Offensive line, not quarterback, has to be a draft priority for Jets

Nick Mangold Jets

It’s never too early in the offseason to quibble over how to fix the Jets.

While everyone’s favorite losers finished 5-11 thanks in large part to atrocious play out of their quarterbacks, it doesn’t mean we should jump to the conclusion that drafting a new QB such as Deshaun Watson at No. 6 is the right thing to do. In fact, if there’s one big priority for New York come April, it isn’t quarterback – it’s the offensive line.

Let’s dissect why, starting with a writer-to-reader agreement that the Jets’ line as it stands today is in rough shape. Ryan Clady and Ben Ijalana started at left and right tackle Week 1, but they are not tackles of the future. Clady couldn’t tay healthy in a prove-it season, and Ijalana was never awe-inspiring at any position he played on the line. Breno Giacomini is also hapless, when he can stay healthy.

Furthermore, center Nick Mangold’s best days are behind him. While backup center Wesley Johnson played fine in limited action in 2016, finding a replacement for Mangold as the soul and anchor of this line will be challenging.

Now, think about the Jets’ draft strategy over the last several years. They’ve drafted a quarterback in four straight drafts and seven in the last nine. Since 1999, no team has drafted more QBs than the Jets, and their greatest success stories were Chad Pennington and Mark Sanchez’s early years. It is very easy to whiff on a quarterback prospect in any round.

In sharp contrast, you need five starting offensive linemen compared to one starting quarterback, but the Jets have drafted only 11 O-linemen in the last 10 years. If that doesn’t sound so bad, consider that only three were on the team in 2016 – Brian Winters, Dakota Dozier and rookie Brandon Shell.

That could be due to the lack of priority New York’s front office has placed on them: The team hasn’t spent a first-round draft pick on an O-lineman since taking both D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Mangold in 2006, two guys who stabilized the line for a decade.

Instead, the collection includes four sixth-rounders, three fifth-rounders, one seventh, one fourth (Dozier), one third (Winters) and one second (Vlad Ducasse, a disappointment who made only five starts for the Jets in four years).

But past failures aside, why do the Jets need to spend an early pick on an offensive lineman in order to find a future starter? What’s wrong with continuing a bargain-bin operation? I have plenty of evidence that goes beyond merely pointing toward the Dallas Cowboys’ all-pros that were drafted in Round 1.

After Week 13 of 2016, Pro Football Focus published the top 25 offensive linemen in the league based on adjusted player grades. A study of those 25 players reveals nearly half (12) were first-round picks; another three were taken in Round 2 and three were taken in Round 3, making a large majority of them early-round prospects.

Indeed, even if they aren’t the Pro Bowlers at their positions, better OL prospects coming out of college still last longer, and few become busts. Over the last five years, besides a few third-rounders who didn’t stick with their teams (and one who became a professional wrestler), only the Rams’ Greg Robinson and now-journeyman Jonathan Cooper appear to be big disappointments.

The Jets’ own Week 1 starters included not only Mangold (Round 1) at center and Winters (Round 3) as one guard, but also Clady (Round 1, 2008), Ijalana (Round 2, 2011) and James Carpenter (Round 1, 2011). Even though those last three, all free-agent acquisitions for the Jets, were far from being top players, it confirms the hypothesis even more.

The point is this: Only drafting offensive linemen in rounds five and six just assures that you’ll have a roster filled with a lot of backup talent.

Top OL prospect Cam Robinson of Alabama may not be the most deserving of the Jets’ sixth overall pick. Former Alabama OT Barrett Jones called out Robinson, his own alma mater’s star tackle, during the national championship game telecast on ESPN for his penchant for getting penalized.

But the Jets have three rounds to get it right, and there may be better value in Rounds 2 and 3, and better names, literally. Julie’n Davenport (Bucknell), Martinas Rankin (Mississippi State), Forrest Lamp (Western Kentucky) and Adam Bisnowaty (Pittsburgh) are all dudes I want to root for. (I’d go to a Jets game holding a sign that reads “I LOVE LAMP.”)

So I pray the Jets’ college scouts are doing their due diligence on all of these prospects and more. An O-line rebuild has to be on the to-do list. Free agency could help, too, but quite frankly, the team is doomed if they don’t draft an offensive lineman with an early pick in 2017.

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