FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – Wayne Hunter saw it coming — just as everyone else did.
Rex Ryan announced Thursday that the veteran right tackle was demoted and replaced by Austin Howard as the starter for the New York Jets' exhibition game against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night. Hunter, who struggled last year and in the first two games of the preseason, was told of the team's decision when he met with Ryan on Thursday morning.
"It wasn't a surprise," Hunter said after practice. "Everyone knows. The whole New York City (area) knows that I've been struggling for the last year. The last game, I didn't do much better. So, I wasn't surprised. I was just waiting for it, to be honest with you."
Hunter 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. 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.
"I want to help this team any way I can," Hunter said. "And right now, it's not at right tackle. I've had struggles and everyone has seen that. They're just moving me back to a position where I excelled, did really well and helped the team to two AFC championships. They feel, and even I feel, like I can help the team more going back to those days."
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.
"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.
"I feel more comfortable," said Hunter, appearing to be a bit relieved, "just because I've had so much success being a jumbo guy."
Many fans and media have wondered why the Jets didn'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.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen Week 1, but I'm just seeing this as an opportunity to get better," Howard said.
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 understanding 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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