New York Jets positional preview 2021: Defensive line

The rise of Quinnen Williams and some diamonds in the rough has made the defensive line a rare secure spot on the New York Jets’ roster.

The Position: Defensive Line
On the Roster: Quinnen Williams, Henry Anderson, Folorunso Fatukasi, John Franklin-Myers, Kyle Phillips Bryce Huff, Nathan Shepherd, Jabari Zuniga, Tanzel Smart
Free Agents: Trevon Coley
Reserve/Future: N/A

As if the New York Jets didn’t have enough problems on their homefront, the 2020 season served as a not-so-friendly reminder that they’re going to have to deal with Josh Allen for a long, long time. Cam Newton and Tua Tagovailoa didn’t live up to the hype in their AFC East debuts, but if Deshaun Watson’s not coming to the Jets, he might well take his talents to South Beach (if his Houston employers can be convinced to bargain, that is). New England struggled with Newton but they enjoyed a rushing breakout with Damien Harris and will welcome back a healthy Sony Michel come next season.

Simply put, the Jets need to make sure their first line of defense is fortified moving forward. Despite their endless struggles in 2020, the unit became one of the Jets’ most reliable areas.

Quinnen Williams, for example, was one of the most pleasant surprises in football, recovering from a tough rookie year to become one of the league’s most dominant interior linemen (55 tackles, 14 knockdowns, 10 TFL, 7 sacks). Folorunso “Foley” Fatukasi and Henry Anderson each became veteran breakouts, while John Franklin-Myers became a reliable depth option. While each dealt with injuries, the Jets have high hopes for youngsters Kyle Phillips and Jabari Zuniga. In an uncannily welcome situation, the unit has only one potential departure through free agency (Trevon Coley), though that doesn’t account for potential cap departures like Anderson ($8 million).

Adding to the defensive line’s importance is new head coach Robert Saleh’s dedication to the 4-3 defense. The Jets haven’t run such a formation on a consistent basis since Bill Parcells and Herm Edwards helped ring in the new millennium.

Saleh expects Williams to be the headliner of his unit moving forward. During Saleh’s time in the Bay Area, the 49ers extensively scouted Williams when they picked right before the Jets in the 2019 draft. San Francisco eventually took Nick Bosa but Williams left an impression on his new coach.

“With regards to (Williams) his mindset, his athleticism, his power, his love for football, I’m really, really excited to see him in our system, especially up front with the way we design with that attack style,” Saleh said, per team report Jack Bell. “He’s a game-wrecker. He’s somebody you have to game plan against to keep him at bay, and, obviously, it gives the other 10 guys an opportunity to excel just because of the focus that he’s going to garner.”

Free-Agents-to-be

DT Trevon Coley

Coley was scooped off Arizona’s waiver wire in December and didn’t appear in a game in a Jets uniform. He tallied 14 tackles and a sack over six games with the Cardinals this season. The Jets were his seventh team since entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of FAU in 2016.

Will They Draft?

Adding help to the defensive line is low on the Jets’ priority list for the time being, though the possibility could be raised if they move Anderson through a release or trade. If they had their usual output of picks, they’d probably focus beyond the front four, but they could potentially explore a mid-tier option like Janarius Robinson from Florida State or the versatile Malcolm Koonce from Buffalo. If they want to replenish the interior, they could look at Williams’ Tuscaloosa successor Christian Barmore, though he would likely require a pick over the first two days. 

Veteran Possibilities 

DE Kerry Hyder, San Francisco

Hyder is one of many San Francisco free agents that should expect a call from the Jets. He originally joined the Jets as an undrafted rookie out of Texas Tech in 2014 before latching on with Detroit and Dallas prior to his San Francisco stint. After Solomon Thomas was lost for the year, Hyder put up a career-best 8.5 sacks, leading the team. He may not be a household name, but he would provide an instant boost to the Jets’ edge efforts.

DE Bruce Irvin, Seattle

The Jets’ defensive line has potential, they just need some guidance, a push in the right direction. Irvin was set to somewhat fulfill that role by returning to the Seahawks, where he worked with Saleh during his first two NFL seasons as a 2012 first-round choice. A torn ACL limited him to only two games, but, at the right price, he can be a veteran mentor that happens to know what it’s like to work in a Saleh system.

DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Atlanta 

Having previously worked with Jeff Ulbrich, the Jets’ new defensive coordinator who held the same title in Atlanta, the undrafted sophomore from UCLA enjoyed a breakout season of sorts. He partook in all 16 games and picked up 31 tackles while also recovering three fumbles. If the Jets are looking for an interior depth option that knows what to expect from Ulbrich’s schemes, Tuioti-Mariner would be the way to go.

