Jets bench right tackle Hunter

Opposing defenses won’t have Wayne Hunter to push around anymore

on the New York Jets’ starting offensive line.

Rex Ryan announced Thursday that the veteran right tackle was

benched and replaced by Austin Howard as the starter for the team’s

exhibition game against the Carolina Panthers. Hunter, who

struggled last year and in the first two games of the preseason,

will be used as the sixth offensive lineman – or as a blocking

tight end, a role he performed well in during previous seasons.

”The more I thought about it, I need to see Austin with this

group and going against Carolina’s starters,” Ryan said before

practice. ”And the fact, I want Wayne in this role. It’s a very

valuable role that we have.”

The decision, which Ryan said Howard ”earned,” came less than

48 hours after the coach said he expected Hunter to play with the

starters against the Panthers on Sunday night. Hunter had a lousy

performance in the Jets’ 26-3 loss to the Giants on Saturday night,

playing a part in three sacks of Mark Sanchez, and there would’ve

been a fourth if it hadn’t been negated by a penalty.

Hunter was given the night off from practice Tuesday at MetLife

Stadium for what the Jets (No. 17 in the AP Pro32) called a

”personal reason,” but he returned to the field Wednesday. Ryan

then told Hunter of the team’s decision Thursday morning.

”Right now,” Ryan said, ”I believe this is in the best

interest of our team.”

Hunter was previously hailed by Ryan as ”the best backup tackle

in football” in 2010, when he took over for an injured Damien

Woody. Hunter was the full-time starter last season and struggled

as part of a line that gave up 39 sacks of Sanchez, but the Jets

made it clear he was still in their plans for this season when they

didn’t cut him before the start of free agency – allowing his

contract to become guaranteed for $2.45 million.

Because of the guaranteed money, Hunter will not be cut, and the

Jets confirmed that they are not actively seeking to trade him.

Still, many fans and media wondered why the Jets wouldn’t try to

explore other options at the position in the offseason. The team

stuck to its plan to have Hunter start, and new offensive line

coach Dave DeGuglielmo was so confident in Hunter’s abilities, he

told reporters in May: ”Until they ship him 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.”

New York traded for former Carolina first-round draft pick Jeff

Otah before training camp, but he failed his physical and was

returned to the Panthers.

It appears it’s Howard’s turn now.

”Right now, I’m thinking that we’re OK,” Ryan said.

But, he wouldn’t commit to Howard being the opening day starter

when the Jets play the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 9.

”In all fairness, you are always evaluating your team,” Ryan

said. ”For me to sit here and say absolutely this is going to

happen? If Jonathan Ogden called me up and said, `Rex, I’d like to

come back,’ Jonathan Ogden is our starting right tackle. That would

be a story.”

Ogden was an 11-time Pro Bowl selection for Baltimore who

retired after the 2007 season.

The 25-year-old Howard was signed by the Jets off Baltimore’s

practice squad last November, and previously played in four games

for Philadelphia in 2010. The Eagles signed the 6-foot-7, 333-pound

Howard as an undrafted free agent out of Northern Iowa, where he

began his career as a tight end before switching to offensive

tackle in 2008.

Howard has had some good moments during training camp, and it

was his potential that Ryan said kept the Jets from being extra

aggressive in going after a right tackle.

”We were excited when we picked up Austin Howard,” Ryan said.

”When he came in, I think he turned some heads, he really did. But

to sit back and say we’re going to put all our eggs in that basket,

we had to see it first.”

Howard has played in four regular-season games, all with the

Eagles in 2010, with one start at left tackle.

”Let’s see how he performs this week,” Ryan said. ”We’ll have

a better understand of how he works with his teammates, with (right

guard) Brandon Moore and company. But he certainly has a great

skill set as well.”

NOTES: Ryan said the Jets don’t plan to use their wildcat

formation with Tim Tebow at all during the preseason. They have

used Tebow only in a conventional-style offense so far in games,

and as the personal punt protector on special teams. … Ryan

anticipates Sanchez playing into the third quarter against Carolina

on Sunday night, with Tebow playing the rest of the way.

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