I had my whole next post ready to go Monday afternoon. I was all prepared to post about how good the feeling was as the first preseason game was on its way. I was going to sprinkle in some takeaways from the Green & White scrimmage, which I left late Saturday night feeling a sense of optimism that I marveled had lasted so long. All I needed to do was finish one more section about some of the latest injury news and how it should affect the Jets' thinking between now and the start of the season.
Now, that post- much like Mekhi Becton's chances of playing this season- has been cancelled.
It took one practice after the scrimmage for all of the optimism built up from the offseason to crumble into dust. In case you somehow haven't heard (and if you haven't, maybe you should stop reading to protect your innocence), Jets RT Mekhi Becton went down early on during practice yesterday and left the field limping over the same knee that was injured last season. Though initial reports were optimistic (and obviously very foolish considering the injury history with this team), things quickly turned for the worst when the Jets sent Becton to get tests on that knee. Those tests would reveal a fractured kneecap (with further tests still pending to search for additional damage), which is almost certainly going to end his season before he could ever get back to full strength from his last knee injury.
It dealt a brutal, crushing blow to a team that had already lost Conor McDermott for (likely) the rest of the preseason, meaning that it is highly likely that we will be seeing Chuma Edoga be this team's starting RT when the Jets play the Eagles on Friday. Though it is just a preseason game and the Eagles might not be playing all of their starters on defense, they will be allowed to hit Zach Wilson whenever he drops back. Considering how poorly the OL held up against the Jets' defense in practice on dropbacks, that is a terrifying proposition, even if we only need to protect Wilson for the first two drives of the game.
They will have to find a way to limit his exposure; it's still unknown whether Fant will be playing in that preseason game as his continued recovery from his knee injury stretches into the oppressive heat of summer, and I don't even want to think about what will happen if his recovery takes him out of the preseason entirely. They will need to go very run-heavy with Wilson on the field, or feature a ton of rolling pockets with extra TE protection, or just iron out their screen game on offense, or whatever they need to do to prevent the quarterback they put all of their faith in from getting hurt because their first line of defense was their only line of defense.
Here's something I had written in the post that was never to be: "With McDermott now out, a tackle situation that was once deficient is now dire." That's cute, right? Thinking that not having McDermott made things dire? I was so naïve two days ago. Well now, things have gone beyond dire, to the point where panicking is the only reasonable thing left to do. The Jets have options, but none of them are good enough to fully replace what the perfect world plan had been when they set this up.
Among those options, many Jets fans' favorite is signing Duane Brown. If you read my offseason outlook series, you'd know that signing Hokies is always something I favor. I have absolutely no issue with signing Brown to a reasonable contract, something that we might have a debate over what the value is considering how close we are to the start of the season and Brown's limited opportunities to actually be a starter for a contending team.
I never thought Brown would be on the market as long as he did, and also never thought he'd want to join a Jets team where he wouldn't have had the opportunity to compete for a starting job if that team wasn't in serious contention. Well, that opportunity has now presented itself, but even if he comes in, that doesn't solve their problems. For starters, their depth situation would still be extremely worrisome, as that doesn't fix the problem of having to rely on McDermott, Edoga and rookie Max Mitchell if something were to happen to Fant or Brown.
Additionally, signing Brown and plugging him in to the starting lineup could cause some further problems with the reshuffling of the deck. Fant has been preparing all offseason to be this team's LT after playing at that spot for part or all of 15 games last season. From his perspective, why should he have to move to a position he is less comfortable playing because someone else couldn't stay healthy? It definitely puts a crimp in his contract negotiations with the team, and could end up hurting both sides considering his history at RT. Him moving to RT is not a disaster for this team nearly as much as Chuma Edoga is, but he was a bottom-tier starter in 2020 when he played there, and there was a marked difference in his play Week 1 last season when he changed sides following Becton's injury then.
This might necessitate a contract adjustment or even an extension. I'm not going to accuse Fant of being the type of guy who would take advantage of this situation, but the opportunity is there. He could easily show up to camp tomorrow and say "Ouch, my knee hurts too, but I might feel better and be able to play RT if you pay me now." He's got all of the leverage in the world right now; even if they sign Brown, the depth is still critically poor to the point where it still might not be enough, especially if Fant at RT reverts to his 2020 form. Considering the Jets' limited cap room right now in 2022 (fewer than $9 million remaining), any extension would have to push significant amounts of guaranteed money into future years, meaning you'd be locked in on Fant for years to come.
