Finally, O-line least of Jets concerns

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
DELRAY BEACH, Fla. -- There's a load to discuss when it comes to the New York Jets.

Their ostentatious new head coach is generating headlines. Grandiose expectations have been placed on a revamped defense. Fans wonder who their quarterback will be and wring their hands about the receivers he'll throw to. Running backs are unhappy with their contracts.

For a change, nobody is talking about the Jets' offensive line.

All five starters are back after an admirable season in which nobody missed a start. And on a coaching staff that has experienced considerable turnover, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and line coach Bill Callahan remain.

"It's always good when you have that cohesion," Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson said Saturday afternoon during a break at receiver David Clowney's youth football clinic. "Everybody's been the same, all our players, even the guys who don't start, our core is firm."

New York's offensive linemen were a strength in 2008, maybe the strength. For the first time in a long while, the front office didn't need to commit significant offseason resources to O-line restoration.

Three years ago, the Jets dedicated a pair of first-round draft picks toward re-establishing the line. They selected Ferguson fourth overall and center Nick Mangold 29th.

They fortified the unit through free agency last year, spending big bucks on perennial Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca and the versatile Damien Woody, who they inserted at right tackle. That gave them four first-round picks to go along with undrafted right guard Brandon Moore, a starter the past five seasons.

Mangold emerged as one of the league's best centers and made his first Pro Bowl. Faneca went to his eighth straight.

"It's interesting because even though the spotlight might've changed a little bit, every year is a new year," Ferguson said. "You're only as good as what you can do today.

"If we don't go out there and produce as a unit" -- he began to rhythmically slap the back of his right hand into his left palm to hammer home the point -- "you guys are going to be 'Hey, what's wrong with the line?' It's always a constant reminder that you might not have the spotlight on you right now, but that doesn't mean that you're not being watched, that people are not analyzing what you do."

Ferguson noted the competition will be better this year. The Jets have not only the seventh-toughest schedule based on 2008 records, but they also will encounter some of the most prolific sackmasters: Joey Porter and Jason Taylor twice, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, Julius Peppers, Mario Williams, John Abraham.

"We didn't face that last year," Ferguson said. "It puts added pressure on the unit, on the line, on individuals to perform because it doesn't matter what perception is; it's reality. At that game, if you're not doing well, you haven't done your job."

In the three seasons since Ferguson and Mangold joined Moore, they have protected three starting quarterbacks: Chad Pennington, Kellen Clemens, Brett Favre. Hotshot rookie Mark Sanchez would make it four in as many years if he can beat out Clemens in training camp.

"It's always been a constant change for us," Ferguson said. "Now we have a situation where we don't know who the starter will be this year. We don't try to worry about that. We try to perform our duties so that we can give those guys the best opportunity to perform their jobs."

Thomas Jones and Leon Washington had to be pleased last year. The Jets ranked fifth in rushing yards per carry (4.7), fifth in rushing touchdowns (20) and ninth in average rushing yards per game (125.2).

In pass protection, the Jets were better than average. They allowed 30 sacks, the 14th-fewest in the league.

"Our mentality is we always want to put ourselves in great positions," Ferguson said. "We always want to make sure our unit allows our team to have success. So that's what we focus on. We focus on the unit. We focus on schemes.

"We want to make sure our unit isn't the weak link. Our focus is always to be No. 1 at whatever we do as a unit. We just strive to be great."