By Peter Schwartz
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To say that this has been a disappointing season for the Jets would be an understatement.
With just two games left, Gang Green (4-10) will not make the playoffs for a sixth straight season.
But even with so many things that have gone wrong in 2016, there has been at least one silver lining. With center Nick Mangold hampered by injury, third-year offensive lineman Wesley Johnson has assumed the starting role. Filling the shoes of someone line Mangold has not been easy, but Johnson has taken advantage of a golden opportunity.
"It's been huge," Wesley told WFAN.com. "Everyone's been helping me out a lot. I've gotten a lot of support from Nick. There's stuff that I'm doing now that I think I'm much better at and I wouldn't even have thought of when I first started getting valuable time."
Mangold suffered an ankle injury in the Jets' win over the Baltimore Ravens on Oct. 23 and missed four games. That hiatus opened the door for Johnson to get a chance to play and he did a solid job. Mangold returned on Dec. 5 against the Indianapolis Colts, but was unable to finish the game and was subsequently placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Mangold's future with the Jets is up in the air as he's due almost $8.5 million next year and could very well end a salary cap casualty. Despite what has been a frustrating season for him, Mangold has taken the time to tutor Johnson, even though it has meant helping a person that could take his job.
"He's one of those Hall of Fame people," Johnson said of Mangold. "The league could use a lot more Nick Mangolds. He's been helping me out a lot all year. It would be easy for him to check out, but he's been hanging out, doing what he can to help the team and to help us all out individually, too."
The emergence of Johnson has triggered speculation that he could be the Jets' starting center of the future, perhaps as soon as next season if Mangold is jettisoned.
Johnson's play, 175 snaps last season and his extended time this season, has been evidence that he can be a starting center in the NFL, but he said that's not on his mind right now.
"Hopefully one day, but I can't focus on that," Johnson said. "We gotta play the Patriots this weekend and beat them, so we'll see what the future holds."
From a team perspective, it hasn't been a very rewarding season for Gang Green, but you can be sure that if Santa Claus asked the Jets what they wanted for Christmas, it would be the gift of shocking the world and upsetting their long-time nemesis this Saturday in Foxboro, Massachusetts.
"It would be huge," Johnson said. "It would be great to just get a win, especially against the Patriots."
Johnson has developed into an NFL center despite anchoring Vanderbilt's offensive line just seven times over the course of 51 starts during his college career. He was primarily a left tackle with the Commodores, making 42 starts, but there were many draft experts that projected Johnson to be an interior lineman in the NFL, and that has turned out to be the case.
After getting drafted by the Steelers in the fifth round back in 2014, Johnson was waived on Oct. 11 of that season and was picked up by the Jets two days later. Many times in life, things happen for a reason and Johnson said he feels fortunate that he has found himself a home with the Jets.
"Yes, I'm very happy that I landed here," he said. "It's worked out very well. I think I've come a long way. I've just been really appreciative of the opportunity."
The football world began to take notice of Johnson's passion for the game on Sept. 21, 2013. On that day, Vanderbilt had a rough first half against UMass at Gillette Stadium, but still led 10-7. The Commodores' offensive struggles over the first 30 minutes prompted Johnson to deliver an emotional speech to his teammates at halftime. That emotional outburst featured him throwing his helmet against a locker and tossing a chair.
While he is doing what he can to help solidify the Jets' offensive line, he's not about to duplicate that type of leadership in Gang Green's locker room.
"No, I'd probably get fined if I did that," said Johnson, who will turn 26 on Jan. 9. "Right now, I'm not trying to think about being a leader. I'm just trying to get everybody going and work well at my position. I think if a leadership role ever developed that would kind of happen naturally. It wouldn't be because I was getting mad at halftime."
Despite losing his mind temporarily that one time, Johnson's perseverance should be an inspiration to any young football player, particularly to offensive linemen. While every position on the line is important, Johnson has excelled at two spots that generally command the most attention. He pointed out that the left tackle and center positions share a common requirement.
"Communication is important," Johnson said. "I played tackle and tackle might be a little bit more fun because you're working out in space and stuff like that, but when you're the center you get to take charge and your mentality and your attitude sets the tone across the offensive line."
The Jets have been blessed with some quality centers over the years, like John Schmitt, Joe Fields, Jim Sweeney, Kevin Mawae and Mangold. But if Mangold's time with Gang Green is over after his season, the Jets may have found the heir apparent in Johnson.
It's very clear from his play that he doesn't have to throw a helmet or a chair to be the center of attention.
Don't forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan. You can also follow Wesley Johnson at @wjohnson67
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