The New York Jets General Manager Mike Maccagnan has a philosophy of attempting to build the offensive line, particularly the interior offensive line, with late round draft picks and undrafted free agents. This is not a particularly novel organizational vision. Interior offensive linemen are not overly represented among early round draft choices. But the devil is in the details, and the Jets have not been getting the details right for quite a while. It remains to be seen whether Maccagnan can change the Jets’ uninspiring track record when it comes to late round offensive linemen.
Eighteen years ago the Jets selected offensive tackle Jason Fabini with the 111th selection in the fourth round of the NFL draft. Fabini slid right into the starting lineup and went on to have a distinguished 11 year career in the NFL, eight years as a starting tackle for the Jets. Since Fabini was selected in 1998 the Jets have spent 17 late round (4th round and later) draft choices on offensive linemen. None have gone on to become above average starters with the Jets. A couple have gone on to success with other organizations.
Center Jonathan Goodwin was chosen by the Jets in the fifth round of the 2002 NFL draft. He spent four undistinguished seasons mostly as a backup for the Jets before finding late career success with the Saints and the 49ers, even making the Pro Bowl in 2009. In that same 2009 season guard Matt Slauson was selected by the Jets in the sixth round of the NFL draft. Slauson spent three years as an average-ish starter with the Jets before moving on to the Chicago Bears, where he developed into a better than average starter.
Those two players represent the sum total of all late round offensive line success stories for the Jets over the last 18 years, and neither enjoyed much of his success with the Jets. The Jets did manage to find at least one genuine success as an undrafted free agent. Brandon Moore was an undrafted free agent defensive lineman. In 2003 the Jets switched Moore from defensive lineman to offensive guard. By 2004 Moore was a fixture as a starting guard for the Jets, and he went on to star for nine seasons with the Jets, earning Pro Bowl honors in 2011.
That brings us to the present. The Jets cut Matt Slauson and lost Brandon Moore to retirement after the 2012 season. Jonathan Goodwin was gone by 2006. Since 2012 no Jets late round draft pick or undrafted free agent, other than a brief stint in 2014 with Oday Aboushi, has even made a run at a starting position on the offensive line, let alone actually given the Jets above average play there.
In keeping with his philosophy Maccagnan has drafted an offensive lineman in the fifth round of each of his first two drafts. In 2015 the Jets selected guard Jarvis Harrison in the fifth round, and in 2016 the Jets selected tackle Brandon Shell in the fifth round. Harrison spent roughly half of the 2015 season on the 53 man roster and half on the practice squad. In a 2015 preseason open competition for the starting right guard position, Harrison was notable for never getting any reps to compete for that spot, while fellow youngsters Dakota Dozier and Brent Qvale were both getting a shot. That pattern has continued in 2016, with Dozier the first guy getting reps at starting right guard while Brian Winters is out and Qvale getting reps at right tackle in the absence of the injured Breno Giacomini. Harrison has not gotten any reps with the first team. With Harrison having been demoted to the practice squad halfway through the 2015 campaign and apparently getting no serious consideration early in the 2016 campaign when reps have opened up at guard, one wonders if his hold on a 2016 roster spot is tenuous.
Enter 2015 fifth round selection Brandon Shell. The Jets traded a 2017 fourth round selection to acquire the 2016 fifth round pick used to acquire Shell. Like Harrison, in the early going Shell has seemingly received no consideration for reps in the absence of incumbent Giacomini. Unlike Harrison, Shell is still a rookie, and will likely be given considerably more slack in his development or lack thereof.
Unless salary cap considerations cause players like Giacomini or Winters to become cap casualties it seems likely that both will make the roster, even if neither is particularly good as a starter. Barring catastrophic injury, center Nick Mangold, left tackle Ryan Clady and left guard James Carpenter are locks to make the roster and be opening day starters. The three linemen that have to date been given the lion’s share of the starting reps in the absence of Giacomini and Winters have been tackles Ben Ijalana and Brent Qvale and guard Dakota Dozier. It’s still early, but it gets late quickly in training camp. Two weeks from today the first two preseason games will be in the books and the Jets will be preparing for the dress rehearsal third game against the Giants. By then a large part of the evaluation process will be completed. If Ijalana, Qvale and Dozier are still tops among backups on the depth charts it would appear that, barring cap casualties, the rest of the backups will be fighting for one or at most two remaining backup positions on the offensive line.
Ten offensive linemen are excessive, but hardly unheard of in the NFL. Carrying nine on the 53 man roster is more common. The Jets are already very likely to carry one more quarterback than many teams, and there has been talk of possibly carrying four quarterbacks, taking up as many as two of the precious back of the roster spots away from other positions. It is quite possible the offensive line will feel the squeeze to take no more than nine players into the regular season. If that happens Harrison and Shell may well be in a battle for the final backup spot on the offensive line. They don’t play the same position, but that matters little. Ijalana and Qvale both can play guard or tackle, giving the Jets flexibility to fill whatever holes might develop in case of injury. Dozier was given reps at center last season, so he may be able to fill in for Mangold in a pinch, although Dozier is apparently being used strictly at guard so far in 2016. If the Jets are uncomfortable with Dozier as backup center, perhaps they keep one of the backup centers in camp, either young veteran Wesley Johnson or undrafted rookie free agent Kyle Friend. If Friend or Johnson makes the team, Shell and Harrison almost surely will be fighting for at most one last spot on the offensive line.
Two fifth round draft choices. Likely only one spot at the back of the rotation available on the offensive line. If things play out this way, the Jets will be taking the fifth to fill the final spot on the offensive line. The question is, which one?