If Robert Saleh carries his San Francisco defensive scheme to New York, these free agent defensive ends would be home runs for the Jets.
Robert Saleh is a flexible guy. As Oscar Aparicio explained on the Cool Your Jets podcast, he is extremely open to new ideas and suggestions from those around him, and he does a fantastic job of molding his defensive approach around the strengths and weaknesses of his roster.
San Francisco’s defensive scheme evolved over Saleh’s time in the Bay Area. The brand of football you saw from the 49ers defense in 2020 was much different than what you saw from the unit when Saleh first arrived in 2017. Brought in with a background in the Pete Carroll tree (coaching under Carroll in Seattle and then under Gus Bradley, a fellow Carroll protege, in Jacksonville), Saleh was expected to run the Seahawks’ signature Cover 3 defense, and that’s exactly what he did to start out.
Saleh began his 49ers career running a very Seahawks-esque scheme in 2017. However, as time went on, he adjusted the scheme to fit San Francisco’s roster, gradually adding more blitz packages and more man coverage looks year-over-year.
Fast forward to 2020, and the 49ers had one of the most diverse defenses in the NFL, deploying numerous different looks on a consistent basis.
The point here is that Saleh is a very adaptable coach, so we have no idea what type of Jets defense he will attempt to build until we see the moves he makes. Perhaps he looks to replicate exactly what he did in San Francisco. Maybe he employs a healthy blend of his 49ers philosophies with the current makeup of the Jets roster. It’s even plausible that he scraps everything and reworks the entire defensive approach around the Jets’ strengths and weaknesses. We have no way of knowing these things at the moment.
If Saleh does look to build a defense in New York that is schematically similar to what we saw in San Francisco over the past two years (a span in which the 49ers allowed 4.9 yards per play, second-best in football), perhaps the primary hole that the Jets will need to fill is the defensive end position.
In San Francisco, Saleh relied on his 5-technique defensive ends (lined up over the offensive tackle’s outside shoulder) as the primary sources of pressure. These guys – players like Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead – typically lined up with their hands in the dirt, using a 3-point or 4-point stance. The Jets do not currently have any players on their roster who truly fit that position. John Franklin-Myers played it solidly in Los Angeles as a rookie in 2018, but he exploded to an elite level as an interior defender in 2020, so he is probably best suited to staying where he is. Outside of him, there isn’t much to like at that spot.
Saleh ran a 4-3 base in San Francisco, contrary to the Jets’ 3-4 base under Gregg Williams. The Jets typically relied on two stand-up outside linebackers to handle the primary pass-rushing roles on the edge (Tarell Basham and Jordan Jenkins).
Of course, in the modern NFL, every team runs variations of both the 3-4 defense (3 DL and 4 LBs) and the 4-3 defense (4 DL and 3 LBs). Even more importantly, teams are lining up in nickel (5 defensive backs) or dime (6 defensive backs) over half the time. Nickel and dime looks take either a defensive lineman or a linebacker off the field, so teams are not using a 3-4 nor a 4-3 look for the majority of the game.
In a league where defenses are going lighter and faster to match the offense’s spread looks while also rotating players in-and-out of the game at a rapid rate to match personnel changes by the offense, the labels of “3-4 defense” and “4-3 defense” are very outdated. Every defense throws countless alignments and personnel packages on the field throughout the course of a game.
With that said, every defense has its core philosophies and requirements, and for Saleh’s San Francisco defense, 5-tech defensive ends are essential. Aiming to have more chess pieces at his disposal in the back end, Saleh relied heavily on his four-man rush to create pressure without the help of blitzes, so it is very important for him to have two defensive ends who excel at winning in the passing game.
Here are some of the absolute best potential free agents who fit the bill: