They kicked off the day by adding some depth to their receiver position by trading for Louis Murphy. Then, with rumors of the Panthers working on another deal, I can’t have been the only one surprised to see Carolina finally give up on talented tackle Jeff Otah. He was traded away to the New York Jets at the cost of a conditional pick.
Given the situations of both teams involved, and of Otah himself, I can’t help but feel that this is a good move for all parties.
The Hunter becomes the Hunted
It wasn’t so long ago that Matt Slauson said, “…we have Wayne (Hunter), and in our opinion, that’s an upgrade”. It was a fine example of why fans should rarely believe anything their players tell them regarding personnel (what was he going to say? That the new starter was stinking the joint out and he longed for the day Damien Woody would come out of retirement). At least Slauson tried to inspire confidence in his beleaguered right tackle.
It didn’t work.
The problem was that Jets fans had become accustomed to not noticing their right tackle all that much. And that was a good thing. We started grading NFL players in the 2008 season when the Jets were blessed with about as good a right tackle as there was in football. You didn’t notice Damien Woody giving up pressure, because he didn’t. You didn’t need to notice him in the run game because you were too busy celebrating the fact that Thomas Jones was picking up yards without doing much to get them.
Indeed, Jets fans were spoilt. After three seasons of dominance (Woody earned a combined +70.6 grade from 2008 to 2010) the league’s top right tackle retired, and in his place came a guy who spent the prior three seasons playing the role of an additional lineman and filling in for Woody when he was out through injury (substitute appearances that rarely went well). Suffice it to say that things didn’t improve for Hunter in a full-time role.
Only some truly inept play from Barry Richardson, Jeromey Clary and Lance Louis prevented Hunter being our lowest graded right tackle. His -31.1 grade was a long way from what the Jets were used to getting from the position. For Gang Green it meant going from a guy who gave up 52 combined sacks, hits and hurries in three years, to one who would give up 54 in a single season. Throw in 11 penalties for Hunter (Woody had 14 in three years combined), some less than impressive run blocking and you have a real tale of riches to rags for the Jets.
That Vladimir Ducasse was unable to supplant Hunter and looked woeful in his 97 snaps (-5.3) in 2011, was even more of a concern. Ducasse was a second-round pick and has failed to beat out even the poorest of starting right tackles in the league. So just how bad is he? The Jets brought in both Ray Willis and Stephon Heyer in late May (Willis was later waived), to offer some veteran competition, but Ducasse’s inability to challenge Hunter for the starting job forced the Jets into making another move.
The Jets were a team out of options at tackle, and with Mario Williams moving to the AFC East and penciled in to start at DLE for the Buffalo Bills, you could almost smell the carnage that would have followed with Hunter going up against Super Mario. I know I haven’t forgotten the sack and five hurries Williams managed in Week 11 of the 2010 season, when the two were lined up against each other just 14 times.
Apparently neither had the Jets.
The Real Upgrade
There was a reason the Panthers traded up in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft to pick Jeff Otah. There are few tackles with his physical talent. He’s not the most athletic of tackles, but he’s one of the most powerful. With a team that had DeAngelo Williams on the roster and had spent an earlier 2008 first-round pick on Jonathan Stewart, they were going to try and overpower an NFC South that wasn’t home to the most stout defenses in the league. The early signs were encouraging for Otah, who handled himself well in the first quarter of his rookie year (outside of a schooling from Ray Edwards) before missing the middle of the season. Still he came back and finished strong with all of his last seven games earning positives grades. His season (including the playoffs) ended with a +8.8 grade, and he gave up just 18 combined sacks, hits and hurries.
He wasn’t quite as impressive in 2009 as the Panthers struggled to replicate the form that had won them the NFC South. Instead, he squeaked out a positive grade for the year (+0.3) but was again unable to play a full slate of games. He missed the final three, and would then miss all of 2010. Still, he was in the starting lineup in 2011, though he looked far from his best in the season opener before sitting out another game. He returned for a three-game stretch looking to be back to his best form before injury struck again and another season was lost.
There’s no doubting that he has talent, but clearly Otah is a guy that has huge problems staying on the field for an extended period of time. Anytime a team gives up on that much potential you’ve got to ask even more questions about whether he really has the body or mentality to get back on the field and stay on it. For the Jets it’s a no risk deal. If Otah is healthy he can’t fail to be any better than what they already have. If he can’t stay healthy, then they’re in no worse a situation than they were in before. Any time a team tries to get better at a position you have to applaud them.
For Carolina to get rid of him, you would think would make them a worse team. After all they’re now left with Byron Bell and Garry Williams fighting for the right tackle spot. Neither man is likely to fill you with confidence, based on how they have played over the past two years. Bell put together a year in 2011 that earned him a -26.2 grade, although when you think he was an undrafted rookie, it’s possible he could have done a lot worse than give up seven sacks, seven hits and 24 hurries (heck, Wayne Hunter would have killed for those numbers). The 2009 UDFA, Williams, was spotty as a starter in 2010, having some decent games, but also getting some severe beat-downs on more than a few occasions.
Neither man has the talent of Otah, but then what good was that talent to the Panthers? Stability is a big part of an offensive line and if you’re going to have to constantly chop and change at the right tackle spot, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. With questions aplenty within the organization as to whether Otah was soft or had the required motivation to deliver on potential, why do the same dance you did last year? Moving on is sometimes the hardest thing, but you need to be bold with these decisions, otherwise you’ll never rectify the situation.
So kudos to the Jets for realizing that they hadn’t in fact upgraded on Damien Woody. Kudos to Carolina for moving on from an unfulfilling relationship. And kudos to Jeff Otah, because sometimes a change of scenery is all it takes to get you back to your best. Just ask Laurent Robinson, Jared Gaither or Willis McGahee. The best could be yet to come from the big man.