The NY Jets depth chart looks stout in the front seven, but how will the snap counts shake out? Recent San Francisco 49ers history helps us.
Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich‘s primary wishes for the construction of the New York Jets‘ 4-3 defensive front have been clear.
Joe Douglas has focused on finding high-quality pass rushers (both on the interior and on the edge) who could power a four-man rush capable of creating pressure on its own without the help of the blitz. At the linebacker position, the focus has been athleticism and coverage ability.
These traits are highly reminiscent of the successful 2019 San Francisco 49ers front-seven that was coordinated by Saleh.
In fact, when you compare the two depth charts side-by-side, it is startling just how many similarities the Jets’ current unit shares with the one that Saleh coached to a Super Bowl two years ago. The Jets have a full lineup of players whose skill set, physical profile, and role directly align with an important 49ers defender from the 2019 season.
Saleh’s approach with the 2019 Niners’ front-seven presents us with a strong model of how he might manage the Jets’ 2021 unit.
Using the 2019 Niners as a guide, we can do two things:
- Paint a picture of exactly how Saleh could distribute snaps amongst the Jets’ front-seven players
- Identify direct player-to-player comparisons that showcase the specific roles that particular individuals on the Jets defense may play
Let’s dig into the numbers behind the 2019 San Francisco defensive front to predict how the 2021 Jets defensive front will look.
San Francisco’s snap deployment
First, let’s analyze how the 49ers distributed snaps amongst their front-seven players. What did their typical rotation look like?
Here is a look at the average percentage of defensive snaps that were allocated to each slot on the 49ers’ front-seven depth chart throughout the 2019 regular season.
|Position on depth chart||Average Defensive Snap %|
In the average regular-season game, Saleh distributed snaps as follows:
- Most-used interior defensive lineman: 81% of snaps
- Second-most-used IDL: 74%
- IDL3: 43%
- IDL4: 24%
- IDL5: 7%
- Most-used edge rusher: 78%
- EDGE2: 46%
- EDGE3: 32%
- EDGE4: 17%
- Most-used linebacker: 97%
- LB2: 92%
- LB3: 29%
- LB4: 6%
The 49ers had five players in their front seven who played significantly over half of the snaps, whereas the rest of the unit’s playing time was spread across a bevy of rotational players.
DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead were regulars on the interior. Nick Bosa was the lone edge rusher who played regularly.
A common misconception about the 4-3 defense in the modern NFL is that it features three starting linebackers, but that is not the case for the majority of 4-3 defenses. The 49ers only had two every-down linebackers and deployed a third ‘backer on about 29% of the snaps on average. Fred Warner was San Francisco’s every-down anchor throughout the season. Dre Greenlaw replaced the injured Kwon Alexander as Warner’s partner in crime.
Depth chart projection
Using the 49ers’ 2019 depth chart as a model, what could the Jets’ 2021 depth chart look like?
Here is how I could see the Jets divvying things up if they follow the same exact model as San Francisco (also listed is the 49ers’ primary holder of each role in 2019):
|Position on depth chart||Average Defensive Snap %||SF's most common player||Projected NYJ player|
|IDL1||81||DeForest Buckner||Quinnen Williams|
|IDL2||74||Arik Armstead||John Franklin-Myers|
|IDL3||43||D.J. Jones||Sheldon Rankins|
|IDL4||24||Sheldon Day||Foley Fatukasi|
|EDGE1||78||Nick Bosa||Carl Lawson|
|EDGE2||46||Solomon Thomas||Vinny Curry|
|EDGE3||32||Ronald Blair||Ronald Blair|
|EDGE4||17||Dee Ford||Bryce Huff|
|LB1||97||Fred Warner||C.J. Mosley|
|LB2||92||Dre Greenlaw||Jarrad Davis|
|LB3||29||Azeez Al-Shaair||B. Cashman/H. Nasirildeen/J. Sherwood|
- IDL1: 81% (SF: DeForest Buckner – NYJ: Quinnen Williams)
- IDL2: 74% (SF: Arik Armstead – NYJ: John Franklin-Myers)
- IDL3: 43% (SF: D.J. Jones – NYJ: Sheldon Rankins)
- IDL4: 24% (SF: Sheldon Day – NYJ: Foley Fatukasi)
- EDGE1: 78% (SF: Nick Bosa – NYJ: Carl Lawson)
- EDGE2: 46% (SF: Solomon Thomas – NYJ: Vinny Curry)
- EDGE3: 32% (SF: Ronald Blair – NYJ: Ronald Blair)
- EDGE4: 17% (SF: Dee Ford – NYJ: Bryce Huff)
- LB1: 97% (SF: Fred Warner – NYJ: C.J. Mosley)
- LB2: 92% (SF: Dre Greenlaw – NYJ: Jarrad Davis)
- LB3: 29% (SF: Azeez Al-Shaair – NYJ: B. Cashman/H. Nasirildeen/J. Sherwood)
Many of the roles held by these 49ers players can be seamlessly fit into by a Jets counterpart.
