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The one trait NY Jets fans should look for in OT draft prospects

Taliese Fuaga
Taliese Fuaga

New York Jets fans should look for one specific trait when watching the NFL draft’s offensive tackle prospects

The NFL draft is the ultimate crapshoot. Whether you form your opinions based on the first two minutes of a JustBombsProductions highlight reel or after obsessing over every snap of a player’s career on the All-22 film, your odds of predicting a player’s future are pretty similar. Sorry, draftniks.

There are no secret formulas to the draft. If there were, we wouldn’t have seen Vernon Gholston or Zach Wilson drafted in the top six, and Patrick Mahomes would not have fallen out of the top 10. Every NFL front office works year-round to prepare for this event, yet most of them still mess it up year after year.

While there will never be a perfect way to identify future hits or misses in the draft, there are certain things teams can look at to increase their odds of getting a pick right. If they emphasize targeting particular traits that have displayed relatively strong predictive value in the past, they can set themselves up to hit on more picks than most other teams in the long run.

That brings us to today’s topic: The New York Jets’ top offensive tackle targets in the 2024 draft.

This is considered a strong offensive tackle class, and the Jets are in need of a tackle. There are at least five different prospects who have been commonly mentioned as potential first-round targets for the Jets: Notre Dame’s Joe Alt, Penn State’s Olu Fashanu, Alabama’s JC Latham, Oregon State’s Taliese Fuaga, and Washington’s Troy Fautanu.

Everyone ranks these players differently. And nobody’s rankings matter. That’s the reality.

Rankings are irrelevant. What we can do is analyze how these players stack up in particular areas that have tended to be predictive in the past.

I italicized “tended” because it’s important to remember that nothing will ever guarantee a player’s success or failure. We’re just trying to see which guy might have a 5% better chance of panning out than the other guy. There are certain signals that may indicate a player has a slightly higher or lower chance of panning out, and when it comes to the draft, all you can do is use the information at your disposal to give yourself the best chance of succeeding. Hopefully it works out.

When it comes to offensive linemen – particularly offensive tackles – there is one particular trait that I have found to be a fairly good predictor of how a prospect’s production might translate to the NFL: his performance on true pass sets.

Every first-round offensive line prospect was dominant in college. To what degree may vary, but they wouldn’t be drafted in the first round if they didn’t stand out against future car salesmen. The key to the draft is trying to figure out how likely the player is to translate that success to the professional level, where the competition is immensely stronger and the responsibilities are much different.

That’s why isolating a prospect’s performance on true pass sets is vital. It is a useful method for figuring out how well he will transition to the professional game.

Pro Football Focus defines a true pass set as any pass-blocking rep outside of plays with fewer than 4 rushers, play action, screens, short drop backs, and throws under 2 seconds. If the offense calls a pass play and none of those criteria are met, it’s a true pass set. Essentially, these plays are “traditional” pass-blocking snaps where the linemen had to hold up for a significant length of time without assistance from outside factors.

True pass sets are far less common in college football than they are in the NFL. In 2023, true pass sets represented just 33.2% of pass-blocking snaps for FBS tackles. Compare that to the 2023 NFL average for tackles, which was 46.3%.

This difference is a major reason why many college linemen struggle in the NFL. Generally speaking, it’s a different sport for offensive linemen down at the NCAA level. Many college schemes are designed to minimize the importance of the offensive line, so a large portion of college linemen come to the NFL and get exposed when they are forced to handle a heavy burden in pass protection.

I was recently browsing through some of my old files, primarily skimming through charts and tables I made in the early days of Jets X-Factor. There’s so much gold in there, ranging from Jordan Jenkins’ pass-rush efficiency based on where he lined up to Greg Van Roten’s career resume after the Jets signed him as their starting right guard. Ah, the 2020 Jets. What a team.

Anyway, while browsing, I came across a table I made for an article that was published on April 28, 2020, just a few days after the virtual NFL draft. The article was a statistical breakdown of the Jets’ 11th overall pick in that draft, Mekhi Becton. This table was intended to highlight the main weakness that I pointed out for Becton in that breakdown: his lack of experience in true pass sets.

The table showcased Becton’s lack of experience and production in true pass sets compared to the other three tackles who were selected in the top 15 of that draft: Georgia’s Andrew Thomas (4th to NYG), Alabama’s Jedrick Wills (10th to CLE), and Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs (13th to TB).

Here is that same table, pulled as-is from the April 2020 article.

Mekhi Becton

Four years later, this table was a near-perfect predictor of how these tackles have panned out in the NFL.

