron Smith
  • Left guard: James Hurst
  • Center: Joe Tippmann
  • Right guard: Alijah Vera-Tucker
  • Right tackle: Taliese Fuaga

This unit undoubtedly carries its share of questions – namely Smith and Vera-Tucker’s durability, Tippmann’s year-two development, and Fuaga’s ability to contribute as a rookie.

But the upside is tremendous. Most importantly, this is a complete five-man unit that lacks any liabilities.

They often say an offensive line is only as strong as its weakest link. In this case, the weakest player talent-wise is Hurst, who still provides above-average pass protection. This unit doesn’t have a Duane Brown, Laken Tomlinson, Max Mitchell, Greg Van Roten, Ryan Kalil, Brandon Shell, Kelechi Osemele, or Spencer Long, just to name a few of the turnstiles New York has recently started in Week 1 (although to be fair, some of these players weren’t expected to be liabilities before the season).

While the unit’s well-roundedness is appealing, it isn’t without tantalizing upside, either. With four legitimate All-Pro-worthy players, the ceiling is limitless.

Smith was a second-team All-Pro last season and is a five-time All-Pro. Vera-Tucker likely would have made it in one or both of the past two seasons if he stayed healthy. Tippmann was the highest-drafted center in 2023 and already played like a league-average starting center as a rookie in a terrible environment, putting him one leap away from becoming a star. Fuaga would be a top-10 pick with tremendous potential.

Hurst rounds out the unit nicely. His lack of run blocking ability will hurt a little bit, but you can’t realistically fill out a unit with five perfect studs. You have to pick some things to sacrifice. As your worst starter, you can do far worse than a weak run blocking left guard who makes up for it with good pass-blocking, reliable durability, guard/tackle versatility, and ample experience.

Overall, there are a few different things to love about this group as a collective unit.

Having Smith at left tackle is easily the most appealing aspect. When healthy, Smith will provide a brick wall for Rodgers on the blind side, allowing the four-time MVP to comfortably scan the field in search of big plays. While I understand the fear surrounding Smith’s red flags, you cannot underestimate how wildly valuable it would be to have a healthy Smith in this offense. An elite pass-blocking left tackle is probably the third-greatest asset an offense could have behind an elite QB and an elite WR (both of which the Jets already have). Some might even argue that LT should be ahead of WR.

I also love the string of run-blocking talent ranging from Tippmann at center to Fuaga at right tackle. Tippmann and Vera-Tucker are both incredible athletes, so having them beside one another creates plenty of options for the interior run game. At right tackle, Fuaga brings physicality and intensity that the Jets’ offense as a whole has lacked in recent years. Once he hits his ceiling, the right-side duo of Fuaga and Vera-Tucker could be devastating for opposing defenses.

As for the backup group, the Jets already have a few players under contract who will be in the mix to compete for spots, but more help will be needed to maximize the unit’s reliability in a win-now season.

Carter Warren and Max Mitchell will likely compete for a higher spot on the depth chart, with Warren taking the advantage since he has one less year of experience. Wes Schweitzer is under contract and should have a high chance of making the team as a versatile backup on the interior. Outside of these three guys, though, the Jets are pretty much empty-handed. More reinforcements are needed.

It should be a priority for New York to sign a high-end backup tackle no matter what, but it becomes especially important if the Jets sign Tyron Smith. Considering his unreliability, the Jets cannot penny-pinch at the backup tackle spot, nor can they bank on Warren or Mitchell after their early-career struggles. They need someone they can count on to play at the caliber of a decent starting tackle for 3-5 games if/when Smith goes out.

The Jets should happily pay $5 million or more for a backup tackle they can feel good about. For the sake of this article, let’s go with Jermaine Eluemunor on a one-year, $5 million deal. I broke down Eluemunor in-depth here.

On the interior, I’m okay with Schweitzer as the top backup. It’s hard to do much better than Schweitzer for a backup, and at just $2.5 million per year, he’s on a great contract. I would focus on adding young talent to develop, as the Jets do not have a pipeline on the interior like they do at tackle. Drafting at least one guard or center in the later rounds of the draft would make a lot of sense.

Finally, here’s how our offensive line unit rounds out:

  • OT: Tyron Smith (LT), Taliese Fuaga (RT), Jermaine Eluemunor, Carter Warren, Max Mitchell
  • IOL: James Hurst (LG), Joe Tippmann (C), Alijah Vera-Tucker (RG), Wes Schweitzer, Day 3 Rookie

Considering the resources at their disposal and the options available to them, I think this is a realistic best-case scenario for the Jets’ offensive line.

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Jonathan Richter
Jonathan Richter
4 months ago

I disagree.

First of all, I don’t see any way that Tyron Smith signs here. He would be leaving nice, low-tax Texas, for miserable, cold, high-tax NJ, and would be signing up to play for everyone’s favorite O line coach, Keith Carter, known for not taking it easy on older players. The long-term prospects of wining don’t look promising here as Rodgers could easily get hurt again next year, and then be done, and we have NO backup.

Second, with our paucity of draft picks, and the depth of this O line class, it seems silly to take Fuaga at #10. If Fashanu is there at #10 I take him, but otherwise I would look to trade back. Jacksonville would be ideal, trading back to #17 and picking up a 2nd and a 4th in the deal. We will still get a Latham, Mims, Guyton, or even Fuaga at #17. The added 2nd and 4th would enable us to fill several more holes on the roster.

I would try to sign Trent Brown, or bring back George Fant as a stopgap LT. I would use a 2nd or 3rd round pick on an interior lineman like C Zach Frazier or G Christian Haynes or Troy Fautanu.

Brown/AVT/Frazier/Tippman/Mims

We could also sign a FA Center like Lloyd Cushenberry and spend both our 1st and 2nd round picks on Tackles.

Latham/AVT/Cushenberry/Tippman/Paul.

Charlie Winner
Charlie Winner
4 months ago

Great article! The only thing I might add is to pursue a “cap & trade” with Brice Huff to get back into the 2nd round so that we’ll have 2 spots to obtain a high level O linemen and a wide receiver.

Another approach is a little trickier, and that would be to trade down to get back into Round 2 to achieve the same result.

I’m like John B……. you can never have too many draft choices.

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