Outlook

In the grand scheme of things, the front four is one of the rare areas where the Jets don’t have to make too many adjustments. Yet, when you win two games in an NFL season, help from the outside would be welcome up and down the roster. If the Jets opt to let veterans like Anderson and Fatukasi go to earn additional cap space, only then would they perhaps become truly active. Still, with a new regime, namely Saleh and Ulbrich, coming in, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them add a familiar face or two to potentially create a smoother transition.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

New York Jets make roster moves in lead-up to Kansas City visit

New York Jets, Jabari Zuniga

The activation of third-round pick Jabari Zuniga is among the moves the New York Jets made prior to a dangerous matchup against the Chiefs.

Headed into a matchup against the defending Super Bowl champions, the New York Jets (0-7) could probably use all the help they can get. Not all reinforcements, however, will be along for the ride.

The team made several roster moves and transactions heading into their Sunday tilt against the Kansas City Chiefs (1 p.m. ET, CBS), each documented below…

Activated DL Jabari Zuniga

Zuniga was the Jets’ second pick in the third round of April’s draft (79th overall). The Florida alum missed all of training camp with a quad injury and began the year on injured reserve. He also dealt with injuries at Florida, as he was limited to five games last season, though he returned in time for the Gators’ victorious visit to the most recent Orange Bowl.

Placed DL Kyle Phillips on season-ending IR

Phillips was lost to an ankle injury in Sunday’s loss to Buffalo and underwent season-ending surgery on Tuesday. The undrafted free agent was one of the more pleasant surprises from last season, earning 39 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

“That’s a tough loss for us,” head coach Adam Gase said of Phillips, per notes provided by the Jets. “He’s been a really good player for us the last year and a half, but we expect him to make a full recovery, it’s going to be a long rehab process for him, but we should get him back, obviously next year.”

Designated LB Patrick Onwuasor to return to practice

Onwuasor has yet to make his New York debut, having fallen to a non-contact injury during training camp. He came over this offseason after four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, which saw him earn 234 tackles and force five fumbles.

Restored WR Lawrence Cager to the practice squad

An undrafted free rookie who previously worked with Georgia and Miami, Cager earned positive reviews in training camp and eventually got his opportunity during the Week 3 proceedings in Indianapolis. He would earn 37 yards on a pair of receptions before leaving with a hamstring issue.

Released QB David Fales

Fales served as the backup quarterback during the earlier portions of the season and appeared in two games last season. He previously served a reserve thrower during Gase’s days as a head coach in Miami.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets sign trio of 2020 draft picks (Report)

DL/LB Jabari Zuniga, QB James Morgan, and P Braden Mann are the latest New York Jets draft picks to officially sign their rookie deals.

The New York Jets revealed that two more draft picks signed with the team on Monday evening. New York confirmed that they signed defender Jabari Zuniga and quarterback James Morgan, while Manish Mehta of the New York has stated that the team has also officially added punter Braden Mann.

Mehta also had the financial terms for each first-year. Each is worth four seasons, with Zuniga earning $4.73 million, Morgan getting $4 million, and Mann rounding it off with $3.47 million.

Zuniga was the latter of the Jets’ pair of third-round picks, chosen 79th overall out of Florida. Injuries limited Zuniga to five games in his senior season, but he nonetheless managed 33 sacks over four seasons in Gainesville. Capable of playing on both the line and at linebacker, Zuniga was placed on the Chuck Bednarik Award watchlist (awarded to the nation’s top defensive lineman) during a junior campaign that saw him earn 45 tackles, including 11 for a loss, and 6.5 sacks.

Morgan is set to partake in the Jets’ competition for the backup quarterback job behind Sam Darnold. He was chosen in the fourth round (125th overall) out of Florida International. Despite spending only two seasons with the Golden Panthers, having transferred there from Bowling Green, Morgan ranks second in FIU history in passing yardage (5,312) and touchdowns (40).

Mann was the Jets’ final pick of the April proceedings, having his name called with the 191st overall pick. The Texas A&M product was one of the most prolific punters in college football history, earning unanimous All-American honors and the Ray Guy Award (bestowed to the nation’s top punter) after his junior season. His 51.0 average is the best in NCAA history.

With these signings, first-round pick Mekhi Becton and third-rounder Ashtyn Davis are the only Jets selections who have yet to sign.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

The New York Jets might have landed two steals in the 2020 NFL Draft

New York Jets, Jabari Zuniga

While the New York Jets have strengths across-the-board, they do have several weaknesses that could hurt them in 2020. The secondary is a bit thin at the cornerback position, especially after releasing Trumaine Johnson, who failed to earn his keep as the number one option on the defense. The pass rush is also a bit tumultuous, but the Jets took to the draft to try and att competition.

