Pinpointing first-round prospects in the 2022 NFL draft who fit the New York Jets’ defense
Scheme fit is a crucial factor to keep in mind when evaluating potential additions to a football team. Let’s run through a trio of likely first-round prospects in the 2022 NFL draft who I think are great fits for the New York Jets‘ defensive scheme.
George Karlaftis, EDGE, Purdue
The 6-foot-2, 265-pound Lawson is on the smaller side for a defensive end, but his uber-athleticism for the position makes him a perfect fit for the team’s “Leo” role – essentially a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end who can line up on the edge either with his hands in the dirt or standing up, whose primary responsibility is to rush the quarterback.
With the speedy, athletic, pass-rush-first Lawson on one side, it is crucial to have a defender on the opposite edge who is stockier, stronger, and more capable of defending the run.
The Jets had John Franklin-Myers in that role this year, and he did a nice job with it. Franklin-Myers, who stands at 6-foot-4 and 288 pounds, had himself a solid season in both phases.
Franklin-Myers used his large frame and high-end power to set the edge effectively against the run (he led the Jets with a 74.2 Pro Football Focus run-defense grade) but still created pressure in the passing game at a good rate thanks to his skillful pass-rush technique.
However, Franklin-Myers is nowhere near as dominant of a pass-rusher when playing on the edge compared to when he rushes from the inside.
As a defensive tackle in 2020, Franklin-Myers proved capable of elite pass-rushing efficiency for the position, recording the third-best pressure rate in the NFL among interior defensive linemen (14.4%). He used his plus-athleticism and small frame to wreak havoc against bulkier, slower interior linemen.
But on the edge, Franklin-Myers is far less athletic relative to his position than he is as a defensive tackle. He has shown that he can win battles at a solid frequency as an edge defender (11.6% pressure rate, 30th among 86 qualified EDGE), but his lack of bend, burst, speed, and twitch off the edge limits his ability to make splashy, game-changing plays at the level he can from the inside.
I think the best way for the Jets to maximize Franklin-Myers’ talents going forward would be to move him back inside to the 3-technique defensive tackle position.
If that were to transpire, the Jets would need a new defensive end to take Franklin-Myers’ place as the strong, physical edge-setter opposite Lawson.
Enter George Karlaftis.
The 6-foot-4, 275-pound Karlaftis is a powerful, tough defensive end who can handle the vigors of Franklin-Myers’ role, but he also offers athletic upside at the position that Franklin-Myers does not, giving him the potential to match Franklin-Myers’ run defense in the scheme while improving upon his pass-rushing.
Karlaftis had the sixth-most pressures among Power-5 edge rushers with 54 despite playing the 25th-most pass-rush snaps with 335. He also had a 75.1 run-defense grade at PFF that ranked at the 84th percentile among qualified Power-5 edge rushers.
The Purdue product has shown the ability to both squeeze the pocket and bend the corner.
Purdue edge George Karlaftis became the 1st player to earn 10+ pressures vs an Iowa OL in the @PFF_College era yesterday.
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) October 17, 2021
Purdue EDGE George Karlaftis (#5) brings the goods when it comes to his power rushes.
He starts the rep with a great first step into his arc, he then gets great placement with his hands. He combines the speed and natural power to run this tackle back into his QB. Great rush. pic.twitter.com/U8OIySfHcg
— Nick Price (@PriceCheck3) December 6, 2021
A 4-3 defensive line of Carl Lawson, Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, and George Karlaftis could keep opposing offensive linemen up at night.
Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
The Jets asked their cornerbacks to play quite a bit of man coverage this year. New York’s corners played man on 36.4% of their coverage snaps, per PFF, which ranked 13th out of 32 cornerback units. The league average was 34.2%.
So, New York needs a cornerback who can play both styles fairly well.
Cincinnati’s Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner offers that two-way ability.
Gardner played a nearly dead-even split of man and zone coverage this year, playing man on 49.9% of his coverage snaps and zone on 50.1%. He thrived in both concepts.
In man coverage this past season, Gardner allowed a passer rating of 16.7 on throws in his direction, ranking second-best among the 185 FBS cornerbacks to face at least 10 targets. In zone, Gardner yielded a passer rating of 32.1, ranking eighth-lowest out of 218 qualifiers.
That was no one-year fluke from Sauce, either. Here are his passer ratings allowed by season:
- 2021: 16.7 man, 32.1 zone
- 2020: 43.5 man, 21.5 zone
- 2019: 22.2 man, 59.4 zone
Gardner has a better track record of two-way proficiency than his peers at the top of the cornerback class.
LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. – largely considered the No. 1 cornerback prospect – had a dominant season in both concepts as a freshman in 2019. However, since then, Stingley Jr. has gone through some struggles in man coverage (albeit in a small sample size due to injuries) in LSU’s man-heavy defense. His zone coverage numbers remained strong throughout his career.
