Can New York Jets' Mekhi Becton disprove critics as he approaches pivotal year?

Jets left tackle Mekhi Becton missed 16 games last season with a knee injury. Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- After a flashy entrance into the NFL, New York Jets offensive tackle Mekhi Becton is experiencing the dark side of being a professional athlete. His name is getting dragged through the social media mud, with people criticizing his weight, durability and commitment to football. It has put a chip on his shoulder.

And a message on his chest.

Becton, nicknamed "Big Ticket," designed a hoodie that says, "Big Bust." Encircling "Big Bust" is a list of perceived negatives: "Fat ... Lazy ... Out of Shape ... Bum ... Sucks ... Overweight ... Injury Prone."

A photo of him working out in the sweatshirt was posted last week on his trainer's Instagram story. Mocking critics, Becton also changed his Twitter name to "Big Bust 77."

"Trust me, he hears all the noise. He definitely does that," said former Jets offensive lineman Damien Woody, a Becton confidant. "He's champing at the bit. It seems like everything that's been going on, he feels like he's being disrespected, basically."

Becton, the No. 11 pick in the 2020 draft, has become a polarizing player, with questions about whether he truly is a cornerstone left tackle. He played in one game in 2021 after suffering a dislocated right kneecap in the season opener. Coach Robert Saleh put him on notice in January, announcing he'd have to win back his left tackle job from George Fant.

Becton has reached a critical juncture in his young career. On Monday, the Jets begin their offseason program (voluntary) and several big questions surround Becton.

Is he healthy? What kind of shape is he in? The answers could help determine the Jets' draft strategy, as they could be in position to select a top tackle with the No. 4 or 10 overall pick.

Saleh said at the recent league meetings that he's in "constant communication" with Becton, adding, "He's doing a really good job." But the coach stopped short of saying Becton will be cleared to participate in offseason practices, which begin May 23. He's rehabbing from knee surgery, according to people close to him. He won’t miss much. The OTAs won’t be taxing for linemen, as Saleh plans to focus on 7-on-7 drills and walk-throughs.

"I do know that when he comes back, he’s going to be a ball of butcher knives," Saleh said.

Everyone is curious about Becton's weight, but that is a closely guarded secret. This much we know: The 6-foot-7 lineman, who weighed a relatively svelte 363 at the scouting combine two years ago, ballooned to at least 400 pounds last season during his knee rehab.

"We were able to get his weight back down into the 300s, for sure," Becton's nutritionist, Ann Claiborne, said last week. "It does make it more of a challenge when he's not able to train like he normally would, but he's definitely in the 300s and we're going to continue to work to keep his weight down and allow him to heal."

Claiborne said she's not at liberty to reveal Becton's current weight, saying only, "It is under 400."

They teamed up last August, when a healthy Becton, who struggled in training camp practices, needed to drop weight. He made his prescribed weight by the start of the regular season, according to Claiborne, who said it was 360 before surgery.

In Week 1, he went down with the knee injury. The team gave it a 6 to 8 week timetable, but he missed the rest of the season. Retrospectively, the organization claimed it was unrealistic for a man his size to rebound that quickly from knee surgery. His personal trainer, Duke Manyweather, responding to a person on Twitter who questioned Becton’s toughness, launched a profanity-laced defense of his client last Saturday, saying the injury “was never f---ing 4 weeks, 8 weeks or a 12-week return! His s--- was serious.”

Manyweather didn’t respond to interview requests. Becton hasn't talked to the media since last September, before he got hurt.

At some point, presumably, Becton heard the wake-up call and decided to get in shape. Or maybe he needed time to heal from his knee dislocation before he could start training again.

Under Claiborne, who works with professional athletes as the founder and CEO of Customized Concierge Nutrition, Becton hired a personal chef and was prescribed a diet that emphasizes lean meats, vegetables and complex carbs. Because of his knee injury, it’s an anti-inflammatory and alkaline diet with triple the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables he was previously consuming, Claiborne said. He avoids processed foods.

At the start, Claiborne cleaned out Becton's pantry and restocked it with healthy options. When it's time to eat, he just reaches into the fridge and pulls out a precooked meal from his chef. He stays in touch with the Atlanta-based Claiborne; they communicate frequently via Zoom, FaceTime, text, you name it. She works in coordination with the Jets, Becton's personal trainer, his physical therapist and his agents. The Big Ticket has a big team.

"Like most of these athletes, it's kind of hard to get him locked in," Claiborne said. "But when we have the chef cook the food that is healthiest for him, but also tastes amazing, it's a lot easier to get him to buy in. So as long as we keep the pantry stocked and chef making the meals, he's giving it a valiant effort.

"For someone like Mekhi, who has so much God-given talent, nutrition wasn’t really something he had to focus on before. It's about creating lifestyle changes. What I'm trying to do with Mekhi is create a healthier lifestyle year-round, so that way -- for lack of a better term -- he's fit to fight all the time. My main focus with Mekhi is to getting him healthy, getting him eating clean year-round so keeping his weight down isn't such an issue."

Becton is training in Frisco, Texas, under Manyweather, who operates Offensive Line Mastermind -- a popular destination for pros. Becton also has a supporter in Woody, who played 12 years in the trenches and struggled with his weight late in his career.

"I give him my perspective of my time with coach [Bill] Belichick, and even Bill Parcells," Woody said. "Parcells used to say, 'Fatigue makes cowards of us all.' I told Mekhi, 'Listen, you're plenty strong. Each year, you need to get your weight down a little bit lower. It's only going to benefit you.' Moving forward, I told him don't worry about the strength, just make sure you come in in top shape."

NFL linemen are bigger than ever, but there’s a fine line. At a certain point, conditioning and personal health have to be considered. Woody admitted he was concerned when Becton's weight soared.

"Yeah, I mean, there's no question," he said. "He's such a large human being. There's not many guys that walk the face of the earth that are that big. He's just a unique athlete, but he has to understand that when you're that big, you're more susceptible to injuries."

Becton dealt with injuries as a rookie, missing two full games and parts of four others with shoulder and chest ailments. He couldn't practice last offseason because of plantar fasciitis. He also suffered a concussion that caused him to miss time in the preseason. Certain injuries are just bad luck; the organization understands that, but it would like to see a greater year-round commitment.

Saleh, not speaking directly about Becton, said some players struggle in their second season because they can't balance their newfound riches, a social life and the demands of being an NFL player. As Saleh said, "They lose touch with the answer 'no.'"

Becton was a big hit as a rookie, stepping outside the anonymous world of offensive linemen. His spectacular, rag-doll blocks made him a social-media phenom and soon he was hawking "Big Ticket" merchandise. Too much too soon?

"Sometimes when you have success early and you read your press clippings and stuff, it can get to you," Woody said. "You get caught up in that stuff. I think now he's hearing some of the chatter and I think it's starting to refocus him."