How does the 2021 Jets defensive line compare to the 2019 San Francisco 49ers front four?
On Tuesday afternoon, Pro Football Focus stirred the Twitter pot with a specific tweet.
Showing off a quartet of Carl Lawson, Sheldon Rankins, Quinnen Williams, and John Franklin-Myers, PFF suggested the possibility that the New York Jets‘ current defensive line might be even better than the one Robert Saleh coached in San Francisco.
Very possible Robert Saleh has an even better defensive line in New York… 🤷 pic.twitter.com/zfC12wykol
— PFF (@PFF) August 3, 2021
I decided to test that theory.
Which players are we comparing?
When making this comparison, we need to use the 2019 version of the 49ers’ defensive line. That year, the group was at full strength and led San Francisco to the Super Bowl.
Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Dee Ford helped the Niners record an 8.5% sack rate in 2019, which ranked third-best in football. In 2020, Bosa and Ford missed the vast majority of the season due to injury while Buckner was shipped off to Indianapolis and replaced with first-round pick Javon Kinlaw, who did not have an impressive rookie season.
To figure out whether this Jets defensive line is capable of matching the 49ers’ Super Bowl-worthy 2019 unit, we will run a side-by-side comparison between eight different players on each defensive line who are set to play the same role.
I recently identified the Jets’ counterparts for every role on the Niners’ 2019 defensive line. The Jets are perfectly constructed to mimic the utilization tactics of the 2019 Niners, possessing players who are fit to fill each role that the 49ers employed.
This table outlines the roles that the 49ers had for their defensive linemen when everyone was healthy, along with the Jets players who are fit to fill those same roles and an estimation of how often they will take the field (as laid out in the breakdown linked above):
|Role||SF player||Projected NYJ player||Estimated snap%|
|Star 3-tech||DeForest Buckner||Quinnen Williams||75|
|DT/EDGE tweener||Arik Armstead||John Franklin-Myers||65|
|Pass rush DT||Sheldon Day||Sheldon Rankins||50|
|Run stop DT||D.J. Jones||Foley Fatukasi||30|
|Star edge rusher||Nick Bosa||Carl Lawson||70|
|Balanced EDGE||Solomon Thomas||Vinny Curry||45|
|Pass rush EDGE||Dee Ford||Bryce Huff||35|
|Run stop EDGE||Ronald Blair||Ronald Blair||30|
Let’s compare these players head-to-head.
DeForest Buckner vs. Quinnen Williams
For each comparison, we’ll take a look at the advanced statistics of both players side-by-side (playoff statistics are included for the 49ers). To provide a point of reference, the 2020 NFL average for the players’ position will also be listed for each statistic.
|Stat||Buckner (2019)||Williams (2020)||2020 IDL average|
|Overall PFF grade||81.5||81.4||64.0|
|PFF pass rush grade||77.3||77.7||66.0|
|Pressures per game||3.5||3.0||-|
|PFF run defense grade||71.8||79.9||59.7|
|Run stop %||7.3%||13.6%||6.5%|
|Run stops per game||1.3||2.2||-|
This is a close battle. The pass-rush production is neck-and-neck while PFF’s overall grade puts them almost dead-even.
Buckner has the workload edge. He was asked to play more snaps per game (50.2 snaps per game to Williams’ 45.2) and maintained his production over 19 regular season and playoff games versus Williams’ 13 regular-season games. Altogether, Buckner played 953 snaps in 2019 while Williams played only 587 snaps in 2020.
However, Williams’ production in the run game gives him a sizable edge. Buckner graded out well as a run defender, but Williams was elite in this phase.
Williams was 22 years old throughout the majority of the 2020 season, turning 23 in December. Buckner was 25 in 2019. So, we’re comparing apples to oranges here in terms of experience. Williams could get even better than he was last year.
We’ll be fair and call this one a wash for now. Buckner’s increased sample size and more proven track record help him balance out Williams’ possible progression.
- Verdict: Even
- Jets: 0, Niners: 0, Ties: 1
Arik Armstead vs. John Franklin-Myers
Armstead provided versatility for the 49ers’ defensive line, staying on the field in an every-down role thanks to his ability to play both inside and out on the edge. Franklin-Myers can do the same for the Jets.
|Stat||Armstead (2019)||Franklin-Myers (2020)||2020 IDL average|
|Overall PFF grade||89.6||71.5||64.0|
|PFF pass rush grade||75.1||76.4||66.0|
|Pressures per game||3.8||3.4||-|
|PFF run defense grade||86.4||57.1||59.7|
|Run stop %||7.3%||4.2%||6.5%|
|Run stops per game||1.2||0.4||-|
Franklin-Myers takes a slight edge in the passing game, but not by much. Meanwhile, Armstead takes an enormous victory in the run game. Armstead has established himself as a consistently great run defender; he does not record a ton of on-ball plays, but his penetration is tremendous.
Armstead gets the win here thanks to his two-way prowess.
