How New York Jets' O-line shuffle will impact Mekhi Becton, draft plans

Mekhi Becton, a 2020 first-round pick, will compete for the starting left tackle job. John Jones/Icon Sportswire

New York Jets CEO Woody Johnson called it "mission No. 1" -- set up quarterback Zach Wilson with a strong supporting cast. It would help matters if they could figure out the offensive line, but that position group continues to provide intrigue as the countdown to the NFL draft has reached the 30-day mark.

The latest wrinkle: Newly signed Laken Tomlinson will play left guard, his natural position, not right guard. Privately, the initial thought was to move him to the right side, letting second-year player Alijah Vera-Tucker continue his development at left guard. On Monday, coach Robert Saleh revealed the revised plan, basically saying they don't want to disrupt Tomlinson amid a successful career at one position and that Vera-Tucker is versatile enough to learn a new spot.

Naturally, it raises questions about the final configuration of the line and whether the Jets will use one of their two first-round picks (fourth and 10th) on an offensive tackle. Yes, there's still a chance, based on the moves they've made. They need another tackle. General manager Joe Douglas, who vowed to build a strong line, craves versatility and depth.

Let's review the line, position by position:

Left tackle: Saleh, speaking at the owners' meetings in Palm Beach, Florida, reiterated that Mekhi Becton and George Fant will compete for the spot.

"George has earned the right to be in the conversation, to have that left-tackle spot," Saleh said. "Call it a competition if you want. We know what George has done."

Saleh also heaped praise upon Becton, claiming he expects the 2020 first-round pick to be "a ball of butcher knives" in 2022. Becton was supposed to be a franchise left tackle -- still could be -- but injuries and conditioning issues have slowed his progress to the point where his future seems partly cloudy.

The Jets' hope is that Becton gets the message and fulfils his immense potential, but they don't want to automatically demote Fant because of how well he played as Becton's replacement. It sounds like this could be similar to the Fant-Morgan Moses competition at right tackle, which lasted the entire preseason. Which raises a question ...

Right tackle: If Becton and Fant duke it out all summer, the only way to have a true competition, who plays right tackle in the interim? There are no other starting-caliber tackles on the roster and it wouldn't be prudent to waste reps in training camp with a backup, then handing the job to the Becton-Fant loser when the regular season starts. That would be a nightmare from a chemistry standpoint. They could use Fant and/or Becton as part of a simultaneous rotation at right tackle, but that would be cumbersome.

This is the strongest piece of evidence on why they could draft a tackle with the fourth pick, either Evan Neal (Alabama) or Ikem Ekwonu (North Carolina State). Either one could start immediately at right tackle. The downside is they'd have two developing players side-by-side, Vera-Tucker and the rookie -- a lot of growing pains. The upside is they'd have good depth, with the Becton-Fant loser becoming the third/insurance tackle. On Tuesday, GM Joe Douglas said one possibility is Fant at left tackle, Becton at right tackle. He said they’re “operating” as if Becton will be one of the two tackles.

Left guard: Tomlinson, who signed a three-year, $40 million contract, has started 104 games in the NFL -- all at left guard. He was very good with the San Francisco 49ers, making the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement last season.

"Laken has had a lot of success as a left guard in this league," Saleh said. "It’s something we don’t want to mess with for him."

Tomlinson, speaking to reporters after his contract was finalized, was non-committal about his position, saying he had yet to discuss it with the coaches. It's quite possible he expressed a preference to stay at left guard. Former longtime NFL offensive lineman Damien Woody said it would make sense to keep Tomlinson comfortable and move Vera-Tucker.

"Honestly, it doesn't surprise me because AVT is younger, so he's not as stuck in his ways, per se," said Woody, an ESPN analyst. "He's a guy that can adjust. He's really athletic and I think he'll be able to make the transition, as opposed to Laken Tomlinson. Not to say he couldn't do it, but he's been playing left guard for so long. I would say it would be a harder transition for him."

With Tomlinson, the position will be rock solid, and it will be good for Becton to have a seasoned pro at his side.

Right guard: The last time Vera-Tucker played right guard was 2018, his redshirt freshman season at Southern Cal, where he saw significant action as a backup. He can play tackle, too -- he did in college -- but they don't want to move him too much because it would mess with his head.

"He’s got tremendous flexibility, he’s still a young pup and there’s a lot of things he can learn," Saleh said of the 2021 first-round pick. "(I) really think the dynamic of our offensive line will work really well, especially with that interior. We’ve got a really good one."

This position was a weak link in 2021, as they went from Greg Van Roten to Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. If Vera-Tucker reaches his potential, it should be locked down for a decade.

Center: It's still Connor McGovern's job. The irony here is they looked into replacing him in free agency, showing interest in Ryan Jensen, who wound up staying with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. At this point, the only way he'd lose his job is if they draft Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, who is expected to be a first-round pick.

Prediction: After all this, the hunch here is they will start the same way they did in 2021 -- Becton at left tackle, Fant at right tackle. It changes if they draft Neal or Ekwonu, but they seem to be leaning defensive end with the fourth pick.