D.J. Jones, 49ers, New York Jets, Free Agent, PFF, Foley Fatukasi, Contract
D.J. Jones, San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets, Getty Images

Who can replace Foley Fatukasi in the New York Jets’ defense?

With three days remaining until the NFL’s free agency period opens, it is beginning to appear likely that the New York Jets will not retain free-agent-to-be Folorunso “Foley” Fatukasi.

NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo reported that Fatukasi will seek an eight-figure contract. ESPN’s Rich Cimini later reported that there is a “strong sense” Fatukasi will sign elsewhere due to the extent of Fatukasi’s demands.

It’s time to start thinking about who will fill Fatukasi’s shoes.

Without another proven defensive tackle on the roster who matches Fatukasi’s skill-set, there is a realistic chance that the Jets look to free agency for a Fatukasi replacement.

Over the past two days, I identified free agents who represented the best fits to replace safeties Marcus Maye and Ashtyn Davis in the Jets’ defensive scheme. To do this, I analyzed Maye and Davis’ roles and found free agents whose utilization most closely matched the way that New York used its safeties.

Let’s do the same for Fatukasi.

Here is a look at where Fatukasi lined up on his defensive snaps in 2021, per tracking from Pro Football Focus:

  • 0-technique or 1-technique: 15.8%
  • 2i-technique, 2-technique, or 3-technique: 72.9%
  • 4i-technique or 4-technique: 11.3%
  • Edge: 0.0%

American Football Techniques Defensive Line NFL

Fatukasi experienced a significant role change in the Jets’ new defensive scheme under head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. He spent the majority of his time lined up over the guard (72.9%) and only occasionally dabbled at nose tackle (15.8%). The latter rate ranked 40th out of 121 qualified interior defensive linemen.

When playing under coordinator Gregg Williams in 2020, Fatukasi played nose tackle more than twice as frequently. Fatukasi lined up at 0 or 1-technique on 36.2% of his snaps, ranking 16th out of 111 qualifiers at his position. He only lined up over the guard on 53.3% of his snaps.

It’s clear that Saleh and Ulbrich do not want a pure “nose tackle” in their scheme. Their 4-3 front is not suited for such a player. You’ve got to be able to play in the 2i/2/3-tech area to find a home in this defense.

I created a formula that analyzed the snap distribution of all qualified interior defensive linemen in the NFL and revealed how closely their usage resembled Fatukasi’s. This allows us to get an idea of which players are the best fits to step into Fatukasi’s role in Ulbrich and Saleh’s defense.

In addition to analyzing snaps by alignment, the formula accounts for the percentage of each player’s snaps that were played against the run – helping us to take into account the pass-run split of the player’s role. Fatukasi played 49.5% of his snaps against the run in 2021, ranking at the 83rd percentile among qualified IDL, exemplifying that his team favored using him on run downs.

Keep in mind that just because a player does not appear on this list it doesn’t mean he isn’t a scheme fit. This list simply identifies the absolute closest matches to Fatukasi’s playstyle who will hit the open market.

Without further ado, here are some free-agent defensive tackles who may be the best fits to take over for Fatukasi.

5. Tyler Lancaster, Green Bay Packers

  • 0/1 tech: 18.6% (Fatukasi: 15.8%)
  • 2i/2/3 tech: 62.9% (Fatukasi: 72.9%)
  • 4i/4 tech: 11.9% (Fatukasi: 11.3%)
  • Edge: 6.6% (Fatukasi: 0.0%)
  • Percentage of snaps vs. run: 52.8% (Fatukasi: 49.5%)
  • Foley Fatukasi Similarity Index: 0.233 (13th of 122 qualifiers)

Tyler Lancaster is a very solid run-stuffing defensive tackle. He made 30 tackles against the run this season without missing a single one, ranking second-best among IDL behind Chicago’s Bilal Nichols. With 16 run stops on 168 run-defense snaps, Lancaster’s 9.5% run-stop rate ranked 23rd out of 141 qualified IDL (84th percentile).

Don’t expect much of anything from Lancaster in the passing game, as he’s got 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hits over 59 career games and 1,323 defensive snaps.

Lancaster (6-foot-3, 313 pounds) makes sense if the Jets want a backup who can rotate in exclusively on run downs. He doesn’t have the overall prowess to adequately take on Fatukasi’s workload, though.

I’m going to warn you: the first four names on this list are not going to make you squeal with uncontrollable excitement. They’re players to keep an eye on as potential depth targets for New York, but they’re not quite Fatukasi-level talents.

To see the absolute perfect Fatukasi replacement, you’ll have to wait until we get to the No. 1 spot on this list.

4. Josh Tupou, Cincinnati Bengals

  • 0/1 tech: 12.2% (Fatukasi: 15.8%)
  • 2i/2/3 tech: 80.5% (Fatukasi: 72.9%)
  • 4i/4 tech: 6.8% (Fatukasi: 11.3%)
  • Edge: 0.5% (Fatukasi: 0.0%)
  • Percentage of snaps vs. run: 46.1% (Fatukasi: 49.5%)
  • Foley Fatukasi Similarity Index: 0.196 (10th of 122 qualifiers)

Josh Tupou, who stands at 6-foot-3 and 345 pounds, just had a rough season. He had a combined total of only 17 pressures, stops, and pass breakups (11 pressures, 6 stops, 0 pass breakups) over 410 snaps, giving him a rate of 24.1 snaps per PSB (pressures/stops/breakups) that ranked 86th out of 89 qualified IDL.

For reference, the 2021 positional average in snaps per PSB was 13.4.

