Moving Micheal Clemons inside is an interesting concept for the New York Jets
New York Jets fans are well aware of the team’s logjam at the EDGE position. It is a great “problem” to have, but nonetheless, it remains a puzzling dilemma that the coaching staff must figure out how to navigate.
The Jets’ EDGE unit currently features Carl Lawson, John Franklin-Myers, Jermaine Johnson, Micheal Clemons, Bryce Huff, and Will McDonald. While it is one of the deepest units in football, fans are wondering how the Jets are going to feed so many mouths.
The dilemma centers around two young players who appear deserving of larger roles: the 24-year-old Johnson and the 25-year-old Huff.
Johnson, a 2022 first-round pick via trade-up, was underutilized relative to his draft position as a rookie, averaging a snap percentage of just 34%. He is due for a large snap-count increase in his second season to justify the capital that was spent on him.
Huff is another young player who seems poised to play more snaps, as he starred in very limited action last year (average snap percentage of 20%). The Jets could keep Huff in the pass-rush-specialist role that worked for him last year, but his efficiency was so ridiculously good that it would seem like a wasted opportunity to not at least give him a chance to show how much damage he could do in a larger role.
However, it is difficult to figure out where the Jets are going to find extra snaps for Johnson and Huff. Both of the team’s starting edge rushers, Lawson and Franklin-Myers, are returning. There was speculation that Lawson could be released, but the Jets instead elected to keep him on a restructured contract. This means each of the top five players from last year’s unit (based on snaps) will be back. Maybe the Jets will shrink Lawson’s snap count a little bit, but it’s hard to imagine any sort of significant decrease for Lawson.
The addition of McDonald complicates matters even further. As a first-round pick, he is undoubtedly going to eat up a significant portion of reps, even if it’s only a small role similar to the one Johnson played as a rookie.
This unit was already crowded prior to McDonald’s arrival. Now, throw another first-rounder into the mix. There aren’t enough snaps to go around for everyone to get a number that feels fair.
With such an unusually deep group, someone is going to be underutilized no matter what the Jets do. It’s the downside to building a group that is talented from top to bottom. With that being said, the Jets do not have to just sit tight and accept their predicament by burying multiple talented players on their bench. They can get creative to make sure everyone is getting as fair a snap count as possible.
Here’s one creative method the Jets could use to free up some snaps for their crowded EDGE room: Move Micheal Clemons to the interior.
Clemons, a fourth-round pick in 2022, had an excellent rookie year for his draft position. Playing in 16 games with an average snap percentage of 29%, Clemons primarily appeared in early-down or short-yardage situations and played dominant football against the run.
Clemons’ raw power jumped off the screen. He was a wrecking ball off the edge, squishing any blockers in his path to cause play-wrecking havoc on a consistent basis.
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) January 20, 2023
So, why move Clemons inside?
Clemons profiles as an ideal candidate for a switch from the edge to the interior. At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds with a broad stature, Clemons has a large frame for the edge and is one bulk-up away from a frame that would meet the minimum qualifications for an interior defender.
As my Cool Your Jets Podcast co-host Ben Blessington pointed out, it seems like Clemons may have already added that weight. In recent photos at practice, the famously imposing Clemons appears even beefier than usual.
Micheal Clemons looks absolutely massive. Definitely expect a lot more 3T reps this year, especially with a crowded EDGE room. pic.twitter.com/sgBLJ9HpF8
— Cool Your Jets (@CYJpod) May 27, 2023
With his incredible strength, top-tier length (34⅞” arms, 90th percentile for EDGE/93rd for DT), and outstanding run-stopping skills, Clemons doesn’t need to be as heavy as the typical defensive tackle to survive inside. I believe a 280-pound frame would be enough for Clemons to consistently hold his ground on the interior. Even at 270 pounds, Clemons is capable of handling occasional reps on the inside – though a bulk-up would be preferable if he were to move inside full-time.
Clemons’ run defense would likely be at least somewhat worse on the interior than it is on the edge (where he is an unfair matchup for tight ends), but I think it can still be above average. However, I believe his decline in run defense would be outweighed by his improvement in pass rushing. Clemons would bring intriguing potential as an interior pass rusher.
Clemons has a limited ceiling as a pass rusher off the edge, as he isn’t exceptionally bendy or fast. In 2022, Clemons was a below-average pass rusher for his position; among 125 qualified edge rushers, he ranked at the 40th percentile in pass rush win rate (11.5%) and the 35th percentile in pressure rate (9.0%).
But Clemons’ lack of bendiness or speed does not mean he is solely a power-based player with no unique athletic traits. In fact, the opposite is true. He is very explosive and agile for his size. If he moved inside, his athleticism would be above average.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Clemons had an average get-off time (how long it takes the player to cross the line of scrimmage after the ball is snapped) of 1.03 seconds when lining up on the interior in 2022. This is an above-average mark for the interior, as the 2022 league-average get-off time for interior players was 1.04 seconds. However, Clemons had an identical get-off time of 1.03 seconds when rushing off the edge, which is well below average for an edge rusher. The league average for edge rushers was 0.94 seconds.
