When Joe Douglas arrived in Florham Park in June 2019, he made it clear what he felt was the key to having a strong football team.
“This is a game of wills, and we’re going to try to build a team that can impose their will on other teams,” he said the day he was introduced as Jets general manager. “To do that, you have to be strong up front, not just the offensive line but the defensive line.”
The Jets defensive line was one of the strengths of the 2022 team.
The offensive line? That was a different story.
What the Jets do at quarterback is going to be the biggest storyline of the offseason. But everyone who watched the Jets play week in, week out this season knows it won’t truly matter who is at quarterback unless the Jets improve on the offensive line and figure out a way to stay healthy.
Douglas has followed through on his word from that day in 2019, and he has invested heavily on the offensive line. He has used two first-round picks on linemen (Mekhi Becton and Alijah Vera-Tucker). He signed a big-money free agent last year in guard Laken Tomlinson. He has tried to plug holes with late free-agent signings such as Duane Brown and Morgan Moses.
It has not worked out, but that’s not all on Douglas.
The Jets have had unbelievably bad injury luck along the offensive line. Becton has missed all but one game in the past two seasons with two different knee injuries. Vera-Tucker looked as if he was heading to a Pro Bowl, starting at three different positions this season, before a torn triceps ended his season in October. Brown and George Fant fought injuries all year.
The Jets went through nine different starting lineups along the offensive line last season. They had four different starting left tackles, four different starting right guards and four different starting right tackles — and that does not even count Becton, who was the projected starter at right tackle before a knee injury in training camp ended his season before it started.
It was just another brutal year on the line for the Jets. They have had 24 different starting offensive line combinations in the past three years.
Douglas enters this offseason with a smaller list of needs than in previous years, though quarterback is written at the top in 80-point type.
The Jets have decisions to make along the line as part of that offseason agenda. Connor McGovern, who started every game at center, is a free agent, as is Fant, who entered the season as the starting right tackle, and Nate Herbig, who became the starting right guard after Vera-Tucker moved to tackle.
Douglas also must make a decision on how to factor in Becton. The 2020 first-round pick has lost a good bit of weight and the memory of the ability he showed when healthy as a rookie lingers, but he has not been able to get on the field in two years. Can the Jets count on him for one of the tackle spots?
Vera-Tucker showed the ability to play left tackle and right tackle this season. Do the Jets slide him back to right guard or do they keep him at tackle?
The only position that feels set is Tomlinson at left guard, but that is because his contract locks him in there. He did not play very well in his first season with the Jets.
Any prospective quarterback is probably going to want to know what the Jets’ plan is on the offensive line. Do you think Aaron Rodgers would have any interest in the Jets if their offensive line is a big question mark?
It is early in draft season, but I’d expect the Jets to be projected to take a tackle with pick No. 13 or even to trade up.
The Jets offensive line needs to start winning that game of wills that Douglas spoke about nearly four years ago. It’s time for him to figure out a fix for this offensive line.
This OC search may take awhile
The Jets’ search for a new offensive coordinator is stretching into its second week, and there is no indication that the Jets are close to hiring anyone. The list of candidates has not been one that is going to inspire confidence.
This was one of the issues with firing Mike LaFleur. Finding a replacement was never going to be easy because of the uncertainty at quarterback and of Robert Saleh entering a make-or-break third season. Coaches with options are not likely to choose the Jets.
That doesn’t mean they can’t find a good offensive coordinator. There are only 32 of these jobs. But they may have to take a leap of faith with another first-time coordinator or hire someone coming off a failed stint elsewhere. This is a critical hire for Saleh, and it appears he will take his time making it. The coaching dominoes have not started falling yet. That could happen later this week. Then maybe we’ll see what direction Saleh is going in.
Jets rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson put up big numbers and is one of the favorites to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Here are his stats this season when targeted by each of the Jets’ four quarterbacks:
Zach Wilson: 31-for-52 (59.6 percent), 430 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 78.2 rating
Mike White: 22-for-41 (53.7 percent), 353 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 88.8 rating
Joe Flacco: 28-for-51 (54.9 percent), 298 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INT, 85.3 rating
Chris Streveler: 3-for-5 (60 percent), 17 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 66.3 rating