A relationship that spans both sides of the line of scrimmage could eventually lead to the New York Jets’ ultimate salvation.
After the chaos and fractures of the Adam Gase era, the New York Jets could use any semblance of unity going into a new era.
Ironically, however, it’s a daily training camp battle…one could even describe it as a war…that could lead to Gang Green’s long-sought salvation.
Mekhi Becton was one of the rare, consistent silver linings of the Jets’ woebegone 2020 season. He more than justified management’s faith in passing on several elite receiving talents in the virtual draft, bring clarity to a blocking situation that was long neglected. Upgrading the offensive line is a job that nobody wants to do, but remains drastically vital.
In essence, the Jets bought themselves plenty of flashy, expensive gifts from both the veteran and rookie markets, personified as metaphorical luxury sedans for the driveway. (i.e. Le’Veon Bell, Jamal Adams, Leonard Williams, Trumaine Johnson). But in that process, they ignored the mold damage in the basement that would bring the entire structure down entirely. No matter who lined up under center, he was going to need protection. Becton did what he could to end the Sam Darnold era on the right note and earned the right to be the anchor of the age of Zach Wilson.
“He truly cares and he truly wants to help. I think he is a player that is going to help us long-term,” Joe Douglas said of his first pick as the Jets’ general manager back in November, per team reporter Ethan Greenberg. “We’re excited about working with him every day because you’re talking about a young man that loves football. He’s very smart, he’s tough as nails and has a rare size and athleticism.”
“He’s just scratching the surface of what he can do physically. There’s a lot of desire from him to want to be the best player that he can be, so we’ve made it our mission to sort of bend over backward to try to help him reach his goals.”
Becton’s short-term reward? A daily summer battle with one of the NFL’s most promising pressure artists.
The emergence of Carl Lawson, as has been discussed all offseason, isn’t visible through conventional numbers. That makes it perhaps all the more appropriate that he and the Jets found each other through a $45 million contract that lured him away from Cincinnati. The Jets’ silver linings and aspiring NFL staples (like Becton who, frankly, has little if any conventional numbers to fall back on as an offensive lineman) were likewise removed from the mainstream NFL conversation. Lawson instead made his mark through lesser celebrated stats like quarterback knockdowns and “sacks created“, tying for the league lead in the former with Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt.
Granted the most expensive contract of the Jets’ busy offseason, Lawson is expected to be a difference-maker in the team’s return to football relevancy. So far, he’s living up to the hype in an admittedly minuscule sample size.
“He hasn’t been stopped yet,” fellow incoming defensive lineman and Georgia high school football competitor Sheldon Rankins said of Lawson, per team reporter Jack Bell. “It’s what I expect having known him dating back to high school.”
Much like the stigma Becton has to beat on the offensive line, Lawson is also looking to end some dubious New York pass-rushing history: no Jet has earned at least 10 sacks in a season since Muhammad Wilkerson tallied a dozen in 2015.
With the Jets preparing for what’s projected to be a developmental season that can nonetheless yield positives, fans have reveled in the intense clash of a different brand of New York giants. Their get-togethers are part of new head coach Robert Saleh’s demand for increased intensity in the trenches, where he believes games are still decided.
“On the interior where those guys are getting true genuine work, (we’re getting) some one-on-one’s going…it’s going to be exciting to see those guys progress,” Saleh said as padded practices got underway, per notes from the Jets. “The thing that you’ll hear us talk about, you can never have enough good O-linemen and D-linemen…The game still is won in the trenches.”
To that end, Saleh has added himself to the list of those who can’t enough of their antics. It’s one training camp fight he’ll refuse to break up.
“It’s like the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of size,” Saleh said. “Carl is not going to see a man that big, and Mekhi is not going to see a man that small and sawed-off, and as strong as he is. For those guys to get that work, they’re making each other strain in different ways that they’ll see all season.”
Training camp battles and later in-season injury woes failed to afford Becton consistent competition in his first New York practices. This year’s battles against Lawson, a new kind of crossover summer blockbuster, have proven both humbling and beneficial.
“He’s got a lot of speed and power. He does, like, this power spin that’s really tough. He’s a great rusher,” Becton said in another report from Dennis Waszak of the Associated Press. “It’s helping me a whole lot because I can get my losses out of the way right now.”
Lawson, described as “slippery” by Becton, hasn’t spoken publicly at the New York podium since the Jets strapped their pads on. His play has instead spoken for him, impressing teammates, coaches, and Florham Park visitors alike. New defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich once again cited advanced numbers and labeled him an “obsessed” student of the game.
“The general public is obviously, very caught up in sacks, and quarterback disruption, the statistical part of (pass) rushing. He doesn’t always check those boxes, but he’s been a guy that’s got historic win rates,” Ulbrich said in notes from Jets. “His obsession with this game, now to see him up close, as far as his stance, the timing of his hands and his feet, the distance from the tackles foot, the way he studies the tackle set, the way he studies the offense.”
Etched in the Jets’ left tackle spot for the foreseeable future, Becton perhaps never expected that one of his biggest obstacles, if not the biggest obstacle, in keeping his quarterback safe would emerge from his own locker room.
But Becton wouldn’t have it any other way. He believes these civil wars will help New York improve both immediately and in the future ahead.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Becton labeled his battles with Lawson, per Brian Costello of the New York Post. “He gets me better and I’m getting him better. It helps me a whole lot.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags