Austin Howard was an upgrade over Wayne Hunter. That much I can say with confidence. The inexperienced undrafted free agent was pressed into a starting role because Hunter melted down in the preseason against the Giants, and Mike Tannenbaum had so poorly prepared for that possibility that Howard was the only option. Given the remarkably low bar Hunter set, anybody would look good by comparison.
I frankly think Howard is overrated in many quarters because of the comparison to Hunter. Sure, he was an upgrade. Yes, he was a good run blocker. Yes, he had an excellent little run in the second half of the season. He was not a great right tackle by any stretch of the imagination, though. According to Pro Football Focus, he was responsible for 10 sacks and 10 additional hits on his quarterback. The poor pocket presence of the quarterbacks on the team did not help, but those numbers pale in comparison to D'Brickashaw Ferguson on the other side. Ferguson was also on the blind side of Mark Sanchez and Greg McElroy, meaning those quarterbacks had an easier time seeing pressure coming from Howard's man.
I have seen some sites produce stats that suggest Howard is an elite run blocker. I don't see it. There were times he was a force in the run game, but I did not a see a guy consistently bend knees and blow people off the ball.
I think Howard is a backup caliber player. He can be a good backup, but I wouldn't feel comfortable with him starting for the Jets next year. The clearest sign is the second half of the year. It looked like he was putting things together after the bye. Perhaps he was making genuine improvement. Then he had back to back stinkers against the Titans and the Chargers. Austin seems like a guy with enough assets to stick in the league but too many warts to be really good.
Howard might benefit from moving inside to guard. He could refine his run blocking, and his pass blocking limitations would not be as much of an issue. I would rather see him as a backup. It has been forever since the Jets had good offensive line depth. It is also unlikely to see a team make it through the entire season without an injury up front. The trenches are where bad luck happens. With so many big bodies hitting so hard, knees get rolled and ankles get turned the wrong way. You need to have depth.
The Jets also need to get better up front. Pro Football Focus might say they had the third best offensive line, but that to me is an indication of how suspect their ratings are. As our own David Wyatt once said, they're rating games based on the opinions of somebody watching. I watch too. The lines the Jets had from 2008 to 2010 were top three units. They could blow people off the ball in the run game whenever they wanted and gave the quarterback all day to throw. This line never only seemed to do those things against suspect competition.
The greatest need the Jets have isn't at a position. It is a functional offense. The easiest way for the Jets to get there will be to build a dominant offensive line that can (say it with me) establish the run and give the quarterback all day to throw. The franchise quarterback of the future might not be on the roster now, but when he arrives, he should have a studly line in front of him to aid his development. I don't see Austin Howard as part of that mix. I think the focus of this offseason needs to be on the offensive line above all else.
Howard is a restricted free agent. He can make cheap depth. The Jets can give him a tender that would scare off suitors. I would like to see him return but as a backup.