Wesley Johnson received the lowest Pro Football Focus grade of any center in the NFL in 2017.
That information could have appeared in the middle of the article to support my argument, but it was so eye-opening and outrageous that I had to lead with it.
The 2017 season was Johnson’s as a full-time starter for the New York Jets after the team parted ways with Nick Mangold. It was hardly a great campaign for him, and now he’s about to become an unrestricted free agent. Is it time for the Jets to find an upgrade at center? Should Johnson be re-signed? Or can both of those outcomes happen?
What he did in 2017
Back to the analytics. Johnson earned a 31.3 grade from PFF, the lowest among 38 qualifying players at the position. He was deemed even worse in pass-blocking (25.5) than in run-blocking (36.6). Fox Sports’ offensive line statistics show Johnson was only responsible for two sacks allowed, but that doesn’t take into account QB hurries, an unofficial but important stat. (Plus, opponents’ best pass-rush threats usually aren’t coming up the middle where Johnson works, so he shouldn’t be allowing many sacks and hurries to start with.) The center bears at least some of the blame for the team’s 97 QB hits and 47 sacks allowed last year.
On the rushing side of things, the Jets were not so effective running the ball behind Johnson. ESPN Stats and Info claims that they gained 3.27 yards per run up the middle, according to Rich Cimini. This chart from the NFL’s Game Statistics and Information System gives a slightly different answer — and it’s a bit wacky to see how good the team was running the ball through certain areas of the line and how bad it was in other spots:
So no, Johnson wasn’t the worst run-blocker on the team, but whether the yardage average is 3.8 or 3.27, it’s not a recipe for success.
Johnson played the third-most snaps among his offensive teammates with 938, and according to Fox Sports, he was penalized five times.
What could be his role in 2018?
At age 27, Johnson’s career is not a lost cause, but it’s looking increasingly doubtful that he’s destined to be a good NFL starter. Think of 2017 as an extended audition tape that surely won’t look promising when Todd Bowles and new offensive line coach Rick Dennison play it back.
Could Johnson return as a back-up? Offensive line depth can always be tweaked and improved, and it’s especially important to have an experienced back-up center. If he had to play in a pinch, at least we could be sure that Johnson doesn’t usually have trouble with the snap as many young fill-ins do.
What’s he worth?
Because Johnson was originally a fifth-round pick by the Steelers in 2014, he was a restricted free agent after his third NFL season. The Jets signed him to a one-year deal worth $2,746,000 last offseason; his salary was dictated by the league rules for second-round tenders that year. He was the 16th-highest paid center in the NFL in 2017, according to Spotrac.
Johnson is really worth nowhere near that price, making it all the more likely that he won’t return to New York this year. Backups make less than $1 million a year as a general rule, and if the Jets offered him a deal like that, he might be inclined to test the free agent waters instead.
Should he stay or should he go?
Ultimately, he should go. The Jets have a back-up in Jonotthan Harrison who’s also up for a new deal, and although he’s not as experienced as Johnson, he’s cheaper and more likely to sign something to stick around as a reserve. If I’m playing GM, I don’t want anything to do with Johnson as either a starter or even a back-up. The free agent class is thin at interior O-line, but I’m more interested in spending a draft pick on a long-term answer who can become the team’s next Mangold.
Photo courtesy of newyorkjets.com