New York Jets 2021 offseason recap: Defensive line

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The arrival of Robert Saleh should help stabilize a New York Jets defensive line packed with young potential.

Following the conclusion of minicamp activities, the NFL offseason is officially over. The next time the New York Jets convene in Florham Park, they’ll be getting ready for preseason and regular season action for the 2021 campaign. 

With the offseason in the rearview mirror, ESM looks back on the green offseason that was, position-by-position. Our next portion turns to the front seven, starting with the defensive line…

Oct 18, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; New York Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (95) reaches for Miami Dolphins running back Myles Gaskin (37) during the second half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

How It Started

If you, the reader, often skipped these sections of the offseason recaps, this writer could hardly blame you. After all, reading them from a Jets fan’s perspective may be the Gang Green equivalent of watching Avengers: Infinity War and skipping to Thanos’ snap. 



But the Jets’ defensive line was a rare bright spot in 2020, featuring several breakouts from young pieces. By far the most impressive was that of Quinnen Williams, who immediately reclaimed the narrative on his NFL career after a sputtering rookie season. Williams’ greatest leaps came in the pass rush, more. than doubling his pressures (14 QB hits) and sack totals (7 after 2.5 in 2019). The third overall pick of the 2019 draft credited his resurgence to an adjusted workout and diet routine in a report from team correspondent Olivia Landis. He believes last season the precursor to something bigger.

“I didn’t want to be the player that I was my first year. I hit that goal and I wanted to say that I was on the right track for my career,” Williams said. “I feel like this is the stepping stone for me to get better and better every year.”

Williams wasn’t the only one whose introduction to the mainstream NFL conversation was washed out by the antics of the Jets’ 2020 season. Foley Fatukasi followed through on the promise shown at the end of the 2019 season while previous Super Bowl participant John Franklin-Myers had a career-best year in the interior. Together with Williams, both Fatukasi and Franklin-Myers were among Pro Football Focus’ top 35 best-graded interior defenders.

Admittedly, not everything was a breeze for the Jets’ front group. Kyle Phillips missed a majority of his sophomore season after impressing as an undrafted rookie, while the team bid farewell to veteran leader Steve McLendon through a de facto fire sale in October. McLendon was dealt to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he eventually earned a Lombardi Trophy hoist in February. The Jets are also set back to bring back Ontario-based Nathan Shepherd. Chosen in 2018’s third round out of Fort Hays State, Shepherd has yet to live up to his day two billing but reportedly “turned heads” at minicamp last month.

Oct 6, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) celebrates after a sack of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (not pictured) in the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

How It’s Going

The arrival of new head coach Robert Saleh has many projecting that the Jets will switch to a 4-3 setup, which will rely on a strong, rotating edge rush. Their defensive line additions saw them address that area, home to a long-gestating renovation project that hasn’t seen a consistently disruptive backfield invader since John Abraham’s departure.

When Saleh called tackle Sheldon Rankins about joining the cause, the former New Orleans Saint was all in.

“When he called me and expressed his interest and how much he really wanted me to be a part of this and the vision he had for me and Quinnen inside and Carl (Lawson) out on the edge, it got me fired up,” Rankins said, per Brian Costello of the New York Post. “It made me want to be a part of something special.”

One of the first moves the Jets made this offseason, from a roster perspective, was releasing DE Henry Anderson, who had failed to live up to the hype of a $25 million contract. Afforded an additional $8 million through Anderson’s release, the Jets surrounded their young core with veterans that should only up their pressure.

Casual observers dismissed the addition of defensive end Carl Lawson ($45 million over three years after four seasons in Cincinnati) by complaining about his pedestrian sack numbers (11.5 in the last three years after eight in his debut campaign). But Lawson has been one of the league’s most prevalent pressure artists in recent memory, his dominance on display through advanced stats. Even if Lawson wasn’t the one taking the quarterback down, played a major role in the thrower’s eventual demise. Lawson was one of only 11 defenders who reached double figures in ESPN’s “sacks created” category and, in a more conventional area, ranked sixth in QB pressures.

In addition to Rankins, the Jets also welcomed Saleh’s former San Francisco disciple Ronald Blair into the fold before using their final draft pick on DT Jonathan Marshall from Arkansas. Vinny Curry, who previously appeared on Philadelphia’s championship squad, can provide depth and veteran leadership.

carl lawson, new york jets
carl lawson, new york jets

Are They Better Off?

The Jets need to plan for a future where they’re almost guaranteed to face Josh Allen (and possibly Tua Tagovailoa) twice a year until further notice. A strong pass rush is going to be vital if they want to pull themselves out of the playoff drought mire.

General manager Joe Douglas deserves some props for his activities on the defensive front this offseason. Few could’ve blamed the Jets for becoming complacent after the breakouts of Williams, Fatukasi, and Franklin-Myers. Instead, they upped the pressure by surrounding a defensive coach with elite defensive talents that will help foster in this latest…and most hopeful…chapter of the Jets perpetual rebuild. Lawson’s contract, for example, may be steep from a financial sense, as he’s the Jets’ biggest 2021 cap hit at over $14 million. But if he follows the promises of pressure on display over the last few seasons with the Bengals, the three-year deal could wind being one of the most consequential moves in Douglas’ tenure in both a short and long-term lens.

The green glory days have been characterized by strong defensive efforts. With the frontline additions, the Jets have set themselves up handsomely for what’s sure to be a dangerous, yet ambitious, road ahead.



Final Offseason Grade: B+

Are you more confident in the Jets’ defensive line with Robert Saleh in tow? Continue the conversation Twitter @GeoffJMags

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