This is the domino effect of not already having an established backup tackle on the roster already: an injury to one starter heightens the importance of the other starter to the point where now, you cannot afford another injury. I won't say it's totally hopeless; there is a chance that the Jets could reshape the dynamic of that tackle room between now and Week 1 by replacing multiple bodies in there through free agency and the waiver wire. In my opinion, the absolute best case scenario would be signing both Brown and Nate Solder (who remains available as the best remaining swing tackle in my opinion) to replace Edoga and/or McDermott (I assume both would be able to fit on the practice squad if cut), use Max Mitchell as an exclusive RT this year unless they absolutely need him elsewhere to prep him for a possible starting role in 2023, and have Brown as this team's starter at LT with Fant at RT following some sort of extension.
Yes, I do think an extension would be warranted. After spending all offseason raving about how important Fant is to the team, now is the time to prove it. Unless he's such a professional and is willing to move back to the right side just for Duane Brown (the two of them were teammates in Seattle from 2017 to 2019) without anything in return, you pretty much have to extend him. It's never a good situation where you feel like to have to extend a player, but that's the situation we're in thanks to the horrible injury luck.
What does that extension look like? For the first half of last season, I'd argue he was a top-10 LT. He suffered an injury and exited early in the Bengals game that might have contributed to his decline in the following few games. He was still good in some late-season games (he looked very good against the Buccaneers before he left that game with an injury), but something changed after that first injury spell. Hopefully, he returns to his early-season form whenever he next plays LT, and can at least keep up the pace he put up down the stretch last season if he winds up playing RT to start the year, but if we're just talking about a contract based on his performance last year? I think we're probably looking at a contract equivalent to the one the Jaguars gave Cam Robinson this offseason: 3 years, $52.75 million.
That's a major investment to make, and it's practically impossible to both push cap hits into the future and hedge your bets. Again, I think it's unfortunately what is going to be demanded; a switch back to RT this year is dangerous for both the Jets' and Fant's purposes, but they don't have a lot of good options that avoid this outcome. In this kind of contract, the way I would do it is by dropping his base salary for this year to the minimum (which would be $1.035 million), giving him a $12 million signing bonus (its effect would be reducing his 2022 cap hit by a negligible amount), and stacking two years of $19.375 million salaries on for 2023 and 2024 (fully guaranteeing his 2023 salary and guaranteeing $6 million of his 2024 salary). In this way, his guaranteed income would be just south of $38.5 million if cut after the 2023 season.
Again, that's a hefty commitment to be making to a guy who has yet to regain full strength in camp, but if he's unwilling to accept a position change without a new contract, this is what we could be looking at in the very near future. You can't force him to play; if he decides it's in the best interest of his career to sit until he gets paid, the Jets now have no alternative but to pay him. They absolutely cannot have Chuma Edoga or Conor McDermott be their starting tackle Week 1, and it would take a Herculean performance from Max Mitchell in the three preseason games to get them to the point where we could throw him out there against the Ravens with any level of confidence.
That's the situation we're in now. This is a crummy, muddy mess that we're in, and there is no easy way out of it. If the Jets are somehow able to get to my ideal scenario of signing Brown and Solder, extending Fant if he demands it and managing to fit all of that under the cap without hamstringing their ability to make midseason moves, I still wouldn't feel good about it. Why? Because this injury is not just about this season.
Mekhi Becton was supposed to be a franchise stalwart. It didn't matter that I wanted Tristan Wirfs back when the Jets had the 11th overall pick in the 2020 draft; I was always going to root for him to do well once he was on the team. Having faith and having hope in a player a choice you are fully allowed to make, but actively rooting against him like many who had grown frustrated with him chose to do is the opposite of fandom. Even if you wanted the Jets to replace him this offseason, once they made the decision to ride with him again, you had to root for him to succeed. Refusing to do so out of spite doesn't make you a prophet now that he's been hurt.
I'm certainly not going to tell you how you should think (which is a departure from my usual way of speaking to you), but if you're relishing an injury to a player on your team because you get to brag about having foreseen it, maybe try thinking about why you're celebrating again.
I get that being invested in a team like someone willing to read a Fanpost on a message board is can be draining when that team is as bad as the Jets have been for the last decade. Wins have been hard to come by, I know.
This was not a win. This was a devastating loss. If you're happy with what happened Monday morning, I've got news for you; you're a loser too.
