It’s time to start talking about an overlooked New York Jets need
Wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, edge rusher, linebacker, cornerback, safety – this appears to be the consensus New York Jets shopping list for the 2022 offseason among fans and observers (with those positions listed in no particular order).
There’s just one problem: Why isn’t defensive tackle on there?
Yes, I know suggesting the Jets should add a defensive tackle is a sin similar to mentioning Voldemort’s name in the eyes of Jets fans. Gotham Green supporters have long been tired of making hefty investments in the defensive tackle position.
But the fact of the matter is that defensive tackle is most definitely a need for this team – and a big one, at that.
The Jets do not have much proven talent under contract at DT
The Jets only have four defensive tackles under contract in 2022: Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins, Jonathan Marshall, and Tanzel Smart (reserve/future). You could also throw in John Franklin-Myers, who played on the edge in 2021 but has the capability to play defensive tackle.
Even if you did throw in Franklin-Myers, that’s still only three proven NFL-quality players at the position.
Marshall was a sixth-round pick last year and struggled mightily over his small sample of snaps. Smart is a practice squad player.
That leaves us with Williams, Franklin-Myers, and Rankins.
Williams and Franklin-Myers are high-end starters who will be long-term pieces for the Jets. That, we know.
However, Rankins is not a surefire bet to return, and even if he does, he is someone the Jets should look to upgrade upon.
Rankins can be cut this offseason to save the Jets $5.4 million in cap space. He is set to have a $6.2 million cap hit in 2022 – and I’m not sure his 2021 performance warrants that.
The Rankins we saw in 2021 was not the Rankins of old. Rankins’ pass-rushing was below-average, which is a far cry from the consistent pass-rushing excellence that Saints fans were used to seeing from Rankins throughout his career in New Orleans. His pressure rate of 5.8% in 2021 ranked 74th out of 96 qualified interior defensive linemen. That is well below the positional average of 7.1% and his previous career average of 8.7%.
Throw in Rankins’ porous run defense – his 34.9 run defense grade at Pro Football Focus ranked fourth-worst out of 89 qualified IDL – and his production output does not look worthy of $6.2 million.
Now we are left with Williams and Franklin-Myers as the team’s only true studs at defensive tackle. Considering that Franklin-Myers played on the outside in 2021, he’s not really part of the interior defensive line unit for now. The Jets could conceivably move him back there, which is where he played in 2020, but until then, he’s an edge player.
So, the Jets’ only sure thing at defensive tackle is Quinnen Williams.
Is Foley Fatukasi worth bringing back?
The elephant in the room here is Foley Fatukasi. New York’s big run-stuffer is set for unrestricted free agency.
Fatukasi established himself as an elite run defender in coordinator Gregg Williams’ defense from 2019-20. The New York native ranked fifth among IDL with an 87.6 run defense grade in 2019 and placed second in 2020 with an 86.2 grade. His blend of brute strength and tremendous block-shedding made him a force to be reckoned with.
However, following the Jets’ switch to a 4-3 front under Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich, Fatukasi was not quite as beastly in 2021. His run defense grade dipped to 57.3, ranking 36th out of 71 qualifiers. That’s not terrible, but it’s nowhere near where he was.
Run-stopping tackles like Fatukasi can get a hefty paycheck. D.J. Reader ($13.3 million APY), Eddie Goldman ($10.5 million), Dalvin Tomlinson ($10.5 million), Grover Stewart ($10.3 million), and Michael Pierce ($9 million) are a few players with similar skillsets and numbers to Fatukasi who signed lucrative contracts in recent years.
Fatukasi did not seem like a great scheme fit this year. His best traits – eating up blocks, clogging running lanes, making smart reads to shed blocks and make stops – are best maximized in a two-gapping defense where he is asked to hold his ground and read plays. In an attacking defense where his job is usually to shoot through one gap, all of those skills hit the backburner while pure athleticism comes to the forefront, and that’s not Fatukasi’s game.
Will the Jets see Fatukasi as worthy of a $9-10 million deal in this scheme? My guess is they won’t.
Perhaps Fatukasi returns if the Jets can get him back on a bargain, but I would wager that there are plenty of 3-4 teams out there who would love to splurge on Fatukasi. Keep an eye on the Chargers, who have the second-most cap space in the NFL, run a 3-4 base, and have an enormous need for run-stopping help.
Something has to be done here
Now, I’m not saying the Jets need to make a huge move at defensive tackle. They don’t need to break the bank for a free agent or consider drafting one in the first round.
With that being said, a significant move or two will be required. The Jets are hurting here. This is what they have:
- A very good starter (Quinnen Williams)
- A very good starter, but one who currently figures to play on the edge (John Franklin-Myers)
- An accomplished veteran, but one who had a down year in 2021 and can be easily cut for ample savings (Sheldon Rankins)
- A sixth-round pick who showed little as a rookie
- A practice squad player
- An impending free agent who is talented but may not be a scheme fit, had a down year in 2021, and might be too expensive to justify bringing back (Foley Fatukasi)
That list reads to me like the definition of “position of need”.
What should be done?
Rankins is actually the exact type of move the Jets should explore here – a mid-tier free agent who is a scheme fit and can provide above-average production as a starter. If Rankins maintained his New Orleans numbers this season, he’d be the perfect player to fill out the defensive line. He is a scheme fit and the Jets got him at an affordable price for the production he used to provide.
Whether or not Rankins returns will come down to whether the Jets think he can have a bounceback year. If they think he can, he will likely return. As I just mentioned, he really is the exact type of guy they need. He just wasn’t good this year.
If the Jets do not believe in his chances of bouncing back, they should use the savings freed up by his release to look for similarly-priced outside free agents who fit the scheme and can provide affordable starter-quality play. Someone like Larry Ogunjobi or Maliek Collins could do the trick.
Additionally, the Jets need run-stuffing help if they do not bring back Fatukasi. They have to find players who have proven they can stop the run in a 4-3 front.
San Francisco’s D.J. Jones is a great option. He played under Robert Saleh with the 49ers throughout all four of Saleh’s years there. Jones tied for the lead among interior defensive linemen with 35 run stops in 2021. The Jets could add him with the confidence that his production would translate because it has all come in the same scheme.
As for the draft, the Jets probably should not consider a defensive tackle in the first or second round considering how many other needs they have on the roster that are even bigger. However, it’s not crazy to suggest that they should start thinking about it in the third or fourth round.
And, who knows? Depending on how free agency plays out, maybe the defensive tackle position does creep into second-round consideration.
Teams draft with a “best player available” philosophy while slightly bending toward their needs. They do not draft with a shopping-list mentality of simply checking off every single hole on the roster one by one in order of urgency. If the Jets love a defensive tackle at the top of round two and they still need help at the position, would that really be such a bad pick?
No matter how the Jets choose to address this need, the bottom line is, well, exactly that: it’s a need.
It’s time for Jets fans to take the plunge and start including the dreaded “DT” abbreviation in their mock drafts and mock free agency plans.