Earlier this week, Jets head coach Robert Saleh said that improving his defense this offseason is “at the front of [the organization’s] minds” when discussing ways to best help Zach Wilson and the offense improve in Year 2.
While they certainly need to add some pieces on offense to make directly assist that improvement, he’s dead on by saying the defense needs to do its part to not make every game a shootout for the offense to try and keep pace with.
It’s what made the 49ers’ run with Saleh as defensive coordinator so successful those four years; equip a serviceable offense with a stout defense and allow them to control the game by way of time of possession and the turnover battle. There should be the hope that this Jets offense eventually turns into one of the high-octane units we see around the league, but that jump won’t happen overnight.
As far as long-term projections go, the potential of the current offense gives me way more faith than the current state of the defense. With that in mind, it’s the necessary improvements on defense, not the offense, that will help the Jets start to make the jump as early as next season.
They’ll be able to piece together some nice options between the draft and free agency at edge, linebacker and in the secondary, but there’s one position where the options are few and far between — the interior defensive line. With pending free agent Folorunso Fatukasi being one of the better options at that position, having him back in fold for the 2022 is a must.
The four-year vet out of Connecticut had plenty of opportunity to shine this past season, starting 15 games after having a combined eight in his first three years. He was their best asset in the 3-tech slot, with fellow starter Quinnen Williams primarily lined up as a 1-tech, and was their second-best iDL in terms of overall play, run defense and rushing the quarterback.
While his PFF grade of 61.5 was only 49th-best in football among interior defenders, he’s ranks behind just Aikem Hicks and Calais Campbell as free agent options. Given Hicks is more of a 3- or 5-tech and both are on the other side of 30 years old, Fatukasi is most likely the best they’re going to get on the market.
There are few options that may be looked at as the same tier of Fatukasi, most notably B.J. Hill from the Bengals, D.J. Jones from the 49ers and Sebastian Joseph-Day from the Rams, but all project as 1-techs and would rotate in for Williams. Any of these names would be solid depth pieces, but none fix the need of who starts opposite No. 95.
The Jets could look toward the draft for some answers at the position but, considering their needs on the offensive line and at wide receiver, tight end, linebacker, cornerback and safety, it’s more likely than anything that a pick along the interior defensive line won’t be made until the third round at best.
It sounds like they’d be settling in this scenario, and frankly they probably are, but keep in mind the carousel that Saleh likes to have along his defensive line. Predicated on getting pressure with four and not blitzing at a high clip, keeping guys fresh throughout both the course of a game and the season with a deep rotation is pivotal for success in this defense.
For the Jets defense to resemble some of the greats that Saleh has been a part of throughout his career they need a substantially deep defensive line of ranging talents. While the starters on the edge and nose tackle are squared away, and some depth pieces will come by way of free agency and the draft, the need for a starting caliber player to go alongside Williams is a must. Given the scarcity of talent available, keeping Fatukasi in New York as a stopgap option until a better option presents itself must be a priority this offseason.
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