New York Jets' biggest issue (besides QB pursuit): Who's doing the blocking?

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Everybody knows the No. 1 question for the New York Jets: Who's the starting quarterback?

Once they resolve that issue, which could be in the coming days, they can focus on these quarterback-related questions: Who's snapping him the ball? Who's protecting his blind side?

The Jets, who started 11 different offensive linemen during an injury-plagued 2022, have multiple holes to fill as they prepare for free agency and the draft. They know they need to be better up front or else Derek Carr or Aaron Rodgers or whoever plays quarterback in 2023 won't have much of a chance.

"Yeah, we have a lot of moving pieces ... so that’s definitely a position where we’d like to create some more stability and continuity," general manager Joe Douglas told reporters at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.

Douglas was referring to the two tackle spots, but it could apply to the entire unit.

They have only eight linemen under contract for 2023, three of whom are returning from surgery -- guard Alijah Vera-Tucker (triceps), tackle Duane Brown (shoulder) and tackle Mekhi Becton (right knee). A fourth, tackle Max Mitchell, is expected back after missing time due to a hereditary blood-clotting condition that can be managed with medication.

Seven linemen are heading to free agency, most notably center Connor McGovern and tackle George Fant.

Bottom line: Three of the five starting jobs are up in the air

Douglas, who has invested plenty of resources in the line via free agency ($24 million guaranteed for guard Laken Tomlinson) and the draft (first-round picks Vera-Tucker and Becton), is ready to do it again. He believes football teams are built from the inside out, and he will continue to bang away.

"As I’ve said before, O-line and D-line are going to be a high priority for us -- always," he said.

The Jets probably will consider a tackle with the 13th overall pick, with Peter Skoronski (Northwestern), Paris Johnson Jr. (Ohio State) and Broderick Jones (Georgia) regarded as the top three prospects. Some talent evaluators believe Skoronski's best position is guard. The second and third rounds should present some intriguing options at center if they don't re-sign McGovern or find a replacement in free agency.

What the Jets need is a repeat of the 2006 draft. That year, they found two offensive-line cornerstones in the first round, left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson (fourth overall) and center Nick Mangold (29th). This year, their first two picks are 13 and 44.

One thing is clear: Last season wasn't good enough, as the Jets finished 25th in rushing and 19th in sacks allowed. They changed line coaches, replacing John Benton with Keith Carter.

The biggest wild card is Becton, who played 48 snaps in the past two seasons due to two surgeries on his right knee. If healthy and in shape -- he has dropped significant weight this offseason -- he can start at left or right tackle.

"For any of you guys who were here in the 2020 season, you saw what a healthy Mekhi can do on the football field and how dominant a player that he was as a rookie, early in his rookie year," Douglas said. "Unfortunately, the last few years have been frustrating from an injury standpoint, but I can tell you that Mekhi is in as good a place now as I’ve seen him in a long time."

"You've seen me do it before, so why can't I do it again?" Becton said at the end of the season, vowing to be highly motivated in Year 4.

Becton, Mitchell and Vera-Tucker have position flexibility, which should help when attempting to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Becton and Mitchell could be joined by a first-round tackle. In that case, may the best man win -- or, in this case, the best two tackles will get starting jobs. Vera-Tucker and Tomlinson would be the guards.

Uncertainty surrounds Brown, who recently underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff -- an injury from training camp. He played through it, earning the respect of the organization, but now the 37-year-old must decide if he wants to play a 17th season. Don't expect a quick decision.

"I want to get this fixed, get back to football strength and go from there," Brown told ESPN at the end of the season.

Douglas indicated there's no rush even though Brown is eating up a fair amount of cap space ($11.3 million). Chances are they will slow-play it and make him a June 1 cut if they decide to move on. From a cap perspective, it's more advantageous to wait. With a June 1 designation, they'd reduce his cap hit to $1.6 million this year, with another $4.8 million hitting the cap in 2024. If they cut him before June 1, the hit this year would be $6.3 million.

The Jets have a plan to rebuild the line. And you can bet they're selling that plan to prospective quarterbacks.