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Bad luck, bad decisions, bad strategy: Five moves that sunk the offensive line and what the Jets can learn from them

NFL: JAN 07 Jets at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It is no secret that poor play from the offensive line was one of the driving forces behind the Jets’ offensive struggles in 2023. While it didn’t get as much attention as a certain quarterback’s injury, the team’s inability to control the trenches undoubtedly made a tough situation far worse.

The reasons for the problems upfront are numerous and were the residue of years’ worth of decisions that did not pan out.

Make no mistake about it. The failure of the offensive line was not solely a personnel issue. It is likely that coaching also played a large role.

But for today we are going to focus on five moves that set the Jets’ on the course for disaster in 2023.

A lot of Jets fans would like to tell you the state of the offensive line was solely because of incompetence by Joe Douglas. Others would like to tell you that Douglas did everything right but was beset by an unfathomable string of bad luck.

I would argue an offensive line could not get to this sort of state without both bad decisions and bad luck. In fact, many of the failed moves we will discuss had elements of both. We will also discuss lessons that the Jets can learn from each disappointment moving forward.

Move #1: Drafting Mekhi Becton over Tristan Wirfs

What happened: With the 11th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Jets attempted to address a glaring need at tackle by picking Louisville’s Mekhi Becton. One of the players they passed on was Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs. Becton has been a massive disappointment, essentially missing two of his four full seasons with knee injuries. In 2023 when he was healthy for the most part, he was at the top of the league rankings in sacks allowed and penalties committed. Meanwhile, Wirfs has made a pair of Pro Bowls and twice was named to an AP All Pro team in his first four seasons.

Why it went wrong: Remember how I mentioned a mix of bad luck and bad evaluations led the Jets to this point? Becton is a good case study. The Jets couldn’t have known he would suffer two straight knee injuries. With that said, it’s also difficult to imagine based on what we know that Becton would be as good as Wirfs even had he stayed healthy.

What I thought at the time: For each of these moves, I will do my best to tell you what I remember thinking at the time the Jets made their decision. In the case of Becton over Wirfs, it seemed like the Jets were swinging for the fences. Generally speaking, Wirfs was viewed as a plug and play prospect. There’s really no such thing as a “can’t miss” prospect, but Wirfs’ technical refinement made the odds high that he would be a really good player even if there were questions about whether he would end up at left tackle, right tackle, or guard. Becton was far less refined, but his size and strength made him a homerun swing. If he hit, he was really going to hit. The ceiling was higher. The floor was lower. At the time, Joe Douglas was running his first Draft. Some GMs are really good at betting on raw athletic ability. Others aren’t. We were too early in Douglas’ tenure to have a sense of where he would fall on the scale so I was wait and see.

Lessons that can be learned going forward: I think it’s easy to go overboard with takeaways on something like this. As I mentioned, there are times where a team bets on athletic traits and hits a homerun. Douglas’ mentor, Ozzie Newsome, built the Baltimore Ravens into a power partially by rolling the dice in the Draft on prospects who were big, athletic, and strong.

That said, we now with years of experience know that Douglas’ record betting on traits isn’t very good. If you’re going to bet on raw ability, you need to be able to work with your coaching staff to accurately identify the types of players your team can develop. The Jets have consistently made bad bets in this area during Douglas’ tenure not just on the offensive line. Based on their track record, Douglas and the Jets might be well-advised to prioritize raw athletic ability a little less and technical refinement a little more in their evaluations going forward.

Sometimes teams get carried away with finding the prospect with the highest ceiling, but the way we view ceiling doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense. Wirfs was a First Team All Pro in 2021. That means he was voted the best player at his position in the league. He was Second Team All Pro in 2022. That means he was the second best player. How much higher can a ceiling be?

Move #2: Keeping George Fant over Morgan Moses

What happened: After Becton suffered a knee injury in the first game of the 2021 season, right tackle George Fant slid over to left tackle. Late free agent signing Morgan Moses took over at right tackle. Fant had an outstanding season, while Moses played solid football. At the end of the season, Moses left in free agency for Baltimore. With Becton returning, there was no starting spot for him. After leaving, Moses commented that he signed with Baltimore because he wanted a starting job. The Jets were never going to move away from Becton two years after picking him 11th overall so moving on from Fant was the only option. Fant went on to struggle in 2022 and left after the season, while Moses has done a serviceable job in Baltimore.

