Huff’s 2022 was a masterful edge-rushing performance
After all, the Jets gave a three-year, $15 million deal to Jacob Martin, whose skill set was seemingly highly comparable to Huff’s. Meanwhile, Huff had flashed potential in his first two seasons but had trouble staying on the field.
For the first three games of the season, Huff languished on the inactive list, finally making his debut in Week 4 against the Steelers. It took nine snaps to make sure that he’d never be inactive again.
Huff was possibly the most impressive edge rusher in the NFL in 2022. His ranks among 108 edge rushers with at least 170 pass-rushing snaps include first in pass-rush win rate (28%), first in pressure rate (20.8%), second in true pass set pressure rate (26.5%, subtracting screens, play-action passes, and other very long or very short-developing plays), and third in QB hit rate (4.6%, trailing only Nick Bosa and Trey Hendrickson).
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) January 13, 2023
You’d think that such a dominant pass rusher would play far more snaps, but Huff was limited to 173 pass-rush snaps, which was 108th among edge rushers. Why did the Jets limit Huff’s snaps so much, and how will that affect his free agency for 2023?
The Jets used Huff as a pass-rushing specialist and inserted him only in surefire pass-rushing situations. In fact, Huff played only 16 run defense snaps in 14 games, maxing out at four in a game against Detroit. Since Huff is listed at 6’3″, 255, and is a below-average run stopper, the Jets are afraid to leave him on the field in run situations.
Huff’s run defense is hard to grade without watching the tape because of those limited snaps. He had no tackles, assists, run stops, or missed tackles on those plays. Most of the plays were draws on third-and-long that did not involve Huff at all.
In 2021, on 120 run defense snaps, Huff ranked 66th out of 103 qualifiers with a 5.0% stop rate. Huff also had a 10% missed tackle rate and 2.6 average depth of tackle, both of which ranked 46th.
Huff’s main weakness in the run game mirrors that of many of the Jets defenders’: he is an aggressive downhill rusher. In 2022, it cost him at times even though they were high-leverage pass-rushing situations. Teams took advantage of the Jets’ overall defensive tendency to sell out against the pass.
Even in his prior two seasons, though, Huff had the same issue at times. Obviously, if he were to become a full-time edge rusher or even see increased snaps, he’d need to get better at recognizing when a run is coming rather than pinning his ears back and going full-steam ahead.
In Week 1 of the 2021 season against Carolina, Christian McCaffrey was able to run for a few big gains because Huff did not hold the edge.
However, it is important to recognize the difference in importance between run-stopping and pass-rushing. Although a team would prefer not to have a run-stopping liability on the field, the NFL is still a pass-first league (even in 2022 when rushing totals and numbers increased heavily). The Jets have other excellent run-stopping edge rushers in Jermaine Johnson and Micheal Clemons, but Huff is by far the best pass rusher of the trio. Huff could become a Dwight Freeney type; Freeney hovered in the 3-4% stop rate range from 2006-08 (the first seasons in which Pro Football Focus tracked such numbers) and dropped to around 1-2% thereafter.
Another interesting tidbit is that the Jets played Jacob Martin a lot more prior to his trade to the Broncos. Martin profiles similarly to Huff as an undersized pass-rush specialist who may struggle somewhat against the run. Martin’s stop rate was 3.6% on 54 run defense snaps in eight games with the Jets this season, while he also played about the same number of pass-rush snaps per game as Huff (12). It is hard to understand why the Jets were okay with Martin playing run defense but not Huff.
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Which side of the line?
Huff played exclusively at left defensive end in 2022, meaning that he lined up opposite the other team’s right tackle. Unfortunately, so did John Franklin-Myers and Johnson, naturally limiting Huff’s snaps. The Jets preferred JFM and Johnson as two-way edge defenders, especially Johnson, who ranked sixth out of 89 edge defenders (min. 150 run defense snaps) with a 9.8% stop rate. (JFM was 44th with a 5.9% rate.)
However, the right side of the line has less depth in Carl Lawson and Micheal Clemons. Although Clemons is a strong run defender, ranking 15th with an 8.1% stop rate, Lawson isn’t anything special, ranking 70th with a 4.6% rate. Furthermore, both players were average or below as pass rushers. As we’ve explained, Lawson is the Jets’ No. 1 cut candidate this offseason due to his lack of dead money and generally underwhelming 2022.
The question would be if the Jets view Huff as a natural replacement for Lawson if he played on the opposite side of the line. Fortunately, Huff has played on the right side in the past; he played almost exclusively on the right in 2020-21, including 144 pass rush snaps on that side in 2021.
If Huff could replace Lawson straight up, then the Jets could save quite a bit of money while freeing up snaps for both Johnson and Clemons and not requiring a serious replacement in free agency or the draft. This is an ideal scenario financially and football-wise.
Huff is a restricted free agent this season. RFAs are players who have accrued three seasons in the league and whose contracts expired. Since Huff was an undrafted free agent, his three-year contract expires this season.
As explained by NFL.com‘s Anthony Holzman-Escareno, a restricted free agent can be given various qualifying offers (called “tenders”) that come with the right of first refusal or draft pick compensation should the player sign with another team. The tenders include first-round, second-round, original-round, right-of-first-refusal, and others.
Since Huff was a UDFA, he will not be offered an original-round tender. However, first- or second-round tenders seem a bit stiff for Huff since as of last offseason, a first-round tender came with a one-year contract worth the greater of (a) $5.562 million or (b) 110 percent of the player’s prior-year base salary, and a second-round tender included one-year contract worth the greater of (a) $3.986 million or (b) 110 percent of the player’s prior-year base salary.
While those contracts would be a pittance if the Jets view Huff as a starter, the question is if they actually do considering his relatively small sample size in 2022. It is certainly highly unlikely that any other team would give up even a second-round pick to sign Huff.
A right-of-first-refusal tender is a one-year contract worth $2.433 million (as of last offseason). The team has the right to match any offer sheet signed with another team, but there is no draft compensation tied to this tender. (All info on tenders is per Anthony Holzman-Escareno’s article from March 2022).
I could potentially see a team going above a right-of-first-refusal tender, which is a risk that the Jets will need to weigh. If I’m the Jets, I put a second-round tender on Huff and give him the $4 million or so, which would still save a net of $11 million if the team cuts Lawson. That money could be used to bring back Sheldon Rankins or sign another DT, sign a quality offensive tackle, or replace one of the team’s safeties.
Ultimately, it depends on how the Jets view Huff. If they plan on using him the same way next season, there’s a strong chance that some other team prefers to give him a larger role and signs him to an offer sheet to match that view.
The Jets haven’t had an edge rusher like Bryce Huff in nearly 20 years. It behooves them to both value and use him properly to maximize the team’s pass rush.
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