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Jets turn to Wesley Johnson to begin post-Nick Mangold era on line

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The golden anchor of the New York Jets is gone.

Nick Mangold, their starting center since he was drafted in 2006, was released in February, a casualty of the team’s youth movement and cost-cutting plan to rebuild.

Mangold had quickly become a fan favorite with his Ohio-tough play, offensive-line leadership and NHL-style playoff beard. That’s a lot to replace.

Wesley Johnson, a waiver pickup in 2014, will try to fill the manhole-size void at center when the Jets open the 2017 season Sunday at the AFC East rival Buffalo Bills.

Johnson started eight games last season when Mangold was injured. He, too, is a high-IQ, high-character player. He even has the requisite beard, although it has room for Mangoldian growth.

Mangold was Johnson’s mentor.

“The first thing you see when you watch him is his knowledge, how much he knows,’’ Johnson told ESPN.com of Mangold. “He takes ownership of the offense, which is impressive.

“A center has the responsibility of the line calls, but he knew every route a receiver would run, every formation, he was just real knowledgeable. The thing I learned sitting behind him was how he approached it. He had a system and he stuck to it every week. He was a true pro.’’

Does Johnson have the mettle to handle being a starter for 16 games?

That question could be answered sooner rather than later. Defensive tackles Marcell Dareus (6-foot-3, 331 pounds) and Kyle Williams (6-foot-1, 303) give the Bills as formidable a pair of run-stuffers as exists in the AFC.

“Kyle Williams is one of the best to ever do it,’’ Johnson said. “Marcell is a great player. But I’ve got the two best guards in the league on either side of me, and we can’t change anything because of who we’re playing. You want the challenge.’’

The challenge will be heightened with new starters likely at both tackle positions: Kelvin Beachum (left) and Brandon Shell (right). James Carpenter and Brian Winters are set to be the starting guards.

In addition to dealing with Dareus and Williams, Johnson will have to keep his new linemates on the same page. At 6-foot-5 and 297 pounds, the 26-year-old Vanderbilt product has all the attributes to succeed. He was a weightlifter, discus-thrower and wrestler in high school.

The key is for Johnson to be Johnson and not try to be Mangold.

“The expectation is to win and to play accordingly,’’ Johnson said. “I think we're ready. I love where we are as an offensive line.’’