As we wrap up this season of the NFL, it’s a good time to recap the lessons the Jets have to take into next season in order to be successful. One of those lessons is that they have to make a concerted effort to build their offensive line. It’s not a position group that excites the casual fan. But a strong, disciplined offensive line might be the key to the Jets future. Let’s take a look at some of the teams that found success this season and where some team’s broke down to examine how the Jets can move forward.
Making Up For Lost Time
This won’t be the first time you’re hearing from me that the Jets haven’t really made much progress in improving the offensive line after the departure of D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold. But they have certainly reaped the nonchalant effort they sowed into the position group the past few years. Let’s be blunt. The Jets made a bad hire in Rick Dennison. They made a bad signing with Spencer Long. It’s possible they may have overpaid Brian Winters. And now they have scheme mismatch now with James Carpenter.
It’s hard to unravel mistakes made over the course of a few years but they’ve at least started in the right direction. The Jets hired Frank Pollack, the impressive Bengals former offensive line coach. He has an impressive resume including having a hand in the Dallas Cowboys offensive line improvements. He also improved a Bengals offensive line that was at the bottom of the league, to the middle of the pack and earned rave reviews from his players. Joe Mixon went over 1000 yards and averaged 5 yards per carry behind Pollack’s offensive line. But like everything in the NFL, much of his best work came in lockstep with solid personnel decisions. Perhaps that side of things will improve for the Jets this offseason. Improving the offensive line could go a long way to helping the Jets become contenders. We’ve already seen in recent years that solidifying the front-line can help a promising team make a jump.
Offensive Line Trends
Around the league, we’re learning the true value of a strong offensive line in this era of the NFL. Teams like the Cowboys, Colts, and the Patriots are prime examples of this. For the Cowboys, one of the biggest reasons why Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott were able to hit the ground running in the NFL was because the Cowboys made huge improvements and retentions they made along their offensive line. In 2014, they signed left tackle, Tyron Smith, to a 8-year $97.6 million contract extension. That price now seems low in today’s NFL, given the demand at the position. Smith has been first team All-Pro twice since that extension. Also in 2014, they drafted Zack Martin in the first round of the draft. Martin has been first team All-Pro 3 times since he’s been drafted. In 2015, Dallas took a chance on right tackle Lael Collins as an undrafted free agent. He’s turned into a consistent starter for the Cowboys. In 2016, they extended Travis Frederick (drafted in 2013) with a 6-year $56.4 million contract. Frederick is going through a health situation right now but he was first-team All-Pro as recent as 2016. All this groundwork on the offensive line is what led to Prescott and Elliott bursting onto the scene in 2016 and what held up the questionable play calling they’ve suffered under in recent years.
In one of the more important drafts in Chris Ballard’s tenure as Colts GM, Ballard used two of their three picks in round 1-2 last year on the offensive line. They drafted OG Quenton Nelson and OT Braden Smith. After years of watching Andrew Luck run for his life, the Colts offense looked completely different with a reinforced offensive line. Nelson was first team All-Pro as a rookie. Braden Smith was part of the PFWA All-Rookie team. The Colts experienced one of the greatest turnarounds to a position group I’ve ever seen. They went from the most sacks allowed in 2017 (56) to the least in 2018 (18). Part of that is Frank Reich’s new offense and coaching. But the majority of that was Ballard investing meaningful draft picks into the offensive line.
For the Patriots, most have concluded that they might have the best offensive line coach in the NFL with Dante Scarnecchia. However, they also did a good job maintaining depth and versatility across their offensive line through drafting, acquisition, and retention. The entire of their offensive line has been consistent since 2016. David Andrews was an undrafted free agent that earned the starting part at center. Joe Thuney was a 3rd round pick in 2016 and has started every game since. Shaq Mason was a 4th round pick in 2015 and just signed a 5-year $45 million extension in 2018. Mason was also PFF’s #1 graded guard in 2018.
