Changing of the Guard(s)?
The free agent period is just over a week away and the Jets have a large number of pending free agents yet not much cap room to re-sign most of their players. The likes of Dustin Keller and LaRon Landry are grabbing most of the attention as the team’s marquee free agents, but both starting guards will also be free agents and the Jets will have some big decisions to make in terms of the future of the offensive line. After the jump, I’ll go into the possibilities the Jets have, whether it’s re-signing Moore and/or Slauson, looking for alternatives on the free agent market, giving current Jets a chance or looking towards the draft.
Pending Free Agents
Slauson has started all 48 games for the Jets since taking over for Alan Faneca at left guard in 2010 and will hit the market as an unrestricted free agent. Slauson is the definition of a replacement level player, showing competence and durability as a starter between D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold though no where near the Pro Bowl level of the players he played in between. At 27 years old he’s in the prime of his career and has chemistry playing between the offensive line’s two cornerstones, but he is unlikely to get any better than he is now. Under Tannenbaum this past season the Jets were clearly anticipating the possibility of letting Slauson go, given the rotation at left guard that occurred during the past season with Slauson and Vladimir Ducasse. While nowhere near the top guard in the free agent pool, there will certainly be a market for a player like Slauson given his starting experience and durability and should the Jets wish to re-sign him they will almost surely face competition from teams looking to add a potential starter to their offensive line.
Probability of return: Low. Slauson is very much upgradable. While he wasn’t exactly a weak link on the offensive line, he has more or less reached his ceiling and the Jets aren’t in a position to re-sign him even as depth given the tight cap situation the Jets find themselves in. While he won’t command a payday the likes of Andy Levitre will, there will be a market for Slauson and the Jets are likely to be priced out of it.
Moore has quietly been one of the best guards in the league over the past few seasons. He’s spent his entire career as a member of the Jets and hasn’t missed a start since becoming a starter in 2005. He’ll be 33 years old in June and may soon see a decline in his performance, but there will certainly be a market for his services when he hits free agency regardless.
Probability of return: Moderate. A team looking for a quality stopgap at guard will have Brandon Moore in their sight and teams with a lot of cap room will be able to pay Moore a much better rate on a short term deal than the Jets will be able to. If the Jets prioritize re-signing Moore over other free agents they will have a decent chance to retain him, and there is the possibility that he may take a hometown discount so long as the Jets show him some respect with a decent deal. There is also the possibility however that John Idzik decides to put the focus on getting younger rather than investing precious cap room in an aging player like Moore. If significant cap space is used to successfully re-sign one of the team’s key free agents like Dustin Keller or LaRon Landry, re-signing Moore at his market value becomes very unlikely.
When the Jets drafted Ducasse in the second round of the 2010 draft, Tannenbaum and Ryan expected too much of him too soon. Coming out of college he was a major project, but nonetheless he was expected to compete immediately to start at left guard with an eye to eventually kick out to right tackle. Three years later, Ducasse has yet to cement himself as a starter and is on the verge of being labeled a bust if he isn’t one already. This past year he was clearly being groomed to start given his rotation at left guard with Matt Slauson, a move that was all but confirmed to be a front office directive during a media session with former offensive line coach David DeGuglielmo. With Tannenbaum no longer running the show however, it is unclear whether Ducasse will get a final opportunity to cement himself as a starter or whether John Idzik has other ideas.
Probability of starting: High. Matt Slauson is unlikely to return and the Jets won’t be splashing cash in free agency for a quality starter like Andy Levitre, paving the way for Ducasse to have one final opportunity. He has yet to put it all together, but Ducasse does have very impressive raw talent and giving him an opportunity to hold down a starting position is the most efficient use of the resources the Jets have in what is going to be a transitional season.
The Jets acquired Schlauderaff from the Green Bay Packers in 2011 who traded him before his rookie season even officially went under way. Likely a Bill Callahan inspired acquisition, Schlauderaff could be a sleeper to compete for one of the guard spots if the guard position isn’t prioritized in free agency.
Probability of starting: Low. Schlauderhaff is a sleeper to compete for a starting position, but expect the Jets to pursue a number of alternatives whether it be in free agency or through the draft.
Geoff Schwartz, Minnesota Vikings
As reported by Tony Pauline, the Jets are expected to have interest in signing Schwartz as a cheap option to potentially start at guard. He started all 16 games for the Panthers in 2010 as both a right tackle and right guard, but after signing for the Vikings in 2011 missed that entire season with a hip injury. This past year he was a backup to Brandon Fusco in Minnesota and will be looking for an opportunity to start for another team once free agency begins. He’s just 26 years old, versatile and performed well at guard for the Panthers when he was given the opportunity to start in 2010.
Probability of signing: High. Given the cap situation the Jets find themselves in and with a number of free agents that are a higher priority than last year’s starting guards, Schwartz seems exactly like the type of player the Jets should target and the reported interest makes sense. He’ll fit in with the Jets tight budget, has starting experience, is young, versatile and hungry for a starting opportunity.
Donald Thomas, New England Patriots
Originally signing with New England as a backup, Thomas started seven games last season for New England due to injuries along the Patriots offensive line and played competently at both guard spots. He’s unlikely to return to the Patriots as a team will likely give him a shot as a starter, and likely on a modest contract as well. At 27 years old, he’ll be looking for a multiyear deal and could be a medium to long term option for the Jets if they choose to pursue him.
