FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Mekhi Becton last stepped onto a football field to play in a game nearly two years ago.
It seems more like a lifetime to the New York Jets offensive tackle.
Moments of pain, worry, anger and doubt have marked the past 688 days. But so have hope and an improved outlook, especially during the hundreds of hours of rehab since Becton’s right knee went out during the 2021 season opener in Carolina.
Now, the 24-year-old Becton is ready for his big comeback. It’ll finally come Thursday night in the Jets’ preseason opener against the Cleveland Browns in the Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio.
“Yeah, it’s definitely significant,” Becton said. “I’m treating this as if it’s a regular game, for sure. I don’t even care if it’s preseason or whenever.”
In 2020, Becton was the big attraction for the Jets — and not just because it was hard to miss him at 6-foot-7 and 370-plus pounds. The 11th overall pick in the draft that year was a pancaking left tackle who looked every bit a potentially dominant building block for the Jets’ offensive line as a rookie.
Then came that game against the Panthers during which he was carted off the field with a knee injury. He had surgery and came back last summer, but another injury to the same knee in training camp ended his season before it even started. Major knee surgery followed and the comeback was put on hold again.
Coach Robert Saleh said Becton will play against the Browns and probably stay in for about 20-25 snaps.
“I’m just ready to go put my hands on somebody else other than a green jersey,” Becton said. “So I’m ready to go. I’m excited.”
Becton, who has played in just 15 of a possible 50 games since he has been with the Jets, has already been labeled a “bust” by some frustrated fans. He saw a lot of what people were saying on social media about him and he acknowledged it was negatively affecting him.
Used to blocking defenders on the field, Becton began blocking the keyboard warriors off it.
“I was trying to get my mental right because you’ve got a lot of people that say stuff about you,” Becton said. “Just trying to not let the words get to me. That’s probably been the hardest part.”
He looks dramatically different from the most recent time he played, dropping his weight from a scale-tipping 400 pounds to a svelte 350 — the lightest he has been since his college days at Louisville.
Becton’s role remains uncertain this season as does his status with the team after the Jets didn’t pick up the fifth-year option on his contract. He’s working at both the right and left tackle spots, but hasn’t practiced with the starting offense during training camp. Becton figures to be behind Duane Brown on the depth chart on the left side and Max Mitchell and Billy Turner on the right.
“It’s definitely my goal to be the starter for Week 1,” he said.
He still has a lot of work to do before that happens, but Becton had a good week of practices leading up to the preseason game.
“There’s no denying his talent, so right now it’s just about building confidence, building strength, building the endurance,” Saleh said. ”And once all that comes, then we’ll take that next step of, ‘All right, let’s see how he can perform with the ones’ and all that.”
Left tackle or right, it doesn’t really matter at this point to Becton.
“I just want to be on the field,” he said. “Yeah, that took some maturing. That’s the big thing for me. I just want to play.”
Becton missed a practice last week while dealing with soreness in his knee — “I’m still in the healing process of my recovery” — but is feeling good now.
In May, Becton told Newsday he thought his knee injury last year was due in large part to the coaching staff playing him at right tackle, which put added pressure on his surgically repaired right knee. He backtracked a bit Tuesday, saying a major reason actually was him choosing the wrong surgery in 2021. Becton wanted to return quicker, but his knee still wasn’t completely healed before he got hurt again last season — and then had the major surgery he acknowledged he should’ve had in the first place.
That’s all in the past now.
He said since his promising rookie season, he has changed a lot — more tattoos, a baby boy, a better handle on his mental and physical health and a new perspective on the game he missed for so long.
“I’m not the same person I was three years ago,” Becton said. “I definitely look at this as a fresh start, for sure.”
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