New York Jets 2021 offseason recap: Offensive line

alijah vera-tucker, jets

The continued renovations to the offensive line got off to a slow start, but the New York Jets recovered with a big gain on draft day.

Following the conclusion of minicamp activities, the NFL offseason is officially over. The next time the New York Jets convene in Florham Park, they’ll be getting ready for preseason and regular season action for the 2021 campaign. 

With the offseason in the rearview mirror, ESM looks back on the green offseason that was, position-by-position. This next segment centers on the revamped blocking program…

New York Jets, Mekhi Becton
Credit: Joe McManus

How It Started

By this point, everyone knows that Jets general manager Joe Douglas is at least trying to make things right on the offensive line after the negligence of the Mike Maccagnan era. That plan was rather obvious last offseason when the Jets spent a majority of their offseason capital on blocking help.

New York missed out on top names like Jack Conklin and Joe Thuney but dispensed over $34 million guaranteed to George Fant, Connor McGovern, and Greg Van Roten. With their first-round pick, the Jets passed on premier receiving talents to draft Louisville tackle Mekhi Becton instead. It marked the first time the Jets used their opening pick on a blocker since the iconic D’Brickashaw Ferguson/Nick Mangold pairing in 2006.

When the Jets took the field for Week 1 action in Buffalo, it was completely different from the five that opened the prior campaign at the Meadowlands in 2019. But despite Douglas’ financial enthusiasm, the splurge did not have the intended effect. The Jets’ line ranked 29th in Pro Football Focus’ final unit grades, marred by inconsistency. Advanced stats dictated the Jets averaged only 2.5 seconds before allowing pressure and quarterback Sam Darnold was dropped on 8.3 percent of his dropbacks, the third-worst rate in the league (behind Carson Wentz and Daniel Jones).

The Jets did enjoy a huge silver lining in the form of Becton, who lived up to his first-round billing and then some, offering the Jets serenity in passing on names big box score names like Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Henry Ruggs, and Jerry Jeudy.

morgan moses, new york jets

How It’s Going

Gifted with a cap space surplus, many expected the Jets to hit the ground running. But New York got off to another slow start on the free agency front, watching their top targets and revered blocking names like Thuney and Corey Linsley sign elsewhere.

This time around, the Jets instead opted to spend the early portions upgrading their box score weaponry through receiving and rushing help. Depth-based consolation prizes awaited in Dan Feeney and Corey Levin from the Los Angeles Chargers and the New England practice squad respectively. Levin hasn’t appeared in a regular season game since 2019 while Feeney was an average blocker whose profile was amplified through a lively, larger-than-life personality that quickly won over Jets and Islanders fans alike.

Douglas and the Jets changed the narrative on draft night, boldly sending away draft picks (one of which was obtained in Jamal Adams’ Seattle deal) up north to Minnesota to draft USC blocker Alijah Vera-Tucker. Known primarily as a Trojan guard, Vera-Tucker spent the shortened 2020 season as a tackle, showcasing his versatility. It was a costly endeavor…the Jets had no Friday picks beyond Elijah Moore at 34th overall…but Douglas’ dedication to this renovation can’t be denied. Vera-Tucker is expected to take over the primary left guard role previously occupied by Alex Lewis, who struggled last season in starting duties but is nonetheless back as a depth option.

The Jets enjoyed an extra boost to the line in the late stages of the offseason, negotiating a one-year deal for Morgan Moses, formerly of the Washington Football Team, shortly after minicamp. Moses has been one of the most effective blockers in the league and is coming off a career-best campaign. He brings the championship feeling desired by the Jets in other acquisitions, having played a strong role in Washington’s run to the division title last season. His reliability, having started every game since 2015, made him an attractive late gem as well.

Along for the ride is newly minted offensive line coach John Benton, who will also serve as the run game coordinator. Benton reprises the former role he held for four seasons alongside Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur in San Francisco.

Jan 3, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; The New England Patriots and the New York Jets at the line of scrimmage for the snap during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Are They Better Off?

Maybe Jets fans have been so desperate for any semblance of doing the right thing. But Douglas’ dedication to the unit from the minute he took office has been refreshing. The struggles of last year’s haul did nothing to deter his quest to build a wall in front of his new passing and rushing units.

Douglas faced a bit of an uphill battle in luring free agents to New York. Even though players both domestically and abroad were hyped by Robert Saleh’s hiring, asking marquee free agents to join up with a two-win squad was going to be a bit difficult. It was tough, though, for the Jets to watch Thuney sign a long-term deal in Kansas City without much of a fight.

Having said that, Douglas put his draft money where his mouth was in the latter stages of the offseason, trading some of his valuable draft capital to find a mid-first round gem. At the literal last minute, he was able to convince the serviceable Moses to sign up for the year.

The gestures are great. But no it’s about the success translating on the field.

Douglas’ appreciated offensive line makeover began when he traded a late pick to Baltimore for Lewis and convinced Carolina Pro Bowler Matt Kalil to come out of retirement. It was great to see him take initiative…but now it’s time for results. Getting that desired effect may have been a bit easier if Douglas was able to add an elite name.

Final Offseason Grade: B-

How important will a revamped offensive line be to the Jets’ success? Continue the conversation on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets: Robert Saleh’s staff reportedly taking shape

New York Jets

Robert Saleh has apparently wasted no time in assembling his New York Jets assistants, bringing some familiar faces in from San Francisco.

Per Michael Silver of Sports Illustrated, New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh is taking some of his colleagues across the country for an extended business trip.

Silver, SI’s San Francisco-based correspondent, Mike LaFleur and John Benton are joining Saleh in green. LaFleur will serve as the team’s offensive coordinator (a move first teased by ESPN’s Adam Schefter earlier this week) while Benton will reprise his role as an offensive line coach and also serve as the team’s run game coordinator. Silver has also reported that Saleh will also welcome in Greg Knapp and Rob Calabrese as the quarterbacks coach and a pass game specialist.

LaFleur spent the last four years in San Francisco as the team’s passing game coordinator, working alongside Jimmy Garoppollo during the latter’s first years as a full-time NFL starter. His first two years in the Bay Area also saw him work as the receivers coach. He previously partook in a Super Bowl trek during the 2016-17 season, working as an offensive assistant with the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. LaFleur is the younger brother of Matt, who will compete for a Super Bowl appearance of his own as a head coach next Sunday in the NFC title game against Tampa Bay (3:05 p.m. ET, Fox).

Bento has been in the NFL for the past 19 seasons, including the last four alongside Saleh in San Francisco. His blocking unit was ranked ninth in Pro Football Focus’ offensive line rankings, earning particular praise for his work with Trent Williams, who was the analytical site’s top-graded left tackle after missing the entire 2019 season.

Knapp has been working in the NFL almost non-stop since 1997, taking only the 2017 season off. He spent the past three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, helping Matt Ryan post the best numbers of his career since his 2016 MVP season. Other quarterbacks to work under Knapp include Steve Young, Jeff Garcia, Michael Vick, and Peyton Manning.

The hire of Calabrese is a bit of a local affair, as the 30-year-old is a native of Islip Terrace on Long Island, spending two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Wagner. His prior job with the Denver Broncos in offensive quality control was his first in the NFL after his time with the local Seahawks. Calabrese was in fact a contender to start at quarterback during Denver’s issues with COVID-19 leading up to their Week 12 contest against New Orleans, as the team lost all of their regular throwers due to protocols. He previously worked as the quarterback at East Islip High School, taking the program to heights previously experienced under future NFL star and current WFAN personality Boomer Esiason.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags