Jets general manager Joe Douglas was an offensive lineman in high school. He was an offensive lineman in college at Richmond. He even played the role of an offensive lineman in the 2000 film "The Replacements." He positively lovesoffensive linemen. He always has. He always will.
For more than 20 years, from executive positions in Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia and now the Jets, he was the chiropractor of offensive lines -- adjusting, tweaking, trading and drafting -- the backbone of his team's offense. It is little coincidence that in his first two NFL Drafts for the Green & White, Douglas took a pair of offensive linemen (Mekhi Becton in 2020 and then traded up to grab Alijah Vera-Tucker in 2021).
In free agency recently he plucked Laken Tomlinson from San Francisco, a few years ago he picked up George Fant from Seattle in 2000, and last year Dan Feeney from the Chargers (who was re-signed this offseason). The Jets also re-signed Conor McDermott and still have Greg Van Roten on the roster. Also, Chuma Edoga, who has mostly played as a backup, is in the final year of his rookie deal.
One of the most demanding positions in the game brings with it the inevitable churn and adjustments on the fly. And with the four selections in the 2022 NFL Draft (April 28-30 in Las Vegas), nine picks overall, Douglas won't be bashful about snapping up another young "Big Ugly." It could be a top-rated O-lineman or perhaps a guy in a later round.
"It all starts up front," Douglas said recently. "The game is about protecting the quarterback."
He added: "If you ask me, I'm always going to say we can be better on the offensive line. Like Coach and I have always said, offensive and defensive line, it's always going to be a priority here."
The allure of landing either Evan Neal or Ikem Ekwonu could be irresistible for Douglas and the Jets. Landing another young, elite lineman could give second-year QB Zach Wilson a long-lasting security blanket.
Will Douglas go for a three-peat, with an offensive lineman picked in the first round for the third straight draft?
Top of the Class
Evan Neal (6-7, 350), Alabama -- Neal is among a growing cadre on the OL who are agile and versatile enough to play multiple positions. "Evan Neal has played three positions as a starter," said Mel Kiper of ESPN. "Very rarely do you see that. Left tackle, right tackle, guard." As a freshman, he started all 13 games at left guard and didn't give up a single sack while playing on 723 snaps. As a sophomore, he flipped to right tackle, playing 789 snaps, allowing 2 sacks while giving up 4 holding penalties. Last season, Neal was back on the left side at tackle, starting 16 games, taking a whopping 1,073 snaps, allowing 2 sacks while being called for a single holding penalty. The prospect of Neal and Becton side by side would be an imposing pair of epic proportions.
Ikem Ekwonu (6-4, 320), North Carolina State-- Ekwonu has been called "the most feared lineman in the ACC." He is strong and agile, explosive off the line. He has played guard and tackle on the left side and dished out an impressive number of pancake blocks (37 in 2019, 50 in 2020). He allowed 7 sacks in 2020, but cut that number by more than half in 2021 when he allowed 3. "He lacks refinement and is guilty of over-setting, but he is nimble, powerful and should get better and better as his technique and awareness mature," Dane Brugler of The Athletic said.
Charles Cross (6-5, 310), Mississippi State -- In 2021, Cross started all 10 of the Bulldogs' games, taking 919 offensive snaps, yielding 2 sacks. He also had 14 QB hurries, and didn't allow a single QB hit all season. He has been known to play with a nasty streak while also being able to keep his cool and play intelligent football. Some analysts see him stronger as a pass protector than at run-blocking. "He's a left tackle and maybe he can switch to right tackle," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. "He's great in pass protection. Really stepped up his game in Mike Leach's pass-happy scheme. He only gave up one pressure in 680 pass blocking snaps last season."
Best of the Rest
Tyler Linderbaum (6-3, 290), Iowa -- Connor McGovern has been an ironman at center but will be an unrestricted free agent after the 2022 season. Linderbaum, recruited by the Hawkeyes as a DT, made the switch to the OL in 2019. Last season he started 15 games, taking 908 snaps and yielding a single sack, 2 QB hits and 4 QB hurries. He was named the 2021 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year and also won the Rimington Trophy as college football's top center.
Trevor Penning (6-7, 325), Northern Iowa -- Penning is a large, very large, human being. He's athletic and has used his prowess in the shot put and discus to enhance his already prodigious upper-body strength. In 2021 he gave up a single sack in 654 plays over 13 games and was listed as a Walter Payton Award finalist. Primary concern centers on his team playing an FCS schedule where he seldom faced quality opposing players who could stand up to him physically, but Penning helped himself with a solid week at the Senior Bowl.
Day 3 Diamond
Bernhard Raimann (6-7, 304), Central Michigan -- Raimann has an interesting backstory: He grew up in Austria, where he played American football, came to the U.S. as an exchange student and landed -- as a little-used tight end -- at Central Michigan. He switched to the O-line and last season was one of the most highly rated offensive linemen. Depending how things fall, Raimann could go early, or might be around in later rounds.