Let’s make our way down the depth chart and compare the 49ers’ pieces and the Jets’ pieces side-by-side.
IDL1: DeForest Buckner vs. Quinnen Williams
This is a beautiful fit. Quinnen Williams should have no problem sliding into the DeForest Buckner role.
Buckner was a star 3-technique for the 49ers who was capable of playing in any situation and dominated both as a pass rusher and run defender. Williams was exactly that for the Jets in 2020.
The only question for Williams is whether he can handle the amount of playing time that Buckner did.
Williams played 64% of the snaps in his average appearance last season. Buckner was way up at 81% in 2019, playing north of 90% in some games.
The highest portion of snaps that Williams has played in one game thus far is 82% (2020 Week 12 vs. Raiders). Buckner surpassed that mark nine times in 2019 alone.
Williams is unquestionably at Buckner’s level talent-wise, but if he is going to take on the exact same role that Buckner handled in 2019, he needs to show that he can handle a larger workload. He did show some progress in this area last season, as his average snap portion of 64% was an increase over his 57% mark as a rookie.
Regardless, this is a shoo-in fit. Buckner’s two-way excellence on the interior was an anchor for the San Francisco defense. Williams is capable of providing the same impact.
IDL2: Arik Armstead vs. John Franklin-Myers
There has been a lot of chatter this offseason about where John Franklin-Myers will fit into the Jets defense. Is he a starting EDGE as a 5-technique? Will he stay entirely on the interior? Will his tweener status diminish his role or enlarge it?
The answer might have been right in front of our faces all along. San Francisco has a player who is in the exact same boat as Franklin-Myers and has achieved stardom: Arik Armstead.
Like Franklin-Myers, Armstead is a tweener defensive end/defensive tackle who is capable of using his size and strength to win on the outside or using his speed and athleticism to win on the inside. Armstead weighs in at 292 pounds, comparable to Franklin-Myers’ 288-pound frame. Both are in that gray area of having no clearly defined position.
In San Francisco, Armstead has been able to hog a ton of snaps thanks to his versatility. He rotates fairly evenly between the interior (3-technique) and the edge (5-technique).
Armstead’s versatility explains two of the most notable aspects of San Francisco’s snap distribution: their featuring of two interior linemen who play over 70% of the snaps and their lack of a second edge rusher who plays a featured role. Both are fairly unique approaches.
San Francisco gives Armstead many of the snaps that would typically go to a team’s second starting edge rusher. Rather than taking him off the field in certain situations (particularly on rushing downs where they want more size on the outside) where other teams might rotate in an edge rusher, the 49ers would kick Armstead out to the edge. This is why the 49ers only had one pure edge rusher who played frequently (Nick Bosa) – Armstead was taking up a lot of the EDGE snaps.
Franklin-Myers can do the same thing for the Jets. He played some 5-technique/EDGE for the Jets in 2020, and during his 2018 rookie season with the Rams, it was his primary role.
While Franklin-Myers’ film on the interior is more impressive than his film on the edge, he is certainly capable of playing at an above-average level on the outside.
There is one area where Franklin-Myers needs to improve if he is going to fully embody Armstead in the Jets’ defense: stopping the run.
Armstead has established himself as a great player against both the pass and the run, allowing him to thrive in two different roles. While Franklin-Myers has proven he is an outstanding pass rusher, he still needs to prove he can hold the edge against the run at an effective level. If he cannot do that, the Jets will not be able to trust him to handle a role as large as Armstead’s.
Even so, Franklin-Myers isn’t a terrible run defender – he’s just a fine one. The Jets can live with that in exchange for his elite pass-rushing.
This match makes a lot of sense. The 49ers found a way to maximize Armstead’s tweener status and turn him into an all-purpose threat whose interchangeability sets the tone for how the rest of the unit is deployed. Franklin-Myers has enough talent to do the same in New York.
IDL3: D.J. Jones vs. Sheldon Rankins
Saleh typically had his third interior lineman play about 43% of the snaps, with D.J. Jones being the go-to guy in that role when healthy. Jones averaged a snap portion of approximately 49% in games where he did not leave early due to injury.
That rate is not too far off of where Sheldon Rankins was with the Saints. In 2020, Rankins averaged a snap portion of 53% over 13 healthy appearances in the regular season and playoffs. He had the same mark in 2019.
Considering that Rankins is entering a unit that is overflowing with depth, it seems fair to think that his playing time will drop a bit. Right around that 50% mark is where Rankins could fall, establishing himself as the third interior threat behind Williams and Franklin-Myers.
