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New York Jets offseason preview Part VI: Defensive line

Kayvon Thibodeaux, NY Jets, NFL Combine, 40 time
Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon Football, New York Jets, Getty Images

John Franklin-Myers and Quinnen Williams are here to stay, but who will join them on the New York Jets DL?

New York Jets defensive linemen:

  • Players under contract: DT John Franklin-Myers, DE Bryce Huff, DE Carl Lawson, DT Jonathan Marshall, DT Sheldon Rankins, DT Quinnen Williams, DE Jabari Zuniga
  • Free agents: DT Foley Fatukasi (UFA), DE Kyle Phillips (RFA), DE Nathan Shepherd (UFA), DE Tim Ward (ERFA)
  • Reserve/future: DE Bradlee Anae, DE Hamilcar Rashed, DT Tanzel Smart

The Position on the Position

Much like the Jets’ unsustainable offensive endeavors (lacking a four-digit rusher/receiver for far too long in this NFL that’s not-so-subtlely obsessed with offense), the Jets’ pressure-based exploits have left much to be desired.

Judging a defense’s performance purely by sacks is a tired exercise, but even the most devout analytics cultist can’t deny that it’s not a good sign the last New York defender to earn 10 sacks was Muhammad Wilkerson in 2015.

If a vocal minority of overoptimistic Jets fans were granted MVP votes last season, Carl Lawson would’ve been an outside threat to Aaron Rodgers. Lawson wouldn’t have been able to fully solve the Jets’ defensive issues, but there’s no doubt the Jets missed the former Cincinnati Bengal and his ability to create quarterback takedowns.

There’s certainly a lot to live up to after a lost season. Lawson, who ruptured his left Achilles during a joint practice in Green Bay, was the headliner of the Jets’ 2021 free agency deals, inking a $45 million three-year deal last spring.

Lawson’s medically-induced departure did give the Jets’ holdovers an opportunity to showcase their own talents and give them a chance to prove why deserved a chance to stay for the potential good times ahead. The headliner in this subgenre was John Franklin-Myers, who was kept away from the free agency market through a four-year contract extension bestowed in October worth over $30 million in guarantees. Franklin-Myers was by far the Jets’ most consistent pressure artist, tying for the team lead with six sacks and earning an additional 14 quarterback takedowns.

The most notable New York development at Indianapolis’ Scouting Combine was general manager Joe Douglas‘ confirmation that the Jets would exercise the fifth-year option on Quinnen Williams‘ contract. While Williams has yet to appear on a Pro Bowl roster and has seen his progress hampered by injuries, he has been one of the team’s most consistent defenders over the last two seasons and has already taken on a sizable leadership role in the locker room. Williams tied for the team lead in sacks next to Franklin-Myers, giving him 13 over the last two seasons.

Undrafted free agent Bryce Huff has turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of Joe Douglas’ tenure, providing a decent rush off the edge over the last two seasons. Huff’s 14.8 percent pass-rush win rate was second-best among 2020’s rookie pass rushers (behind only Pittsburgh’s Alex Highsmith) and he improved to a 17.0 percent mark in 2021, leading the Jets’ edge rushers.

Sheldon Rankins was brought in to help foster a winning culture after a strong career with New Orleans but failed to create the necessary impact. The Jets’ plans with sixth-round project Jonathan Marshall and the potential to save $5 million-plus upon Rankins’ release (not to mention his role in the Jets’ abysmal run defense endeavors last season) could make Rankins expendable.

Free Agents

Foley Fatukasi

A rare remnant from the Mike Maccagnan era, Foley Fatukasi served as a calming prescience on the defensive line after 2020’s mini-in-season fire sale claimed Steve McLendon.

While the Connecticut alum was entrusted with a bigger role on the line, he struggled in the transition to the 4-3 and wasn’t without blame in New York’s aforementioned run defense woes. While this offseason’s interior defense market isn’t anything to write home about, Fatukasi’s continued metropolitan endeavors could come down to price, leaving a sense that either Fatukasi or Rankins could be on their way out (potentially both).

Kyle Phillips

Kyle Phillips appeared to be an undrafted gem during his rookie season, registering 39 tackles (including seven for a loss and 1.5 sacks) and six further quarterback hits. Injuries, however, have prevented him from cementing a more permanent role in the line rotation, as he’s played only 14 games in the last two seasons.

