Turn On The Jets Off-Season Roundtable – Offensive Line

The TOJ staff discusses how the New York Jets should handle offensive line this off-season


Welcome to our off-season review of the New York Jets roster at Turn On The Jets. Each week we are going to attack a different position. We will have a roundtable discussion on it, Steve Bateman will submit a film breakdown examining it and our draft staff will look at potential prospects the Jets could add. So far we have covered quarterbackrunning back, and wide receiver. This week we move to offensive line – 

How should the New York Jets handle offensive line this off-season?

Joe Caporoso – The New York Jets have a few critical decisions to make on the offensive line. In 2012, Pro Football Focus had the unit ranked 3rd overall in the NFL and while I think that is a slight overrating of their performance, they were still one of the better units in the league.

We know D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold will be back next year and for the long term. It is also a near certainty that Austin Howard will return as the starting right tackle, despite being a Restricted Free Agent. He was a very good run blocker last season and despite his limitations in pass protection, will be a nice fit in Marty Mornhinweg’s offense. The real question marks are at Guard, where both of last year’s starters, Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore are free agents. Both players have certain limitations (Slauson’s run blocking and Moore’s age) but both are more than capable starters and the Jets have no immediate answers behind them on their roster. Sorry, Vlad.

The old regime was down on Slauson and desperate to make Ducasse work as a draft pick. Despite the changing of GMs, it is hard to see Slauson getting a market value contract from the Jets. It would be prudent to find a way to bring Brandon Moore back on a short term deal. He has played his entire career in New York and is a needed leader in the locker room. Also the task of finding two new starting guards this off-season is daunting. Our draft team has been high on the prospect of taking Alabama’s Chance Warmack in the first round if he falls to the 9th pick. Warmack is arguably the safest pick in the top ten and would solidify at least one of the guard spots for the next decade. However, it remains to be seen if he falls that far or if there isn’t a better option at #9, namely a pass rusher. If the Jets don’t go Guard in the first round, look for them to strongly consider one in the 2nd or 3rd round.

There are a few mid-level options in free agency this year like Geoff Schwartz, Cooper Carlisle and Leroy Harris among others if the Jets are going to take a dual approach to replacing whoever leaves in free agency. Let’s just hope the team is smart enough not to hand a starting job to Ducasse.

Mike Donnelly – To me, the blueprint for how to handle the line going forward is pretty simple. We have Nick Mangold at center and D’Brickashaw Ferguson at left tackle, and they are the rocks of the line for 2013 and beyond. Right tackle Austin Howard stepped into a starting role after the Wayne Hunter/Jeff Otah fiasco last summer and did an admirable job. He was one of our best run blockers, but clearly struggled as a pass blocker at times. He is a restricted free agent heading into the offseason, but I fully expect the team to bring him back on a 1-year, cap-friendly deal as they try to develop him further.

The real concern with the line is the play of the guards. Matt Slauson has done a fine job the past three seasons holding the fort at left guard, while doing so for minimal pay. You can’t have stars at every position, so guys like Slauson are necessary. This year his play took a bit of a tumble as he headed into his contract year, though, and the team thought so little of his prospects going forward that they started rotating series between him and VLAD DUCASSE. Let that sink in for a second. I’d say the chances of him returning next season as the starting left guard are somewhere between zero and zero. At the other guard spot, veteran Brandon Moore is also a free agent, and while he’s a valued leader in the locker room, his play has clearly tailed off. He is far more likely to return in 2013 on a one-year contract that Slauson is, however, and that’s what I expect to happen. Unfortunately, with the Jets cap situation, all positions can’t be fixed in one year.

The good news is that the 2013 draft is very rich on offensive line talent, so I’d expect the Jets to invest at least one high draft pick in this area. Many are clamoring for a stud like Chance Warmack in the 1st round, and while I wouldn’t be upset over a move like that, I think that pick should be used elsewhere (cough, PASS RUSHER, cough). With high picks in the 2nd and 3rd rounds, however, I think that’s where our new starting LG very likely can come from. It will give us a young, cheap option going forward, and that’s exactly what this team needs.

Chris Gross –   The 2012 New York Jets offensive line certainly had its hiccups, but ultimately put together a solid overall season. D’Brickashaw Ferguson had a very good bounce back year from a 2011 season that was certainly anything but his best. Nick Mangold was back to his usual self after an injury trickled season, while Austin Howard quietly got better as the year went on. Matt Slauson was solid, but is certainly not in the top tier of offensive guards. Brandon Moore turned in another strong
year, despite some signs of aging. All in all, the Jets offensive line was certainly not the problem for an offense that was anything but spectacular in 2012.

