These 2021 NFL draft prospects project to be perfect fits for Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich’s New York Jets defense.
What are the Jets looking for in their edge rushers? For a general guide, look no further than their two free agent signings at the position, Carl Lawson and Vinny Curry.
Lawson and Curry share a few things in common. First off, they’re both pure 5-technique defensive ends who usually line up outside of the offensive tackle with their hand(s) in the dirt. Lawson played outside defensive end on 75.8% of his defensive snaps in 2020. Curry played the position on 91.0% of his snaps. In what projects to be a 4-3 base defense, Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich are looking for defensive ends, not stand-up outside linebackers – hence the exodus of former starters Tarell Basham and Jordan Jenkins.
Secondly, it seems fair to deduce that the Jets value pass rushing on the edge far more than run defense. Throughout their careers, Lawson and Curry have both established a track record of excellent pass rushing and merely decent run defense. The opposite is true for Basham and Jenkins, who typically performed well against the run but were average at best in the passing game.
Both of these things align with what we saw from the edge defenders in Robert Saleh’s 49ers defense.
San Francisco relied upon hand-in-the-dirt defensive ends like Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Kerry Hyder, Solomon Thomas, and Dion Jordan to handle the edge over the past two seasons. Lawson and Curry both could fit into that group.
In terms of pass-vs-run valuation, the 49ers certainly were focused far more on the pass-rush productivity of their defensive front than they were with how well the unit fared against the run.
When the Niners ran to the Super Bowl in 2019, their second-ranked defense was built around a front-four that could generate a lot of pressure on its own without the help of a blitz. Bosa and Armstead combined for 142 pressures that season, third-most among any EDGE duo in the league. Their dominance helped the 49ers allow the fewest passing yards in football. Meanwhile, San Francisco’s run defense wasn’t anything special, ranking 17th in terms of yards allowed. San Francisco still fielded the second-best defense in the league in spite of their run-stopping medicority, exemplifying the importance of pass rushing in that scheme.
Here are some prospects who appear to be solid fits for the profile that the Jets are looking for in their edge rushers:
Pittsburgh’s Rashad Weaver is a very interesting dark horse. Largely because of a 2019 season-ending knee injury that seemed to severely limit his bendiness and athleticism on film in 2020, Weaver is projected as a late-Day 3 pick at best, but his production in 2020 was dominant. He tied for second in the nation behind UAB’s Jordan Smith with 5.3 pressures per game, pressuring the quarterback 48 times in nine games.
The man tied with Weaver for second in pressures per game was Oklahoma’s Ronnie Perkins. After two unimpressive seasons to begin his career, the true junior was remarkable in 2020 with 32 pressures in six games.
Coastal Carolina’s Tarron Jackson ranked second in the nation with 59 total pressures, racking them up over 12 games. The obvious concern being thrown his way is that of the level of competition he faced, but that might actually be an overblown issue. According to Football Outsiders’ FEI ratings, Coastal Carolina had the nation’s 17th-hardest schedule out of 127 qualified FBS teams in 2020. Most notably, Jackson put up seven pressures against a BYU offensive line that was the country’s 10th-most efficient in pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus.
Most 4-3 defenses in the current NFL have two every-down linebackers and a third linebacker who plays about one third of the defensive snaps, typically rotating in when the defense goes to a base look that utilizes three linebackers. For example, Ulbrich’s 2020 Falcons had Deion Jones and Foyesade Oluokun as the every-down linebackers while Mykal Walker was the rotational third linebacker, playing about 34% of the defensive plays on average.
In C.J. Mosley and Jarrad Davis, the Jets have two of their three off-ball linebackers in place. Mosley will be an every-down player, primarily manning the MIKE (middle) position. Davis is likely best suited for the rotational role. After struggling as a starter over his first three seasons in Detroit, he was much more effective in a minimized role last season where he played about 34% of the snaps in his average game (identical to Walker in Atlanta). Davis will likely primarily play the SAM (strong side) position when on the field, but he has shown he can take on the MIKE spot and even some WILL (weak side) in certain situations.
What the Jets still need is an every-down starter to place beside Mosley. This player needs to be capable of playing the WILL position, where athleticism, versatility, and high-quality coverage ability are paramount.
The Jets were reportedly interested in signing Falcons safety Keanu Neal (who chose the Cowboys) with the idea of moving him to WILL linebacker. At 6-foot-1 and 216 pounds, Neal would be one of the lightest linebackers in the NFL, but he aligned at the position frequently for the Falcons and was successful. Perhaps the Jets’ pursuit of Neal is a signal that they are willing to roll with an extremely undersized player – even a converted safety like Neal – in order to get the range, agility, and coverage skills that they need at the position.
Here are some prospects who fit the bill – possessing a smaller frame, good athleticism, and a high level of production in coverage: