FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Every Monday morning, Brian Baldinger makes a 15-minute drive from his home in Marlton, New Jersey, to the NFL Films facility in Mount Laurel. He heads up to the third-floor studio, where he dissects video from the previous day’s games. One of his favorite parts of the job as an NFL Network analyst is watching the New York Jets — not the team that is winless, mind you, but one player in particular.
Rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton.
Each week, Baldinger splices together cut-ups of Becton’s best blocks — a “Greatest Hits” album, so to speak — and shares the video on Twitter with the hashtag #BaldysBreakdowns. He narrates, too, often sounding as if he wants to chest-bump Becton after a pancake.
He’s Highway 77. You just get on the highway. You get on the highway and you don’t go anywhere else.
“I’ve met him a couple of times,” said Baldinger, who played 11 years in the NFL as an offensive lineman. “He’s this super-friendly nice guy. Got this big, old smile on his face, but he’s got a knife in his hand and he’s just trying to freaking break your sword and rip your heart right out of your chest when he plays.”
.@nyjets @BigTicket73 #MekhiTime had a good day against some elite players @chiefs. They need to find 4 more #BigTickets and then they can begin to capture some of the glory of 50 years ago. #TakeFlight #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/Oc4ZtZrD93
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) November 2, 2020
Becton is an anomaly in that he’s an offensive lineman who produces actual highlights. How many in the big-man profession can do that? There are two or three plays every game where he looks like a bouncer at a rowdy, spring-break bar; he shows up and bodies start flying. On the first play of last week’s game, he threw Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark on his back while blocking a run to his side.
In the spirit of “You Got Mossed,” the “ESPN Countdown” crew should devote a segment to Becton and call it, “You Got Tossed.”
Some observers believe the 6-foot-7, 365-pound Becton already might be the best player on the Jets (0-8). He’s a social-media sensation for a forlorn fan base that clamors to see his feats of strength and athleticism. After six games (he missed two with a shoulder injury), Mekhi is Their Guy.
“That’s the thing that’s so fascinating,” said Damien Woody, who played 12 years as an NFL O-lineman before becoming an ESPN analyst. “Here’s a guy playing one of the hardest positions to transition into in the NFL, and he’s made it look easy. He really has. He’s doing things you just don’t see. You just don’t see guys getting tossed and rag-dolled around like Mekhi does to a lot of people. These guys, they get paid, too! These guys are 300 pounds, too! He’s just rag-dolling people. That’s why he’s getting a lot of attention.”
Former offensive linemen are head-over-heels for Becton, and that’s the most impressive thing about his young NFL career. Old-school guys such as Baldinger, Woody and Joe Thomas name-drop Pro Football Hall of Famers when discussing Becton. It seems so sudden, so anti-Bill Parcells, who is famous for saying, “Let’s not put him in Canton, yet.”
And yet: “If you’re able to fully tap into that potential, you’re talking Jonathan Ogden — a first-ballot Hall of Famer — because he can do it all,” said Thomas, an NFL Network analyst who made 10 Pro Bowls with the Cleveland Browns.
“If he stays healthy, I think he can be the most dominant left tackle in football,” Baldinger said. “He can be what Trent Williams was or Jason Peters was or what Tyron Smith was. He can be the gold standard at left tackle in this business and maybe follow the way Jonathan Ogden or Walter Jones or Anthony Munoz went to Canton, doing it year after year after year. He has all that ability to be in that category.”
Woody didn’t make a specific comparison, yet still gushed.
“His technique is pretty doggone good for a rookie offensive lineman,” he said. “When you combine that with his physical attributes, he has a chance to be a Hall of Fame-type player if he continues to work and stay on top of his weight.”
How did Becton come so far, so fast? Tenacity, rare physical traits and textbook technique, according to the three ex-players.
‘He wants to put your face in the dirt’
San Francisco 49ers at the Jets, Week 2. On the first play of the second half, the Jets called an outside-zone run behind Becton, who exploded off the ball and pancaked defensive end Kerry Hyder Jr. Becton got up and started waving his arms, screaming at the Jets’ sideline. He was imploring the coaches to keep running behind him.
“Probably my favorite play of the season,” Becton said.
He doesn’t subscribe to the belief that rookies should be seen and not heard. The former Louisville standout, drafted No. 11 overall, possesses a swagger often seen in wide receivers and running backs. While skill players demand the rock, Becton wants to be the rock for his team. He’s good and he knows it, and he believes his punishing blocks can spark the offense.