The Jets now face an interesting situation moving forward. Slauson, Moore, and Howard are all entering free agency this offseason. Slauson and Moore will be unrestricted, Howard restricted. It will be compelling to see how it plays out moving forward, particularly considering the Jets current salary cap situation. They cannot afford new deals to both Slauson and Moore. Howard should be retained, but it will be interesting to see how his situation plays out due to the rules of restricted free agency and how they relate to his particular case.

To get a better understanding of how restricted free agency works, this is an excerpt from NFL.com:

The (The RFA) has received a “qualifying offer” (a salary tender predetermined by the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and its players) from his old club. He can negotiate with any club through April 20. If the restricted free agent signs an offer sheet with a new club, his old club can match the offer and retain him because it has a “right of first refusal.” If the old club does not match the offer, it may receive draft choice compensation depending on the amount of its qualifying offer. If an offer sheet is not executed on or before April 20, the player’s negotiating rights revert exclusively to his old club.

Basically what this all means is that the Jets will have a few options regarding Howard. Restricted free agents can receive one of four different tender amounts. Per Albert Breer of NFL Network, the RFA tender amounts for 2013 are as follows:

1st Round Compensation: $2.879 million

2nd Round: $2.023 million

Original Round: $1.323 million

Right of first refusal: $1.323 million

Since Howard was originally an undrafted free agent, placing an original round tender on him would give him the ability to sign an offer sheet with another team, while giving the Jets the right of first refusal to match that offer sheet. If the Jets were to match the offer sheet, Howard would become a Jet for the duration of the contract terms. If they chose not to match it, he would join the team that signed him to the offer sheet, and being an undrafted free agent, the Jets wouldn’t receive anything in return.

This could get tricky for a few reasons. First, if the Jets place a 2nd round tender on him, it is almost a virtual certainty that he will
not be signed to an offer sheet by any other team, for it is highly unlikely that a team would be willing to surrender a 2nd round pick for him in the event that the Jets wouldn’t match the offer, another near certainty considering a 2nd round pick probably holds higher value than Howard as of right now.

If New York decides to place an original round tender on him, there is a higher likelihood that a team would sign him to a minimum level deal. This would put the Jets in a tough spot. While Howard was decent last season, it would be smarter to see him with another year of experience under his belt before committing multiple years to him. However, would they be willing to part ways with him for nothing in return, considering his status as an undrafted free agent? Probably not.

The question then becomes, is Howard worth over $2 million next season? In short, yes. The top average base salary for an offensive tackle in the NFL is around $11.5 million (Jake Long, Joe Thomas). Considering this, a slight amount over $2 million is peanuts.

In terms of cap hits, the tender salary for a restricted free agent usually counts exactly that amount against the cap. Mike Wallace
received a 1st round tender from Pittsburgh last season for $2.742 million, all of which counted toward the cap, but not a penny more.

So, from a cap standpoint, is it worth committing that much cap space to an average right tackle? D’Brickashaw Ferguson will count for just over $10.7 million against the cap next year, so placing the 2nd round tender on Howard would commit about $13 million of cap space to both starting tackles. To put it into perspective, the Giants were one of the best statistical offensive lines in football last season, surrendering a league low 20 sacks while leading a seasonal rushing average of 4.6 YPC. The Giants two tackles, David Diehl and William Beatty counted for just under $5.5 million against the cap last season, combined.

5069b0737bbb4.imageFor a team with 4 positions secured along the offensive line, this decision would be a no brainer. If it were the Jets, they could place the original round tender on Howard and be perfectly fine by not signing any qualifying offer because they could draft a mid round rookie, pay him significantly less, and probably get a similar level of production out of him. Unfortunately for New York, however, it would be a major risk doing that with the amount of uncertainty facing both guard positions. If Slauson and Moore were both to walk in free agency, they’d be looking at three new starters to join with Mangold and Ferguson. Not an ideal situation for a team looking to build some offensive relevancy.

New York will probably part ways with Slauson. He has developed a decent enough reputation around the league for him to get a respectable sized contract on the open market. Considering how loaded the draft is with guards this year (more coming Thursday), the Jets could actually end up upgrading the position for less money than Slauson will likely receive.

Brandon Moore will probably be allowed to test the market. While he is the longest tenured offensive lineman on the Jets, New York would be wise to gauge his market value before committing 2-3 years to him, considering he will be 33 by the start of next season. If he can be brought back on a very low cost, 1-2 year deal, it makes perfect sense.

If Moore is retained, Howard will likely receive the minimum qualifying offer. This would still give the Jets a good chance to
retain him at the lowest possible cost, but would also allow them to survive if he is signed to an offer sheet with another team. With Moore retained, a rookie could be brought in to play alongside the savvy veteran, and would likely grow at a rate comparable to what Howard would next season.