- Verdict: Armstead
- Jets: 0, Niners: 1, Ties: 1
Sheldon Day vs. Sheldon Rankins
The 49ers had two primary rotational defensive tackles: Sheldon Day and D.J. Jones. Day was the small, athletic pass rusher while Jones was the big, tough run stopper.
San Francisco used Jones (the run stopper) more frequently than Day (the pass rusher). When both were fully healthy, Jones played 49% of the defensive snaps on average while Day played 27%.
As I explained in my snap projection breakdown, I do not see this holding up for the Jets. With New York desperately needing a pass-rush to bail out its young secondary and Rankins boasting a $4.5 million cap hit this year, it’s hard to see him getting only 27% of the snaps and being out-snapped by the run-stuffing Foley Fatukasi.
I think Saleh will pivot his deployment of the rotational defensive tackles this year. The pass-rushing specialist (Rankins) will be third on the IDL depth chart and play around 50% of the snaps while the run-stopping specialist (Fatukasi) will be fourth and play around 30% of the snaps.
In any event, let’s take a look at how the two pass-rush-centric defensive tackles compare.
|Stat||Day (2019)||Rankins (2020)||2020 IDL average|
|Overall PFF grade||60.7||63.5||64.0|
|PFF pass rush grade||54.9||68.4||66.0|
|Pressures per game||0.4||1.9||-|
|PFF run defense grade||60.8||58.2||59.7|
|Run stop %||4.2%||3.4%||6.5%|
|Run stops per game||0.4||0.4||-|
Rankins gets the win here. The 2020 season was his least efficient since his rookie year, and he was still clearly better than Day, who has not performed at an impressive level in the NFL.
- Verdict: Rankins
- Jets: 1, Niners: 1, Ties: 1
D.J. Jones vs. Folorunso Fatukasi
Here is a comparison between the two teams’ run-stopping specialists.
|Stat||Jones (2019)||Fatukasi (2020)||2020 IDL average|
|Overall PFF grade||67.8||80.1||64.0|
|PFF pass rush grade||61.7||64.0||66.0|
|Pressures per game||0.8||0.8||-|
|PFF run defense grade||68.4||86.2||59.7|
|Run stop %||7.0%||8.2%||6.5%|
|Run stops per game||0.6||1.5||-|
It’s no contest. Jones has been solid, but Fatukasi has established himself as one of the most fearsome run-stuffers in football. He even adds a little bit more pass-rush juice than the majority of the league’s nose tackles.
- Verdict: Fatukasi
- Jets: 2, Niners: 1, Ties: 1
With Rankins and Fatukasi blowing out Day and Jones, the Jets clearly have much better depth on the interior defensive line.
The starting duo goes in San Francisco’s favor. Armstead is substantially better than Franklin-Myers in the run game, although Franklin-Myers is arguably slightly better as a pass rusher. Williams matched Buckner this past season and has the potential to get better, but we need to see the leap happen first. For the time being, Williams can be considered equally as good as the 2019 version of Buckner.
Nick Bosa vs. Carl Lawson
Carl Lawson will aim to be anchor the Jets’ pass rush with top-tier production off the edge just as Bosa did for the 49ers in his 2019 rookie season.
|Stat||Bosa (2019)||Lawson (2020)||2020 EDGE average|
|Overall PFF grade||89.8||76.3||65.3|
|PFF pass rush grade||85.6||84.9||66.9|
|Pressures per game||5.4||4.0||-|
|PFF run defense grade||78.2||61.1||61.4|
|Run stop %||8.0%||4.1%||5.8%|
|Run stops per game||1.3||0.7||-|
Lawson is great, but it’s no contest here. Bosa was a top 10 edge rusher in his first regular season and followed it up with an outstanding three-game playoff run, capped off by a Super Bowl in which he was unstoppable (12 pressures).
The run game is what really tilts the tide here. While Lawson is an elite pass rusher (albeit not to Bosa’s level), he is only an average run defender. Bosa, on the other hand, is elite in both phases.
- Verdict: Bosa
- Jets: 2, Niners: 2, Ties: 1
Solomon Thomas vs. Vinny Curry
When they had all of their reinforcements available, the 49ers had three rotational edge defenders who all received about the same number of snaps over the course of the season: Solomon Thomas, Dee Ford, and Ronald Blair.
Ford was the pass-rush specialist and Blair was the run-game specialist. Thomas’ snap distribution was fairly balanced.
Carrying a similar frame and being used in a balanced run-pass role by the Eagles, Vinny Curry projects to play Solomon Thomas’ role.
|Stat||Thomas (2019)||Curry (2020)||2020 EDGE average|
|Overall PFF grade||54.4||68.6||65.3|
|PFF pass rush grade||57.2||70.9||66.9|
|Pressures per game||0.8||2.3||-|
|PFF run defense grade||53.5||53.1||61.4|
|Run stop %||6.1%||4.9%||5.8%|
|Run stops per game||0.5||0.5||-|
Curry gets the win. Both players are below-average in the run game while Curry obliterates Thomas in the passing game.
