Everyone’s heard football clichés like “The Game is won in the trenches” and “It all starts up front.” These are generally sayings that parents of offensive lineman use to try and make their kids sound important. But they may ring true for the Jets more than any other team in the NFL. If the Jets want to take a big step forward offensively in 2013, they will need to rely on their offensive line to take them there. The ideal situation is that the Jets improve both their run game and pass game over the 2012 Sparano system and nobody really talks about the OLine. When nobody is talking about offensive linemen that means they are doing their jobs. It is when people start talking about them when you know something is wrong. Let’s see how much people will be talking about the Jets’ offensive line in 2013.
Key Returnees: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, Austin Howard, Vlad Ducasse, Caleb Schlauderaff
Key Departures: Matt Slauson, Brandon Moore, Jason Smith, Dennis Landolt
Key Additions: Willie Colon, Brian Winters, Ben Ijalana, Will Campbell, Oday Aboushi, Dalton Freeman (Practice Squad)
Starters – Ferguson, Howard
Depth – Ijalana, Aboushi
The starting tackle situation for the Jets has not changed in 2013. D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Austin Howard will again be the starters, but with another year under their belts and in a new offense. It is common consensus that Ferguson had a down year last year, even though he still graded out at an 87% in my 2012 grades. erguson is a borderline Pro Bowler who I expect to have a huge bounce back year in Marty Mornhinweg’s offense. This offense will play to Ferguson’s strengths as a long, athletic left tackle that can move in space. It will also cut down on some of the things he struggled with in the Sparano power gun game, namely man and gap scheme blocking. Just look at Jason Peters to see what the left tackle can become in this offense. Peters was known as one of the more athletic tackles in the game, but didn’t gain national attention until he was thrust in the Mornhinweg/Reid system in Philly. Expect Mornhinweg to utilize Brick’s athleticism often. I can’t wait to see if Marty uses Brick to lead the sprint draw play that put Peters in the spotlight in Philly. (Good Breakdown of that play here). I expect Ferguson to have a Pro Bowl caliber season at left tackle.
Austin Howard on the other hand still has a lot of work to do on his game. As far as NFL right tackles go, he is about average to slightly below average. Howard can be really solid at times and even flashes his ability against star players like Cameron Wake as he did in 2012. However, it’s his consistency that will kill you. Overall he graded out at a 77% in 2012. Howard is a solid run blocker, but just does not give you consistent protection from the right side in the pass game. His footwork is not good as he will get beat around the edge because he stops moving his feet. The thing to remember is that 2012 was Howard’s first year as an NFL starter and he can get better and, if last season was any gauge, he most likely will. He’s also familiar with this offense as he was on the roster in Philly in 2010.
The main difference at tackle from 2012 is their depth. The Jets got an absolute steal at the end of training camp by signing Ben Ijalana, who was a second round pick out of Villanova and has the length and athleticism to be a starting tackle in the NFL. The big issue with him is health. He missed the last 2 seasons with torn ACLs. The intriguing part is that he actually looked really good in preseason before the Colts cut him. If he can stay healthy and Austin Howard does not take the next step, I would not be surprised to see Ijalana in the starting lineup at some point.
The other guy on the bench is Oday Aboushi. I did a film review of Aboushi after he was drafted and I was not incredibly impressed with what I saw. As of right now, he is a project player because he has prototypical right tackle size, but is not quite there yet with footwork and technique. The good news is that he is an extremely physical player and can be serviceable at right tackle if the Jets are in a pinch.
Starters – Ducasse, Colon
Depth – Winters, Campbell
After the Jets parted ways with Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore, the Jets basically had to start from scratch at Guard. They then brought in veterans Willie Colon and Stephen Peterman in free agency and drafted Brian Winters and Will Campbell. This led to open competition between those four and Vlad Ducasse, who had not really lived up to his potential yet. The general thought was that the starters would be Colon and Peterman, but it became brutally apparent that Peterman could not be a starter at this point in his career. After that, fans thought it was time to hand the job over to Winters, but he was plagued by injury. In the end, the second guard spot ended up going to the guy who was already here, Ducasse.
