- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – The way the top of the NFL Draft seems to be shaping up, the Jets’ choice with the fourth overall pick could come down to either one of the top edge rushers or one of the top tackles on their board. And GM Joe Douglas, the man who ultimately will make the selection, has never been shy about his love for offensive linemen.
But would he really use the No. 4 pick in the draft on a position that’s one of the deepest on the Jets’ roster and on a player that might not even have a starting role in his rookie year?
“Ozzie (Newsome, the former Baltimore Ravens GM) used to always have a saying: A luxury today can be a necessity tomorrow,” Douglas said. “If you get away from your process and away from your board that’s when you can get into a real jam.”
Those words are nice. And like every GM in every draft, Douglas swore he plans to take the “best player available." But at other points in his pre-draft press conference on Thursday, he also talked about finding “starters” and “impact players” with his early picks.
So it would be crazy to take an extra tackle at No. 4, even if he is the highest-rated player on the Jets’ board.
The scenario is not impossible to imagine considering that both N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu and Alabama’s Evan Neal are generally rated as Top 5 players in this draft, and more than one NFL source has said Douglas really likes Ekwonu. And if the first two picks are edge rushers, as many expect they will be, the choice Douglas could face would be to take Ekwonu or Neal or to take the third edge rusher off the board.
Jets coach Robert Saleh, given his history, will surely favor the edge rusher. The Jets would love to add a dominant pass rusher to be one of the bookends to their defense along with the returning Carl Lawson. And they recently had what sources described as a very good visit with Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux, arguably one of the best edge rushers in the draft. He could be there at four for the Jets. Or if he’s gone, Georgia’s fast-rising Travon Walker or even Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson could be their choice.
Ekwonu and Neal might be better prospects, though. And they might even be higher on the Jets' board. For many teams they would be no-brainer selections. But for the Jets, where exactly would either one of them fit? Even if Ekwonu could slide to guard, as some scouts believe he should, the Jets are set there with Alijah Vera-Tucker and Laken Tomlinson, whom Douglas called “one of, if not, the best guard combinations in the league.” And even with all the questions about Mekhi Becton, their first-round pick from 2020, he and George Fant appear set to be the starting tackles this year.
It’s a unit that Douglas said is “vastly improved, especially from several years ago.” And it should be, given the massive investment the Jets have made in their line already. Becton (11th overall, 2020) and Vera-Tucker (14th overall, 2021) are first-round picks. In fact, the Jets traded two third-round picks to move up nine spots so they could draft Vera-Tucker last year. And they gave Tomlinson a three-year, $40 million deal last month and Fant a three-year, $27.3 million deal in 2020. Center Connor McGovern is in the last year of a three-year, $27 million contract, too.
So wouldn’t using the fourth pick on a tackle be a little more than just a “luxury?" Wouldn’t it be overkill, especially for a team with other important holes to fill?
“That’s a valid question,” Douglas said. “I think when you’re building a team, balance is important. You don’t want to invest too much on one side of the ball, too much at one position. But at the same time, you have to keep the main thing the main thing. Coach and I have been pretty consistent about the importance of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.”
Yes they have, which is why it’s time to diversify their portfolio along that line. Their offensive line isn’t perfect, but it is comparatively stacked. If Becton can come back healthy, in shape and properly motivated and everyone else approaches their potential, they have the makings of one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
And while more depth is nice, that can be found later in the draft. The early rounds, as Douglas said, are for players who can make an impact right away. That’s especially true for a young and growing Jets team that has done so much in free agency and the draft in the last two years that they truly believe they're ready to make a leap in becoming a playoff contender right now.
Adding the edge rusher they’ve been missing would be another big step in that direction. The same would be true of a No. 1 receiver or even cornerback or safety who can step in and start.
But a third tackle? A sixth offensive lineman? With the No. 4 pick in the draft? There are more than a few people around the NFL that believe that Douglas, given the choice, would take an elite tackle like Ekwonu over any of the edge rushers likely to be on the board. That’s just hard to see. It’s also hard to see how that wouldn’t be a mistake.
The No. 4 pick in the draft is a reward for all the struggles they endured last season. It’s a way to help pull them out of their deep, dark hole this season. They can’t waste that opportunity on a player who’ll help them in the future. In this draft, all of the Jets’ top picks have to be players who can help them win right now.