If Moore is not retained, however, Howard would likely need to receive the 2nd round tender. As mentioned above, it would be ill advised for the Jets to enter the season with three brand new starters along the offensive line. Placing a 2nd round tender on Howard would virtually guarantee his return to the Jets, who would likely then add two guards via the draft. One would be drafted early to start, with another mid-late round selection brought in to compete with Vlad Ducasse, who saw his most time as a pro last season, but is not married to the new front office in any way.

Either way you look at it, it is going to be a bit tricky moving forward. In all likelihood, there will be at the least one new starter on the offensive line. There is also a good chance that there are two new starters, but at least three players should return, nothing less.

Steve Bateman – The offensive line doesn’t really concern me as much as it probably does some other people. That said, it’s clearly an area that needs to be considered, as expiring contracts mean that there will likely be some fresh faces in the front five. The appointment of Marty Mornhinweg as offensive coordinator basically heralded the death knell for Matt Slauson, in my opinion. If, as is widely expected, Mornhinweg operates a zone-blocking run game, Slauson’s lack of speed would make him entirely inadequate in terms of coming off his primary block and moving upfield to occupy defenders at the second level. A player that I like as a cheap but effective replacement for Slauson is Oakland Raiders guard Cooper Carlisle – a lineman who is out of contract this year and who also has experience of zone-blocking systems under Greg Knapp.

In my book, bringing Brandon Moore back is by no means a certainty either. His contract demands will be towards the higher end of the market for a lineman, and the Jets brain trust may decide to trim their budget by cutting Moore loose and replacing him with a rookie next year. This is perhaps not as scary a proposition as it may first seem, as linemen suited to Mornhinweg-like schemes (namely guys who are quick, agile, but not neccesarily too powerful) can regularly be found towards the bottom of the draft board. This is one of the key reasons as to why I’m staunchly opposed to the idea of taking Alabama guard Chance Warmack in the first round.

In terms of what’s already there, I’m obviously very happy to see Nick Mangold handling the nose tackle and protection calls, while D’Brickashaw Ferguson came back from a disappointing 2011 to have a quietly outstanding campaign last year. I’m also happy to see Austin Howard in the starting lineup at right tackle, but there is one proviso here. It’s an odd anomaly in the modern NFL that the player who is traditionally the team’s worst pass-blocker is often left to deal with the opposition’s best rusher. This is generally not a problem, however, as offenses scheme for the mismatch by ensuring that their right tackle gets help with double-teams or chip-blocks from running backs and/or tight ends. Too often last year Howard was exposed because the help he received was hopeless, and so going forward I think it’s critical that he’s supported by players who won’t crumble in the way that Jeff Cumberland and Bilal Powell did far too often in 2012.

The exit of Tony Sparano should also help the offensive line, as it will no longer fall victim to a gameplan that was almost entirley devoid of draws and play-action passes. Count on Mornhinweg to add some versatility to his playing staff, and look for him to keep opposing defense on their toes by running out of pass-heavy personnel groupings and vice-versa. In many ways, Sparano’s abject failure to do this last year left his offensive line facing unwinnable battles through no real fault of their own.

Chris Celletti – A few seasons ago, the Jets’ offensive line was one of the best in the league, but the past few seasons have seen a slow, significant demise. The guard positions in 2012 were manned by the aging Brandon Moore and the never-quite-good-enough Matt Slauson, and with both of them being unrestricted free agents, it seems like now is a good time for the Jets to think about a little revamping that position. Obviously, Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson are among the best in the league at their respective positions, so you’re set there. After a bit of a shaky start to last season, Austin Howard was serviceable at right tackle, and the Jets should bring the restricted free agent back if they can do so for reasonable money – which I would expect to be possible. It’s the guard spots that the Jets should be looking to replace.

I would seriously look at adding one starting-level guard in the Draft – I would nab Chance Warmack if available at No. 9. Drafting a guard with a top-10 pick isn’t going to elicit too many cheers from the Jets fans in attendance, but it’s a prudent move. As with any high draft pick there is risk, but the Jets may have one of their guard spots locked up for a decade if the book on Warmack is right. If you have that opportunity, you go for it. As for the other guard position, my stance is this: Anybody but Vlad Ducasse. Get a cheap veteran, draft someone in the mid rounds, make an under-the-radar trade, re-sign Brandon Moore on a one-year deal or use Tim Tebow there if you have to…anything or anyone but Vlad Ducasse.

Author: Joe Caporoso

Joe Caporoso is the Owner and EIC of Turn On The Jets. His writing has been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, MMQB and AdWeek. Caporoso played football his entire life, including four years at Muhlenberg as a wide receiver, where he was arguably the slowest receiver to ever start in school history. He is the EVP of Content at Whistle Sports