NY Jets desperately need the old Laken Tomlinson to return

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By: Michael Nania

Laken Tomlinson is one of the New York Jets’ most important players of 2023

The most expensive player on the New York Jets‘ offense (and entire team) is, of course, Aaron Rodgers.

The second-most expensive player on the Jets’ offense? In terms of average annual value, it’s one of the men tasked with protecting Rodgers: left guard Laken Tomlinson with a salary of $13.3 million.

Despite being one of the largest financial investments on the team, Tomlinson is certainly not among the most frequently discussed players in Jets land. But he should be. Tomlinson is vital to the Jets’ success in 2023.

When New York signed Tomlinson in March 2022, the expectation was that he’d bring high-level production to the interior of the offensive line. Tomlinson had established himself as one of the best players in the league at his position. PFF ranked Tomlinson as the NFL’s fifth-best left guard in 2021 (min. 500 snaps at LG) and fourth-best left guard in 2022.

Tomlinson’s price on the open market confirmed that NFL teams valued him similarly to his statistical rankings. Tomlinson’s $13.3 million AAV currently ranks ninth-highest among all guards.

However, Tomlinson did not perform anywhere close to expectations in his first season as a Jet. On PFF’s leaderboard, he dropped to 48th out of 64 qualified guards (min. 500 snaps), including 21st among the 32 who played the majority of their snaps at left guard.

Based on what I saw on film, I agreed with PFF’s assessment of Tomlinson. He had a rough year and looked nothing like the player he was in San Francisco.

I was particularly disappointed with Tomlinson’s run blocking. Of the two phases, this was the side of the ball where he shined the brightest as a 49er, but he was detrimental to the Jets’ run game in 2022.

Per my charting of every run-blocking rep by the Jets offense in 2022, I credited Tomlinson with a team-leading 51 run-stuffs allowed. Overall, I had him tied with Duane Brown as the most negatively impactful run blocker on the team based on cumulative impact versus expectations. His margin of run-blocking assists to run-stuffs allowed was 23.3 total plays worse than the league-average player would be expected to have with the same number of plays, tying Brown for the team’s worst mark. For more elaboration on these metrics, check out the breakdown.

Tomlinson’s pass-blocking numbers were not as atrocious as his run-blocking numbers, although they were still subpar and a step back from his previous standards. PFF credited him with allowing pressure on 4.49% of his pass-blocking snaps in 2022, ranking 36th out of 64 qualified guards. It’s not too far off from his 2021 rate of 4.04%, which ranked 25th out of 68 players. Still, that’s a drop from the 64th percentile to the 44th percentile for a guy who is one of the top 10 highest-paid guards in the league.

And I think Tomlinson got off lightly in this category. On film, Tomlinson was involved in a plethora of communication breakdowns against blitzes and stunts in which rushers were allowed to run free into the backfield. Many of these pressures were likely pinned on another lineman or the quarterback, as only one player can get charged with the pressure statistically.

In reality, multiple players can be involved in allowing pressure. I think Tomlinson was bailed out in the stat sheet on a lot of these communication-related pressures, causing his stats to paint the picture that he was less troublesome in pass protection than he really was.

Ultimately, the bottom line is simple: Tomlinson did not perform anywhere close to the level New York expected him to. And when you consider how much he is being paid, he has to get back to that level in 2023.

So, what went wrong with Tomlinson in 2022? And can he get back to his pre-2022 level?

To find out, let’s compare some examples of Tomlinson’s best moments with the 49ers in 2021 to some of the biggest mistakes that defined his struggles with the Jets in 2022.

Laken Tomlinson film: 2021 vs. 2022

Tomlinson wore No. 75 in San Francisco and No. 78 with the Jets.

One of the main reasons New York signed Tomlinson was his scheme familiarity, as he came from the 49ers offense that Mike LaFleur heavily borrowed from when he was the Jets’ offensive coordinator. Tomlinson was a great outside-zone blocker in San Francisco, and that can be seen on this play as he crosses Fletcher Cox’s face, flips his hips inside, and pins Cox to the back side.