Tupou isn’t quite good enough to be an adequate Fatukasi replacement. The lack of athleticism that comes with his massive frame is another question mark regarding his fit.

3. Carlos Watkins, Dallas Cowboys

  • 0/1 tech: 19.7% (Fatukasi: 15.8%)
  • 2i/2/3 tech: 70.5% (Fatukasi: 72.9%)
  • 4i/4 tech: 6.6% (Fatukasi: 11.3%)
  • Edge: 3.0% (Fatukasi: 0.0%)
  • Percentage of snaps vs. run: 44.6% (Fatukasi: 49.5%)
  • Foley Fatukasi Similarity Index: 0.188 (9th of 122 qualifiers)

Carlos Watkins (6-foot-3, 305 pounds) turned 28 last December.

Watkins is a decent (not great) run-stuffer but provides nothing in the passing game. With five pressures on 240 pass-rush snaps, he ranked 117th out of 121 qualified IDL with a 2.08% pressure rate.

This is another player who could be fine for depth purposes but is not a starting option.

2. Harrison Phillips, Buffalo Bills

  • 0/1 tech: 7.6% (Fatukasi: 15.8%)
  • 2i/2/3 tech: 76.3% (Fatukasi: 72.9%)
  • 4i/4 tech: 16.1% (Fatukasi: 11.3%)
  • Edge: 0.0% (Fatukasi: 0.0%)
  • Percentage of snaps vs. run: 48.6% (Fatukasi: 49.5%)
  • Foley Fatukasi Similarity Index: 0.173 (7th of 122 qualifiers)

A third-round pick in the 2018 draft who recently turned 26, Harrison Phillips (6-foot-3, 307 pounds) had a breakout fourth season in 2021.

Phillips picked up a combined total of 45 PSB (21 pressures, 23 stops, 1 pass breakup). That ranked 49th among IDL even though he only ranked 76th in snaps played (476). In turn, Phillips’ average of 10.5 snaps per PSB ranked 20th out of 89 qualified IDL (78th percentile).

Bills fans enjoyed havoc from Phillips in both phases as he ranked 29th out of 141 IDL in run-stop rate (9.4%) and 37th out of 121 IDL in pressure rate (8.64%). The Stanford product is one of the most intriguing low-risk/high-reward players on the free-agent market.

1. D.J. Jones, San Francisco 49ers

  • 0/1 tech: 9.1% (Fatukasi: 15.8%)
  • 2i/2/3 tech: 79.3% (Fatukasi: 72.9%)
  • 4i/4 tech: 11.5% (Fatukasi: 11.3%)
  • Edge: 0.0% (Fatukasi: 0.0%)
  • Percentage of snaps vs. run: 47.8% (Fatukasi: 49.5%)
  • Foley Fatukasi Similarity Index: 0.149 (2nd of 122 qualifiers)

Here he is. This is the guy.

Admittedly, every other player on this list is a middling option. None would be able to match what Fatukasi brings to the table (unless Phillips sustains his breakout-year production).

Except for D.J. Jones, that is.

Jones (six feet, 305 pounds) is a dream fit to replace Fatukasi, as I outlined here. Similarly talented and a better scheme fit, Jones would have a high chance of replicating Fatukasi’s performance in New York.

Jones offers the run-stuffing impact that the Jets would lose in Fatukasi and he has proven he can provide that impact from the 3-tech position in a 4-3 scheme. A career-long 49er, he played under Robert Saleh in San Francisco for four years. Saleh’s replacement, DeMeco Ryans, mostly maintained the same scheme and philosophies that Saleh employed.

In 2021, Jones tied with Daron Payne, Christian Wilkins, and Aaron Donald for first among IDL with 35 run stops. His 13.5% run-stop rate was second-best behind Sebastian Joseph-Day.

Jones was also a respectable pass-rusher for a player whose primary duty is to stop the run. He had 18 pressures on 282 pass-rush snaps, giving him a 6.38% pressure rate that ranked 73rd out of 121 qualified IDL.

That doesn’t seem remarkable, but it is when you compare Jones against his peers that play a similar role. Out of the 32 qualified IDL who played at least 47.0% of their snaps against the run (which represents approximately the top quartile in run-snap-frequency among all IDL), Jones’ 6.38% pressure rate ranked 10th-best. Fatukasi checked in at 15th with a 5.67% pressure rate.

Couple Jones’ elite run-stuffing with great pass-rushing for his role and you get one of the most productive overall defensive tackles in football.

With 56 PSB (38 stops, 18 pressures) on 550 snaps, Jones averaged 9.8 snaps per PSB, which ranked 14th out of 89 qualified IDL (85th percentile). He placed one spot behind Vita Vea (9.7) and two spots behind Quinnen Williams (9.4), who was tied with Jeffery Simmons.

Jones turned 27 in January.

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Michael Nania is one of the best analytical New York Jets minds in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania[at]jetsxfactor.com - Twitter: @Michael_Nania
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1 year ago

My thought is Fats was ill suited in this scheme compared to the ones he played with prior regimes. The run defense was so atrocious last year, that Fats is not exempt from blame. The Jets need an upgrade at this position, not a lateral player. I’m not familiar with the options out there, but both Phillips and Jones’ profile from your post look intriguing. I would also take a swing in the draft with the round being dependent on how free agency goes.

1 year ago

This series on best scheme fits is like a great novel can’t wait to read the next chapter. Awesome, just awesome. Love the breakdowns based on the roles they play. Kudos on a well thought out and informative series for Jets fans!! I also think the Jets are stealing some of this stuff and I am being serious!! We should get another great Draft and FA class because of you. I know injuries hurt FA class, but you get my point! J-E-T-S JETS, JETS, JETS!!