There is no hiding it, the New York Jets offensive line was atrocious from start to finish in 2019. 52 sacks given up. One starter and former Pro Bowl guard released over a shoulder surgery dispute. Another who came out of retirement only to struggle before landing on injured reserve. Eight different starting combinations. Eleven different starters, with five landing on I.R. by the end of the season.
It is easy to understand how the New York Jets landed as Pro Football Focus’ 28th worst offensive line in 2019. According to PFF, not only the Jets averaged 0.7 rushing yards before contact per attempt, but whoever was under center was pressured in under 2.5 seconds on 27.5 percent of dropbacks. The Jets were supposed to take a step forward in 2019, led by the 22-year-old Sam Darnold. After his mononucleosis fiasco, he managed to lead the team to a 7-6 record with him as the starter behind an offensive line built of backups and practice squad players come season’s end. Gang Green simply cannot afford to have this issue again. Not when Darnold enters his third season. Not when Le’Veon Bell is the team’s running back. And most certainly not when it seems the AFC East crown might be up for grabs for the first time in two decades.
How to Fix the New York Jets Offensive Line
1. Start from Scratch
Under Mike Maccagnan, the Jets resorted to fixing the offensive line with band-aids. This was one of the major issues during Maccagnan’s time as general manager. Thankfully, new general manager Joe Douglas prioritizes building upfront. That being said, he needs to do so his way.
The Jets have only five offensive linemen under contract for 2020. 2019 third-round pick Chuma Edoga will likely compete for the starting right tackle job for next season. Edoga struggled through eight starters before landing on I.R. with a knee injury. Joining him is guard Conor McDermott, who did a solid job late in the season joining the starting lineup. Ben Braden was brought onto the 53-man roster for Week 17, while Brad Lundblade and Jimmy Murray are with the team on reserve/future deals.
The two other players under contract for 2020 are veteran guard Brian Winters and center Jonotthan Harrison. A third-round pick in 2013, Winters has started 79 games over his career. But following a 2019 campaign cut short due to injury, it is likely he will be released to save money. The same could happen to Harrison but it is unlikely as his contract is team-friendly, especially a player with the starting experience he has.
Ultimately, with the likely release of Winters, the Jets enter with two potential starters for 2020 in Harrison and Edoga. The team will be investing plenty of capital into the unit through free agency and the draft for the first time in years.
2. Be Smart with Re-Signing
With as many needs as the Jets have, they cannot be throwing money at every fantastic offensive lineman in free agency. One might wonder why the Jets would even keep anybody from the 2019 line. Well, the free agent market will thin out quickly, and the Jets need to maintain some familiarity upfront. Center Ryan Kalil and guard Tom Compton should not return. However, left tackle Kelvin Beachum and guard Alex Lewis should be brought back for the right price.
Signed to a three-year, $24-million deal back in 2017, Beachum has been the Jets starting left tackle over the last three seasons, only missing three games. At 30 with a moderate injury history, the Jets should not give Beachum a long-term deal to lock down the position by any means. But with a very thin left tackle market, he might be the best option after posting a 72.7 pass-blocking grade according to PFF. Beachum was sorely missed for three games this season and despite inconsistent play, he was still the team’s best offensive lineman in 2019. Even if the team drafts a left tackle who can start in 2020, they could swing Beachum to the right side to start while Edoga continues to develop.
One of the first moves made by Joe Douglas prior to last season was acquiring guard Alex Lewis from the Baltimore Ravens. After the Kelechi Osemele injury fiasco, Lewis took over the left guard starting job and did not look back. He has started 30 games in three seasons and is a solid pass blocker. The Jets should be able to bring him back to compete for a starting job in 2020.
3. Be Thorough on the Free Agent Market
Again, the Jets cannot afford to mess up on signing free agent offensive linemen for 2020. Joe Douglas certainly will not simply sign band-aids to the line. He will be looking for multi-year staples as well as depth. Let’s take a look at the market at each position…
At left tackle, the market is very thin when it comes to starters. Andrew Whitworth and Jason Peters are both great players with plenty of experience… almost too much at 38 years old. Thus taking them out of consideration. Indianapolis Colts’ Anthony Castonzo will be 32, has never made a Pro Bowl, and is mulling retirement. Yet he still is the best available left tackle and will earn a large contract if he continues playing. Arizona Cardinals’ DJ Humphries is only 26 years old, but is still figuring things out at the position and is a risk to pay long-term just yet. This leads the Jets back to Beachum – an established veteran who Darnold is familiar with blocking his blindside.