It’s no mystery how I feel about Willie Colon as a player. He was one of the better tackles in the NFL with the Steelers before he had a bad string of injuries. He has the potential to be an All-Pro player at right guard if he can stay healthy and is incredibly physical, powerful, while bringing an attitude up front that the Jets have not had. Not only will he stick up for his Quarterback on the field, he will stick up for him in the Media too. The sky is the limit for Colon.
Ducasse, on the other hand, is more of a mystery. He spent a lot of 2012 rotating at left guard with Matt Slauson and the results were not very good. In the plays he was in, Vlad received a 69% grade. He is a very streaky offensive lineman. He would have stretches where he would complete his assignment every time and then all of a sudden he was getting beat for sacks and TFLs. Some of the technique he employed in 2012 is absolutely mind boggling. It is crazy to see someone do something right one play and then a few plays later do it completely wrong. There is good news, though. I don’t think Rex Ryan was blowing smoke when he said that Vlad looked better this preseason. When watching Jets’ preseason games, I though he looked better technically and even seemed more consistent, but still struggled in pass protection. In the end, he definitely outplayed the competition and deserved to be named the starter.
I would expect a short leash with Ducasse if he does not play well and if the Jets think Winters is ready. It is probably going to take a little more time than we thought for Brian Winters to be ready to be the starter. He was plagued by injuries and did not perform that well when he got the chance in preseason. He looked utterly confused next to Jason Smith in pass protection as the two of them were basically a swinging gate in the Eagles game. Later in the game, he did start to look more comfortable and even had a few pancakes in the run game. He will eventually be ready to start, but it might not be this year. If Colon or Ducasse aren’t re-signed, expect him to start in 2014.
Will Campbell, like Oday Aboushi, is more of a project player. Campbell was a defensive tackle at Michigan, but was a prospect at Offensive Guard going into the draft. He has the size and athleticism to play guard in the NFL; it’s just a matter of his development. I wouldn’t expect him to play in 2013 as he needs a year or two to develop. I love when a guy brings that defensive mentality to the offensive line though.
Starter – Mangold
Depth – Schlauderaff, Freeman (PS)
Center might be the one position on the offense where Jets fans feel like they don’t have to worry, and for good reason. Nick Mangold is one of the best centers in the NFL. However, like the most of the Jets’ offensive personnel, he had a down year in 2012. He was excellent in pass protection, but did not look comfortable in Sparano’s power game. He often fell off of his down blocks, where his guys made a lot more tackles than I would have guessed before watching the film. Mangold looks a lot better run blocking in zone schemes, which Mornhinweg will run a lot more of than Sparano. He is arguably the best center in the NFL at executing combo blocks and getting to the second level. Like Ferguson, I expect Mangold to return to Pro Bowl form.
Behind Mangold, the Jets don’t really have much. chlauderaff is cheap labor and really hasn’t shown much on the field. In the preseason games he has played, he struggles against guys that won’t even be on rosters come Week 1. If anything ever happened to Mangold, I would imagine the Jets would be forced to sign someone or move another lineman like Willie Colon to center. If Dalton Freeman had remained healthy through training camp, I don’t think Schlauderaff would be on this roster.
I like what I saw on film from Dalton Freeman and think he is the rare practice squad guy who can stick on an NFL roster. I think he is a better player than Schlauderaff and will be on the Jets roster at some point this season when he proves he can remain healthy.
On a team that seems to be rebuilding, I think the offensive line can be a steady rock for this offense to lean on. Right now, they are excellent at three spots with Brick, Colon, and Mangold, but average to below average at the Left Guard and Right Tackle spots. They need to play to the overall strength of this offensive line and run the ball more than Marty Mornhinweg probably wants to and then hit the defense with play action and short West Coach schemes.
This will limit the deep drop backs and make things easier for Geno Smith, Austin Howard, and Vlad Ducasse. If the Jets rely on constant five step drops, there could be serious trouble up front. But if they play to the strengths of the OLine, I think you will see an offense that will be able to move the ball on a pretty consistent basis. While I don’t think this starting group is stronger across the board than in 2012, I do think that guys will play better with Sparano’s system gone. If they stay healthy up front, this line will put together a more productive season where there could potentially be 3 pro bowlers. If they don’t stay healthy, there will be trouble, but I feel better about the backups at guard and tackle than I did in 2012. At the end of the season, we will look back at this group as being a top ten offensive line in the NFL, with the capability to be in the top 5 if Ducasse and Howard get better.