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Free agents that can solve the New York Jets’ greatest weaknesses (Part 2)

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 04: Vinny Curry #75 of the Philadelphia Eagles celebrates after defeating the New England Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium on February 4, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Here are the top free agents that have the ability to solve the New York Jets’ biggest problems from the 2020 season.

After focusing on the pass protection of the guards and the explosiveness of the running backs, we will be focusing on one particular New York Jets issue today – a problem that dates back to a point in time when Twitter was in its first year of existence.

Solving the Jets’ greatest weaknesses

Weakness: Pressure off the edge

The Jets have criminally undervalued the EDGE position for quite a long time, not selecting one in the first round since Quinton Coples in 2012 or even acquiring a good one via free agency or trade since. . . I guess Calvin Pace in 2008? One could argue Jason Taylor in 2010, but he was over the hill at that point, coming to the Jets at 36 years old after a season where he ranked 44th among edge rushers with 31 pressures.

New York’s ignorance of the position is reflected by the results. Since 2006 (the first season in which pressure totals are available), the Jets have only had one edge rusher rank top-30 at the position in pressures. That would be Bryan Thomas, who did it in 2006 as he ranked 28th with 41 pressures.

Yes, the Jets have gone 14 consecutive seasons without having one of the NFL’s 30 best pass rushers off the edge. When the Jets last had one of those players on their team (and that player only barely made the top-30 cut), the first iPhone had yet to be unveiled.

Twelve iPhones later, the problem persists. In 2020, the Jets’ edge rushers combined for 94 pressures, ranking 28th in the league. Their combined pressure rate of 8.4% ranked 26th (position average: 9.7%). Tarell Basham led the position group with 32 pressures, placing him 48th at the position league-wide.

As has been the case throughout much of the past decade-plus, those struggles on the edge came in spite of a strong interior defensive line that attracted plenty of attention, creating favorable matchups on the outside. Quinnen Williams and John Franklin-Myers made up one of only two duos of interior defensive line teammates in the league to each average 3.0+ pressures per game while posting a pressure rate of 10.0%+ (joining Pittsburgh’s Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt). The edge rushers couldn’t capitalize on the attention demanded by the omnipotent interior pair.

The Jets’ two starters on the edge – Basham and Jordan Jenkins – are set to hit free agency, and as 3-4 outside linebackers, neither is a fit for the 4-3 base scheme that Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich are likely to run. The bar needs to be set higher, anyway. Basham’s 39 pressures in 2019 is the best-ever single-season pressure total posted by either member of the pair, and that placed Basham 46th among edge rushers that year.

There is a wee bit of hope on the roster in the form of young prospects, even if it isn’t enough to prevent the position from being a major need. Bryce Huff had a promising rookie season, flashing an intriguing mix of bend and power as he showed off a versatile toolbox of moves.

Third-round pick Jabari Zuniga had a brutal rookie season, getting on the field for only eight games and struggling mightily when he did (1 pressure over 64 pass-rush snaps), but the good news is that he appears to be a great fit for Saleh and Ulbrich’s defense. The 4-3 defensive end spot was projected by most experts as his best fit coming out of Florida, where he could make the most of his size, strength, and crafty hands. He was not a good fit in Gregg Williams’ defense, where he was often asked to stand up on the edge and try to bend the corner. That’s not his strength. The Jets’ new defensive scheme should give Zuniga the best shot he could ask for to carve out a niche, but it’s up to him to elevate his game far beyond where it was in 2020.

Entering his third season and soon to turn 24 years old, Kyle Phillips could have some untapped potential, but he has yet to show any pass-rush upside with a career 6.3% pressure rate. At 273 pounds, he is a bit of a tweener, lacking the burst and speed required for the edge but not possessing quite enough size to consistently play inside. However, he has proven he can use his size and strength advantage to become a run-stopping force on the edge. In 2019, Phillips tied for third in the NFL with 16 tackles against the run for no gain or a loss.

Nevertheless, if we’re looking for pass rushing upside, Phillips isn’t our guy.

It’s time for the Jets to start treating the EDGE spot like the premium position that it is. Fortunately for Joe Douglas and company, there are plenty of options – both expensive and cheap – that can get the Jets’ edge rush back up to a passable level for the first time in eons.

