As the New York Jets embark upon the 2023 season, expectations are high. The team has a future Hall of Famer at quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. If you are reading this article, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you about the trade that brought the Packers legend to New York.
Rodgers is 39 years old and will turn 40 before the end of the season. At that age, there always has to be some concern about decline at least to a certain extent. Rodgers is coming off the worst season of his career, but there were a number of mitigating factors to his 2022 inconsistency. Among them were a hand injury which seemed to impact his play for a long stretch. The Packers also provided him with an inexperienced group of receivers. Many will point to a lack of talent after the team traded Davante Adams, but after watching film on Green Bay, I think a lack of familiarity and trust were equally significant in explaining Rodgers’ inconsistency.
In terms of actual tangible areas of decline from Rodgers, one thing stood out to me on the film. His mobility has regressed quite a bit from his prime. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to tell you Rodgers is a Joe Flacco-esque statue. He can and will extend plays with his legs. I’m just not sure he will be able to do it with the frequency he did during his prime. One of the things that always set Rodgers apart from mortal quarterbacks was his ability to throw a laser 30 yards down the field with pinpoint accuracy while on the run.
Indeed in researching this article, I came across stats from The Ringer that backed up the idea that Rodgers can’t move like he used to.
It may have been hard to notice when watching games live, but the numbers make it clear that Rodgers no longer moves as well as he used to, which tends to happen to 39-year-old players. Per Next Gen Stats, Rodgers set five-year lows in rushing yards, yards per carry, rush EPA, and rushing yards over expected. On top of that, he reached 15 mph on only 10 of his runs last season. In 2018, he did so 28 times. In 2019, the number dropped to 20. It was 16 the following year, and then 13 in 2021. So this has been a steady decline, and one that we should probably expect to continue.
This isn’t just an issue on scrambles; declining mobility also affected Rodgers as a passer. On plays outside the pocket, his success rate dropped nearly 10 percentage points from 2021 to 2022, according to TruMedia.
Rodgers is likely to be more confined to the pocket this upcoming season than at any point of his career. This is a natural progression for an aging quarterback. One might expect mobility to be among the first things to go.
This isn’t necessarily a sign of doom for the Jets. Rodgers should be plenty capable of having success from the pocket. He is as smart as ever, and if there is any decline to his arm strength it isn’t much.
What this really means is the Jets need to protect Rodgers. If they do, the offense will likely have success.
You might see where I am going with this. The consensus biggest question mark the team currently has is on the offensive line, most notably the tackle position. Mekhi Becton’s strong preseason at least gives the team legitimate hope of getting quality right tackle play. However, Becton hasn’t played a full game in more than two years. We can’t say with a large degree of confidence he will hold up well. Across from him is 38 year old Duane Brown, who is coming off a serious injury that kept him out of preseason play and limited his training camp reps.
How can the Jets work around this? If you are unsure about your tackles, one approach might be to use tight ends to help more in pass protection.
What’s more, Jets might have tight ends who can help in this area of the game. Our old buddy Michael Nania provided some interesting notes about the pass blocking abilities of Tyler Conklin and CJ Uzomah shortly after the Jets signed them last year.
Conklin was trusted by the Vikings to pass-block on 98 snaps in 2021. That was the greatest sum of any tight end in the NFL.
When it comes to Conklin’s pass-blocking, expect the Jets to have faith in him to handle some extremely difficult assignments. Conklin’s tape is littered with impressive reps on an island against great pass-rushers.
In the 2021 regular season, Uzomah was credited with allowing only one pressure on 41 pass-blocking snaps (giving him 2.6 pass-blocking snaps per game). That’s a pressure rate of 2.4%, which ranked fifth-best out of 49 qualified tight ends.
It’s not exactly like the Jets have a lot of big play receiving ability from the tight end position either. It’s easy to blame the lack of Jets tight end production on play from Zach Wilson and the rest of the quarterback group, but Conklin and Uzomah didn’t display much to suggest they are anything other than checkdown targets before coming to New York. In 2021 NextGenStats calculated Conklin’s average air yards target being just 5.6 yards and Uzomah’s even lower at 4.6 yards. Their most significant roles very well might be in helping to keep Rodgers upright to make big-time throws to Garrett Wilson.
Of course this is easy to speculate about. There are plenty of logical steps teams could take but coordinators never actually implement. Will Nathaniel Hackett use his tight ends to help in pass protection? I decided to take a look at the last time Hackett and Rodgers collaborated, the 2021 season in Green Bay.
After spending way too much time poring over data, I found out that in 2021 the typical tight end stayed in to pass protect 12 percent of the time. The Packers that year had their tight ends pass block...12 percent of the time, right at the league average.
Looking a little deeper provided some interesting insight, though. I found Green Bay did not arrive at that 12 percent in a uniform way. That season, Elgton Jenkins was the Packers’ primary left tackle. He only played 8 games, however. This did much to dictate how the Pakcers used their tight ends. In games where Jenkins played, Green Bay only left their tight end to pass protect on 8 percent of plays. That number jumped to 14 percent when he did not. So there is some evidence that Hackett is capable of adjusting his tight end blocking approach based on his circumstances.
The circumstances with this team seem to dictate more tight end blocking.