How Jets can use NFL draft, free agency to rebuild woe-line

The New York Jets have spent the better part of the past year celebrating two of the biggest names in their offensive line history. Former center Kevin Mawae, a star in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. The late Winston Hill, Joe Namath's most trusted blocker in the Super Bowl III era, soon will have a bust in Canton, as he was selected last week for enshrinement.

Hooray for the past.

As for the present, the word "bust" holds a different meaning.

Due to injuries and ineffectiveness, the Jets started nine different offensive line combinations, and not one of them performed at a high level. They finished 31st in run blocking and 30th in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders analytics, setting the stage for major offseason changes. They figure to have at least three new starters in 2020, as general manager Joe Douglas -- in his first offseason with the team -- looks to repair the broken line via free agency and the NFL draft.

"Moving forward, the line of scrimmage is always going to be a priority here, and so it's definitely going to be something that we're going to look to improve every year," said Douglas, a lineman from his days playing at the University of Richmond.

For a change, the Jets need to rebuild through the draft. During the current nine-year playoff drought, they have drafted eight linemen, but none higher than the third round. They've always invested heavily in free agency. In fact, the Jets have been a top-10 team in offensive-line spending in each season of the drought, according to ESPN salary data.

And what has all that free-agent buying reaped? One winning season and not a single All-Pro selection. (Center Nick Mangold was an All-Pro in 2010.)

From 2008 to 2010, the Jets used a mix of draft and free agency to construct arguably the best line in the league. They have to get back to that formula. Once they have the horses up front, they need more creativity in the running game, as 68% of their rushes went up the middle/between the guards -- the NFL's second-highest rate, per Football Outsiders.

The good news for the Jets (11th overall pick) is the April 23 draft will have a handful of high-quality linemen, and recent history suggests they will land a good one. Of the 35 linemen drafted in the top 11 since 2000, 13 have made multiple Pro Bowls.

A closer look at how Douglas can rebuild the line:

Left tackle

2019 starter: Kelvin Beachum (free agent)

Georgia's Andrew Thomas is generally regarded as the draft's best left tackle. He's a plug-and-play prospect with exciting upside, but there's a decent chance he will have boated to the commissioner's stage in Las Vegas by the time the Jets are on the clock. The other premier left-tackle prospect is Louisville's Mekhi Becton, a massive player (listed at 6-foot-7, 369 pounds) with scary athleticism. Talent evaluators are all over the map on Becton because he's so raw. Houston's Josh Jones, impressing at the Senior Bowl, is a fast-rising name to watch. He's a natural pass protector.

The Jets could do a lot worse than Beachum (who will turn 31 by next season), who finished third among tackles in pass-block win rate (hold a block at least 2.5 seconds), per NFL Next Gen Stats. The line crumbled when he missed three games with an ankle injury, highlighting his value. The Jets are sending mixed signals on their interest in Beachum, probably because they want to keep their options open.

Solution: Sign Beachum to a two-year contract, with an easy escape after one year. He would provide insurance and stability, protecting quarterback Sam Darnold's blind side while their first-round pick (assuming it's a lineman) gets experience at another position in 2020. Thomas, it should be noted, played right tackle as a freshman.

Left guard

2019 starter: Alex Lewis (free agent)

Lewis, who replaced the injured Kelechi Osemele (released), was their most consistent lineman until minor injuries took their toll. It still was a solid season, as he finished 11th among guards in pass-block win rate. Know this: Douglas has an affinity for Lewis because he traded for him last training camp, knowing he couldn't trust Osemele -- acquired by the previous regime -- to stay healthy. Chances are he will try to re-sign Lewis.

The big-name option in free agency is New England Patriots left guard Joe Thuney, who hasn't missed a game in four years. He was an elite pass protector last season, finishing second among guards in PBWR.

Solution: Thuney will cost a fortune because the guard market has exploded in recent years -- he could fetch at least $13 million per year -- but he'd be a safe investment because of his age (27) and durability. If the Jets make a big splurge on the offensive line, it should be Thuney.

Center

2019 starter: Jonotthan Harrison

Let's not forget what happened last summer: Douglas was so desperate for a starting center that he lured Ryan Kalil out of retirement and cast aside Harrison -- a bad idea, as it turned out. Douglas warmed to Harrison after watching him start the final 10 games, but there's no indication he believes Harrison is the long-term answer. He has value because he's affordable ($2.25 million cap charge) and can play multiple positions, but the Jets must upgrade the position.

The Jets haven't drafted a center since Mangold in 2006. It's time.

Solution: The top center in the draft is Wisconsin's Tyler Biadasz. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. believes he's a potential top-20 pick, while others rate him as a late first-rounder or second-round prospect. He could be a 10-year anchor for the team that picks him. With four picks in the first three rounds, they should be able to find a starting-caliber center.

Right guard

2019 starters: Brian Winters, Tom Compton (free agent)

Winters, recovering from shoulder surgery, could be a cap casualty as he heads into the final year of his contract. Dude is a warrior, but his body has absorbed a beating over the years. The Jets can clear his entire $7.5 million cap charge off the books by releasing him. Compton is a replacement-level player.

Solution: The Washington Redskins' Brandon Scherff will generate the most buzz because he's a 2015 first-round pick (No. 5 overall) with three Pro Bowls on his résumé, but his injury history has to be a concern -- 15 missed games over the past three years. Someone will make him one of the highest-paid guards, but the Jets would be wise to save the money and target a second-tier free agent such as the Detroit Lions' Graham Glasgow, who can play guard and center.

Right tackle

2019 starters: Brandon Shell (free agent), Chuma Edoga

They will move on from Shell, who was a turnstile (10 sacks allowed, per Next Gen Stats). He lost his job to the rookie Edoga, but wound up starting 11 games because of injuries. The coaches like Edoga's potential as a pass protector, but he really struggled (seven sacks). They can't make him the RT1, can they?

Solution: Iowa's Tristan Wirfs and Alabama's Jedrick Wills Jr. are first-round prospects who played right tackle in college. Neither project as a left tackle, according to most evaluators, but there's nothing wrong with taking a permanent right tackle with the 11th pick. Wirfs is intriguing because he's a top run blocker, and the Jets need some punch in the running game.

Bottom line: The Jets need to collect as many good linemen as possible, and it's a bonus if they have position flexibility.