Jets Head Coach Robert Saleh was ready for his early-morning press conference on Monday as the NFL opened its Annual Meeting in Florida
"Fire away," the team's second-year coach told reporters at The Breakers in Palm Beach.
Saleh deftly handled the first "hot one," which unsurprisingly dealt with the Jets' effort last week to obtain in a trade from Kansas City wide receiver Tyreek Hill. He then moved on and made a bit of news when he said that the veteran offensive lineman Laken Tomlinson, who was signed in free agency from San Francisco, would retain his spot at left guard. That means that second-year player Alijah Vera-Tucker, who had a standout season at left guard, will shift to the right side of the line.
"Laken has been in this league a long time, playing left guard," Saleh said about Tomlinson, who will be entering his eighth season in the NFL.
"AVT has shown flexibility in college, playing guard and tackle," Saleh added. "He's got tremendous flexibility. He's still a young pup, there's a lot of things he can learn. I really think the dynamic of that line will work well especially on the interior -- we've got a really good one."
Tomlinson, 30, a four-year starter at Duke, was taken by Detroit in the first round (No. 28 overall) in the 2015 NFL Draft. Tomlinson (6-3, 315) graduated from Duke with degrees in evolutionary anthropology and psychology. He was traded to the 49ers for a fifth-round pick in August 2017.
He was a fixture on the 49ers' offensive line. After missing his first game with San Francisco, Tomlinson played the remaining 15 games in 2017, then all 16 regular-season contests in 2018, 2019 and 2020. He played in all 17 games this past season, when the NFL expanded the regular-season schedule with an additional game.
"There's a saying that you want guys who can help you plant the flag in terms of messaging and stuff like that," said Saleh, who was the 49ers defensive coordinator when Tomlinson was on the other side of the line of scrimmage from 2017-20. "And my relationship with Laken was the level of respect for the way he played, the tenacity on gameday, that nastiness that we bring between the whites [the white lines], the competitive nature he brings, mental toughness, book smarts, all of it. Him and D.J. Reed, all the guys we brought in who know us and think like us. It's a really, really good group of guys who match the character of what we're trying to bring into the locker room."
Immediately after the Jets announced the signing of Tomlinson, speculation bubbled up about who might play where on the offensive line.
"Either way Laken had a lot of success at left guard in this league," Saleh said. "He was a Pro Bowler last year and that's something you don't want to mess with him. AVT will be fine. He's still young and still learning. He's very, very athletic and will be able to pick it up quick."
In his first season in the NFL after a stellar career at USC, AVT was named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie team. He was selected No. 14 overall in the 2021 draft after the Jets made a trade and moved up in the first round. In the 2021 NFL season, he led the offense with 1,026 snaps and started 16 games, the most among starters on offense.
In addition, AVT's 67.2 Pro Football Focus grade ranked second among rookie guards who took 80% of their team's snaps. His 2 sacks allowed ranked first and his 6 hits and 34 pressures ranked second. He also had a better grade in the run game than in pass protection. His 72.1 PFF run-blocking grade ranked 10th among 40 qualifying left guards.
"We're still young," Saleh said. "A rookie in his second year is still young. We all want to see that progress, that glimmer of hope that they're about to be a superstar and be a fixture in the NFL for years to come. We also want to see [Mekhi] Becton make a comeback, we want Mimsy [WR Denzel]Mims to come back and have his best year. We want the 2020 draft picks to bounce back. There's a lot of things we want to look at between now and the start of the season."