Wirfs and Thomas were the most experienced players in true pass sets by a wide margin, and they were also the two most dominant in terms of their true pass set grade at PFF. Today, they are the only two players who have become stars. Both have been named to All-Pro teams and either have a gigantic contract or will sign one soon. Thomas was a 2022 second-team All-Pro and has a $117.5 million contract. Wirfs has not signed a new deal yet, but the three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro (one first-team, one second-team) will likely out-earn Thomas.

Wills landed firmly between the Thomas/Wirfs pairing and Becton. His experience in true pass sets was limited, but he did a good job in those situations, although he was not quite as dominant as Thomas or Wirfs. Today, Wills is generally viewed as an average starting tackle. He hasn’t earned any post-season honors or a new contract, but he’s started every game since he was drafted, and the Browns picked up his fifth-year option for 2024.

Finally, you have Becton, whose true pass set resume painted a daunting picture compared to his peers. Becton faced them on just 24.1% of his pass-blocking snaps, the lowest rate of the four. It’s a rate that stands out as extremely low even compared to the FBS standard (remember, the 2023 FBS average was 33.2%). On top of that, Becton only ranked at the 58th percentile among FBS tackles with a 64.7 true pass set grade, which was not only far behind his peers but barely ahead of the average FBS tackle.

Today, Becton is a free agent and will likely sign as a backup somewhere outside of New York. He is coming off a season where he tied for the most sacks allowed among tackles (12) while committing the second-most penalties (18).

Perhaps Becton’s career would have played out differently if he had better luck with injuries. That’s completely possible. Becton appeared to be on a promising trajectory after his rookie year, even if his performance in that season was overrated by some (he displayed elite peaks but was very inconsistent and still needed a lot of technical refinement).

With that being said, it’s no surprise that he hasn’t looked comfortable as an NFL pass protector after coming from a gimmicky Louisville offense where he was unimpressive when asked to block in true pass sets. Yes, hindsight is 20/20 – I thought this was a fantastic pick and so did many others – but if there’s one red flag you can point to as a signal that Becton was not going to pan out (solely looking at on-field performance), this is it. In my post-draft statistical breakdown of Becton, it was the only negative I mentioned.

The correlation between that table and the future success of those four players was astounding to me, so I figured it was worth tossing into this year’s draft discussion as the Jets face the possibility of drafting another tackle in the top 15.

With that in mind, it’s worth making the same table for this year’s top tackle prospects. Here is how Alt, Fashanu, Fuaga, Latham, and Fautanu stacked up in 2023.

Interestingly, all five prospects appeared to perform well in true pass sets. They each ranked in the top 8% among FBS tackles (287 qualifiers, min. 200 pass block snaps) when it came to PFF’s true pass set grade, although Alt separated himself from the pack. His 85.4 grade ranked fifth-best among FBS tackles.

In terms of experience, Alt was also on top, closely followed by Latham. Alt’s 45.4% rate placed him in the 93rd percentile among FBS tackles while Latham’s 44.7% rate put him in the 92nd percentile. Fashanu, Fuaga, and Fautanu were closely bunched with slightly above-average rates, all ranking between the 70th and 73rd percentiles.

This five-man group does not include someone whose numbers are remotely close to as alarming as Becton’s were in 2020. Still, Alt and Latham stand out as winners due to their significant advantage in true pass set experience. Alt is the biggest winner thanks to his accompanying success on true pass sets.

And remember, there are no secret formulas in the draft. I’m not claiming this is one. It’s completely possible that in 2028, this table turns out to be a reverse predictor of future success, with Alt and Latham having gone down as busts while the other three are superstars.

Nonetheless, a player’s performance in true pass sets is something that pops off the screen as a transferable trait when you’re watching film, so I was fascinated to see that its transferability had carried over to the spreadsheets in terms of how the 2020 draft played out. While true pass set success is not a guaranteed indicator of the future just because of the 2020 draft class alone, I do think it’s fair to suggest that it is typically the best trait to evaluate when scouting offensive line prospects.

And that goes beyond just the data. As I said, when you’re watching film of an offensive line prospect, his reps in true pass sets are among the things that stand out the most. I know that whenever I’m watching an offensive lineman’s film, nothing impresses me more than seeing him win on an island in pass protection to keep the QB clean for a long-developing play.

Keep an eye out for true pass sets whenever you flip on the tape of a lineman throughout the next weeks. Screen passes, quick passes, and play-action rollouts can be brushed aside. What does the player do when he has to get into his kickslide and go one-on-one for 3+ seconds? Those are the plays that will give you the best idea of what to expect at the NFL level.

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