Free agency offers New York Jets a chance to improve at defensive tackle
The New York Jets are facing plenty of uncertainty on the interior of their defensive line entering the 2022 season.
Foley Fatukasi, the team’s primary run-stuffer in the A-gaps, is set to become a free agent. Fatukasi had two dominant seasons as a run defender from 2019-20 but saw his performance take a steep drop-off in 2021 as he entered a new scheme under Jeff Ulbrich and Robert Saleh. It’s uncertain whether Fatukasi will return or whether it would be a good fit for either side.
Sheldon Rankins is a possible cap casualty after a highly disappointing 2021 season. Rankins was signed to provide pass-rushing juice in the Jets’ attacking scheme but ended up posting lackluster production in that phase while struggling mightily in the run game. He is set to have a $6.25 million cap hit in 2022, and the Jets can save $5.5 million of that if they cut Rankins.
Outside of Quinnen Williams, the Jets do not have a reliable defensive tackle under contract.
John Franklin-Myers is capable of providing high-level play on the inside, but it’s unclear whether the Jets plan to move him back inside or continue using him on the edge as they did in 2021.
So, Williams is the only sure thing on this unit at the moment.
The bottom line is that the Jets may find themselves looking for defensive tackle help on the free-agent market.
Fortunately, there are a lot of good defensive tackles set to hit free agency this year. The Jets will have a bevy of options if they choose to test the waters at this position.
Two free-agent defensive tackles, in particular, stand out as tremendous fits for the Jets.
D.J. Jones, San Francisco 49ers
D.J. Jones would be a phenomenal option to replace Fatukasi if the Jets choose not to bring him back.
Like Fatukasi, Jones is a highly-regarded run stuffer, but what makes Jones intriguing for New York is that he has made his name as a run-stuffer in the scheme that the Jets are running. We know that Jones can dominate against the run in an attacking 4-3 front, which is something that cannot be said about Fatukasi.
A sixth-round pick of the 49ers in 2017, Jones has spent his entire career in San Francisco, playing under Robert Saleh from 2017-20 while he was the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. Since he’d be playing in essentially the same defense, Jones would have a high chance of maintaining his San Francisco production after joining the Jets.
Jones occasionally lines up at nose tackle (9.1% of his snaps in 2021) but primarily lines up at 2i-technique (over the guard’s inside shoulder) or 3-technique (over the guard’s outside shoulder), playing one of those spots on 79.3% of his snaps in 2021.
That’s what makes Jones such a great fit for the Jets. Despite being known as a great run-stuffer, he’s not actually a “nose tackle”, which is perfect for a scheme that does not use a traditional nose tackle who lines up over the center. They need guys who move well and can stop the run from the 2i-tech and 3-tech alignments.
At six feet and 305 pounds, Jones is smaller than the traditional defensive tackle, but that slight frame allows him to survive in a defensive scheme that requires athleticism, movement skills, and gap-shooting from its defensive linemen.
DJ Jones jumps a gap and stuffs the run. Jumping gaps really messes with zone blocking schemes and Saleh knows it.
The 49ers did something similar to the Rams in the second half of their matchup to stuff their run game. pic.twitter.com/bq4RrHdiZP
— Oscar Aparicio (@BetterRivals) November 25, 2019
Jones tied for the lead among all interior defensive linemen with 35 run stops in 2021. He picked up those 35 run stops over only 263 snaps against the run, which ranked 39th at the position. His run-stop rate of 13.5% ranked first among 105 qualified IDL.
You won’t get a whole lot out of Jones in the passing game – his total of 18 pressures in 2021 was a career-high and still only ranked 66th at the position – but he’s not a “bad” pass-rusher. He’s about average, which is a fantastic complement for a player whose bread-and-butter is elite run-stuffing.
Jones’ 6.89% pressure rate in 2021 (including playoffs) was slightly below the league average for IDL (7.37%). His 66.6 pass-rush grade at Pro Football Focus was slightly above the positional average of 65.1.
Those are very strong numbers for players who man Jones’ role. Most run-game-centric tackles do significantly less damage in the passing game.
Of the 40 qualified IDL who played at least 46.0% of their defensive snaps against the run (Jones ranked 29th of 122 qualifiers with 47.8% of his snaps coming in the run game), the average pressure rate was 5.28% and the average PFF pass-rush grade was 59.9. Jones cleared those numbers easily.
Do not be surprised to see Jones bust out a dominant pass-rush win every once in a while.
DJ Jones just DOMINATED for this sack 💪 pic.twitter.com/QBrfZylLrX
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) November 12, 2019
That hesi by DJ Jones (@djjones_44) before the club/swim is nice.
— DLineVids (@dlinevids1) January 19, 2022
Jones turned 27 years old in January. Injuries are a question mark as he missed 20 games over his first four seasons, but he played all 17 games in 2021 and only missed two games in 2020 (one was due to COVID-19).
There is a lot to like about Jones’ fit with the Jets. He is a player I would prioritize fairly highly if I were Joe Douglas. While Jones is likely similar to Fatukasi talent-wise, his advantage in scheme compatibility should make him a much more impactful player in New York’s system, helping to turn around an abysmal run defense.
B.J. Hill, Cincinnati Bengals
B.J. Hill is a different type of defensive tackle than Jones, but he offers the same core traits that make him appealing: great run defense and impressive athleticism that should allow him to thrive in a 4-3 scheme.
Hill is primarily utilized as a 3-technique, lining up against opposing guards. He’s a great athlete who ran a 4.99 in the forty-yard dash at 311 pounds while also registering a 7.28 in the three-cone (90th percentile among DT all-time). Hill stands at 6-foot-3 and was listed an even slighter 303 pounds in 2021, so it’s possible he is even more explosive now than he was at the 2018 Combine.
A third-round pick of the Giants in 2018, Hill (who will turn 26 in April) had three solid years for the Giants before being traded to Cincinnati and playing a role in the Bengals’ 2021 Super Bowl run.
Hill played a rotational role for Cincinnati in 2021, appearing on 49% of their defensive snaps and producing with great efficiency. He tied for 38th among IDL with 19 run stops in 2021 despite placing 90th at the position with 173 run defense snaps. His run-stop rate of 11.2% ranked fourth-best at the position out of 105 qualifiers.
To boot, Hill is a good pass-rusher. He collected 29 pressures on 326 pass-rush snaps, giving him a pressure rate of 8.90% that ranked 35th out of 122 qualified IDL (72nd percentile). That was no fluke as he had a 9.05% rate the previous season.
Hill made one of the most important plays in Bengals history when he snatched a pick off Patrick Mahomes in the third quarter of the AFC Championship Game.
BJ HILL PICK!!! pic.twitter.com/imK9FFRmVR
— Barstool Pack (@BarstoolPack) January 30, 2022
Hill has only missed one game in his career, which was due to COVID-19 in January 2022.
By adding either Jones or Hill, the Jets would improve the athleticism, run defense, and scheme compatibility of their interior defensive line, helping to revitalize a unit that was a greater liability in 2021 than many fans seemed to realize.