The Jets could be the best at something.
It has been too long since “Jets” and “best” belonged in the same sentence in any regard, but that’s the reality that NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah foresees if general manager Joe Douglas — Jeremiah’s former scouting colleague with the Ravens — uses the No. 4 pick in the draft on North Carolina State offensive lineman Ikem Ekwonu.
“If Ekwonu went to the Jets, Year One would be playing guard, and I think him and [Alijah] Vera-Tucker would be the best young guard duo in the NFL,” Jeremiah said Friday on a conference call to preview the Scouting Combine. “This dude is so powerful and so strong, and he would have no issues kicking inside.”
Mock drafts such as Jeremiah’s most recent version that predict the Jets selecting Ekwonu — a left tackle for most of his three-year college career — have some fans scratching their heads. With major needs to address elsewhere and starting offensive tackles Mekhi Becton and George Fant both under contract, why would the Jets use the first of their nine picks on the line?
Well, Ekwonu’s versatility would allow him to fill a hole at right guard as a rookie, replace Fant as a starter on one side when his contract expires in 2023 and provide insurance if Becton — the 2020 first-rounder who was Jeremiah’s top-ranked tackle in that class — turns into a bust. Fant and Becton are in competition to start at left tackle in 2022.
Becton played just one game last season after struggling with his weight and suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.
“I’m not privy to all the information in terms of where he is at with his headspace, and I know there’s been a bunch of stuff said about his weight,” Jeremiah said. “When he was on the field as a rookie, I thought he played at a pretty elite level and was on his way to establishing himself as one of the best left tackles in the NFL. This year was a complete waste. I still go off of what I’ve seen with his cleats on the grass, and I think the guy is pretty rare in terms of the ability he has. The rest of it, we’ll have to see how it sorts itself out.”
Thinking around the NFL has changed in recent years, Jeremiah said, so offensive lines do not need to follow the Cowboys’ blueprint of all-first-round picks. Becton, Vera-Tucker and Ekwonu would mark three straight years with a first-round offensive lineman for the Jets.
If Ekwonu slips, he might still end up at MetLife Stadium — with the Giants at No. 5.
“The Giants are going to value physicality,” Jeremiah said. “I think Ekwonu would be a slam dunk if he got to them.”
Coming off an 11th straight season without a playoff berth, the Jets have nearly $48 million in salary-cap space and will draft No. 4, No. 10, No. 35 and No. 38 within the first two rounds.
“I would expect they will be pretty active in free agency, and I think that might clear the picture up a little bit,” Jeremiah said. “The bad news is you’ve got a lot of needs. The good news is you’ve got a lot of needs, so you can take the best players that are available in those spots.”
The Jets could move off of Ekwonu for a cornerback such as LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. or Cincinnati’s Sauce Gardner, a pass-rusher such as Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux or Georga’s Travon Walker, a receiver such as USC’s Drake London or a safety such as Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton. The free-agent and draft classes are both deep, but not top-heavy, when looking for a starting tight end.
“From an interior offensive lineman standpoint there are some guys in free agency that are interesting and you also have the prospect of getting guys on Day 2 [of the draft],” Jeremiah said. “When I look at their picks in the first round and I look at some of their remaining needs, I think a playmaker at receiver would be interesting, if you love a guy. On defense, I think edge rusher and a corner. You probably get two out of those three.”
Unless Ekwonu offers too much talent and too big of a safety net to pass up.