Almost a year ago, Jets general manager Joe Douglas, an old offensive lineman himself, repeated one of his mantras at the start of the NFL Combine workouts: "O-line, D-line are going to be a high priority for us always."
Heading into the 2024 calendar, one out of two ain't bad, but two out of two would be grand. Yet the Jets' offensive line continues to be a work in progress and availability.
"That's another reflection point, the offensive line, and going back and thinking about what's worked and what hasn't," Douglas told reporters at his end-of-season news conference Monday when asked about enduring a second season of OL injuries and inconsistency. "Obviously, we've invested a lot of resources in that position. I know I've sat here and had conversations with you in the past about how much availability is of importance to this group, and for the last two years we've been banged up."
Despite the organizational emphasis on training, performance and health, the Jets OL has been snakebit when it comes to unforeseeable and untimely injuries. It may have begun when Duane Brown, fully back from his shoulder woes of '22 and back in the starting lineup at left tackle, suffered a hip injury in Game 2 at Dallas and returned to only very limited action for three games in the season's second half.
Three games later, and for the second year in a row at Denver, Alijah Vera-Tucker, who moved after Game 2 from RG to RT, sustained a season-ending injury, this time to his Achilles. Three different players started in AVT's absence, none starting more than three consecutive games.
And C Connor McGovern's knee injury in Game 7 began a domino effect, not at center but at right guard as second-round rookie Joe Tippmann shifted from guard to center. The RG position went eight consecutive games with a different starter than the game before. For the season, seven different players started at the position and eight players got playing time there.
"Going back and looking at the performance and availability of this group, I feel like I spent so much time trying to prevent the storm from actually coming when it comes to injuries," Douglas said. "I think certain injuries are unpreventable. I feel like we've done a lot better job in terms of soft-tissue injuries."
But Douglas second-guessed himself on another issue. The Jets began the season with nine OL players on the roster, with a 10th, rookie T Carter Warren, beginning the season on IR. But after the Week 6 bye, they were in a weekly personnel loop of moving three players up and down their rosters. Xavier Newman, Chris Glaser and Jake Hanson each was elevated from the practice squad the maximum three times, each played in at least four games with at least one start, each, and all ended up at some point on the active roster, a cohort of the 13 players who played on the OL in '23.
"Candidly, one of the things I could've done better is keeping an extra offensive lineman, not going into the year with nine offensive linemen but maybe keeping an extra body in there," the GM sad. "We still would've [been] short four or five guys with all the offensive linemen we played,
"It's going to be going back to every single decision-making process, because we have gotten some decisions right there," he said of the OL successes, in free agency with LG rock Laken Tomlinson, who started every one of the offense's 1,101 snaps, and in the draft with Vera-Tucker, Tippman and Warren. Former No. 1 pick Mekhi Becton started 16 of 17 games, 14 of the last 15 at left tackle, and remains a formidable work-in-progress.
"I feel like we do have a few cornerstone players on that offensive line moving forward and [will be] building around those guys and keep adding to the group."
Douglas doesn't need to be told that his O-line is a high priority. He's said it many times before, and he knows how important it is to the Jets' short- and long-term future, especially blocking and protecting so that Aaron Rodgers, Breece Hall, Garrett Wilson and company can guide the offense into having some of the fun that the D-line and the defense enjoyed in the just concluded season.