Expensive solutions: Carl Lawson, Romeo Okwara, Trey Hendrickson

If the Jets are looking to splurge on an edge rusher, they should focus on Cincinnati’s Carl Lawson (broken down in-depth here) and Detroit’s Romeo Okwara (broken down in-depth here).

Both in their primes, as they are each set to turn 26 years old later this year, Lawson and Okwara are clearly the best pass-rushers among 4-3 defensive ends in this free agent class. Lawson’s 14.6% pressure rate ranked fifth-best among large-sample edge rushers (59 players with 300+ pass-rush snaps) while Okwara was right behind him with a 14.4% rate that ranked seventh-best. In total, Lawson’s 64 pressures ranked fourth at the position while Okwara’s 61 pressures ranked fifth.

Lawson and Okwara each backed up their pressure production with a strong pass-rush grade at Pro Football Focus. Among the same 59-player sample, Lawson ranked eighth-best with an 84.9 pass-rush grade while Okwara was right behind him at ninth-best with an 84.5 grade.

The combination of great pressure numbers (raw production) and a great PFF pass-rush grade (film-based evaluation) suggests their production was legitimate. This means their impact was largely the product of their ability to defeat blockers individually rather than the product of things such as time afforded by great coverage or free opportunities created by scheme, teammates, or pure luck.

Teams looking for big-time edge rushers want guys who can consistently cause havoc by destroying offensive linemen on their own, not guys who pad their stats by cleaning up sacks that were created by someone else. It seems clear that Lawson and Okwara are the former rather than the latter.

Looking at recent free agents who entered the market with comparable resumes (such as Dante Fowler, Trey Flowers, Za’Darius Smith, and Preston Smith), it seems feasible that Lawson and Okwara could fetch a deal that pays them somewhere in the range of $15 million per year. Great young players at premium positions aren’t cheap.

He isn’t quite on Lawson and Okwara’s level, but New Orleans’ Trey Hendrickson (also only 26 years old) is a big-money player who could be worth the investment.

If Hendrickson gets paid to the tune of his 13.5 sacks, which tied him for second-most in the league with Aaron Donald, he will probably not live up to that contract. That total was a massive outlier (he had 6.5 sacks in 30 games prior to 2020) and his pass-rush numbers aren’t quite as good as that sack total. He is no superstar. However, he was still very good and can provide a lot of value if he is paid as such – like a top-20 edge rusher, not a top-3 one.

Hendrickson’s 13.3% pressure rate ranked 12th out of the league’s top-59 edge rushers in pass-rush snaps. He placed 21st with 49 pressures despite ranking 44th with 369 pass-rush snaps. His PFF pass-rush grade of 78.0 ranked 15th-of-59. So, Hendrickson is really good, but he’s not Donald or T.J. Watt kind of good as his sack total would lead you to believe.

Adding to the case against him as a big-money player, Hendrickson’s limited snap counts are a concern. Hendrickson has yet to be a true full-time player, as he only played 57% of New Orleans’ defense snaps on average in 2020. He ranked 56th among edge defenders with 558 total snaps. It’s unknown how Hendrickson would handle a larger role. Would he extrapolate his efficiency and become even more dominant, or would he struggle to handle the increased workload?

Regardless, Hendrickson’s efficiency is good enough for him to be considered as an edge rusher who is worth a hot pursuit for teams in need of an up-and-coming 4-3 defensive end. Paying him like a star would be a risky gamble, but paying him like a good starter should prove to be a worthy investment. He is a very solid player and does have a decent chance of continuing to improve.

It will be interesting to see whether the league takes the bait on Hendrickson’s 13.5 sacks or pays him a number that more closely aligns with his true impact level. The $15 million range is a bit rich for my blood, but he could certainly end up there simply due to the heavy demand at this position. In a perfect world, Hendrickson is around a $10 million type of player to me, but this is NFL free agency. Good players get paid like great players, and that could make Hendrickson a high-risk but extremely high-reward target.

If the Jets do snag a big-ticket edge rusher, it would make sense for them to find an affordable veteran to hold the fort down on the other side. With two open starting spots, they’ll want someone in place who they can rely upon to start and provide a quality output in case any potential draft picks need time to develop before taking over.

The good news: the lower tiers of the EDGE market include a litany of recognizable names that pop off the screen as excellent cost-efficient options.

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