Today, I'll be reflecting on Brian Winters' rookie season by looking back to 2007, where the Jets had similar problems filling their left guard position.
Winters started the last 12 games of 2013 and struggled, although he did show some signs of improvement over the last month. Even though he felt he played well, even Winters himself admitted there was plenty of room for growth. After the jump, a look back at 2007 and what this might tell us about how far Winters has to go.
The Jets' apparent mishandling of the left guard position was a big story back in 2007. In retrospect, the 4-12 Jets probably wouldn't have been a playoff contender even with competent play from the left guard spot, but their efforts to fill the position on the cheap failed miserably. The cap-strapped Jets refused to give Pete Kendall a pay rise and - although their cap situation was much better in 2008, enabling them to sign Alan Faneca to shore up the position - the competition between several cheaper options did not go well.
In preseason, it looked like rookie Jacob Bender - a converted tackle - had won the job. The sixth round pick started the last two preseason games. However, on opening day, the Jets shocked everyone by announcing Bender as inactive - a healthy scratch - and putting Adrien Clarke, who had been playing with the second unit, in as the starter. Bender would make just two appearances that year, only seeing action on special teams. They would be his only two NFL games.
Clarke would go on to start the first 14 games and was the target of Wayne Hunter levels of vitriol from the Jets fanbase as he struggled each week. Clarke had started four games with the Eagles in 2005, but then missed all of the 2006 season after getting back surgery and signed a low-level deal with the Jets. He was finally benched for the last two games of the season and never played in the NFL again.
During Winters' struggles last season, I was asked several times if he was struggling as badly as Clarke did. Now that I've looked back on the 2007 season, we can make a comparison between the two.
Comparison between Clarke and Winters
In the end, Winters played 771 snaps in 2013 and Clarke played 776 in 2007*, so we have two equivalent sample sizes to make a direct comparison. (*These and other stats included in this article are exclusively provided by Pro Football Focus).
Let's first consider pass protection numbers. Winters gave up a league high 10 sacks, six hits and 15 pressures. Clarke only surrendered four sacks, 10 hits and 14 pressures. That sounds like Winters did a lot worse than Clarke. Indeed, their pass protection grade (which takes into account not just the rate at which pressure was surrendered but also how badly beaten the player was when he did surrender pressure) was worse for Winters (-14.6) than for Clarke (-9.1).
However, let's add some context to these numbers. Winters was protecting a rookie, who struggled at times with blitz recognition and holding the ball too long in the pocket. Clarke was protecting Chad Pennington for half the time, a player who was excellent at making decisions and checking down when required. Of course, Clarke was also protecting Kellen Clemens for half the time, a less experienced player seeing regular action for the first time. However, can we make an argument that Clarke's job was easier?
When you look again at the numbers, Winters surrendered 31 total pressures and Clarke surrendered 28. That's not too far off. The main difference between these numbers was that a much higher percentage of those pressures for Winters resulted in sacks, which you could certainly attribute, at least in part, to the quarterback. We can even explore the time in the pocket numbers to account for this. Pennington's time to throw was 2.66 seconds and Clemens' was not that far behind at 2.77 seconds. Smith, on the other hand, threw the ball after 3.03 seconds on average. While that 3-to-4 tenths of a second might not sound like much, it could certainly be the difference between a sack and a hit/pressure on some plays. It's the difference between being in the middle of the pack and being right near the top in terms of that time to throw number.
In addition to the rate at which pressure was converted to sacks, we can also add context to the total amount of pressure each of them surrendered. Again from PFF's time in pocket numbers, we can see that over half (51.2%) of Pennington's throws were released before 2.5 seconds were up. This is not surprising, having watched the footage, because there were a lot of plays where Pennington released the pass almost immediately as he recognized a blitz off the edge. Pennington saw good success on these plays, which usually netted an easy 6-to-8 yard gain.
Perhaps surprisingly, Clemens threw within 2.5 seconds an even higher percentage of the time (53.5%) than Pennington. By contrast, Smith only threw within 2.5 seconds just 40.7% of the time. So, even though Winters and Clarke played an equivalent number of snaps, Winters had to sustain his block for longer more often than Clarke did, so we can say his job in pass protection was more difficult and the fact he gave up a few extra pressures might be attributable to this. We can also say that changes in the gameplan and improvements in the decision making and blitz recognition from the quarterback position could have a positive effect on his 2014 numbers in addition to any improvements he makes himself.
For the record, while you might expect Clarke's pass protection numbers to be better when he was protecting Pennington that when he was protecting Clemens, that couldn't be further from the truth. He played seven games in front of each, but with Pennington in there, Clarke gave up four sacks, 10 hits and nine pressures. However, with Clemens in there, he only gave up five pressures (with no hits or sacks). Maybe this means the quarterback doesn't have as much of an effect as suggested above, but then again, Clemens was getting rid of the ball quickly even more often than Pennington.
