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Making Sense of the Jets' Defensive Line

With their existing group, Carl Lawson coming back from injury and a few draft picks entering the fold, New York's defensive line looks promising entering the 2022 season.

When Robert Saleh came to New York, Jets fans hoped he would bring a piece of San Francisco’s defensive line with him. Not a player, of course, but the patented “Wide-9” system that allowed the likes of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and others to flourish was exactly what the Jets needed.

They needed it in order to bolster a pass-rush that has been non-existent for the bulk of the last decade-plus. John Abraham is often the name thrown around as the last great pass rusher to come through East Rutherford, and that’s for good reason. The Jets haven’t had anyone since Abraham left that has been a reliable double-digit sack guy.

Heading into his second season, Saleh, with a lot of help from Joe Douglas upstairs, is in position to have that coveted pass-rush ability off the line of scrimmage. The Jets have gone out and gotten the top-level talent to address the need, and they’re littered with depth pieces to boot. In fact, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Jets keep more defensive linemen than any other team in football when the 53-man roster is finalized.

With so many offseason additions and guys with positional versatility, let’s make some sense of what the Jets’ front four will look like on a weekly basis, from starters to third-down specialists, to interior run-stuffers, etc.

With a Wide-9 system, it all starts on the edges, and New York finally has those bookend guys worth getting excited about. The Jets used premium capital on Carl Lawson and Jermaine Johnson the past two offseasons, and both are expected to make their Jets debut in Week One against the Ravens. They project out as potential starters, and figure to get the bulk of the work, particularly on early downs with the way they play the run. The wrinkle in that is the presence of John Franklin-Myers. Saleh has openly talked about how much he likes Franklin-Myers as an interior guy, but there will still be plays where he spells Lawson or Johnson on the edge on early downs. After all, he isn’t making nearly $14M a year to be a third-down specialist on the interior. He figures to see the field as often as any defensive lineman.

For the Jets, though, how often is that? This is a team that loves to rotate its players in and out of the lineup. Franklin-Myers was on the field for 64% of defensive snaps in games he played last season, by far the most on the team. No other player even approached the 60% mark.

That isn’t likely to change this season, regardless of performance. Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich like to keep their guys fresh, and they believe in a committee approach. Therefore, don’t be surprised to see Vinny Curry, Bryce Huff, Jacob Martin and Micheal Clemons all out there at edge throughout the game. That could change based on health and who makes the roster, but edge rusher really is an all-hands-on-deck position in this defense, especially with a rookie and a guy coming off a torn Achilles as the starters.

Of those guys, Martin is the X-factor. He is extremely adept as a situational pass-rusher, with a well above league-average 11.2% pressure rate and a nose for forcing fumbles, but saw his production dip in an every-down role for Houston last season, struggling to play the run. For New York, he’ll be asked to be more of the former than the latter.

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The interior defensive line has just as many moving parts, but probably more question marks. Let’s start with what we know: Quinnen Williams is the anchor. He will probably hover around the 60% snap mark this year (58% a year ago), rotating in with Franklin-Myers occasionally (the two figure to be on the field together as much as possible in surefire passing situations). The Jets also might deploy Solomon Thomas or Tanzel Smart at the 3-tech or even 5-tech spots should those guys make the final roster. The second defensive tackle spot, though, is a hole right now. Franklin-Myers and Williams are an exceptional duo in pass sets, but leave a bit to be desired against the run.

New York was 29th against the run last season, and has since lost Foley Fatukasi, undoubtedly the team’s best run-stopper in 2021. The combination of Sheldon Rankins, Nathan Shepherd and Jonathan Marshall probably isn’t enough to fill that void. Rankins is a very good player in his own right, but isn’t anything close to a nose tackle or even an above-average run-stopper. Shepherd makes far too many mistakes to justify significant time and may be a training camp casualty. Marshall, who has shown promise, is still somewhat raw, but does have the tools to potentially develop into a run-stuffer when called upon. Rotating all these defensive tackles to keep them fresh for maximum effort isn’t the end of the world, but it’s still a downgrade from Fatukasi.

The final option New York has is to hit the open market. There is a lot of talk about Larry Ogunjobi entering the fray, and while Ogunjobi is a good player and can be a potential starter inside, he doesn’t give the Jets anything they don’t already have. The ex-Bengal defensive tackle is a three-technique who can rush the passer, but isn’t an anchor against the run (38.9 run defense grade in 2021, per Pro Football Focus).

If the Jets are looking for a run-stuffer, Corey Peters is probably their best option. At 6-foot-3 and 335 pounds, he lines up over the guard or center and can plug gaps up the middle. Peters is 34, so he’s a bit older and doesn’t provide much at all in the way of pass-rush acumen, but he’s a perfect stop-gap for the role that Fatukasi’s departure vacated and is worthy of a look from Douglas. Luckily for New York, Lawson and Johnson both set the edge against the run and make things easier on the interior linemen. That’s a big part of what makes them valuable resources. But a guy like Peters could really strengthen the front on early downs for good.

Even as things currently stand, this front four, one that could end up consisting of anywhere from 10-to-12 guys by the time this roster is finalized, is a massive improvement over last year’s. The Jets finally have a promising edge rush, one that should clear up interior pass-rush opportunities for Williams and Franklin-Myers, with the depth to rotate guys in and out the way Saleh and Ulbrich want to. And maybe, if it all works out as planned, the John Abraham nostalgia can come to its rightful conclusion.

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