Becton is unfortunately the one who lost the most out of this. From a personal standpoint, he wanted to use this season as a way to make his critics "eat their own words," as he put it back in June. After spending upwards of 8 months rehabbing a knee injury (yes, I know that his rehab lasted as long as it did because he didn't take it seriously enough), he's now suffered another injury in the same knee that could keep him out even longer. Even the best-case scenario for his return would likely keep him out of practice until around Thanksgiving, and getting back into game shape could take until Christmas, at which point there would be little point in reactivating him unless Fant (or Brown) are struggling mightily or are injured themselves. His career is in jeopardy now because of something he thought he was over.
From a football and money perspective, it's also a crushing loss. No matter how he played during the season, so long as he stayed relatively healthy, odds are that the Jets were going to pick up his fifth year option. Had he played to the Pro Bowl level the Jets thought he was capable of when they drafted him, the option would have been exercised because you obviously want to keep around a young player with that potential. Had he played at even an average level, it would have been picked up because it would have been cheap enough to take the risk (without making the Pro Bowl, the most his option would have been worth is somewhere around $14 million, which would have been fine for an average level starter with the potential to get even better as he hits his prime). Even if he'd suffered a more minor injury that cost him only around a quarter of the season and came back to an average level of play, that fifth-year option would have been a definite option, as he was Joe Douglas's first ever draft pick and it still would have been cheap enough for an extra year (somewhere around $13 million if didn't play enough snaps to qualify for the playing time escalator).
That's not going to happen now. Unless there's some other team out there that is willing to put down as much risk as the Panthers did when they traded for Sam Darnold (i.e., surrendering significant draft capital or something else of value), there is simply no way the Jets can sign up for another year of what they've seen thus far. Assuming he misses the entire 2022 season as the Jets fear he will, he will have gone three years in the league without even playing one full season's worth of games (16 when he joined the team as a rookie, now 17 games long). In his 15 regular season appearances, he left those games early six times with an injury, and he only provided glimpses of the kind of tackle they hoped they'd be getting rather than the display that would make the ability to risk that option at all enticing.
Thanks to his injury, Becton has now lost the opportunity to get tens, maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars that he otherwise could have feasibly been guaranteed next offseason. His career isn't definitively over, so I can't say that it will never happen, but given the context of how his first three seasons have gone, the kind of turnaround it would take for him to see that kind of wealth would be practically unheard of in this era of super contracts. Trent Williams may have missed a lot of time due to injury (and holdouts) his final few years with Washington, but at least he was a well-known, multi-Pro Bowl vet who managed to up his game when he joined a significantly better environment. The previously mentioned Cam Robinson had injury troubles in his first few seasons, but he still provided enough value to his team over three mostly healthy seasons in four years that they put themselves in a situation where they had to get an extension done after being faced with the prospect of not having a viable alternative. I can't at all get into the kind of mindset where I can see him getting that kind of money now.
Because at the end of the day, Becton has unfortunately proven to be unreliable. It is still possible that he gets to the point where he can be a quality player, but at this point, he cannot be trusted to remain healthy. This was a make-or-break year for him, and he broke. It's heartbreaking that this is how it turned out for him.
In my opinion, his path back to a full-time starting opportunity can no longer be with the Jets. The New York media and fanbase is a tough obstacle to overcome, and while we can't say that it got in his way, it definitely was on his mind, evidenced by the infamous "Big Bust" shirt he wore back at the mandatory minicamp media meeting. Given his combative relationship with his critics- mostly made up of a group of Jets fans who had grown disillusioned with his availability and physical shape that wanted him to get into shape as quickly as possible- a clean break made by joining another team could help him get the peace of mind to solely focus on his football career. To be a prominent athlete in the New York market, you need to overcome it, which is just something else that has been a problem for him the last two years.
But even if he wants to stay and the value on a return in a trade simply isn't there, I don't think the Jets can afford to enter another summer with him penciled in atop the depth chart. A lot of the talk about his ability to reach his potential was contingent on him being able to develop in the Jets' offseason program. COVID-19 robbed him of his rookie season's camp, plantar fasciitis and a concussion took away his second, and the 2021 knee injury and the birth of his first child consumed his third. This knee injury, if as severe as it has been suggested, will likely cost him a part of next offseason's program as well, if not another injury that we now have to say will probably happen at some point down the line.
If they keep him, it's as a backup to someone else in front of him. While more expensive than your standard backup (and definitely more high-profile for a player so young), Becton's cap hit isn't crippling the team to the point where he needs to be off this team no matter what. His sub-$6 million cap hit would see him make only about $1.5 million more than Morgan Moses made in his lone year with the Jets, and the Jets were willing to let Moses ride the bench behind Fant at RT last year before Becton's injury forced Moses out onto the playing field. Becton could be serving that kind of role next year, except he would have the possibility of playing on either side of the line depending on need.