Another interesting comparison to make is the fact that Winters was between the veteran Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson, whereas Clarke was in-between the same two players while they were in just their second season. While neither would receive pro bowl recognition that year (Mangold was a pro bowler for the first time the following year and Ferguson the year after that), you could conceivably make an argument that they were closer to their peak in either 2007 or 2013. Let's call it a wash.
For each of them, there was an improvement later in the season. Winters gave up just one sack, two hits and three pressures over the last four games. In fact, he only gave up one pressure in the last two games. Clarke gave up no sacks and just two hits and one pressure over his last five games. There was one key reason behind that, but we'll address that later on. It's obviously encouraging that Winters had better numbers in the final month, but I don't think it's a coincidence that this was where Smith started to make better decisions in the pocket too, often taking off at the first sign of pressure.
In 2007, Clarke had just two penalties, whereas Winters had seven in 2013. Maybe some of the penalties on Winters are again attributable to him having to hold his block for a longer time than necessary, but two of the seven were false starts. One was actually a penalty for ineligible receiver downfield where you could definitely attribute that to Smith getting rid of the ball too late. The rest were holding penalties. This is definitely an area Winters will look to improve upon, especially with Breno Giacomini and Willie Colon - each of whom gets flagged a lot - expected to man the right side of the line.
Having watched the footage, it was obvious that both players really struggled. Clarke is bigger and less mobile, but their usage within the two schemes was pretty similar.
According to PFF ratings, the grade was again worse for Winters (-17.4) than for Clarke (-11.1). What I would say about Clarke is that he seemed to have more positive moments where he did put it all together earlier in the year. Winters finally started to do that in the last few games. Clarke had a couple of impressive blocks in the week 13 blowout win over Miami, including one where Leon Washington took a direct snap and ran for an 18-yard score after Clarke had driven his man out of the play to create a huge lane.
There's not much more to say here, though. Both were very inconsistent, with Winters perhaps being the reason a play failed more often than Clarke was because he had better talent around him.
The rotation system
As noted above, Clarke saw real improvements in his pass protection numbers towards the end of the year. His run blocking also improved, in similar fashion. The major difference in those final five games was that Clarke started splitting time with Will Montgomery. Montgomery did a pretty decent job, getting between a third and a half of the available reps over the next five weeks. He'd go on to start the last two games and become a full-time starter for Washington. The more interesting aspect is the effect splitting reps had on Clarke.
As noted above, Winters actually graded out worse than Clarke in terms of run and pass blocking (although we've discussed some of the possible reasons for this). However, had Clarke continued to play the way he did in those first nine games, he was actually on course to be worse than Winters.
This begs the question: Would Winters have played with more consistency if he had split reps rather than being relied upon to play full time? As I noted a few years ago, when Vladimir Ducasse split reps with Matt Slauson in 2012, the offense didn't miss a beat and even performed marginally better in the running game. However, Ducasse's performance in 2013 perhaps showed he wasn't ready for a full-time role.
We know that some offensive line coaches don't like rotation schemes, presumably because they think it prevents the line from gelling as quickly as you'd like. However, when players are struggling, it would seem that there is a benefit to this in terms of enabling each player to focus on a smaller workload, remain focused and fresh and maybe even receive feedback or advice during those series where they have been taken out. You could also perhaps suggest that changing the guards around every now and again could make it more difficult for defensive linemen to figure out the best way to beat them. It also provides motivation by creating a direct competition and giving one of them an opportunity to outshine the other and re-earn a full-time role.
I said it at the time, but I think a rotation scheme could have been a positive for both Winters and Ducasse. The hope is that Winters will benefit in the long run from the time he saw in 2013 (and let's not forget he had a preseason ankle injury to set him back), but maybe if he was making positive contributions sooner, this would have had a positive effect confidence-wise.
It certainly makes for an interesting comparison to investigate the differences and similarities between these two. While it doesn't bode well that Clarke was out of the league after the 2007 season, it's clear there were some important reasons why Winters struggled in similar fashion, not least of which being that he was a rookie learning a new position.
In terms of other recent young linemen who had poor seasons but then ended the season on an upward curve, there are several examples of players who did not continue that momentum into the next season. Jason Pinkston couldn't lock down a starting job, Will Rackley had another bad season and was released, Levi Brown got injured twice and Bobby Massie didn't start the following year and is battling for a starting role this year. However, I would say that the experience Winters gained - even though he did struggle - puts him in a better situation to start in year two than someone like Matt Slauson, who barely played at all as a rookie.
Winters has to improve in 2014, because if he doesn't, it's not going to be difficult to find someone who can do a better job. While he might have had a longer leash last year, I don't think there's much chance the Jets will risk having one player submarine the entire unit once again.
To wrap up this series, I'll be doing one more article focusing on a few interesting things from that 2007 season. However, we're almost ready to move on to the next series, where - over the next few weeks - I'll be looking in great detail at double teams and their effect upon productivity.