Clemson’s Andrew Booth joins Gardner and Stingley as the three cornerbacks who currently look like surefire first-rounders. Booth comes from a zone-heavy Clemson defense and consistently thrived in zone coverage, but his man experience is limited and his numbers there are only decent.
Gardner might be the Jets’ best bet at cornerback near the top of the draft if they are looking for someone who brings versatility to the table.
Had a discussion w/ @samcrnic yesterday about Sauce’s CFP game. Clinic. Rare to see such fluid movements w/ that long frame.
Sticky in man coverage. Fav. rep vs Jameson (top). Active feet keeps him patient & square, stays on the hip and breaks down. 🔒 & threw away the 🔑 pic.twitter.com/9eVCUgiW9v
— James Wighaus (@BSB_Breakdowns) January 7, 2022
Sauce Gardner lays the BOOM on Jameson Williams 💥 pic.twitter.com/NLp1uQkaIN
— PFF (@PFF) December 31, 2021
Nakobe Dean, LB, Georgia
Athleticism is important for linebackers in the Jets’ 4-3 defense. Just look at all of the additions the Jets have made at linebacker since Saleh and Ulbrich arrived.
On day three of the 2021 draft, the Jets selected two collegiate safeties in Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen with the intention of converting them to linebacker, where they’d be undersized but offer increased agility and coverage skills for the position thanks to their backgrounds at safety.
Compared to a 3-4 base defense, a 4-3 defense has one fewer linebacker and one more defensive lineman, so there is less overall speed on the field. That’s why it is integral that the linebackers in a 4-3 are rangy enough to make up for that lost athleticism.
While the Jets accomplished their goal of infusing athleticism into the linebacker position, it did not lead to great results because athleticism alone does not lead to great linebacker play.
To be useful, athleticism has to be fused with fundamentals, instincts, and recognition among other things – you know, actual football skills. If those traits are not present, athleticism can actually be a bad thing for linebackers, as it only leads to them having a harder time controlling their movements and thus taking themselves out of plays quicker.
This is exactly what happened to the Jets’ linebackers this year.
Despite their overall athleticism, the Jets’ linebackers had a brutal 2021 season due to their lack of recognition, bad tackling, and poor angles among many other things.
New York’s linebackers struggled both against the run and the pass, but the unit’s woes against the pass were particularly troublesome. Entering Week 18, the Jets are allowing the second-most receiving yards per game to tight ends (66.5) and the second-most receiving yards per game to running backs (54.8).
While run-stopping is equally important for 4-3 linebackers as coverage skills, the 4-3 defense offers athletic linebackers a golden opportunity to shine in coverage. Take a look at what Fred Warner did under Robert Saleh in San Francisco and what Deion Jones did under Jeff Ulbrich in Atlanta. These coaches have proven that they can mold big-time cover linebackers in this defense.
An athletic specimen who also has refined football skills could become a star under Saleh and Ulbrich in this defense.
That’s where Nakobe Dean comes in.
The Georgia product is not just a flashy athlete whose explosiveness pops off the highlight reel. He proved in 2021 that he is a flat-out good football player in all facets of the linebacker position. He has that blend of athleticism and refinement that the Jets need at linebacker.
Dean’s coverage numbers in 2021 are otherworldly. He has allowed 59 yards on 30 throws in his direction, just 2.0 yards per target.
Let that sink in for a moment. The average throw in Dean’s direction yielded two yards! That’s barely more than a quarter of the yardage yielded by the typical average pass attempt. Heck, it’s less than half of the yardage yielded by the average rush attempt.
Among all qualified Power-5 linebackers, Dean is allowing the fewest yards per target (2.0) and the lowest passer rating (31.3) while recording the best coverage grade at Pro Football Focus (91.5).
Nakobe Dean’s interception against Auburn was a work of art.
All in one clip. pic.twitter.com/nyTOzfrbdS
— Brooks Austin (@BrooksAustinSI) October 19, 2021
Dean is a great run defender as well. His run-defense grade of 82.0 at PFF is tied for seventh-best among Power-5 linebackers.
As an added bonus, Dean is a phenomenal blitzer and pass-rusher. He has the third-best pass-rush grade among Power-5 linebackers at 91.5. Dean has 6.0 sacks this season and 28 total pressures on only 107 pass-rush snaps, a pressure rate of 26.2% that ranks third-best among the 26 Power-5 linebackers with at least 100 pass-rush snaps.
Dean can get better when it comes to finishing tackles, but he is solid in that area. His missed tackle rate of 11.7% ranks 66th-best out of 209 qualified Power-5 linebackers.
Standing at six feet and 225 pounds, Dean fits the Jets’ ideal size mold for a weakside (WILL) linebacker in their defense. Current starter Quincy Williams is 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds.
The Jets need a blend of athleticism and pure football skill from their linebackers – particularly, coverage skills.
Dean is the perfect fit.