Entering the 2023 offseason, the New York Jets’ positions of concern, quarterback, offensive line, and safety, are all well-documented. Not that it is a weakness, but the defensive tackle position quietly has, at the moment, many moving parts.
The 2022 Jets MVP, Quinnen Williams, is the one player at the position from last year under contract for 2023. However, Williams, on his fifth-year option, made known after the season that he expects a contract to be done by the offseason program, or he will hold out.
From there, the other three defensive tackles on the roster from last season, Sheldon Rankins, Nathan Shepherd, and Solomon Thomas, are all free agents.
The Jets did have a few defensive tackles on the practice squad last year. Jonathan Marshall was one, but he got claimed by the Pittsburgh Steelers late in the season. The other two, Tanzel Smart and Marquiss Spencer, were both signed to Reserve/Future contracts right after the regular season. Smart, in particular, has shown flashes in the preseason in 2021 and 2022 to potentially have a chance of making the roster.
This all leaves the Jets with three defensive tackles on their roster going into the offseason, two of which spent last season on the practice squad. Not to mention, the one who was on the roster in 2022, Williams, is expecting a huge new contract. Many questions are to be asked on how the Jets should handle the position with three unrestricted free agents. Let’s take a look at a possible plan Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh could have.
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How the New York Jets should approach defensive tackle this offseason:
1. Extend Quinnen Williams
The first order of business taking care of the obvious. Getting Williams signed for the long-term is one of the most important tasks Joe Douglas has got to execute early on this offseason.
Williams is going into his fifth year with the Jets and just turned 25 years old last month. He is coming off a career year in which he earned first team All-Pro honors and should just be entering his best years.
It will certainly not come cheap, but paying Williams is really non-negotiable for the Jets. Since Muhammad Wilkerson, who was drafted by the Jets in 2011, the Jets have not extended a first-round pick. Quality talent, which Williams even surpasses as an elite defensive tackle, needs to start being kept in-house.
The contract will probably be four or five years with an average annual salary that is anywhere in the $20-25 million a year range. In terms of guaranteed money, it will likely be a commitment of over $50 million that the Jets have to make. There is no reason for this not to get done, and Williams should be on the field for the Jets as soon as the offseason program begins this spring.
2. Sign two veterans
Knowing the way that Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich have deployed constant defensive line rotations, it would likely be tough for two rookies to come in and hold down the interior for the second group. Therefore, it would be wise to get two veteran defensive tackles signed this off-season.
For starters, look no further than what is in-house. Both Rankins and Shepherd should be in the conversation the Jets have when it comes to addressing this position. Rankins, as a starter alongside Williams, worked to build one of the better tandems in football last year. Shepherd, as more of a depth piece, a part of the rotation, just had his best year. With Thomas, it seems unlikely that the Jets have interest in re-signing him.
Then, on the free agent market, there are some big-time players, headlined by Daron Payne and Javon Hargrave. With the Jets’ tight budget, though, both of those players are unrealistic, as fun as it would be to have either one with Williams. Dre’Mont Jones is another one of the top free-agent defensive tackles who will likely price himself out of the Jets’ range.
Beyond the top players set to hit the market, if the Jets can afford someone like Dalvin Tomlinson, Fletcher Cox, or Greg Gaines, among some others, and feel they offer an upgrade over Rankins, they could explore going that route.
From that point, along with getting one starter under contract opposite Williams, the Jets will have to get one back up signed. Someone like Shepherd, who will cost more than the veteran minimum but no more than $2-3 million.
The Jets could have interest in signing one, if not both, of Rankins and Shepherd when all is said and done.
3. Draft a prospect in the mid-rounds
After extending Williams and getting two veterans signed, the Jets are left with needing just one defensive tackle to keep their ability to rotate intact. With the Jets likely parting with either their first or second-round pick for a quarterback and a significant need along the offensive line, it seems like the earliest the Jets would take a defensive tackle would be in the third round.
In my first mock draft of the 2023 offseason yesterday, using Pro Football Network’s simulator, I added South Carolina prospect Zacch Pickens, in the fourth round, with the Jets’ 112th overall selection. As noted when summarizing Pickens, the Jets could use some help stopping the run and some size to the interior of their defensive line.
At any point from the third through the fifth round, the Jets would be smart to round out their defensive tackle group. Also, they could use some youth at the position for the years to come along with Williams, another reason why it makes sense to draft one at some point.
Final takeaways on the New York Jets defensive tackle plan this offseason:
We know that Saleh and Ulbrich want to keep the starting defensive line fresh throughout the entirety of the season. Therefore, it makes having as much quality depth as possible a huge point of emphasis.
This offseason, it all starts with getting Williams signed for the long-term, keeping their star around. From there, two veterans should be signed. Re-signing both Rankins and Shepherd could be viable options unless the Jets see better value elsewhere with other available options on the market. Either way, one proven veteran to start with Williams and a key rotational asset in a depth role. Lastly, adding some needed youth to this position in the mid-rounds gives Saleh and Ulbrich the fourth defensive tackle to this group that they need.