What went wrong: Again we have a case of Douglas trying to swing for the fences. He signed Fant as a free agent in 2020. The former basketball player had an exceptional athletic profile but only played a single year of college football (at tight end). He spent four years with the Seattle Seahawks after signing as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and learned how to play on the offensive line. The Jets signed him to start at right tackle in 2020, hoping he would be a late bloomer after years of learning how to play. After an uneven 2020, he blossomed in 2021 in place of Becton. The Jets thought they had something. And since he only started playing tackle after joining the NFL, it made sense that he could put to together six years into his career, right?

There were, however, some reasons to question whether he could sustain his strong play from the small sample size of one season to the caliber of pass rushers he faced to the number of times he received extra help.

In theory an athlete like Fant would outperform Moses if he played up to his potential. With that said, Fant was turning 30 and had one year of above average starting play under his belt. Moses had been a longtime solid starter in the league.

What I thought at the time: I would have rather seen the Jets bet on Moses. The narrative of why Fant could be a late bloomer made sense, but when a 30 year old has a season that looks way better than anything else he’s ever done odds are you are looking at a regression. I remember that offseason the Seahawks traded Russell Wilson to the Broncos. One of the players Seattle got in return was tight end Noah Fant. As the deal was made I read something online about Fant being traded to the Seahawks. I mistakely believed the Jets had sent George back to Seattle and thought the Jets were being savvy cashing Fant in while his value was at its highest.

Lessons that can be learned going forward: A stabilizer on the offensive line is plenty valuable. I assume in keeping Fant, the Jets thought they had a better chance at having a potential Pro Bowler. A good offensive line doesn’t need to be comprised of five stars, however. A reliable guy like Moses who seldom misses time helps make a line work. I have to think the Jets would have been much better over the last two years with a durable stalwart like Moses providing credible if unspectacular tackle play.

Move #3: Trading up for Alijah Vera-Tucker

What happened: After picking Zach Wilson second overall, the Jets packaged their second pick in the opening round with a pair of third round picks to move up for USC offensive lineman Alijah-Vera Tucker. Vera-Tucker has been solid when he’s been on the field, he has only played 28 games in three seasons.

What went wrong: This one is pretty simple. Vera-Tucker has suffered two serious injuries. They were both of the freak variety. That is far and away the biggest problem here. This one definitely falls more on the “bad luck” side of the ledger, although I think it is fair to have a few criticisms about Joe Douglas’ process in trading up for AVT.

What I thought at the time: I felt like it was a calculated gamble for the Jets. Quality offensive linemen are at a premium in this league. I don’t love trading up in general. I didn’t love the price the Jets paid. In fact I fully acknowledged, a team probably will lose a trade where it gives up picks 23, 66, and 86 for picks 14 and 143. But if the Jets judged Vera-Tucker was the last remaining elite offensive line prospect on the board, the deal would be logical. And the Jets had a surplus of Draft capital, cushioning the hit of trading up.

Lessons that can be learned going forward: More than anything, the AVT saga reinforces the risks of trading up. The Jets essentially sunk three early picks into one player, and he hasn’t been able to stay on the field. It isn’t the team’s fault that he suffered these injuries, but the potential for this scenario is one of the downsides of betting so much on a single player. Sometimes a later pick helps cushion the blow of bad luck on an early pick. For example, the Jets gave up pick 86 to Minnesota to move up for AVT. Pick 93 in that Draft was Spencer Brown. Pick 94 was Ben Cleveland. These are both solid starters on AFC Playoff teams. There is no guarantee the Jets would have picked either player. Heck, Minnesota used the actual pick 86 on Wyatt Davis, a far inferior offensive lineman. The Jets might not even have picked a lineman had they held onto the pick. Still, Brown or Cleveland surely would have helped the team cushion the blow from AVT’s injuries.

Another risk of trading down comes with the player the Vikings selected with the lower first round pick they acquired from the Jets in the trade down. Remember how I said the trade up made sense if AVT was the last elite offensive line prospect on the board? Well, with that lower first round pick, the Vikings took Christian Darrisaw, who has been a better and more valuable lineman than AVT. Mind you I’m not trying to destroy the Jets for the trade up. There’s a good chance Minnesota just takes Darrisaw if they stay at 14.