On the exterior, they didn’t lull themselves into false security after Nate Solder left in free agency. Many have forgotten about OT Isaiah Wynn, who they drafted in the 1st round in 2018. It’s mostly because they subsequently lost him to a season ending injury before the regular season. Before that injury, the Patriots traded for the 49ers tackle Trent Brown. They made a deliberate effort to address both left and right tackle in the offseason and it paid off. After the Wynn injury, Brown moved over to left tackle. He started all 16 games, throughout the playoffs, and performed well beyond anything he showed in San Francisco. The Patriots unit as a whole gave up the 3rd fewest sacks in the regular season. In their postseason Super Bowl run, they gave up just one sack.
As you can see, building a difference making offensive line relies heavily on the Jets GM and scouting department identifying talent that will be worthy of second contracts. The Jets probably can’t fix everything in a single offseason, but they can make huge strides with the right approach. First, the Jets need to fix their issues at the interior of their offensive line. No more shy stabs at addressing the issue there.
Free agency is never a slam dunk because if a player is available, there are usually flaws. That being said, the upside of adding someone like Matt Paradis is eye opening. He’s about as good of an upgrade as the Jets can make at center this offseason and would of course be their best center since Nick Mangold. He was also a Super Bowl champion in the 2015 season with Peyton Manning. We all know how much the Jets are into Peyton Manning, but adding players that have been to the pinnacle will help elevate the attitude and approach in the locker room. Doug Pederson and the Eagles use a similar approach to building their roster.
Beyond Paradis, the Jets can look at Mitch Morse as a secondary option at center, and Rodger Saffold could possibly replace James Carpenter at guard. Trent Brown, the Patriots left tackle, is about to hit the market. As discussed earlier, he performed well above expectation in 2018. But the fear is whether or not he can recreate that success outside of New England. There are also certain players currently under contract, that could potentially hit the market because of their cap hit. Kelechi Osemele, for example, has a $10.2 million cap hit in 2019. With the Raiders rebuilding and overflowing with draft picks, they could opt to move on from Osemele and get younger. Osemele would immediately become best guard on the market.
Those are really the only options that would move the needle at all for the Jets. in free agency. However, it’s in the draft that the Jets can address both the interior and exterior of the offensive line. The offensive line is the main reason why I believe the Jets should be trying to trade out of the 3rd overall pick in the first round as much as possible. Moving down in the 1st round and securing more picks (particularly a second round pick) gives them more flexibility and peace of mind to use quality picks on the offensive line.
Andre Dillard (Washington St.), Jonah Williams (Alabama), and Jawaan Taylor (Florida), should all be worth targeting for the Jets in the 1st round. As underrated as Kelvin Beachum has been at left tackle, I think Dillard would be an upgrade now and for the long term. Taylor could take over at right tackle and potential slide to left tackle later on. Williams could start anywhere on the Jets offensive line, depending on how they view him. The Jets could trade down with a QB hungry team and still land one of those four at these spots:
7th overall (trade with Jaguars)
10th overall (trade with Broncos)
15th overall (trade with Washington).
If they don’t draft a tackle in the 1st round of the draft, they can still make improvements later on in the draft. The Jets have two 3rd round picks and a trade down would add even more mid-round picks to the equation. They could make offensive line investments at positions they need to upgrade. At center players like Elgton Jenkins (Mississippi St.), and Garrett Bradbury (North Carolina State) could be available. Also, at tackle, David Edwards (Wisconsin), and Tytus Howard (Alabama St.) and could be as well. And at guard Michael Jordan (Ohio St.), Beau Benzschawel (Wisconsin) and Dru Samia (Oklahoma) might also be available. Finding the right offensive lineman, particularly in the mid-rounds, could make this draft a huge victory for the Jets.
The Jets have an opportunity this offseason to really boost their offense, and their franchise quarterback, by addressing the offensive line. It could also really augment the potential addition of a certain elite running back available in free agency. The Jets need more than just a few Protecting Sam Darnold and complimenting his skills with a strong running game are going to be vital in 2019. Let’s hope the Jets get it right this time. In the meantime, what’s the best case scenario offensive line coming out of this offseason? Here’s what I came up with (as unlikely as it may be):
Sign Matt Paradis. Sign Kelechi Osemele (assuming he’s cut to clear cap space). Draft Andre Dillard in the 1st round. Draft Dru Samia in the 3rd round.
LT Andre Dillard
LG Kelechi Osemele
C Matt Paradis
RG Dru Samia / Brian Winters (FIGHT!)
RT Brandon Shell