Probability of signing: Moderately Low. Thomas won’t be signing an enormous deal, but he’ll likely command a starter level salary and if the Jets are looking to throw decent money at a guard they’ll likely just as soon invest it in Matt Slauson or Brandon Moore.
Kevin Boothe, New York Giants
A Giant since 2007, Kevin Boothe has seen sporadic starting periods for the Giants during his tenure with the blue side of New York, culminating in a 2012 season where he started all sixteen games for the first time in his career. At age 29 going on 30, Boothe would be nothing more than a stopgap but brings solid run blocking ability to the table and is a well disciplined player, being called for just one false start last season.
Probability of signing: Moderate. Boothe won’t be an expensive signing, and the Jets could be an attractive option for him given he’s both a New York native and has spent the majority of his career residing in the area.
Chad Rinehart, Buffalo Bills
Starting most of the year for the Bills in 2011, Chad Rinehart played pretty well but ultimately ended up as a backup entering 2012 behind Andy Levitre and Keith Urbik. He entered the starting lineup once more this past season once Urbik sustained injury early in the season, but Rinehart ended up on injured reserve soon after. He’ll be 28 when the season starts and will be looking for a starting opportunity, and he could be a solid option for the Jets if the ankle injury that sidelined him this past year has completely healed.
Probability of signing: Moderate. Rinehart could be a solid medium term option if the Jets can get him on a modest salary. He’ll be looking for a starting opportunity come free agency and it’s something the Jets could offer him. Given his injury and lack of consistent starting experience, the Jets may also be able to get him on a one year “prove it” deal also.
The Draft: Possibilities in the First Two Rounds
Chance Warmack, Alabama
In a draft class that experts are calling weak in the top end, if there is one truly elite prospect for his position it’s Chance Warmack from Alabama. Typically unheard of for a guard, Warmack is a top five player on most draft boards and getting shouts as a potential top ten pick. Drafting a guard at ninth overall would be a reach in most drafts, but Warmack would be the exception to the rule and would be able to slide in immediately. From day one he would almost certainly be an upgrade over Matt Slauson.
Probability of drafting: Moderate. The collective groan of Jets fans would be palpable if the Jets passed on a top pass rusher if available with the ninth pick, but given the possibility of the top ten seeing an early run on pass rushing prospects the Jets may not get the value they want if the right player isn’t available. If such a scenario occurs, the Jets would have to give Warmack serious consideration. Trading down would be the alternative, but in this draft there aren’t many players that teams would be willing to trade up for.
Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina
As rare as it is to see a draft where a guard has a legitimate first round grade, it’s even more rare to see a draft with two. Jonathan Cooper is not the celebrated elite prospect that Warmack is, but some experts feel there is not a whole lot of difference between the two and Cooper also projects as an immediate starter on the NFL level.
Probability of drafting: Low. Cooper is a legitimate first round prospect and would instantly upgrade the Jets offensive line, but in terms of value he will not be worth the ninth pick and he’s not going to be available in the second round. He would certainly be an option if the Jets move down in the first round, but as the draft isn’t strong on the top end the Jets aren’t going to have many potential trade partners to move down.
Larry Warford, Kentucky
Warford is in the top 32 on some draft boards and thus may sneak into the first round, making it possible for the first round of the draft to see three guards taken. Warford is a classic mauler, weighing in at over 330 pounds and would compete for a starting spot if not earn it outright should the Jets draft him.
Probability of drafting: Moderate. Warford if available in the second round may be the ideal combination of value and need for the Jets. Other positions may be prioritized in the first two rounds, but if the Jets don’t successfully land potential starters at guard in free agency nor draft Warmack in the first round Warford becomes a player to look out for.
Travis Frederick, Wisconsin
Declaring for the draft as a center, Frederick also is being looked at as a guard prospect and is regarded as a prospect that could go as early as the beginning of the second round. As a Wisconsin offensive lineman, Frederick has a strong college pedigree following in the footsteps of Peter Konz, Kevin Zeitler and Gabe Carimi.
Probability of drafting: Low. Most draft boards consider Frederick to be a mid-to-late second round pick, and is a more natural center prospect than guard prospect. He shouldn’t be ruled out completely for the Jets in the second round, but there will probably be better value available in the early second round, possibly even at guard if Warford is also available.
Barrett Jones, Alabama
Jones is the classic technician in the interior, not possessing an imposing body frame but showcasing excellent technique and understanding of the game. Jones is an incredibly versatile prospect, playing center his senior season but also starting over 20 games as a guard over his college career and as a junior won the Outland Trophy for his excellent performance as a left tackle. Due to foot surgery, he hasn’t been able to work out physically for any NFL franchises and won’t be able to at all for the entire draft process which may hurt his draft stock.
Probability of drafting: Moderate. The opinion on where Barrett Jones will be drafted varies, with some experts feeling he could go as early the beginning of the second round with others feeling he’ll be a late second round or early third round pick. If he is indeed available for the Jets in the third round, he would certainly be one of the top options on the Jets draft board, particularly if the first two rounds go by without the Jets drafting an interior lineman.