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Why Jeff Ulbrich’s plan for the NY Jets DL is unwise

New York Jets, Jeff Ulbrich, Defensive Line, Snap Counts
Jeff Ulbrich, New York Jets, Getty Images

Jeff Ulbrich reveals his plan for the New York Jets defensive line

Speaking to the media on Wednesday, New York Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich revealed how he plans to distribute snaps amongst the team’s defensive linemen.

Ulbrich said that “30 to 35 snaps” is approximately the maximum total that he wants any of the team’s linemen to play per game, citing the “level of fatigue that is associated with how we play.”

“We don’t catch blocks, we don’t read blocks; things are on our terms,” Ulbrich said. “And when you play like that, when you play with your hair on fire, and you play with the energy and the strain that we demand of them, asking them to play any more than 35 snaps I think is detrimental to their health and to the quality of play.”

It would be much too extreme of an approach if the Jets really do end up sticking to that hard limit of 35 snaps per game.

Look, I get the thinking here. The Jets want their defensive linemen to play fast, aggressive, and downhill. That is a taxing playstyle. More rest can be beneficial when you play that way.

But a 30-to-35-snap limit is going way over the line. At that point, your best players are yielding far too many snaps to lesser talented backups. Rest is only worth so much – it is not worth trading 15 Quinnen Williams snaps for 15 Nathan Shepherd snaps. You are making your team worse by distributing reps in this fashion. The cost outweighs the reward.

Going with a rotation-heavy approach is perfectly fine in regards to your second and third-tier players. But you cannot be handcuffing your stars like that. They need to be on the field for a high percentage of the snaps.

It’s Ulbrich’s exact estimation of “30 to 35 snaps” that bugs me. I would completely understand if he just generally stated “we want to rotate our guys a lot” or something of that nature, but this specific number is ludicrous and I needed to let it be known how bizarre it would be if the Jets adhere to it.

Let’s put it into perspective how incredibly extreme it would be if the Jets truly did limit all of their defensive linemen to no more than 35 snaps per game.

How extreme is a 30-to-35 snap limit for defensive linemen?

The Jets defense was on the field for 1,189 snaps last year, or an average of 69.9 snaps per game. This means that if a player averaged 30 snaps per game throughout the season, he would have played about 43% of the snaps, while an average of 35 snaps per game would make up a snap ratio of about 50%.

It’s worth noting that the Jets defense did play a lot of snaps last year (because they were bad), but the numbers don’t change much even if you look at teams that played fewer snaps. The Bears defense played the fewest snaps of any team with 62.2 per game. At that rate, 30 snaps would be 48% and 35 snaps would be 56%.

Come on. You’re really going to play Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, and Carl Lawson for only about half of each game?

This would be a drastic decline for all three of these players.

Williams averaged 40.9 snaps with a 59% ratio in 2021, and in 2020, he averaged 45.2 snaps with a 64% ratio. Even those numbers were relatively low for a top-tier defensive tackle like Williams. Many of his similarly-talented peers have snap ratios of over 70%, or sometimes even 80%.

Critics like to compare Williams’ production unfavorably to Tennessee’s Jeffery Simmons, but guess what? Simmons averaged 54.8 snaps on an 85% ratio last year. He got substantially more chances to make plays than Williams did. On a per-snap basis, they produced at basically the same level. Williams had a sack once every 102.2 snaps (6 on 613) while Simmons had a sack once every 103.6 snaps (9 on 932).

Williams should be playing more, not less. He’s a star-caliber talent who has been coughing up too many snaps to substantially less talented players. Now he is going to be yielding even more snaps to backups? That’s not a smart move, especially when you consider that the Jets don’t have much defensive tackle talent behind Williams (especially when it comes to run defense).

Franklin-Myers averaged 44.8 snaps with a 64% ratio in 2021. After a solid year and with a cap hit of $12.5 million in 2022, you’re telling me that he is going to see his snap count sliced to the point where he plays no more than about 50% of the snaps in any game this year?

Lawson averaged 45.2 snaps with a 68% ratio in 2020 for the Bengals. Sure, he is coming off a major Achilles injury and a slight cut to his snaps at the beginning of the year would be wise to help him ease back into action, but a dip to “30 to 35 snaps” is still too much.

Even in the 2019 season, coming off a torn ACL in 2018, Lawson averaged 38.1 snaps with a 57% ratio, and he had a very productive season. By the end of 2019, Lawson was averaging 44.4 snaps and a 68% ratio over his final five games.

New York Jets, Jets X-Factor

Nobody in the NFL does what Ulbrich is proposing the Jets will do

Not only would this limit be an enormous change for the Jets’ top stars, but it would be a completely unheard-of strategy in the current NFL.

There were 132 defensive linemen who averaged at least 35.0 snaps per game in 2021 – an average of 4.1 players per team. Every team in the league had at least one player surpass the mark. All but one team (Buffalo) had at least two, and 30 teams had at least three.

This idea seems to be very much Ulbrich’s doing, as Robert Saleh did not employ such a strategy during his days as the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. During San Francisco’s dominant 2019 season, Saleh had DeForest Buckner at 50.6 snaps on a 79% ratio, Nick Bosa at 48.6 snaps on a 76% ratio, and Arik Armstead at 48.5 snaps on a 75% ratio.

