American Football

Seeing Trends: How the Jets should approach the tackle position

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Seeing Trends: How the Jets should approach the tackle position
Chris Pedota/NorthJersey.com / USA TODAY NETWORK

Seeing what other evaluators don’t

The NFL is a dynamic league where teams look for every advantage they can find to win. They will bring in a radical type offensive mind like Chip Kelly who was 29-35 with a talented Eagles squad. The NFL had the “Smurfs.” It had the “run and gun” under Jack Pardee in Houston and in Atlanta with June Jones. All of these generated excitement on the field, but were not game changers on the won/loss side.

For the most part football is still a game in which running, blocking, tackling, and playmaking decide games; that hasn’t changed. The great teams of the past all had winning formulas that included the talent, the professionalism, and great coaching along with strong players who were leaders. Once they found the winning formula those teams worked it for all it was worth. Players changed, but the formula didn’t. Other (less successful teams) would hire coaches away from those teams in order to gain some of that wisdom. It usually didn’t work.

Yet struggling teams continue to mimic the winners.

In order to change their fortunes struggling teams need to draft well, coach well, develop leaders on both sides of the ball, and have an assortment of playmakers (offensive and defensive) to break the cycle of losing.

Seeing Trends

One of the things most overlooked in turning a franchise around is seeing trends that are happening in the league before other teams act on them and gain an advantage. This way you can draft a set of players who won’t interest other teams. You can be a trend setter rather than being a trend follower. When you follow a trend you are looking for players who are a defined athletic type for each position. You have to fight to find even a few players because everyone else is looking for the same guy.

The Dallas Cowboys

For of those of you who didn’t know the Dallas Cowboys were a great team nearly since their inception. They had a great coach in Tom Landry, a great legacy of players and a spot as one of the greatest teams in NFL history. Yet after nearly 25 years of some special football the Cowboys fell on hard times. Their owner eventually sold their beloved team (that was losing nearly a million dollars a month) to Jerry Jones back on February 25th 1989.

The Cowboys had just gone through a 3-13 season with little talent on the roster. Jerry Jones (age 46 at the time) fired a Hall of Fame coach In Tom Landry to hire a college coach, his college roommate, Jimmy Johnson. After the first season where the Cowboys went 1-15 Johnson realized he couldn’t turn his team around with just a few Draft picks. Fortunately the Cowboys had a superstar in Hershel Walker and a team in the Vikings who would pay a king’s ransom for that player. The Cowboys traded Walker on October 12th 1989. If you want to know more about this situation I wrote an article a few years ago about the Walker trade. It’s an informative read.

What made the Cowboys great again was not all the Draft picks they got but the way Johnson used them. Jimmy once said (and I’m paraphrasing) it’s not the draft picks you have but what you do with them. He was right; he got a lot of picks, but he used them very wisely. H saw that a lot of defensive coordinators looked for huge defensive linemen and linebackers so their defenses would not be overrun or pushed around. They figured that if you couldn’t match an offense’s power you would be pummeled into submission.

Johnson looked at this and drafted some powerful defenders, but he also selected fast/quick players that other teams felt were too small to compete in the NFL. By doing so Johnson used a bevy of 5th, 6th and 7th round picks on players with the attributes he espoused. Not all worked out, but he eventually built a powerful, fast flowing defense that devoured offenses. His team went from 1-15 to 7-9 to 11-5 to 13-3 and Super Bowl Champions. Johnson took his vision and developed a trend (quick and fast defensive players) to make a champion.

So what is the new trend to take advantage of?

I mentioned earlier that teams will try a variety of offensive schemes to become competitive. Yet a lot of the basics along the offensive line are still intact.

Offensive tackles face some of the greatest challenges in football since they need quickness to the edge, power in the run block, and the anchor against powerful rushers. It’s nearly an impossible task to find and then develop a player who has those physical characteristics.

The trend I find is this. It is an illusion that offensive tackles need all those traits.