At right tackle, there are plenty of options. Premiere players such as Bryan Bulaga, Jack Conklin, and Daryl Williams likely will hit the market. Except if the Jets still have faith in Edoga to develop into a solid starting tackle, it does not make sense to invest heavily in one of these guys. Once again, it could make sense to bring back Beachum and potentially swing him to the right side based on the draft.
Expect the Jets to invest heavily along the interior of the offensive line. Alex Lewis should be competing for a starting job, not guaranteed it if brought back. Washington Redskins’ left guard Brandon Scherff is 28, in his prime and one of the top guards in the league. The same goes for New England Patriots’ 27-year-old Joe Thuney, who has established himself amongst the best in 2019. Andrus Peat is coming off of a down season, yet the 2018 Pro Bowler is only 26 and is exactly what the Jets should invest in for a long-term player along the offensive line. Meanwhile, at right guard, Detroit Lions’ Graham Glasgow is expected to find a new home. One of the better right guards in the league, Glasgow is a well-rounded player at both pass and run blocking. Some solid depth options include Xavier Su’a-Filo, Stefen Wisniewski, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. The guard market is deep, and the Jets should take advantage of it.
Lastly, center Jonotthan Harrison is a solid backup center. He has not done enough to earn the starting job. Harrison posted a 51.4 grade by PFF, ranking 37th of all qualifying centers in 2019. The center market is not the strongest after a series of contract extensions, but there are certainly upgrades available. Denver Broncos’ Connor McGovern should be at the top of the Jets wish list. At 27 years old, he can be paired with Darnold for years to come and is one of the best pass blockers in the league. This also goes for Patriots’ Ted Karras, who took over the starting job in 2019 and only gave up two sacks in over 1,000 snaps. The Jets cannot settle for Harrison or another center on the market and must make acquiring McGovern or Karras their top priority in fixing the offensive line this free agency.
4. Please, Pick Offensive Line Early and Often in the NFL Draft
Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, and Alabama’s Jedrick Wills make up the big three of left tackles in the 2020 NFL Draft. And it is possible all three are top 10 picks. Unfortunately, the Jets sit at the 11th overall pick. Luckily, the left tackle class is full of second-rounders who could start Week 1 and for years to come. Louisville’s Mekhi Becton is a monster at 6’8″ and 370 lbs. Auburn’s Prince Tega Wanogho has plenty of experience after years starting in the SEC and is perfect for Adam Gase’s zone run scheme. Austin Jackson of USC, a former teammate of Darnold’s, is a great prototype left tackle who has impressive footwork. Lucas Niang from TCU, Josh Jones from Houston and Matthew Peart from Connecticut are all players the Jets should look into investing their second-round pick in if they cannot land one of the big three.
The draft does not end there. The Jets should look to draft at least one tackle, and two interior linemen to can play both guard positions or center. With two third-round picks, one of those needs to be spent on the interior. This is not a flashy draft class along the inside of the line, rather an experienced one. Michigan center Cesar Ruiz has started 18 games, including all 13 at center in 2019. He also has experience at right guard and fits Douglas’ ideal mold of an athletic lineman who can play multiple positions. The same goes for Darryl Williams from Mississippi State. He can play both center and guard and will take some time to perfect his game. He works well through multiple schemes, including zone, and could be a good center option at 6’3″ and 310 lbs. Lloyd Cushenberry III from LSU, Georgia’s Solomon Kindley, and Oregon’s Jake Hanson join Ruiz and Williams as potential day two players the Jets should target.
Last Word on How To Fix the New York Jets Offensive Line
Sam Darnold led the Jets to a 7-6 record in 2019 behind an offensive line that could not block for him if his life depended on it – which for a while quite literally did. Playmaker Le’Veon Bell could not run the ball over 90 yards no matter how elusive he was. As fast as Robby Anderson is, there was no time for Darnold to get him the ball given how quick he was under pressure. No matter who Darnold is throwing to or handing the ball off to in 2020, it will not matter if there is nobody blocking up front. The Jets offensive line is the top priority this offseason, as the Jets went 7-9 with a half-injured roster in 2019 and Luke Falk starting two games. Just imagine what Darnold and the Jets can do if healthy with a strong offensive line in 2020.