Rankins is not similar to Jones as a player – Rankins is a great athlete whose game is built upon pass-rushing while Jones is a mammoth whose game is built upon run-stopping – but Jones’ depth chart position and playing time make sense as a guide for Rankins.
IDL4: Sheldon Day vs. Foley Fatukasi
The gritty, 318-pound Folorunso Fatukasi is not necessarily similar to the athletic, 292-pound Sheldon Day in terms of playstyle, but it makes sense to think that Fatukasi’s lack of pass-rushing ability could relegate him to the No. 4 spot on the IDL depth chart. That role was primarily held by Day in 2019.
San Francisco usually used its fourth interior lineman for about one-quarter of the defensive snaps. Day averaged a snap portion of 27% over 11 games in which D.J. Jones was active.
It seems fair to project that Fatukasi could handle a similar amount of playing time, primarily entering the game in rushing situations.
Interestingly, the 2019 Niners had a run-stuffing nose tackle (321-pound D.J. Jones) as their IDL3 and a smaller, more athletic tackle (292-pound Sheldon Day) as their IDL4, which is the opposite order of how we have the pass-rush-first Rankins and the run-defense-first Fatukasi ordered here. They valued their rotational run-stopper over their rotational athlete.
If the Jets followed San Francisco’s model step-for-step, Fatukasi would be in Jones’ shoes playing close to half of the snaps while Rankins would be in Day’s shoes playing about one-quarter of the snaps.
However, considering the Jets’ financial commitment to Rankins ($6 million guaranteed) and their desperate need for a strong pass-rush to bail out a weak secondary, it would be surprising if Fatukasi out-snapped Rankins.
EDGE1: Nick Bosa vs. Carl Lawson
Nick Bosa anchored the 49ers’ edge rush as the only true edge defender to handle a big workload.
Carl Lawson will likely be doing the same. The Jets’ EDGE unit is constructed similarly to San Francisco’s featuring a star pass-rusher at the top and a bunch of solid rotational pieces after him, with no second every-down starter.
Lawson played about 69% of the Bengals’ defensive snaps in his average game last season, which was a career-high. San Francisco played its top edge rusher on 78% of the defensive plays on average in 2019, so Lawson may have to be ready for another increase in playing time.
Bosa (266 pounds) and Lawson (265 pounds) offer similar frames and can both rush at a high level both from a stand-up position or with their hand(s) in the dirt.
Just as Williams will be tasked with taking on Buckner’s lead role on the interior, Lawson will take on the challenge of filling Bosa’s big shoes on the edge.
Beyond Bosa, the 49ers were extremely rotation-heavy at the EDGE position. They had three key rotational pieces on the edge whose snap counts would vary week-by-week.
Firstly, here is how San Francisco’s EDGE depth chart looked in their average game:
- EDGE1: 78% of snaps
- EDGE2: 46%
- EDGE3: 32%
- EDGE4: 17%
Those numbers suggest a clear one-two-three-four order on the depth chart, but there was a lot of fluctuation in who was playing which role throughout the season. The 49ers changed things up week by week, and the overall 2019 numbers are skewed due to injuries suffered by Ronald Blair (7 games missed) and Dee Ford (5 games missed).
Here is how the 49ers’ EDGE snap distribution looked from Weeks 1-9, a stretch in which Blair, Ford, and Solomon Thomas did not miss any games:
- EDGE1: 73% of snaps
- EDGE2: 46%
- EDGE3: 38%
- EDGE4: 27%
The top edge rusher saw a lighter workload, while the third and fourth-most used edge rushers were relied upon significantly more.
When all three were healthy, the 49ers’ rotational edge rushers were valued fairly equally over the course of the season. Here is how Ford, Blair, and Solomon Thomas were used from Weeks 1-9:
- Ronald Blair: Average snap portion of 39%
- Dee Ford: 39%
- Solomon Thomas: 35%
While there was a clear two-three-four hierarchy on the EDGE depth chart in most games (distribution amongst the three players in a given game would vary based on the opponent and in-game situations), the snaps were spread very evenly over extended periods of time. All three of Blair, Ford, and Thomas averaged a snap portion ranging from 35% to 40% over the eight-game stretch in which they were all healthy.
The three players each had a particular role. Ford was the pass-rushing specialist, Blair was the run-stopping specialist, and Thomas was used in both phases at an average level. Here is a look at the pass-run split between each player’s snaps in 2019 (also included is the 2020 EDGE league average for reference):
- EDGE average: 63% vs. pass, 37% vs. run
- Dee Ford: 80% vs. pass, 20% vs. run
- Ronald Blair: 57% vs. pass, 43% vs. run
- Solomon Thomas: 64% vs. pass, 36% vs. run
In New York, Saleh has the correct reinforcements to run the EDGE rotation he deployed in San Francisco.
Vinny Curry can man the Solomon Thomas role.
