Under Josh McCown, the Jets were actually a competitive team last year. They were 5-8 in games started by McCown, losing five games by one score, three of those to playoff teams. With just a little bit more luck in close games, they could have been a near-.500 team or better while playing under an adequate quarterback – after facing unanimous No. 1 pick predictions throughout the offseason.
Offensively, two weaknesses in particular held the Jets back most. One setback was the tight end group that was lacking in game-changing talent. Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught four touchdowns but ultimately failed to make a difference with an unsightly 7.1 yards per reception rate.
The no-doubt top issue was the offensive line. Too often, the Jets were hamstrung both in the run and pass game by inadequate offensive line play. In games at Buffalo, Tampa Bay, and Denver, the Jets’ offense had almost no chance due to horrid work in both phases by the offensive line.
The Jets ranked 24th in rushing yards, 28th in sack percentage allowed, and 30th in adjusted line yards per rushing attempt, a metric which looks to deviate yards created by running backs from yards created by the offensive line (via Football Outsiders). Pro Football Focus ranked the Jets’ offensive line 30th.
Where exactly are the holes in the line? Left tackle Kelvin Beachum was arguably the only consistently solid player. Beachum was a very solid starter on the blind side for Pittsburgh before suffering a major injury. After a bad season in Jacksonville, Beachum hopped over to New York and had a solid, if not spectacular season. Left guard James Carpenter had a tremendous dip in production, possibly due partially to injuries, but also likely due in part to a miscast in the Jets’ increasingly zone-heavy running scheme. Right guard Brian Winters battled injuries. Right tackle Brandon Shell had an ugly first half to his first season as a starter, but finished with a strong second half.
The biggest hole in the line was at center. Wesley Johnson took over for Nick Mangold in his very first season as a full-time starter and struggled mightily. He is already undersized for the position, but really struggled to showcase adequate play strength, often finding himself overpowered at the line of scrimmage and thus proving to be a major liability in the run game while also providing well below average pass protection. The Jets also faced numerous communication breakdowns after making the switch from Mangold to Johnson.
Jets fans clamored for a switch at the position all offseason and got their wish as the team went out and signed former Redskin Spencer Long to fill the void in the middle. Long started at center for the Redskins over the previous two seasons and has provided very sound pass protection (one sack allowed), impressive instincts and football IQ, and a relentless motor. While at the least Long should provide a boost for the Jets from terrible to somewhere around average while on the field, there is possibly some untapped upside with him as well. Long is still just 27 years old and has only started 18 career games at center after starting his NFL career at left guard. Long could absolutely still have room to become a top-tier pass protector and improve his run blocking to a more consistent level. Health will be a major factor, as Long has yet to play a full 16 game season in his career and only played seven games in 2017.
If Long can stay healthy, the Jets should be getting a significant boost to at least an average level of production in the middle of their offensive line – with the potential to see him grow into something more. Around him, the Jets have a decent amount of upside, but a very sizable amount of downside and risk. Will Kelvin Beachum take another step back towards high-level play with another year removed from his injury – or was 2017 a fluke? Is James Carpenter on the decline or can he prove he was only the victim of poor surroundings and a down year? Can Brian Winters live up to his contract and string together good performances? Can Brandon Shell continue the pristine pass protection he showed at the end of 2016 and 2017 and avoid the streaks of consistent pressure he allowed early in 2017?
There are a lot of questions for Rick Dennison’s group to answer. The Jets hired the former Bills offensive coordinator as their new offensive line coach, shifting away from Steve Marshall. The Jets had already begun moving to a more zone-heavy blocking scheme under offensive coordinator John Morton last year, and the pasts of both Dennison and new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates (promoted from quarterbacks coach) suggest that more zone reliance is on the way.
James Carpenter, whose struggles I discussed earlier, didn’t seem like a fit last year, as his mauling ability was minimized with an increased amount of lateral blocks that he struggled with. Carpenter was one of the best players on the roster from 2015-16 playing in a blocking scheme that maximized his strengths.
Are the Jets going to figure out a way to maximize their offensive line group? Or, is there just a simple lack of talent in the room, which will need to be upgraded in the future? However it plays out, the offensive line is going to be an extremely key variable in determining whether or not the Jets can snap their seven-year playoff drought.