Not only are the New York Jets the owners of arguably the most improbable 5-4 record in football, but they have managed to surpass expectations with the use of all of their top rookies.
Geno Smith, Dee Milliner and Sheldon Richardson are under the most scrutiny, but the Jets also have high hopes for third-round rookie Brian Winters.
The Kent State product was handed the starting job in Week 5 after the incumbent Vladimir Ducasse started to show lapses in his play, and the Jets have managed to at least maintain their success in the process.
It is impossible to quantify the effect that a left guard has had on the game (for better or worse) by glazing at the box score or casually watching a game once. Let's dive into exactly how Winters has fared over the past five games and whether or not starting him in relief of Vladimir Ducasse was the right move in the short term.
Who Is Brian Winters?
In many ways, Winters has an opposite playing style than the player he replaced in the starting lineup. Winters' game is defined with toughness and a nasty mean streak that makes him a devastating run blocker.
This is in high contrast to the "aw shucks" attitude possessed by the incumbent Vladimir Ducasse, which likely played a major factor in the Jets looking for a replacement in the first place.
It would be easy to peg Winters as a "try-hard" player with limited ability, but that is simply not the case. A former left and right tackle at Kent State, Winters has more than enough athleticism and foot speed to play out in space.
Where Winters need to show improvement, however, was in his technique as he made the transition to a new position from tackle to guard.
While he has not been a major liability, Brian Winters has been a bit underwhelming in pass protection through his first five games as a starter.
According to Pro Football Focus, Winters is the 53rd-best pass-protecting guard (out of 71).
The good news is that Winters has yet to turn in a cringe-worthy performance. His worst game came in a blowout loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, where just about every active player had their worst outing of the season.
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The bad news, however, is that Winters has shown marginal improvement on a week-to-week basis, which is certainly a concerning trend for a talented rookie who should only get better with experience.
Where Winters has been most vulnerable is in his technique, particularly when engaging defenders off the snap. He can be a bit slow to react and get in his stance, which allows defensive tackles to beat him with finesse swim and rip moves, just as Corey Peters did on this red-zone play:
Here, Winters is in a one-on-one matchup against the solid-yet-unspectacular Corey Peters—a battle the Jets are counting on Winters to win.
However, Winters is slow off the snap and is unable to get his feet moving. Now, Winters is unstable and has to rely on his upper-body strength to control Peters, which is nearly impossible to do.
Notice how wide Winters' feet are, which leads to him being off-balance, and how close he is to Perry, which give him no control over the defender's movement.
Peters uses a swift rip move to get by Winters and close in on Geno Smith for the sack.
It is worth noting that this was Winters' first professional start at guard and that he has yet to be beaten as cleanly as this since then. Still, this is just one example of how Winters is playing a bit too slowly at times, causing his technique to slow.
The Jets' rushing attack has started to come alive in recent weeks, but it has hardly been a result of quality run blocking on the interior. In fact, most of Ivory's rushing yards from last week came after first contact:
While Brian Winters has not been the road-grader the Jets expected he would be, he is hardly the weak link of the Jets' line. The Jets have fared at least as well when running between Winter's two gaps than any other gap along the interior of the offensive line.
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In fact, the Jets have elected to run in the gap between Winters and center Nick Mangold more than any other gap while posting the highest average (3.9 yards per carry) among the interior gaps.
Brian Winters may not be lighting things up in PFF's rankings (currently ranked 54 out of 71 among guards in run blocking), but that probably has less to do with Winters' inability to block well and more because of how opposing teams are shutting down the Jets' rushing attack as a whole.
With a rookie quarterback, the Jets are seeing a lot more defenses focused on taking away the run, forcing them to beat their opponents on the arm of Geno Smith.
As detailed as they are, these numbers do not tell the whole story. On this play that was bounced to the outside, Winters sets up a perfect seal that creates a huge space for Josh Cribbs:
Winters showed off his athleticism with a terrific cut block in space on Greg Salas' 44-yard scamper on a screen pass:
Plays like these show how good Winters can be if he uses his ability to his full potential. The challenge for Winters is to show that he can play this well on a snap-by-snap basis without the lapses in technique.
How Much Can Winters Improve?
While the early returns on Winters are less than stellar, there is still plenty of time for him to develop into a quality starter. After all, the Jets did not use a valuable third-round pick on an interior lineman to get an average player in return.
It is important to note that Winters was off to a slow start to the season after he missed a lot of time in training camp dealing with an ankle injury that delayed his insertion into the starting lineup.
We may be over halfway through the season, but Winters has barely reached the quarter-season mark with only five starts under his belt.
Brian Winters is impressive. Mangold and Colon have raved about his work ethic. We'll see how he plays but seems mentally prepared. #NYJ— Chris Lopresti (@CLoprestiWFAN) October 4, 2013
The decision to use a draft pick on Winters should be judged two seasons from now, not within the next month.
While the production for Winters is not quite there, his raw ability and reputation as a tone-setter give the Jets plenty of reason to be optimistic about his future as their starting left guard.
Advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).