You can’t fix everything in one offseason, and it’s clear which weakness the New York Jets have decided they’re willing to live with
The New York Jets have made a bevy of changes to their roster going into the 2022 season. Most positions on the depth chart appear to have been upgraded.
But when you’re coming off a four-win season (and a two-win season before that), it’s impossible to fix everything in the matter of one year.
Rebuilding teams have to kick the can down the road in some areas, accepting that they will struggle there in the short term until they get the chance to prioritize upgrading the position in the future. Resources to improve the roster are limited; teams must choose something to punt on.
As the Jets’ roster stands today (May 20), it’s clear which facet of the game they have elected to deprioritize for the time being: their interior run defense.
Defending runs up the middle will likely be a major problem for the Jets in 2022
Stopping the run was a major issue for the Jets last season. They allowed the most rushing touchdowns in the NFL (28) while ranking 29th in rushing yards per game allowed (138.3) and 26th in rush defense DVOA.
The Jets’ cornerbacks and safeties played a big role in those woes last year. However, the run-stopping woes in the secondary were addressed in a huge way. Newly-added defensive backs Sauce Gardner, D.J. Reed, and Jordan Whitehead are all known as excellent run defenders. There seems to be a bright future for the second level of the Jets’ run defense.
Things are not looking as good for the interior of the Jets’ run defense. In fact, this part of the unit might be even worse than it was last year.
New York lost its interior run-stopping specialist, Foley Fatukasi, to the Jaguars in free agency. Fatukasi wasn’t a great scheme fit in the Jets’ attacking 4-3 defense and saw his performance dip as a result, so New York was wise to let him walk for the lofty price tag of three-years/$30 million. The problem is that the Jets have not done anything to replace him; a player who was one of their only good run defenders.
At the moment, the only defensive tackle added to the Jets’ roster this offseason has been Solomon Thomas. The former Raider is a solid interior pass-rusher but struggles immensely as an interior run defender. Thomas had the second-worst run-defense grade (28.1) among qualified interior defensive linemen at Pro Football Focus in 2021.
Outside of two-way stud Quinnen Williams, the Jets’ defensive tackle unit is loaded with athletic pass-rushers who are below-average against the run.
Sheldon Rankins, Nathan Shepherd, and Jonathan Marshall all fit this bill. John Franklin-Myers is much more prolific than those players in both phases of the game, boasting elite-level ability as an interior pass-rusher, but is still only average at best as a run defender when playing on the inside.
Letting Fatukasi go was a financially responsible decision and I do not think the Jets should have brought him back at his price tag. That was the correct call.
But even if Fatuaski was not quite good enough to warrant his contract in this scheme, he was still a positive-impact run defender, so the Jets are worse on paper without him until they find a similarly-skilled run defender who is also a better scheme fit. They have yet to find that replacement.
Perhaps it happens next year; again, you can’t fix everything in one offseason. The Jets likely decided they would rather upgrade more important positions in 2022 and push this one to 2023 when it can be near the top of their priority list.
Ideally, New York wins out in the long run by making use of the immediate cap space benefits afforded by letting Fatukasi go (his exodus likely paved the way for one big free agent signing like D.J. Reed or Laken Tomlinson) and then replacing him at some point down the line. Unfortunately, in the short term, they’re biting the bullet when it comes to interior run defense.
We haven’t even gotten to the linebackers yet.
Save for C.J. Mosley, the Jets’ linebackers were a mess in the run game last year. And, just like defensive tackle, the Jets have done almost nothing to address the weakness.
The only veteran linebacker added to New York’s roster this offseason has been Marcell Harris, a converted safety who brings some range and coverage ability but is undersized and struggles against the run. The Jets also did not select any linebackers in the draft.
Harris is joined on New York’s roster by a trio of linebackers with a similar profile (athletic but undersized and unproven with poor run defense): Quincy Williams, Jamien Sherwood, and Hamsah Nasirildeen. The latter two are also converted safeties like Harris.
Barring some incredible progression by Williams (a fourth-year player), Sherwood (a fifth-round pick), or Nasirildeen (a sixth-round pick), it looks like Mosley will once again be forced to bear the burden of trying to hold together a fledgling linebacker unit. We also have to start wondering how much is left in the tank for Mosley, who will turn 30 this year.
It appears the Jets are trying to supplement these units. On May 11, it was reported that the Jets are interested in free agents Larry Ogunjobi (defensive tackle, Bengals) and Kwon Alexander (linebacker, Saints).
Ogunjobi and Alexander are well-known, accomplished players, but here’s the problem in regards to the topic of this article: Ogunjobi and Alexander are not good run defenders. Each player is a mirror image of the Jets’ current strengths and weaknesses at their respective positions.
In Ogunjobi, you get an explosive lineman who makes noise as a pass rusher and gets some tackles for loss in the run game at the cost of frequently overrunning plays and missing tackles. Ogunjobi would fit right into the Jets’ attacking 4-3 scheme and give them yet another great pass-rushing weapon. He’s not improving the run defense, though.
In Alexander, you get another athletic linebacker on the small side. Alexander would greatly improve the Jets’ pass coverage at linebacker, but against the run, he would not change much.
It seems likely the Jets are going to have a lot of problems at stopping runs that are directed in between the tackles. Neither the defensive tackle position nor the linebacker position appears to be any better in the run game than they were in 2021.
And maybe that’s okay.
This is the poison the Jets have picked, and it’s probably the best one to choose
As we’ve discussed, no four-win team should be expected to plug every hole in one offseason. Poisons must be picked.
The Jets had to choose some holes to punt into 2023. It’s clear that the linebacker position and the run-stuffing defensive tackle role were the two primary weaknesses that New York felt the most comfortable about dealing with for the time being.
When you look at the big picture, it makes a lot of sense to choose these two positions as the ones to punt. When you work your way down the list of priorities for an NFL roster, these two spots are likely at the bottom.
It all starts at quarterback. It then goes to supporting the quarterback. From there, it’s about affecting the quarterback defensively.
The Jets have beautifully adhered to those priorities.
They got their quarterback in 2021, of course. Since then, they have focused heavily on supporting him, making a plethora of additions at offensive line, wide receiver, tight end, and running back (prioritizing them in that order, which seems to be the proper way to rank them).
Defensively, they have focused on pass-rushing more than anything, looking to place pressure on the many deadly quarterbacks in the AFC. This year, they moved their focus outside to the cornerback spot, aiming to keep up with the superstar wide receivers offered by their division rivals.
Pass-rushing and coverage at cornerback are the two facets of defense that have the most direct impact on the quarterback.
Stopping the run absolutely matters, but it does not matter more than any of the things we just mentioned. That comes last.
Once you have a great quarterback, a great system around the quarterback, and great defensive weapons who can make the other quarterback’s life a living hell, then you can focus on your run defense.
I applaud general manager Joe Douglas for his approach to roster construction. His priorities are in the right place. Few things make that more clear than his decisions on which positions were the best ones to kick down the road. It’s a signal of how prudent his resource allocation was throughout the 2022 offseason.
The Jets are going to suffer this season when it comes to stopping the run, specifically on the interior, and I’m sure the team knows that. But it’s a small price to pay in exchange for the massive steps forward that the Jets were able to take in more important parts of the game.
Look for New York to struggle at defending runs between the tackles in 2022 before focusing heavily on linebackers and run-stuffing defensive tackles in the 2023 offseason.
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