If you look at the best sack masters 30 years ago here is what you find;

1992 sack leaders (Defensive Ends)

  1. Clyde Simmons 6’ 5” 292 lbs 19 sacks
  2. Leslie O’Neal 6’ 4” 275 lbs 17 sacks
  3. Wayne Martin 6’ 5” 275 15.5 sacks
  4. Neil Smith 6’ 4” 270 lbs 14.5 sacks
  5. Chris Doleman 6’ 5” 289 lbs 14.5 sacks

These players used primarily their power to make their sacks. These DEs could literally run you over like a Cadillac if you didn’t have the size and anchor to compete against them. You needed (as an offense) a tackle who could handle the power and the speed, or you were in for a problem all day. The offensive tackles all had size, length, some good quickness plus some speed. Quickness was not as pivotal as it is today.

Today the landscape is quite different. The pass rushers are all better athletes even though they still have size. Their greatness lies in their speed combined with their first step quickness and athleticism. Their rushes also incorporate an arsenal of hand techniques not seen in the past. Gone are days of the straight bull rush. Instead offensive tackles must endure a variety of quickness, speed, moves, and hand work along with the power of the bull rush.

2022 Sack leaders (Defensive Ends)

  1. Nick Bosa 6’ 4” 266 lbs 18.5 sacks
  2. Haason Reddick 6’ 1” 235 16.0 sacks
  3. Myles Garrett 6’ 4” 272 16. sacks
  4. Matt Judon 6’ 3” 275 15.5 sacks
  5. Alex Highsmith 6’ 4” 242 14.5 sacks

Of these players Garrett is the only player who has great power when he chooses to use it. These player all have great first step quickness along with superior lateral ability. They primarily look to get around the blockers instead of going through them. They will overwhelm a smaller player, but as long as you have enough size in front of them they will look to beat them with speed/quickness. Still a quick, strong, long offensive tackle can be effective.

So speed, quickness, length and athleticism are what you want to be looking for as an offensive tackle in the NFL. An offensive tackle’s primary job is to protect the QB. ?Everything else is secondary. If you can’t protect your QB the offense cannot work correctly. With the majority of teams using the outside zone running schemes it is even more imperative to find capable, leaner athletes to use as offensive linemen rather than players with great body thickness. Pancake blocks are great, but as long as you keep the defender out of the play by walling him off or creating a hole it’s all the same to a runner.

It’s not like this is a departure from the current norm for an offensive tackle. The ideal player I am thinking of is about 6’ 4” 310-315 lbs with great lateral quickness, enough sand in his pants to make a stand against players slightly larger than himself, and solid hand usage. What I want to avoid is the 6’ 6” 345-355 lbs monster that needs help against quick DEs. You also can’t look for a tackle who is very quick but is below the 300 lbs threshold. If you use a player like that it would only be a matter of time before a wise DC would move a behemoth from the DT spot to quickly push that player back into his QBs lap.

You want quickness, strength in a linear body that has great lateral movement.

The Jets did the opposite when they selected Mekhi Becton as their left tackle. This ended up being a mistake. I stated at the time (and in my Draft report) that a man his size is more likely prone to leg, ankle, knee and back injuries. The NFL is a brutal game. A 364lbs man puts a lot more stress on his body (especially the lower body) than a man 50lbs lighter. I’m sure there are examples of players that size playing well for an extended period of time, but they are more of the exception rather than the rule.

The great offensive linemen from the past who were considered massive humans were not that big as compared to today. Willie Roaf was 6’ 5” 320 lbs and Orlando Pace was 6’ 7” 324 lbs so not huge by todays standards.

So which players fit this mold in the 2023 NFL Draft?

Okay so it’s very early in the draft season. I haven’t received even half the game video I need, but I still have some favorites to highlight.

Before you can look at what is out there you have to look what the Jets need.