Another key point in this equation is the fact that the idea of resting defensive linemen is already ingrained in the sport of football. Every team’s defensive linemen get plenty of rest. Teams know these guys need more rest than players at other positions and the sport is built around that.

No defensive linemen in the NFL plays every snap or even close to it, whereas many cornerbacks, safeties, and linebackers do play 100% of the snaps on a weekly basis. Even the most heavily-worked defensive linemen in the league are resting for about one-fifth of the snaps or more. While a snap ratio of 70 to 80 percent may be relatively high for the position, it still includes plenty of rest. Great players don’t need to sit for half of the game to get adequate rest.

The philosophy of heavy rotation pertains to the non-star players. Your stars need to be playing as many reps as they can handle.

The Jets should not stick to the numbers that Ulbrich laid out

Setting a hard cap of 35 snaps per game for a defensive line that features three top-end players in Williams, Franklin-Myers, and Lawson is flat-out silly in my opinion. There is little clear-cut evidence that cutting a defensive lineman’s snaps makes them play better or keeps them healthier. Look no further than Williams, who played better on a larger workload in 2020 than he did on a smaller one in 2021.

Let your best guys play. Get as much talent on the field as possible.

The Jets can and should go bananas with their rotating of every other defensive lineman on the roster besides the aforementioned three stars. With a bevy of talented pass rushers both on the edge (Jermaine Johnson, Jacob Martin, Bryce Huff, Micheal Clemons, Vinny Curry) and on the interior (Sheldon Rankins, Solomon Thomas), they can give small dosages of snaps to a ton of different players, allowing each one of them to play with 110% energy every time they step on the field.

That’s all well and good, but the stars need to play, and they need to play a lot. All NFL defensive linemen do not have the same talent level. Decreasing a player’s snap count does not significantly increase their output. If that’s how things worked, then every team in the NFL would have 10 defensive linemen playing the same amount of snaps in every game.

Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, and Carl Lawson are too good to be playing less than 35 snaps per game. Ulbrich can rotate everyone else as much as he wants. But if he holds back his big three by regulating them to that overly strict limit, it will be a poor job of maximizing the team’s talent.

I fully understand what Ulbrich and the Jets are trying to do defensively and how they want to play the game. Regardless, this snap-count limit is too extreme and needs to be dialed back. Maybe Ulbrich just messed up his math on the podium and didn’t intend the extremity of what he said.

Hopefully, that’s the case; it’s great to have a steadfast approach and a clear vision, but it’s rarely good to stray too far toward one end of the spectrum. I’m starting to get the feeling that the Jets are going a little too radical with some of their defensive philosophies. More balance is needed.

The Jets are coming off a season in which they fielded the third-worst scoring defense in the history of their franchise (29.6 points allowed per game). Ulbrich has not earned the benefit of the doubt yet. It’s fair to be skeptical of this abnormally rotation-heavy ideology he has planned for his defensive line.

New York has three excellent defensive linemen who deserve the chance to maximize their talents. This snap-count restriction would limit not only the individual potential of those three players, but the potential of the entire defense.

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2 years ago

Thats not the main issue to me, what is this shit about Sauce has to earn his spot? Man listen, you don’t come out with giving Bryce Hall all the reps because you want to prove a fucking point! Sauce should be taking all the 1st team reps period!

Jonathan Richter
2 years ago

Only way this works is if the opposing offense goes 3 and out every time. Which would be awesome, but unlikely.

2 years ago

This article is perfect. Everything I have been debating about in our group chats. This is a horrible plan and not only it takes away from your strong players it also makes it difficult to keep or pay your players. There’s no reason why the Jers should have let Fatukasi walk. Him and Williams are living proof the more they play the better they are. There will be ca big issue when it’s time to pay Williams. You can’t pay him on 35 snaps.

2 years ago

Great article and information. Totally agree with the theory, let the big dogs play!
It would be interesting to know how often Aaron Donald is on the field.

verge tibbs
2 years ago

Yea they can execute this snap reduction plan just fine but they have to compromise, do it for the lesser talents. Q and JFM and whichever Edge guys step up the most, need to be out there most of the time, like you said. Keep everybody else subbing in and out, until or unless one of them looks to be catching fire. Last thing you want to do is dump a bucket of ice on a guy thats getting in a groove, getting to the qb.

I wanted to say i remember in past pressers Ulbrich saying he wouldnt give game plan info away for obvious strategic reasons. Maybe this is just a red herring? But it does line up with the direction last season was going and with the DL offseason moves. Sighs

2 years ago

Great read. I disagree on Lawson though. I think it will be wise to limit his snaps especially in the first half of the season. Highly doubt Q or JFM are less than 40% and probably closer to 45%

Jonathan Richter
2 years ago
Reply to  klecko73

Michael mentioned that he thought it was a good idea to ease Lawson back early in the season.

2 years ago

Great Article and it highlights why people being down on Q is wrong. I expected superstardom, but to act like many DT’s are better than him based on raw totals is silly. on a poer snap basis he is doing well.

Also the staff certainly needs to step back for this snap count ledge as soon as possible. It makes little sense and is the type pf stuff that will come back to bite us!

2 years ago

Interesting, flesh legs yes, but moderation in ALL things, including rest! Just extend This season!