In between now and training camp, I'm going to be looking at some of the veteran players on the Jets roster to assess what kind of contribution we might expect from them in 2016.
We begin with a look at a couple of back-up offensive linemen, Brent Qvale and Ben Ijalana. Can either of these players compete with Breno Giacomini for a starting role at right tackle and which one is best equipped to fill in if Giacomini or Ryan Clady gets hurt?
Let's compare and contrast the two players in terms of their physical attributes, technical ability and performance so far at the NFL level to get a better idea of where their futures may lie.
Note: Some stats from this article are exclusively provided by Pro Football Focus.
The story so far
Qvale was an undrafted rookie who eventually earned a contract with the Jets after initially attending their rookie camp on a try-out basis. After spending his rookie year on the Jets' practice squad, the coaching staff suggested he was in the mix to start at right guard in 2015. However, in preseason, he only saw action at tackle.
Qvale was retained on the 53-man roster all season as a reserve tackle and saw action on offense in seven games, albeit only 33 snaps in total. Most of that work saw him operating as a sixth lineman in short yardage packages.
Entering 2016, there has once again been some buzz that Qvale could be in the mix to start, this time at right tackle, where he was getting some first team reps at mandatory minicamp. Whether this promise will actually manifest itself in preseason remains to be seen, though.
By contrast, Ijalana was a highly heralded draft prospect and eventually went to the Colts with the 49th pick of the 2011 draft. However, two ACL tears later, he failed to make their roster in his third season and the Jets picked him up off waivers.
Ijalana has been retained as a reserve tackle for the past three regular season campaigns. However, he's been a healthy scratch most of the time, seeing action in just three regular season games with the Jets.
He perhaps would have seen more action last year if not for the fact he suffered a minor injury in preseason. This put his availability for opening day and therefore his roster spot in doubt, but the Jets opted to take the risk that Qvale wouldn't be called into emergency action in his first game, over perhaps retaining the veteran Charles Brown until Ijalana's return. Brown ended up in Dallas, essentially playing the same jumbo tight end/emergency back-up role as Qvale had with the Jets.
When his contract expired at the end of last season, it didn't look like the team would bring Ijalana back. However, nobody picked him up in the first few weeks of free agency and when news broke that starting left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson was planning to retire, the Jets re-signed Ijalana to a one-year deal on the same day.
The Jets' current starters at tackle are Clady and Giacomini and current indications are that it is likely to stay that way. However, Clady has been injury prone over the last few years, so whoever wins the swing tackle role might get called upon to start at some point. Also, Giacomini had an uneven year in 2015 and the team will save over $4 million if they release him, so if anyone cheaper can push him close, that might give them an edge.
My initial impression of Ijalana was an athletic and polished tackle in a prototypical frame that perhaps lost a step due to his knee issues. By contrast, Qvale seemed like a typical Nebraska lineman, being more of a road-grading run blocker without natural athleticism. However, they actually profile more similarly than you would expect.
While Ijalana's long (36") arms are one of the main things that attracted scouts, Qvale also has long arms and is actually 2½ inches taller than Ijalana.
In terms of athletic numbers, they're both above average with an identical 40-yard dash time of 5.20. Qvale has the better vertical jump and three-cone drill, while Ijalana has the edge in terms of short shuttle and broad jump, so they are pretty evenly matched. Ijalana looks strong on film, but didn't do the bench press at his pro day because he was coming off a hernia injury. Qvale did 24 reps, which is pretty good for someone with long arms.
All-in-all, these numbers probably suggest that if Ijalana has lost a step due to his knee issues, then Qvale is probably more athletic right now. That hasn't seemed apparent from watching their film so far, though.
As noted, injuries have been a factor for Ijalana, while Qvale has only had minor knee and head injuries since missing the 2009 season with a shoulder issue.
While the Jets have been and remain high on Qvale, there's a major discrepancy between the consistency of his performance and that of Ijalana.
In preseason action since 2013, Ijalana has played 268 snaps and compiled a +9.1 overall grade according to Pro Football Focus. However, in 258 preseason snaps over the last two seasons, Qvale has recorded a -12.1 grade. He also graded out worse in 2015 than in 2014, so while that might be a sign that he received tougher assignments last season, there's no positive trend we can point to from the grades.
While we must account for the fact that these reps would mostly be against back-ups so we couldn't necessarily expect Ijalana to grade out as well in real-game action, it's still a strong indicator of how well they performed on those reserve units. In Qvale's case, what's doubly intriguing is the fact that he actually had four positively-graded games and only three negatively-graded games. He just struggled particularly badly in those games, but there were still signs that he could hold his own at times.
While neither has played much in regular season action, the trend continues there with Ijalana grading positively (+1.0) in 43 snaps, while Qvale struggled to a -4.3 grade in 33 snaps last season. 18 of his snaps came in the Jaguars game where the Jets used six linemen a lot as they tried, in vain, to get the running game going. Excluding quarterback runs, they gained just 12 yards on 14 carries with Qvale in the game, but weren't much better (10-17) with him out.
The discrepancy in terms of pass protection numbers is just as bad, with Ijalana allowing just one sack and five total pressures in 170 pass rush snaps of preseason and regular season action, while Qvale allowed four sacks and 12 total pressures in 137.