A reunion would likely come relatively cheap thanks to Phillips’ spotty medical history but how much more patient can they be?

Phillips is a restricted free agent.

Nathan Shepherd

Nathan Shepherd finally seemed to develop a role for himself in the Jets’ defensive rotation, earning a career-best 492 defensive snaps last season. Alas, the 2018 third-round pick also tallied a team-worst seven penalties, including two roughing-the-passers.

The Jets can’t be patient with Shepherd forever and his status as a rare remnant from the Todd Bowles/Mike Maccagnan era (one of four left from the 2018 team along with Fatukasi, Thomas Hennessey, and Marcus Maye) as the team looks to rewrite its destiny probably doesn’t bode well either.

Tim Ward

A late acquisition off Kansas City’s waiver wire, Tim Ward didn’t really do much to separate himself from the rest of the pack. But if the Jets want to see what he can do with a full offseason under their supervision, it wouldn’t cost much for them to bring Ward back, as the former Chief is an exclusive rights free agent.

Will They Draft?

It seems likely that the Combine showings from a deep defensive line class only have the defensively-starved Jets salivating even more.

Amateur and professional observers have lobbied the Jets to use one of their first-round picks on edge assistance, with Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux and Aidan Hutchinson of Michigan at the top of wish lists. Both could be gone by the time the Jets hand in the fourth overall draft card, so Purdue’s George Karlaftis (a personal protege of Ryan Kerrigan) is probably more realistic.

Depending on how the rest of the pre-draft process shakes out, trading down could afford the Jets to take their pick amongst Jermaine Johnson (Florida State), David Ojabo (Michigan), and Travon Walker (Georgia).

In the interior, the Jets might’ve been able to snag Connecticut standout David Jones with one of their early second-round picks, but a strong effort in Indianapolis might’ve catapulted him into the draft’s Thursday portion. Another solid riser has been Oklahoma’s Perrion Winfrey, who worked with the Jets’ staff during the Senior Bowl festivities and left Mobile with the showcase’s MVP award.

Veteran Names to Watch

Dante Fowler, Atlanta

While there are some experienced names on the EDGE market, the Jets may be cautious to throw big money at aging accomplished talents like Calais Campbell, Akiem Hicks, Jason Pierre-Paul.

Dante Fowler, recently bid farewell from the Falcons, would be a decent happy-medium: a capable pass-rushing talent (just two years removed from an 11.5-sack season in Los Angeles) who is just young enough (set to turn 28 in August) for an affordable contract that could allow him to regain the narrative on his NFL career.

This is far from the first time the Jets could express interest in Fowler. Is the time finally right for such a union?

B.J. Hill, Cincinnati

The 2021-22 NFL playoffs provided a lot of film material for Franklin-Myers and Williams to study. Los Angeles Rams legend Aaron Donald speaks for himself, while a supercut of Jeffery Simmons’ efforts in Tennessee’s shortened playoff appearance could prove valuable.

But B.J. Hill, a former New York Giant who partook in Cincinnati’s AFC title trek, could be a hidden gem that could mesh well with the established pair. Not only could he help solve the issues the Jets had with run defense (boasting an 11.2 percent stop rate) but he also displayed a solid pass-rushing prowess (read more on the benefits of Hill from Michael Nania).

Arden Key, San Francisco

Ah, the obligatory potentially former 49er that could reunite with Robert Saleh, right?

Actually, Arden Key never played a down with the current Jets head coach, entering the Bay Area on a one-year deal after struggling to find a regular role as a 2018 third-round pick of the Oakland Raiders. But he found a rotational role with San Francisco, picking up 6.5 sacks over the last 10 games.

The Jets already missed out on adding Key once, passing on him in favor of Shepherd. With Key likely available on an affordable deal, there’s an opportunity to make up for lost time.


The Jets have established some effective staples on the defensive line through the dedication to Franklin-Myers and Williams, but there’s obvious room for improvement, especially when guaranteed matchups with Josh Allen linger on the horizon.

With so much invested in Lawson and his potential return, the Jets probably can’t afford to write any huge checks for a defensive line standout (even if a potential Rankins release opens some space). But Douglas has shown some boldness when it comes to improving the Jets’ trench warfare, so a big-ticket addition isn’t totally out of the question.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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