But if we are talking about lessons the Jets can learn going forward it’s that teams frequently panic and falsely believe they need to move up to secure elite talent. More often than not a really good player will slide if you remain patient, and there isn’t a need to sacrifice picks to move up. Of course there are always individual moments where a pick here or there can make a big difference. (We are about to discuss one.) But teams generally overestimate their frequency.

The silver lining is the type of injuries AVT has suffered have been freak occurrences, and he has a better chance than people realize to have a successful career.

Move #4: The Pick Flip

What happened: A seemingly minor part of the Aaron Rodgers trade saw the Jets and Packers swap first round picks in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Jets sent the 13th pick to Green Bay. The Packers sent the 15th pick to New York. How significant could a two slot swap be? As it turns out, pretty significant. The move allowed the Steelers to trade up to 14 to jump the Jets for Georgia tackle Broderick Jones. The Jets picked Iowa State defensive end Will McDonald.

In the aftermath, the Jets put out a documentary video that portrayed Joe Douglas as Nostradamus in the Draft room and made it seem like he had baited the Steelers into trading up when he never had any intention of taking Jones.

What went wrong: Jones played credibly for the Steelers as a rookie as Pittsburgh made a surprise run to the Playoffs. McDonald made a minimal impact for the Jets as their offensive line crumbled.

What I thought at the time: I had a million issues with the way the Jets handled everything around Rodgers last year. Because the deal happened right before the NFL Draft, many Jets fans fretted the swap could have major consequences. I was wait and see.,

Lessons that can be learned going forward: A lot of Jets fans are very fired up about this. It’s understandable. I think we need to exercise caution in breaking this down. The Draft is always about the long term, and these players are one year into their respective careers. Jones still has a long way to go before we can say the Jets definitively made a mistake passing on him. McDonald also has time to grow into a successful pick.

That said, we do have a year of actual NFL results. We can’t just ignore or dismiss them because they are inconvenient. At least at the moment it is tough to argue that the Jets were better served with McDonald than they would have been with Jones in year one. Jones plays a critical position where the Jets crumbled. McDonald didn’t have much of a role and has a lot of development to do.

Perhaps the biggest lesson that can be learned is that the smallest details in a trade matter. Something as small as swapping two slots might have had major consequences for the Jets. For me it wasn’t even so much about Jones vs. McDonald. It wasn’t clear why the swap was even necessary to complete the trade.

For their part, the Jets pumped out a video that portrayed Douglas as Nostradamus in the Draft room. It hints that he had no interest in Jones and possibly even baited the Steelers into trading up for a player he didn’t want.

The editing of this video reminds me a bit of the welcome to Kamp Krusty in a classic episode of The Simpsons.

Either way at this point I’m not so sure it’s a favorable look for Douglas to stick with the story he had no interest in Jones.

Move #5: Duane Brown as the Only Option at Left Tackle

What happened: After he battled through injuries in 2022, the Jets entered the 2023 season with a declining 38 year old Duane Brown as their left tackle with no viable Plan B.

What went wrong: Brown spent his offseason recovering from a rotator cuff injury, which greatly limited his work in training camp and the preseason. Brown came out rusty and played poorly the first two weeks of the season. Then he went to injured reserve. After being activated in November, the Jets only used him as an extra tight end in personnel groupings where they added a sixth offensive lineman.

What I thought at the time: I thought what the Jets were doing was crazy. Brown had a distinguished career. I respect that he battled through injuries in 2022. He was an emergency signing after Becton got hurt, and did as well as anybody could have hoped. With that said, it was clear he could no longer play at anywhere near the Pro Bowl form of his prime. He was clearly declining, and that trend was not going to reverse itself at 38 years old. Last offseason when I looked at potential Jets salary cap cuts, Brown was one of two candidates for whom I didn’t see a case bringing back. Not only did the Jets bring Brown back. They made him the undisputed starting left tackle. Of course there might have been other hopes, such as drafting Jones but the way things played out left the Jets in Week 1 with Brown as the only option.

Lessons that can be learned going forward: I’m going to go with don’t depend on a declining 38 year old coming off a serious injury in a critical role.

The Jets can’t undo any of these moves, but perhaps the lessons they provided can help guide the team to better decision making and a better offensive line going forward.