Penalties are a big issue for Qvale too, as he had six in 191 snaps of preseason and regular season action, while Ijalana played with much more discipline and had none in 211 snaps. Four of those penalties on Qvale were false starts.
Going back and looking over the footage, Qvale's performances were littered with rawness and errors. With the team still being high on him, I would assume they believe most of these issues can be fixed or at least mitigated.
In pass protection, he had one game where he held his own in pass protection only to then fade down the stretch and get beaten a few times as he presumably tired out. Contrast that to Ijalana who had a couple of games with an early mistake or two, where he then settled down from that point onwards and held up well. Qvale struggles at times with speed rushers, so might some help against that type of player. However, that is already the case with Giacomini. Post-injury, Ijalana didn't seem to move as freely and perhaps had lost some agility and the ability to recover inside, but maybe that's less of an issue now he's four years removed from his latest surgery.
In terms of run blocking, both Qvale and Ijalana have shown promise at times. Qvale is aggressive and can make good kick-out blocks and blocks on the move. They've also had some success running behind him on short yardage or goal line plays. However, he is far too inconsistent at the point of attack. Pad level seems to be an issue for him because he'll lose leverage and his man will either get off his block or leverage into the path of the ball carrier to bottle up runs.
Ijalana impresses in terms of his ability to get out to the second level on runs and screen passes and also displays good strength to drive his man out of a play. Here is an example of when Ijalana (#71) dominated his man on the left side of the line to help set up the winning touchdown in a 2014 game.
Both Ijalana and Qvale are regarded as smart players with no attitude concerns. Qvale made some mental errors on the field, including those four false starts, but part of that could perhaps be attributed to his inexperience. Ijalana is about to enter his sixth season so he has a lot more experience. Despite this, he's still only 26, just one year older than Qvale.
Both players provide some versatility and can fill in at the guard position as well as at either tackle spot, if required. Ijalana has mostly played left tackle in preseason and regular season action, but did step in for Willie Colon for a couple of snaps at right guard in 2014. In addition to his regular season jumbo package work, Qvale has mostly played at right tackle in preseason action, but saw some action at left tackle and spent large parts of training camp working at guard. I understand he's also been learning to snap the ball for potential emergency center duties.
One other factor that might be overlooked is their respective salaries. As he's been in the league longer, Ijalana has a minimum salary that is $840K and therefore higher than Qvale's at $525K. However, since he qualifies for the minimum salary benefit, only $680K of Ijalana's salary will count towards the cap. The Jets also guaranteed $150K of that sum so there is not much of a net saving if they release him.
Could someone other than Qvale or Ijalana force their way into the conversation? Looking at the current roster, the Jets have a lot of players that can play tackle but that are probably better suited to playing inside. For example, 2015 draft pick Jarvis Harrison was getting some reps at right tackle last week according to Rich Cimini, although he apparently struggled in pass protection.
Waiting in the wings, but perhaps a year away from contributing, is rookie Brandon Shell. Shell, the team's 5th round pick this April, has good measurables and I was impressed with his film. If Shell's development curve can be accelerated faster than expected that will give the team another viable option, but we'll have to wait and see what he looks like once the pads go on.
The only other player listed at tackle is futures signing Jesse Davis who I broke down here. Davis has to be considered an extreme long-shot to make the roster and had apparently been getting work on the inside anyway during OTAs.
It's evident that the Jets see something in Qvale. On performance alone, he probably didn't deserve to make last year's team, but they obviously viewed him as a player with room to grow that could eventually be a valuable asset. The way they used him last year, giving him the occasional low-complexity offensive assignment as an extra blocker and finding a few garbage time snaps here and there is a good way of giving him some real-game experience and helping him to build some confidence.
Contrast that with Ijalana, who rode the pine all year and then didn't seem like an option to return until Ferguson's retirement and you can see where this regime has invested their time. While Ijalana's performances at the NFL level have been much more consistent, the team perhaps views him as being closer to his ceiling.
Qvale didn't really live up to the pre-camp hype of being a potential starter last season, as it seemed like he was never really in the mix once Colon was brought back into the fold. As he enters his third offseason, he needs to become a lot more consistent if he's going to deliver on the organization's faith in him.
With Shell perhaps being groomed as a future starter, Qvale must make advancements this offseason otherwise his role will stall at the extra blocker/potential injury replacement stage again.
As for Ijalana, doesn't he deserve more of a shot? While injuries may mean he might not have the same athleticism he entered the league with, he's still a player with good length and technique who has shown in spot duties that he can play with good consistency. He has been unfortunate to play for a team who has had both starting tackles play virtually every snap in each of his three seasons.
Had he received a chance to start at some point, maybe Ijalana would have proven that he could play with the same level of consistency in real game time and that he could have been the kind of viable starter teams expected him to develop into back when he was a draft prospect. Instead, once he hit the open market, no teams seemed to show any interest, perhaps assuming that because he never got a chance to start with the Jets, his development must have stalled, when the reality is probably that he was just behind more established veterans.
It should be fun to gauge the progress of Qvale and Shell against that of Ijalana in camp this summer. If one of these three can show that they deserve a longer look as a potential starter, then that will get Giacomini looking over his shoulder and it will be interesting to see how well he responds.