Sam Crnic lists five defensive end prospects in the 2021 NFL draft that would fit into Robert Saleh’s 4-3 base defensive front.
Christopher Johnson finally won Twitter – at least for now. The New York Jets hired former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as their new head coach, regaining faith from Jets fans across the nation.
Saleh, who was one of the most sought-after head coaching candidates in the league, has the opportunity to jumpstart a struggling Jets team back to competency. The Michigan native has earned respect around the league for his adaptability and knack for evolving the defense around his players’ unique skillsets.
Robert was part of the famous “Legion of Boom” Seattle Seahawks defense that earned him a Super Bowl ring along the way. In Seattle, Saleh was under Pete Carroll’s 4-3 Under Cover 3 Zone defensive scheme that centered around consistently stacking the box and relying on one-on-one matchups with the outside cornerbacks. Saleh decided to run the same philosophy his first year as San Francisco’s defensive coordinator.
In his first season as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator in 2017, Saleh’s reenactment of the Legion of Boom disappointed, ending the season ranking 24th in total yards allowed (351.6 per game), 25th in total points allowed (23.9 per game), and 26th in defensive DVOA. While the defense improved in terms of total yards allowed in 2018 (346.6 per game, ranked 13th), Saleh’s second-year defense ranked 28th in points allowed (27.2 per game) and rose only two spots to 24th in defensive DVOA.
Plagued by an overall lack of talent on defense in addition to new league rules favoring wide receivers in one-one situations, Robert’s job security going into 2019 was beginning to seem shaky. The scheme he had carried over from Seattle was simply not working.
Saleh took the advice of fellow coaching assistants and made major schematic changes in 2019. The first change came with the safety alignment. The third-year defensive coordinator switched from a Cover 3 (single-high) look to a Cover 2 (two-high) safety positioning. In addition, Saleh widened the defensive front, transitioning to a Wide-9 alignment (defensive ends aligned wide to the outside of the tackles) to better fit the players on the team.
These changes improved the defense significantly, as the 2019 defense ranked eighth in points allowed (19.4 per game), second in total yards allowed (281.8 per game), and second in defensive DVOA. Linebacker Fred Warner’s emerged into a top LB in the league thanks to Saleh’s increased use of Tampa 2, which allowed Warner to showcase his impressive coverage instincts by putting him between two over-the-top safeties.
Even with slightly worse production from the 49ers’ defense in 2020, Saleh’s fourth year as defensive coordinator was massively impressive due to the circumstances he had to deal with. The 49ers battled injuries to players like Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman, and Solomon Thomas, yet still allowed the fifth-fewest total yards (314.4 per game) and ranked sixth in defensive DVOA. They ranked 17th in scoring defense (24.4 points per game), but that was largely due to a whopping five opposing touchdowns that were not allowed by the defense. In reality, the defense allowed the eighth-fewest points per drive (1.96).
Struggles for Saleh at the beginning of his 49ers tenure helped transform him into one of the game’s brightest defensive minds. After failing to build his defense around familiar concepts, he showcased his genius and amenability by adjusting his schematic approach and leading the 49ers to tremendous success through the usage of new ideas that made more sense for the players at his disposal.
While history shows that Saleh will be willing to change his defensive scheme to better fit the Jets, Saleh should still be expected to come into One Jets Drive looking to run his defense with the 4-3 base front that he utilized in San Francisco. To fit this bill, Joe Douglas will need to secure at least one 5-tech defensive end in the 2021 NFL draft.
Let’s take a look at some of the best options available to the Jets in both the earlier and later rounds.
Jaelan Phillips | Miami
- Height: 6-foot-5
- Weight: 266
- Class: Redshirt Junior
- Age: 21
- Total pressures in 2020: 42 (tied for 15th)
- 2020 overall PFF grade: 86.5 (13th / 372 among EDGE)
- 2020 pass rush PFF grade: 86.5 (21st / 292)
- 2020 run defense PFF grade: 83.0 (13th / 346)
- Percentage of defensive snaps lined up at DE: 40%
- Round projection: Round 1 – Round 2
Whether the Jets go to a 4-3 or stay at 3-4, Jaelan Phillips is an intriguing scheme-versatile option with the No. 23 pick. The former No. 1 high school recruit in the class of 2017 originally committed to UCLA, but could never achieve any form of success. Suffering three concussions in his first two seasons and being the victim of a car accident, Phillips considered retirement due to medical reasons.
Taking a chance on himself one more time, Phillips transferred to Miami before the 2020 season in addition to gaining nearly 50 pounds to get himself back into football shape. Unlike his first-round talent counterpart in Miami EDGE Gregory Rousseau, Jaelan has experience at both linebacker and defensive end, splitting snaps in both positions in 2020.
In ten games, Phillips recorded 45 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, and an interception. He tied for 11th in the nation with 29 quarterback hurries along with posting Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) ninth-best pass-rushing productivity rate (9.5) among a total of 110 rushers to record at least 200 rush snaps in 2020.
As long as Phillips stays healthy, he would have a great chance of turning out to be a tremendous selection for Saleh and Douglas at No. 23.
Patrick Jones | Pittsburgh
- Height: 6-foot-5
- Weight: 260
- Class: Redshirt Senior
- Age: 22
- Total pressures in 2020: 24 (tied for 58th)
- 2020 overall PFF grade: 76.8 (62nd / 372 among EDGE)
- 2020 pass rush PFF grade: 68.9 (125th / 272)
- 2020 run defense PFF grade: 84.2 (62nd / 372)
- Percentage of defensive snaps lined up at DE: 96%
- Round projection: Round 2 – Round 3
A perfect fit for Saleh’s 4-3 defensive front (playing almost all of his 2020 snaps at 5-technique defensive end), Jones spent the majority of his time at Pittsburgh with both hands in the dirt.
Unlike Phillips, Jones was only a three-star high school recruit out of Grassfield High School in Chesapeake, Virginia. Jones began gaining national attention during his redshirt sophomore season in which he recorded 23 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and a forced fumble.
Becoming the full-time starter the next year, Patrick was named second-team All-ACC after tallying 41 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles along with a career-high 62 total pressures. In 2020, Jones put up 42 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, and a fumble recovery. Patrick was tied 22nd in the nation with 37 total pressures. Jones was named first-team All-American along with first-team All-ACC.
While I don’t think Jones will go in the first round, he should go in the second or third round at the very latest. Standing at 6-foot-5, I would like to see Patrick put more weight onto his frame to match the increased physicality at the NFL level.
Good article. That tarron jackson guy looks intriguing to me. I just worry that since he’s a redshirt senior, that means 5th year(?), in a small school, is he just bullying younger competition? Reminiscent of nate shepherd. But like you said, the senior bowl should show us something.
Playing at Coastal, that’s always a point of emphasis to take note of (level of competition), but I really do believe in Tarron’s ability at the next level. Built for a 4-3 scheme and frankly has the level of passion + drive that Douglas and Saleh love in a player. You’ll definitely want to keep an eye on that guy.
Hoping Zuniga justifies his R3 selection and helps the team next year in this area.
Scheme-wise it’s a good fit but is the talent there? We’ll have to see.
Indeed, it was a puzzling choice for me when JD made it, with a lot of talent on the board at Edge, including Alex Highsmith (contributor this year for Steelers), as well as other positions of need. Zuniga had injury concerns at the time as well. Still scratching my head…