By Ernie Palladino
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Unless the Jets find a good left tackle, it won’t matter who quarterbacks them next season.
They tried Ryan Clady last year, and that didn’t quite work out. Considering D’Brickashaw Ferguson, their mainstay there for a decade, has no plans to come out of retirement and ride to the rescue, the next best option is to either pick up a free agent or draft a stud.
Or do both.
General manager Mike Maccagnan offered a hint at his plans Friday when he signed former Jaguars left tackle Kelvin Beachum for three years at $24 million.
That’s not a lot for a star left tackle. But Beachum isn’t one of those. He’s a guy coming off a bad year on a bad team, so that’s still a nice chunk of dough for him and a risk for the Jets. What makes it even dicier is that half the money is guaranteed, which means the Jets may be committing to this guy for the next two seasons. That’s something new Jaguars president Tom Coughlin might have done to protect his own quarterback, Blake Bortles, if he thought the 27-year-old tackle had any quality football left in him.
He didn’t, and that decision alone illustrates the dilemma Maccagnan faces as he tries to find Ferguson’s true successor and, at the same time, keep Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg, Jay Cutler or whoever the heck will stand behind center in 2017 happy and healthy.
Quality left tackles just don’t wind up on the free agent market. If you’ve got a guy who can block the blind side and keep your quarterback’s uniform clean, you retain him. Even if that player asks for an outrageous number heading into free agency, a GM will do everything possible to keep him.
It’s why so many get the franchise tag.
Those who did hit the open market this year — it’s a rather short list — had age or injuries going against them. Former Seattle tackle Russell Okung proved to be the class of the class with his recent four-year, $53 million deal with the Chargers. Former Lion Riley Reiff, four years younger than the 32-year-old Okung, got five years at $58.75 from the Vikings, who are trying mightily to shore up the protection for Sam Bradford. The problem there is that Reiff is more of a right tackle who will have to slide over to the left side.
Beachum has injuries against him. After the Steelers drafted him in the seventh round of 2012, he played fairly well until he blew out his ACL in 2015. The Steelers cut him loose, and the Jags signed him to a one-year deal with a four-year option.
He lasted through 15 games at left tackle last year. According to Pro Football Focus, he gave up 47 total pressures that included four sacks, six hits and 37 hurries that ranked him 43rd of 74 eligible blockers. His run blocking left much to be desired, as he ranked 74th out of 79.
That was a big comedown from his 2014 season with the Steelers. He ranked No. 9 out of 83 graded tackles, and he allowed all of 19 pressures that season.
It’s those numbers the Jets are hoping he’ll duplicate this year. But the ACL injury makes him a clear gamble.
At best, he’s a two-year stopgap, which means drafting a high-round left tackle becomes almost a must for Maccagnan. It’s why a first-round choice such as Utah’s Garett Bolles could present a legitimate option. A smooth, athletic blocker with lateral quickness, Bolles could develop fast into a solid starter.
It is clear that, unless Beachum performs better than anyone expects, the Jets have not signed the next Ferguson. They’ll have to draft him, and hope Beachum can hang on long enough to let the kid develop.
It’s a tough order. But with limited talent in the open market, it’s the best Maccagnan can hope for.
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