This is another good outside-zone block from Tomlinson. While he doesn’t get his hips flipped and pin the DT as he did against Cox, Tomlinson is still able to cross the DT’s face, get out in front, and put himself between the DT and the sideline, helping to keep the outside running lane clear. Watch Tomlinson extend his inside arm into the DT’s chest to establish control and keep him at bay.

For whatever reason, Tomlinson wasn’t as effective on outside-zone with the Jets. Here he gets beaten inside with a swim move by Calais Campbell, who stuffs Breece Hall for no gain.

Connor McGovern does a great job of passing off the nose tackle to Tomlinson here, but Tomlinson overextends himself and leans into the block as the NT beats him backdoor with a swim move.

Tomlinson played all 17 games for the Jets in 2022 and was never even listed on the injury report. His health and athleticism seemed to be perfectly fine. His downfall as an outside zone blocker was puzzling. Perhaps it was an issue with communication or coaching that led to a lack of comfort within the scheme.

As shown in the two plays above, I thought Tomlinson was a good second-level blocker in San Francisco. Tomlinson has never been the swiftest athlete, but if you take smart, anticipatory angles, you can still be effective in the open field. That’s what he displayed in San Francisco, but I did not see that with the Jets.

Let’s get into some examples of Tomlinson’s pass-blocking struggles, which, as I explained earlier, felt worse on film than the numbers let on.

Mistakes like these two were common. Allowing pressure is one thing, but allowing unblocked pressure while standing and watching is a completely different thing.

In one-on-one protection, Tomlinson may not have been terribly inconsistent (although he was still probably below-average in terms of consistency). The problem was the degree of his losses. Tomlinson often lost his reps very quickly, causing catastrophic damage in the pocket.

Zach Sieler beats Tomlinson with a swim move immediately after the snap, getting into the backfield to blow up the play before Joe Flacco has a chance to set himself or read through the entire concept.

In both the run game and the pass game, ducking and leaning was an issue for Tomlinson. He would frequently duck his head and lean into blocks, leaving himself vulnerable to the swim move. It’s one of the worst moves to get beaten by, as it makes for a quick and ugly loss.

While Tomlinson was never considered an elite pass protector in San Francisco, he did seem to be less prone to those ugly, destructive losses. His technique looked a little more polished.

These are just a handful of plays: Tomlinson had plenty of good reps in 2022 and he had plenty of bad ones with the 49ers. Judging a player’s blocking consistency requires the viewing of multiple games in their entirety. Nevertheless, it’s nice to at least have a glimpse at the player in a different uniform to see if there are any subtle differences that can be noticed in technique or athleticism. For whatever reason, Tomlinson looked less technically sound as a Jet, and these clips portray that.

None of these clips tell the whole story about Tomlinson, but they serve as small glimpses into the player the Jets thought they were getting versus the one they actually got.

Will Tomlinson bounce back?

There are reasons to believe Tomlinson has a good chance of rebounding in 2023.

First off, Tomlinson is healthy as far as we know. He has never missed a game due to injury in his NFL career and did not even appear on the Jets’ injury report last season. It’s possible he was playing through a nagging injury that we do not know about. Unless that is confirmed, though, we have to operate under the assumption Tomlinson is in great physical condition.

This is important for Tomlinson’s longevity. Many players who decline in their thirties do so in response to the buildup of many injuries over the course of their careers. While Tomlinson has plenty of miles on his tires, he still hasn’t been taken to the garage for repairs.

There is also a chance that Tomlinson’s down year was an outlier. With no injuries or other easily visible reasons for his decline, it could have been a blip on the radar that will be followed by a return to the norm.

The main reason to feel good about Tomlinson’s outlook is the arrival of Aaron Rodgers.