Jets rookie Mekhi Becton dominates in the trenches 💪 @BigTicket73
— NFL (@NFL) October 1, 2020
Asked to name the strength of his game, Becton said, “Just how dominant I am every play. I feel that’s the strong point of my game, just the dominance and how physical I am every play.”
“He wants to put your face in the dirt,” Baldinger said. “I love that part about him.”
Jets running back Frank Gore, the beneficiary of the block on Hyder, said Becton’s brashness on that play reminded him of former 49ers teammate Larry Allen — yes, another member of the gold-jacket fraternity.
“I don’t care who you are, he’s going to try to finish you,” Gore said. “He dumped him and he went at him again, and let him know, ‘Hey, I’m here.’ He’s an old-school lineman, a Larry Allen-type guy. … Larry Allen, that’s a Hall of Famer. I don’t want to speak too fast because he’s a young player, but he’s got a chance to do special things.”
Becton showed that nasty side as far back as high school, when he told his coach at halftime of the championship game to run behind him on every play. They pretty much did, as Highland Springs (Virginia) rallied from a one-touchdown deficit to win 34-20.
“That tells me he’s got confidence in his ability, and that can be rare for rookies — a rookie who had an abbreviated training camp,” Thomas said of Becton’s bravado. “I can’t imagine how hard that had to have been. Now, to be all of sudden exuding confidence in the first few weeks of the season, that’s a great sign to me.”
Former Louisville offensive tackle Mekhi Becton pushes a truck in preparation for the 2020 NFL draft.
‘You could build game plans around his abilities’
Baldinger spent a day at the Jets’ training camp, where he watched closely as Becton went through his paces. He had studied him before the 2020 NFL draft, but seeing him up close confirmed what he saw on video: This isn’t just a big dude with freakish athleticism. Becton is a technician at his position. He’s patient, knowing how to trust his strength and power. His hand placement is spot on. He doesn’t play with his weight over his feet, meaning he has excellent balance.
“He can move his feet and hands at the same time, which is the sign of a really good athlete,” Baldinger said. “Some guys, when they punch, their feet stop. When their feet stop, the elite players go around them. He has that movement about him. He can punch you, put his hands on you and still move his feet at the same time.”
Becton credited his college position coach, Dwayne Ledford, and his personal coach, Duke Manyweather, for molding him into a fundamentally sound lineman. He’s still not where he wants to be — he said his footwork gets out of whack at times — but he’s more advanced than most at this stage of his career. Becton said hand placement is the key to being able to toss defenders. His goal on every play is to get his hands into his opponent’s chest plate.
“I have to keep working. I’m only a rookie,” he said. “I haven’t done anything, yet.”
Baldinger said Becton reminds him of Walter Jones, the former Seattle Seahawks great. He said Jones was so dominant at left tackle that the Seahawks were able to tailor game plans around him. Jones moved defenders so well, he said, that it created passing lanes on slant routes.
He believes Becton has that kind of talent.
“You could build game plans around his abilities right now,” Baldinger said. “I call him ‘Highway 77.’ They should run behind him more than they do.”
‘It’s a math and physics equation’
It’s helps to be big and fast, and Becton is both. Because of his size, he’s hard to get around. If he gets beat in pass protection, he has the agility to recover before his man gets to the quarterback.
“The good thing about being a big man — and why his ceiling is so high — is because it’s a math and physics equation,” Thomas said. “When you’re big, a lot of times guys struggle to change direction to recover, because you’ve got all that mass moving one way and it takes a lot of power and strength to be able to stop and move back quickly in the other direction. Mekhi has shown a special ability to change direction and recover when he does get out of position.
The Big Ticket @BigTicket73 Mekhi Becton was worth the price of admission in his @nyjets debut. I haven’t seen every rookie in week 1 but he is the best rookie I’ve seen thus far #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/DfKLuFEAzT
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) September 14, 2020
“I think that should get Jets fans very excited because big men don’t change direction and have great balance like that very often.”
Becton also has long arms — 35 5/8 inches, which put him in the 99th percentile among linemen at the NFL scouting combine. He has an 83-inch wingspan, which means you should call an Uber to get around him. The height, the weight, the arms — that’s a nasty combination for pass-rushers.
Thomas called it a “big bubble.” It forces opponents to take a circuitous route to the quarterback.
Everything about Becton is big, including his ambition.
“Hopefully, I can be one of the household names — hopefully, one of the top names that everybody is talking about,” he said, looking into his future. “That’s what I’m trying to be. Hopefully, I’m in Pro Bowls and in the playoffs.”