Of course, stating a player is a steal is always optimistic, but the Jets landed two high-upside players that could be immediate starters in the NFL.

1. Bryce Hall

Hall was drafted in the fifth round, and there are a number of analysts who coined him as a potential steal. Injuries derailed him in his senior year with Virginia, and the Jets took advantage of that, landing him in the later rounds. Some projected at Hall as a potential first-round pick if he remained healthy. He’s one of the best man-coverage corners coming out of college and recorded the most pass breakups last season in all of collegiate football.

Scouts are excited about the potential he brings to the NFL, but he does have some weaknesses that require refinement. His lack of ball skills and experience in zone coverage could hold him back a bit, but his strength in man should match up well with the defense Gregg Williams tends to utilize – a nice dosage of off-ball-man.

With Johnson leaving the Jets, Hall is expected to take a more in-depth role quickly. I believe they will allow him to develop earlier in his career, hopefully putting him in a starting position in 2021. However, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of him earning starting reps early on considering the lack of talent at the position. The Jets currently have Pierre Desir, Quincy Wilson, Arthur Maulet, Bless Austin, and Hall, as their options at corner.

2. Jabari Zuniga

Zuniga is an exciting pass rusher coming out of Florida. In 2018, he posted 45 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks. However, injury significantly hurt his draft stock, and the New York Jets eventually landed him in the third round. Jabari is a talented athlete with explosive traits, with the capabilities of emerging as a potential start early on in his career.

His strength at the line of scrimmage and aggressive mentality allow him to dominate blockers. His build allows him to play multiple positions, as his length and thick frame give him the necessary tangibles to hold his own.

Zuniga’s motor promotes a more dynamic pass rush style, as he often burns out due to fatigue. Overall, I like his physical abilities and desire to win in the trenches, but he needs a bit more development, especially after coming off a significant ankle injury in 2019. He has incredible upside, similar to Hall, meaning the Jets could’ve landed two solid players on defense moving forward.

Did the New York Jets get a lowkey stud defensive lineman in Jabari Zuniga?

New York Jets, Jabari Zuniga

When Florida defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga stayed for his senior year at college, he likely didn’t anticipate missing a majority of the year due to injury. After recording 45 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks in 2018, he backed it up with a 12 tackle, 5.5 tackle for a loss, and three-sack performance. Injury significantly hurt his draft stock and forced him down to the third round, where the New York Jets inevitably selected him.

Can Zuniga develop into a premium pass rusher for the New York Jets?

Jabari is an explosive athlete who has tangible traits to become a productive player at the NFL level. He is fierce and disruptive in the trenches, but a high ankle sprain limited his production last year.

His long and thick frame gives him the strength to bull-rush in the NFL against offensive tackles and has played a variety of spots on the defensive from — he has the experience to play a diverse and versatile role for the Jets.

His quickness and power off the line of scrimmage make him an exciting prospect, but his balance has been an issue in the past. He also gets fatigued rather quickly, which can happen with high motor players that exert a lot of power. Increasing his stamina and lower body strength will do him plenty of good in the NFL, and the Jets will likely look to those spots in his development.

He can be a fantastic player on the interior and in sub-packages. He can also play at the four or five-technique inside, attesting to his versatility and adaptability.

Overall, Zuniga has the physical traits to be a quality player; it ultimately comes down to the full recovery from his high ankle sprain and increasing his balance and stamina. Luckily for the Jets, they received an incredibly high up-sided player in the third round.

NFL Draft: New York Jets draft Florida’s Jabari Zuniga with 79th pick

The New York Jets’ second Friday selection, Zuniga missed most of his senior year with an injury, but built a solid career in Gainesville.

With their second of three third-round picks, the New York Jets chose Florida defensive end Jabari Zuniga with the 79th overall selection.

Zuniga originally began his athletic endeavors with plans to follow his father to the hardwood. Carlos Zuniga was a basketball player at Tulane, averaging 6.1 rebounds over three seasons.

He dedicated his career to football in his senior year of high school and went on to play at Florida. Though most of his senior year was lost to a high ankle sprain, Zuniga earned 116 tackles and 18.5 sacks. Notably, he six tackles, half of which resulted in a loss, during Florida’s opening weekend win over Miami back in August.

The Jets certainly hope this third-round selection from Florida goes better than the last time they embarked on such a journey. Last season, they added linebacker Jachai Polite, but he failed to make the team out of training camp.

Barring any trades, the Jets’ final Friday selection will come in the 101st slot, a pick they obtained from the Seattle Seahawks earlier in the evening.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags