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It is no secret that the Jets are in full-blown rebuilding mode on both sides of the ball. With their skill positions addressed, the offense is closer even with the organization using two of their three first-round picks on a corner and defensive end this spring. They are off to a good start, but this defense has a long way to go after a dismal 2021.
The Jets' defense almost has to be better this year because there is not much room to be any worse. The pass defense was tied last in yards per attempt and 30th in passing yards. The pass rush finished in a tie for 25th with 33 sacks, and only the Raiders had fewer interceptions. The high point for the pass defense was finishing in a tie for 20th in points, but that only happened because the 28 rushing scores the team allowed were three more than anyone else. The Jets were almost as bad on the ground in yardage, ranking 29th in yards allowed and tied for 22nd in yards per carry. To cap it off, only Jacksonville had fewer total takeaways than New York’s 14.
One factor in the team’s struggles was the change of scheme from a 3-4 to a 4-3, which always takes a year or two as the team brings in personnel to fit the new defense. Another issue was injuries that had a magnified impact due to the lack of depth at all three levels of the defense.
Many NFL coaches and general managers will tell you the best way to build a successful defense is to start in the trenches. The Jets are doing just that. In Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankins, New York has an excellent foundation of interior guys to build on. Both are talented, former first-round picks that have been starters from the first time they stepped on the field.
Rankins spent his first five seasons with the Saints, where he saw time at both interior positions in the New Orlean 4-3. He is not as big as some nose tackles but has been successful when called upon to line up there. Rankins is a stout anchor in the middle that can shut down lanes versus the run and has some pass rush juice.
Rankins has not made a big splash in IDP circles, partly due to injuries but because he often comes off the field on passing downs. In 2018 he was healthy all season and logged 647 snaps. That year Rankins went 26-15-8 with a forced fumble and was the fantasy game’s 14th-ranked tackle. There is some potential for roster-worthy production, but his first year with the Jets looked like most of his other seasons with 33 total tackles, a couple of fumble recoveries, and three sacks, leaving Rankins short of IDP value.
Quinnen Williams was drafted to be a 5-technique defensive end in the Jets 3-4 under the previous coaching regime. He is an active and mobile big man that does an excellent job of getting off blockers to make plays in a phone booth but also has enough range and quickness to show up outside the tackle box and enough wiggle to be a factor on passing downs. His prowess as a pass rusher showed up last year when Williams tied for the team lead with six sacks.
The 2019 third overall pick was part of a massive rotation as a rookie, limiting both his snap count and production. In 2020 he proved that the team was right when they selected him. Williams missed three games that year but still managed 55 total stops, 7 sacks, a pair of forced fumbles, and 3 swatted passes to land at 15 among defensive linemen, with an average of 10.2 points per game that ranked eighth.
His overall numbers slipped but remained similar last year when Williams missed a couple of games and finished at 51 combined tackles, 6 sacks, and 3 batted passes. His overall DL ranking dipped to the mid-20s, but the smooth transition to tackle in the 4-3, made him a top-ten interior lineman. With his talent, skill set, improved supporting cast, and a year of experience in the scheme, the 24-year-old should become a mainstay in the top ten for the next several years.
The Jets were short on edge rushers when they were running the 3-4 so there was not a lot to work with from the start in 2021. Even the signing of Carl Lawson left them thin, so when Lawson tore his Achilles in August, it was a crushing blow. With almost a full year to recover, Lawson looks strong and healthy leading up to training camp. The team is taking no chances, so Lawson will start camp on the PUP. That might protect him from himself as he works back onto the field. There is no reason to believe he will not be a full go before week one.
Lawson is an intense, high-energy competitor that fires up everyone around him. He spent four seasons as a third-down specialist for the Bengals before signing with the Jets. Over that time, Lawson proved himself as a pass rusher with 19.5 sacks, but there were still questions about his ability to play on early downs. He didn’t exactly stifle those concerns when he started the final nine games for the Bengals in 2020 and finished the season at 19-18-5.5 on 723 snaps. Lawson has added a few pounds of muscle and is eager to put those concerns to rest. There is no question that he has double-digit sack potential. The risk for IDP managers will be in the tackle columns.
John Franklin-Myers is penciled in as the starter entering training camp. How long he keeps the job will depend on the health of Lawson and how quickly first-round pick Jermaine Johnson II develops. Franklin-Myers was a fourth-round pick of the Rams in 2018, but Los Angeles gave up on him after one season. He was scooped up by the Jets and has developed into a solid contributor over the last three seasons.
Franklin-Myer is 25-30-9.5 with four turnovers over the last two seasons, tying for the team lead with six sacks last year. It matters little if he has the title of starter because either way, he will be part of a rotation at defensive end as the team brings along their prized rookie. One thing that could help his IDP value is that Franklin-Myer can shift inside on passing downs. With a third-down lineup of Lawson and Johnson on the outside and Williams and Franklin-Myer on the interior, the Jets should be much more successful at getting to the passer in 2022
Johnson was the fourth edge defender off the board in this year’s draft but could be the best in his class in a year or two. He is 6-foot-5 and 254 pounds long and lanky with a huge wingspan. Johnson has the frame to add muscle without affecting his speed or explosion and is relentless. He is raw, with only one season as a college starter, but that one season was impressive. After transferring from Georgia to Florida State last year, he piled up a mark of 33-37-11.5 with 3 turnovers and a score in twelve games. When watching Johnson’s game film, the player that pops into my mind is former Dolphins great Jason Taylor.
Johnson will get most of the attention, but dynasty managers might want to consider Micheal Clemons as a taxi stash. The fourth-round pick had a solid career at Texas A&M, recording 76 combined tackles and 11 sacks in 15 games over the last two years. He is a Sam Hubbard type that lacks premium pass rush potential but is physical at the point of attack and has a great motor. He may never reach double-digit sacks in a season but could become a good, three-down player in a year or two.
- DT Sheldon Rankins – Marginal IDP potential
- DT Quinnen Williams – Perennial top-ten tackle or decent DL2
- DT Nathan Shepherd – No impact expected
- DT Solomon Thomas – Rotational tackle with marginal fantasy potential
- DE John Franklin-Myers – Possible DL3 with limited upside
- DE Carl Lawson – Sacks will come, but IDP value will be in question until we see some tackles
- DE Jermaine Johnson – High upside rookie with long-term DL1 potential
- DE Vinny Curry – Roster bubble
- DE Bryce Huff – No impact
- DE Michael Clemons – Dynasy sleeper with future three-down potential
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