Communication was a big part of Tomlinson’s struggles in 2022, as he was involved in a lot of messy plays where multiple players appeared to potentially be at fault. Plays like this are often the fault of the quarterback for setting the protections incorrectly rather than the linemen themselves. Having Rodgers under center will be night and day for the communication of the offensive line compared to last year’s quarterback situation.

Changes in the coaching staff could also flip the switch for Tomlinson. Offensive line coach John Benton is out and Keith Carter has arrived in his place, while Nathaniel Hackett replaces Mike LaFleur as the offensive coordinator.

The unit-wide communication woes for the Jets’ offensive line were also likely an indictment on the coaching staff as much as the quarterbacks. It’s possible that something about Benton and LaFleur’s coaching styles or schematic/technical preferences were just not the right mix for Tomlinson’s skill set.

Carter did a good job with the Titans’ offensive line in Tennessee over the past five years while Hackett helped build a successful outside-zone run game around Rodgers in Green Bay. They are a strong pairing to help Tomlinson and other members of the offensive line trend in a positive direction.

All of these factors should maximize Tomlinson’s odds of a rebound, but it comes down to Tomlinson himself. Many of the mistakes on his film were inexcusable for a veteran starter, especially one of his pay scale. It will take more than a better surrounding environment for him to bounce back. Tomlinson must be willing to self-evaluate his 2022 film in an honest manner and put in the necessary work to correct his mistakes. If he can do that, he can get back to playing like a Pro Bowl-level starter.

Laken Tomlinson embodies the importance of getting what you paid for out of your biggest investments

To win championships, it’s essential to get premium impact out of your premium investments. Otherwise, too much capital is being wasted.

Teams spend premium capital (first-round picks and expensive signings) on players who they believe can make up the core of the team. These core players only make up a small percentage of the roster – a fair estimate of the typical number of “core” players on a roster would probably be somewhere around 10 players out of the 53 on a team. But they eat up a much larger portion of the team’s available resources.

That’s because they are expected to make an impact that is equivalent to the capital that is spent on them. The core might make up only about 20% of the players on the 53-man roster, but if they’re eating up 50% of the resources, they should be responsible for 50% of the production. (These are arbitrary figures for the sake of the discussion.)

With each of the core players pulling a weight that exceeds 1-of-53, the team can comfortably count upon its high quantity of lower-investment players (players who are perceived as less likely to be successful, such as late-round picks and cheap signings) to cumulatively make the rest of the necessary contributions. This is the ideal structure for a championship-caliber team. The best players handle the biggest responsibilities so the lesser players are not expected to carry a weight beyond what they’re realistically capable of.

Let’s go back to our previous arbitrary estimate where the core makes up 20% of the roster but should make up 50% of the production. In this scenario, that means the other 50% of the production comes from 80% of the roster. On a per-player basis, this is a perfect balance. Your collection of big investments is expected to carry the greatest weight, and they are capable of doing that because these are supposed to be your most talented players. Meanwhile, your late-round picks and cheap signings do not have to shoulder nearly as much responsibility per player.

However, when the premium investments underachieve, the team becomes overly reliant on its low-investment players to significantly overachieve and make up for the value that is lost on the expensive underachievers.

You cannot have the core players eat up 50% of the capital and make only 40% of the impact (again, just arbitrary ballparking here). That’s not an ideal path to victory. Because now it puts pressure on the lower end of the roster to make 60% of the impact – more than you expect from a portion of the roster with 50% of the capital allocated to it. Those expectations are too high for guys who are late-round draft picks or bargain free agents. In all likelihood, you’re not going to succeed if you need that much bonus production out of players who slipped to the bottom of either the draft or the free agent market.

That was a very, very long-winded way of saying this: Laken Tomlinson is one of the Jets’ core players, and if he doesn’t start playing like it, he’s going to hurt the team immensely in a season where they have serious aspirations of winning a Super Bowl.

But if Tomlinson gets back to playing like the guy he was in San Francisco, it will do wonders for the Jets’ offense.

Next Article: Where will NY Jets OL rank if all goes according to plan? 

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