He wouldn't have much choice in the matter, but I imagine he would want to play. Again, if he wants to play, it shouldn't be as this team's first option any longer. Perhaps another team would view him as a feasible starting option, probably a tanking team thinking that they might be able to get something out of him that the Jets never could. I doubt a tanking team would be willing to give up a draft pick of any consequence for Becton, but maybe they have another player of value they'd be willing to swap for Becton to shed cap or get a former first round pick who might finally be able to put it all together in a new environment. While I can't definitively say that they'd go for it- or that they would even be looking for a new tackle next year- but an example of what I mean would be trading Becton to the Colts in exchange for a player like RB Nyhiem Hines, a backup RB who has the highest cap hit of any skill position player currently on the roster. Hines for Becton wouldn't lower their salary cap by much, but it trades a definite backup for a possible starter should neither Matt Pryor (impending FA) nor Bernhard Raimann (3rd round rookie) grab the starting LT job and keep it. It wouldn't necessarily be a one-for-one deal; the specifics aren't as important seven months before any kind of trade can be worked out.
There's no point in cutting Becton; his entire $3.2 million 2023 salary is guaranteed thanks to his first-round selection. If there's no team out there willing to give up anything of value to acquire Becton, I doubt that there's a team that would be willing to claim him off waivers to prevent that salary from biting into the Jets' cap. Maybe I shouldn't doubt Joe Douglas's trading prowess (after all, he got a 6th for Blake Cashman, who was both more injury prone and less effective playing a lower-valued position), but it's difficult for me to expect the Jets to get enough return in a trade to move him out. Becton doesn't have the same kind of agency Fant has in being able to sit out; his career may very well be over right now, and sitting out the 2023 season will not help him get a starting job. What I mean is, I don't know if a 6th round pick would be enough to eat a $2.75 million cap hit and then have to replace him with someone who costs at least that amount.
Maybe I'm wrong about that too. Maybe he manages to make the unlikely comeback at the tail end of the season, finds his way back onto the field and does enough to boost his value to the team where they decide to keep him as a backup for next year. Whether or not that happens isn't the important part, though; the important part is that they can no longer expect him to be their starting tackle. Three years is enough time that you need to dispel with whatever pre-draft notions you might have had of a player. The Panthers made the mistake of thinking they could get the USC version of Sam Darnold on their team despite far more recent evidence that he could not get back to his college heights in the NFL, and they all but screwed their prospects for 2022 because of it.
They need to find a new starting right tackle for next year (and I'm not at all prepared to give that role to Max Mitchell at this point without having seen him play in a game), possibly even a new starting left tackle if Fant is not re-signed. Depending on what investment is made, Becton might have the opportunity to compete for a starting job should he still be with the team, but the expectation from now on has to be that he won't be playing a majority of snaps for the Jets offense, because it will have been close to three years since he last played even a full game's worth of snaps by the time next September rolls around.
Who are some options? That's a discussion for a later time. Right now, the Jets still need to figure out who will be starting at tackle for this team this season, because that is far more important a topic. With Becton now gone, the Jets cannot afford to sit back and let things happen before them. They made their bet and they lost; a far more important bet- that this team will be able to survive the loss of Becton- needs a lot more insurance.
And yes, I do believe that the Jets are in a position to survive this. In my last post, I said that I didn't think "there is a single player whose absence would be so crippling that the Jets would be lost without, although if the Jets don't sign a backup swing tackle, that hypothesis will definitely get tested." Well, it's getting tested now. Yesterday and today were days of misery like what happened with Carl Lawson, but the Jets still have time to make it such that Becton's loss isn't nearly as crippling as Lawson's was last year. They have options that, though imperfect, can still make it so that this team has a chance this year. If Chuma Edoga is starting Week 1, they will have failed to do everything possible to make it so.
The start of this week has been an ugly reality check for a team desperately hoping it wouldn't come as it did last year. Expectations for this team have not changed; Becton's loss is no excuse to fail to perform their duties, which is why the offense needs to rediscover its identity quickly, possibly even adapt it if their former plan of going run-heavy around all sides is no longer achievable (Duane Brown is a fine run-blocker, but he's more known for his pass protection and has not been in any team's training camp amid free agency, so his quality of play may not be up to his usual standards). Whatever the case, they need to demonstrate that no single player is enough to kill this team by his absence.
Because if they don't, the loss will only hurt that much more.
Thanks for reading.