Like Thomas, Curry is a massive defensive end who makes his impact with power. Curry weighs in at 279 pounds, one pound shy of Thomas’ 280-pound frame.
Also similar to Thomas, Curry is a rotational player who handles a fairly even pass-run workload. Curry played 42% of the Eagles’ defensive snaps in his average appearance last year, not too far ahead of Thomas’ 35% average when everyone was healthy. Plus, over the past three seasons, Curry had a 64%-36% pass-run split, equal to Thomas’ 2019 rate.
Boasting far more efficient career numbers as a pass rusher, Curry is a better player than Thomas, so I can see Curry eclipsing Thomas’ 2019 playing time and establishing himself as the clear-cut No. 2 edge rusher of the rotational group.
Bryce Huff is a prime candidate to take Dee Ford’s role as the pass-rushing specialist. The 255-pound Huff is a speed-rusher just like the 252-pound Ford. Huff played 67% of his rookie-year snaps in the passing game.
Of course, Huff has yet to prove he is as good as Ford, who entered 2019 coming off of a 13-sack season, so I could see Huff sliding down to the fourth spot on the EDGE depth chart with a smaller snap portion than Ford’s typical 39% in 2019.
Ronald Blair can reprise the role that he held in 2019. Blair played 39% of the snaps in his average game when healthy, leaning towards rushing situations. His 270-pound frame has made him a strong edge-setter.
While Curry expands upon Thomas’ role and Huff takes Ford’s role at a smaller scale, Blair can stay right around where he was.
Kyle Phillips (277 pounds) and Jabari Zuniga (266 pounds) are also in the mix to compete for a role. As a player whose skill set leans very heavily towards the run game, Phillips’ best fit is likely the Blair role. The same likely goes for Zuniga.
C.J. Mosley will start and play every down. That is all but guaranteed. Mosley is no Fred Warner from an athleticism perspective, but their roles will be the same.
Most likely, Jarrad Davis will start next to Mosley. It would be a risky proposition, as Davis struggled over three years in a starting role for the Lions, but it seems unlikely that the Jets would hand him $5.5 million guaranteed to be a backup.
Davis put up by far the best numbers of his career in the 2020 season after being relegated to a rotational role, so the idea of playing Davis as that No. 3 linebacker is not completely far-fetched even if it might not be financially ideal.
The battle for the third linebacker spot will feature Blake Cashman against rookies Hamsah Nasirildeen and Jamien Sherwood.
Whoever claims the spot will take on the Azeez Al-Shaair role. Al-Shaair took over as the 49ers’ third linebacker late in the 2019 season and held onto the job throughout the 2020 season. He generally played around 30% of the snaps on average, but his role was extremely fluctuant. Al-Shaair played in as many as 60% of the snaps in one game (with Warner and Greenlaw still playing every snap) and didn’t play at all in three games.
Based on the guidelines laid by the 2019 San Francisco 49ers, here is an educated guess of how I could see the Jets distributing their snaps over the course of the 2021 season when everyone is healthy:
|Position on depth chart||Projected NYJ player||Projected snap % (over course of season)||Role|
|IDL1||Quinnen Williams||75||Star 3-tech|
|IDL2||John Franklin-Myers||65||IDL/EDGE tweener|
|IDL3||Sheldon Rankins||50||Pass-rush specialist|
|IDL4||Foley Fatukasi||30||Run-game specialist|
|EDGE1||Carl Lawson||70||Star edge rusher|
|EDGE2||Vinny Curry||45||Balanced rotational player|
|EDGE3||Ronald Blair||35||Run-game specialist|
|EDGE4||Bryce Huff||30||Pass-rush specialist|
|LB1||C.J. Mosley||100||Every-down LB|
|LB2||Jarrad Davis||95||Every-down LB|
|LB3||B. Cashman/H. Nasirildeen/J. Sherwood||30||Rotational LB3|
- IDL1: Quinnen Williams (star 3-tech)
- IDL2: John Franklin-Myers (IDL/EDGE tweener)
- IDL3: Sheldon Rankins (pass-rush specialist)
- IDL4: Foley Fatukasi (run-game specialist)
- EDGE1: Carl Lawson (star)
- EDGE2: Vinny Curry (two-way rotational player)
- EDGE3: Ronald Blair (run-game specialist)
- EDGE4: Bryce Huff (pass-rush specialist)
- LB1: C.J. Mosley (every-down)
- LB2: Jarrad Davis (every-down)
- LB3: Cashman, Nasirildeen, or Sherwood (rotational LB3)
- Other key pieces: IDL Nathan Shepherd, IDL Jonathan Marshall, EDGE Kyle Phillips, EDGE Jabari Zuniga
Michael, this is really nice work mate! I’ve been puzzling over this for ages. Now I have all the pieces and the picture looks awesome LOL, Nice job buddy, bloody good job
Thanks for the hard work