- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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They didn't use those words, of course, but Hunter -- the most vilified offensive lineman in recent memory -- is out at right tackle for the New York Jets. Journeyman Austin Howard will start Sunday night against the Carolina Panthers, and it's his job to lose as the regular season approaches.
This was a move that had to be made. Clearly, the Jets couldn't go forward with Hunter.
Hunter was awful last week against the New York Giants, allowing 2½ sacks in one half, and he exacerbated the situation by the way he responded. There was concern about his confidence, his ability to tune out the unprecedented criticism. We're talking about a player who has suffered from confidence issues in the past.
So Howard is the guy (for now), but this story goes beyond this week. Look at the big picture, and you have to wonder: How did it get to this point?
The Jets botched the right-tackle situation, and now they're counting on a former practice-squad player to bail them out.
Rex Ryan, at his spin-control best, said Hunter is better suited as the sixth linemen (in his old jumbo-tight end role) and that Howard has played well enough to earn a shot. Yes,
Howard has flashed some promise, especially when he started for the then-injured Hunter in the preseason opener, but this has all come as a pleasant surprise to the Jets.
Howard was a disappointment in the offseason, gaining more than 20 pounds and nearly eating himself off the team. To his credit, he dropped the weight and played himself back into the picture, but he was a nonfactor when general manager Mike Tannenbaum decided in the offseason to stand pat at right tackle.
The Jets didn't import any right tackles because they wanted to give Hunter another chance after last season's mess. Tannenbaum put his faith in new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano and new line coach Dave DeGuglielmo, who told reporters in May: "Until they ship [Hunter] out of this building or until they shoot me dead in my office, that son of a gun's going to be the starting right tackle, and he's going to play well."
No word on whether DeGuglielmo was wearing a bullet-proof vest around the facility Thursday.
The point is, the Jets felt Hunter could re-invent himself in Sparano's system, where the scheme is more simplistic than the previous system. They made a calculated decision to stick with the devil they knew, and it's not looking too good right now.
They could've addressed it in the offseason, but they passed up chances. The Jets liked Eric Winston, cut expectedly by the Houston Texans, but they didn't have the salary-cap room to make a run at him.
They liked Riley Reiff as a possible first-round pick, but they felt defensive end Quinton Coples -- the eighth-rated player on their board -- was a better value at No. 16. Reiff went 23rd to the Detroit Lions.
They liked Jeff Allen as a possible second-round choice, but they traded up for wide receiver Stephen Hill, ecstatic he still was available at No. 43. Allen went to the Kansas City Chiefs on the very next pick.
Tannenbaum still is exploring the right tackle market, according to sources, yet the odds of him trading for a starting-caliber tackle are slim. But he's looking, you can bet on that.
"This, to me, is more of an indictment on what's available out in the market," an AFC personnel executive said, referring to the Jets' lineup change. "I'm sure they're thinking, 'Let's take a long look at what we have and find out so we can compare to what could become available at the 53-man [cutdown]."
This was one scout's take on Howard, who had cups of coffee with the Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles: Very good size (6-foot-7, 333), not a quick-twitch athlete, more of a mauler. Has some strength, but limited explosiveness. Has a feel for pass protection, but has average lateral quickness and recovery speed.
It's funny, but the Jets' right-tackle soap opera has become a national story, but take a look around. They're not the only team with major question marks on the offensive line.
The Texans, considered by some to be Super Bowl contenders, are prepared to start Rashad Butler at right tackle. In six years, he's had a grand total of four starts. The Giants, the defending champs, could end up starting retread Sean Locklear, for crying out loud.
Maybe Howard will work out for the Jets. Maybe their lack of aggressiveness in the offseason won't come back to haunt them. In that case, they'd be lucky because right now they're wishing on a long shot.