- Verdict: Curry
- Jets: 3, Niners: 2, Ties: 1
Dee Ford vs. Bryce Huff
It is clear what the outcome of this matchup will be, but let’s dive into it anyway. Bryce Huff projects to play the pass-rush specialist role that Ford handled in 2019 when he was healthy.
|Stat||Ford (2019)||Huff (2020)||2020 EDGE average|
|Overall PFF grade||73.9||58.5||65.3|
|PFF pass rush grade||71.2||61.9||66.9|
|Pressures per game||2.4||1.0||-|
|PFF run defense grade||62.7||46.6||61.4|
|Run stop %||7.9%||3.0%||5.8%|
|Run stops per game||0.4||0.2||-|
Ford has been a solid player when healthy in his career, whereas Huff was an undrafted free agent rookie who showed some flashes but ultimately performed as you would expect him to.
- Verdict: Ford
- Jets: 3, Niners: 3, Ties: 1
There are a couple of things I’d like to note regarding these players. Firstly, I think a lot of fans do not realize that Ford was merely a situational player for the 49ers in 2019. His season-high snap percentage was 58%, and he played less than half of the snaps in 11 of his 14 appearances.
With that being said, Ford was still excellent in his role on a per-snap basis, as evidenced by his stats in the table above.
Despite the lackluster nature of his numbers above, Huff’s potential is highly intriguing when you dig even deeper – especially when projecting him into Ford’s role.
Huff had a lot of pass-rush wins in his rookie season that went unnoticed on the stat sheet because he was unlucky that the ball came out in a hurry. It wasn’t just the standard box score that overlooked Huff – the advanced stats also failed to recognize many of these wins, as he had a bunch of great reps where he did not even get credit for a pressure.
PFF’s pass-rush win rate statistic accounts for this. Huff had a pass-rush win rate of 14.8% at PFF, ranking 33rd out of 121 qualified edge rushers (73rd percentile). That ranked second among rookie edge rushers, trailing only Alex Highsmith of the Steelers.
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Huff was even more impressive when he handled a smaller workload, which is exciting as the Jets project him to play in a situational role that will only give him a limited number of snaps.
In games where he rushed the quarterback less than 20 times, Huff had a pass-rush win rate of 19.4%. For reference, Detroit’s Romeo Okwara ranked sixth-best at the position with a 19.3% rate on the year. Carl Lawson ranked fourth at 20.0%.
Ford played less than 20 pass-rush snaps in 11 of his 14 games in 2019. To know that Huff has shown he can perform at a high level in that role is intriguing, especially considering he did it as a rookie and still has plenty of room to grow.
Ronald Blair figures to handle the same run-stopping role that he handled with the 49ers in 2019. He played 43% of his defensive snaps on run plays, which is well above the typical EDGE average of 37% and was the highest rate among San Francisco’s top four edge rushers.
Blair missed the entirety of the 2020 season recovering from an ACL injury he suffered in Week 10 of 2019. Here are his numbers from the 2019 campaign. It was a fairly small sample – 199 snaps over nine games.
|Stat||Blair (2019)||2020 EDGE average|
|Overall PFF grade||77.5||65.3|
|PFF pass rush grade||70.5||66.9|
|Pressures per game||1.1||-|
|PFF run defense grade||74.0||61.4|
|Run stop %||10.6||5.8%|
|Run stops per game||1.0||-|
After a pedestrian first three seasons in the league, Blair was on his way to a breakout fourth season until his injury.
Obviously, we consider this one a tie since Blair seems to be on track to reprise his own role.
- Verdict: Even
- Jets: 3, Niners: 3, Ties: 2
We ended up with three victories for each side and two ties.
The overall advantage has to go in San Francisco’s favor since they have the edge in the starting lineup. Among the three every-down roles, the 49ers took two sizable wins (Armstead over Franklin-Myers and Bosa over Lawson) while we considered Buckner and Williams an even matchup.
New York has the advantage comes in the depth department. Outside of Blair, the Jets took no-contest victories in three of the other four rotational roles: Rankins over Day, Fatukasi over Jones, and Curry over Thomas. Ford gives the Niners their lone advantage of the non-starters as he beats out Huff.
The Jets have an outstanding defensive line; I found it to be one of the absolute best in the league on paper in this ranking. But as things stand, it does not measure up to the 2019 Niners thanks to the two-way dominance of Bosa and Armstead compared to the one-sided dominance of Lawson and Franklin-Myers.
However, the Jets do have a chance to match the Niners’ 2019 unit if their young pieces can continue growing. If Williams can continue developing and prove to be considerably more impactful than Buckner was, the Jets’ depth might put them over the top. Huff building on his rookie-year promise and establishing himself as an electric situational pass rusher would make the depth even better.
For now, the pragmatic conclusion is that the Jets’ current defensive line is not as good as the one that led San Francisco to the 2019 NFC title. With that being said, the Jets are closer to that unit than many realize, and they do have a slim chance of matching it if a few things break right.