At offensive tackle the Jets have a slimmed down Mekhi Becton, but can anyone trust him after two lost seasons? He was a physically intimidating player who is now evolving into a finesse player, but will it work? No one has any idea so the Jets need to make sure they have enough backup to save their offense.

I really believe the Jets should pick three offensive linemen in this draft along with a couple of linebackers plus a safety or two. If you pick the right players it’s a bonanza.

Players who currently fit the profile

OT Broderick Jones OT Georgia 6’ 4” 311 lbs

The Georgia Bulldogs left tackle is an athletic player with some power plus good length. He is only 21 years old so he is young and will develop with good coaching. It’s not like he has far to go. He needs a little more power, to keep his hands further inside on the block, and to use his hands earlier in the play; be proactive not reactive.

Jones has a lot of traits that resemble a younger Tyron Smith from Dallas who has 4 All-Pro & 8 Pro-Bowls to his credit. He has wide shoulders but a thin waist with strong/long arms. This allows for better quickness especially in his kick slide.

OC Sedrick Van Pran Georgia 6’ 4” 310 lbs

Connor McGovern is a free agent so the Jets have questions. I wouldn’t mind the Jets drafting Van Pran then resigning McGovern to a one year contract. That would be a positive move to let the kid learn the system, work on special teams, and be available in case McGovern goes down.

I look at Van Pran as a decade long answer to the center position with his athleticism. Give him a chance to work with coaches during the practices. You know that he will get a chance to play with the amount of time missed by interior linemen players. All it takes is a single rollup from behind to have a player miss multiple weeks.

I know both these players come from the National Champion team so it seems like a wish list. Rarely if ever do I rate two players from the same team so high, but in this case it was warranted. I don’t care what teams I scout. I just look at their players then make a grade.

OT Tyler Steen Alabama 6’ 5” 315 lbs

Steen is a linear player with great athleticism, length and experience. Steen stayed 4 years at Vanderbilt (was a defensive tackle as a freshman) before transferring as a graduate student to Alabama. Steen started 33 games at left tackle for the Commodores so he has great experience against quality SEC competition.

Steen is not considered a power player. This will likely keep him on the board until the late 2nd day of the draft. He has great speed, good hands, and the ability of hang with edge defenders in speed and strength.

Summary

The Jets clearly erred when they selected Mekhi Becton as a first round pick in the draft. They have been paying for it ever since. When you miss on a high first round pick you put your team in a precarious situation. The Jets haven’t overcome those situations.

Teams have to reassess how they rate prospects; I believe the old guard of the NFL evaluators are missing a change or trend that has developed in the NFL. The need for speed and quickness should override the desire for a massive offensive tackle who can pave the way for rush lanes that don’t really exist anymore. Even in a power/gap scheme (where interior blockers need over the top size) the tackle position can still have leaner tackles who have the speed and quickness to make blocks.

I realize that Mekhi Becton has lost weight, has a renewed attitude, and looks to return after back to back lost seasons. If he comes back with a vengeance that would be great, but you can’t set up your plans for the team on hopes.

Max Mitchell is not the answer right now and may never be. He lacks quickness and has short arms for the position. He was only a rookie last year, and I hope for development from him. Still last year he was a disaster. George Fant, Mike Remmers and Cedric Ogbuehi won’t be back thank God.

The lack of quality offensive tackle play was one of the top reasons for the Jets failures of 2022 without doubt. There were other problems but you can’t deny the horrific display in the run game and the protection issues.

Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past. Let’s find some quality offensive tackles to build an offense around. Joe Douglas was hired in early June of 2019 with a plan to build the team around the offensive and defensive lines. It is 2023, and the offensive line is as bad or worse than when he was hired. Joe has used a lot of money along with draft capital to solve the offensive line problem but has been an utter failure. Why not try and rethink what you are doing before making more mistakes?

Let’s start by doing the right thing and finding long term solutions to the offensive line in this draft. It might take a lot of the Jets draft capital, but you have to start sometime so why not now?

That’s what I think.

What do you think?

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