The breakdown of the New York Jets’ offseason decisions continues with the offensive line, a group that was unfairly criticized for much of 2013. The line paved the way for the NFL’s sixth ranked rushing attack, but also gave up the sixth most sacks in the NFL. However, many of those sacks can attributed to Geno Smith’s poor decision making and the inability of the receivers to get open. The line was incredibly healthy right up until the last game of the season, and that level of continuity was huge for their performance. However, two of their starters, Austin Howard and Willie Colon, will be unrestricted free agents this offseason, leaving the Jets with some decisions to make.
The Jets ended the season with 10 offensive linemen either on the active roster or injured reserved, and those players were tackles Howard, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Oday Aboushi and Ben Ijalana, guards Colon, Brian Winters, Vladimir Ducasse and Will Campell, and centers Nick Mangold and Caleb Schlauderaff. Ferguson and Mangold were once again the anchors for the offensive line, and although neither was quite up to their usual Pro Bowl standards, the Jets are thrilled to have two standout players at the most important positions on the line.
The Jets took three offensive linemen in the 2013 draft, and all should return in 2014. The headliner, of course, is left guard Brian Winters, who took over the starting role early in the season. Unfortunately, Winters was one of the worst guards in the league, and he needs to show major improvement if he wants to keep his job. The Jets will make him a starter again next season, but they also must bring in a veteran to compete with Winters and replace him if necessary.
Aboushi and Campbell were the other two rookies, and neither played at all. The Jets will have them in camp next summer, but they will have to fight for a roster spot. The same applies to veteran reserves Ijalana and Schlauderaff, who saw only two snaps all season (both to Schlauderaff). The Jets will not carry this many offensive linemen next season, as it cripples roster flexibility. All these players have some upside and should be brought into camp, but they will all have to do much more to earn a roster spot.
The Jets have three free agents in Howard, Colon and Ducasse. The Jets should not even consider making Ducasse an offer, and Jets fans will shed no tears over his departure. Ducasse has been a complete bust at three positions since being a second round pick in 2010, and the Jets have actually waited too long to get rid of him. What to do with Colon is a more challenging decision. Colon was a very solid free agent pickup for the Jets, but he tore his biceps in the season finale. At his age and with his injury concerns, it is best that the Jets go in a different direction at right guard.
That leaves us with Howard, who is by far the Jets’ most important free agent. Howard has become a very good right tackle, and at just 26 years old he has plenty of time to keep getting better. Re-signing Howard should be John Idzik’s highest priority, and it will be fairly sizable contract. The going rate for quality right tackles is between $4-7 million annually, and Howard should fit right in that area. If the Jets can’t get a long term deal worked out, expect them to use the franchise tag on Howard. They cannot allow him to leave, even if it’s expensive.
The Jets will be expecting their offensive line to continue to play well next season, and as long as Howard returns they should be in good shape. A solid addition at right guard and improved play at the skill positions should make the line look even better, and they continue to be the strongest offensive position group on the Jets.