Clemons also displays surprising agility for someone with his build, which is evidenced by his tackling efficiency. Clemons was credited with zero missed tackles in 2022 and made the most tackles without a miss of any edge defender in the league. He displays impressive flexibility when making tackles in space.
Micheal Clemons vs. Ja'Marr Chase on the edge
The 4th-round rookie had a really nice year pic.twitter.com/oMFlGIgZQB
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) January 10, 2023
While Clemons might be less bendy, fast, or explosive than the average edge rusher, he would be better than the average defensive tackle in all of those categories. And that’s not just because he is significantly lighter than the average defensive tackle. Even for a 270-pounder, he is more athletic than you would expect. Clemons’ athleticism would be an unusual challenge for guards and centers to deal with.
The Relative Athletic Score system backs up these claims. Based on his testing in the 2022 pre-draft process, Clemons earns a RAS of 8.20 (out of a maximum 10) if projected against defensive ends, which is still good, but nothing special. However, if you project Clemons’ testing results against defensive tackles, his RAS rises to a stellar 9.72.
The cherry on top of Clemons’ pass-rushing upside is the finesse aspect of his game. He has active hands and possesses smooth moves in his toolbox. Clemons’ technique is what allowed him to rush off the edge at a respectable level despite his subpar athleticism for the position.
Micheal Clemons with a clean win vs. Dion Dawkins using the cross-chop/club/rip 🔥 pic.twitter.com/KjoAbRY45p
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) November 11, 2022
The pass rushing skills are there. He just needs a more favorable physical matchup to maximize them.
The Jets have already experimented with Clemons on the inside. In the 2022 regular season, Clemons played 21 of his 311 snaps on the interior (7% of his defensive snaps). They used him on the interior even more often in the preseason, as Clemons played 33 of his 97 snaps on the interior (34%).
Clemons looked stellar in his limited time on the interior in the preseason. In the montage below, you can see a handful of reps where he lined up inside.
Micheal Clemons was a MADMAN in his #Jets debut.
– 4 tackles
– 7 pressures
Here are all of his impressive reps: pic.twitter.com/DKxRlEUCiB
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) August 14, 2022
On the play below, Clemons lines up in the B gap and shows off quickness that stands out as unusual for a player in that alignment.
Clemons easily fends off the left tackle and darts down the line of scrimmage to stop the cutback. Most players in the league who line up in this position would not have gotten down the line that quickly, possibly allowing the runner to break free for a huge gain. Clemons’ athletic advantage as an interior defender made the difference here. It exemplifies that Clemons’ athletic advantage on the interior can aid him not only as a pass rusher but also as a run defender, helping to make up for his size disadvantage.
Will the Jets actually go through with it?
Moving Clemons inside could be a positive decision for everyone involved. For Clemons, it could unlock his potential as a pass rusher. Most importantly, it would free up some much-needed snaps for the Jets’ crowded EDGE unit. Removing Clemons from the picture would open up a bevy of snaps that could be allocated to Johnson, Huff, and McDonald.
The Jets’ defensive tackle rotation could be improved by moving Clemons inside, too. It would become easier for the Jets to limit some of their specialist-type defensive tackles to the situations that suit them.
Because Clemons projects as a reliable two-day defensive tackle – thanks to his combination of strength/run-stopping skills plus above-average athleticism and pass-rushing upside – he can eat up snaps in non-obvious pass-run situations. This allows the Jets to easily limit Al Woods to high-likely running situations and Quinton Jefferson to high-likelihood passing situations.
Clemons is an upgrade over Woods as a pass rusher and an upgrade over Jefferson as a run defender. Because of this, the Jets could trust him to stay on the field for extended periods without having to substitute him based on situations.
The primary concern with moving Clemons inside would be the uncertainty of whether he could thrive in that position despite a small frame. It’s pure speculation to claim that Clemons has added weight onto his previous listing of 270 pounds, and even if he did jump to, say, 280, he would still be one of the lightest defensive tackles in the NFL. He would have to prove himself.
We shall see if the Jets truly do explore moving Clemons inside. It’s an intriguing concept that is loaded with potential benefits, although it does carry some risk since we simply do not know whether Clemons would be successful on the interior. It is completely possible that the Jets disagree with all of my optimistic projections about Clemons’ interior potential and are not even considering moving him.
The thing is, the Jets’ coaches should be trusted to make the right call here. They watch Clemons every day and know better than anyone what he’s capable of. If they think he would perform well on the interior, I doubt they would hesitate to make the move – because why wouldn’t they want to open up more snaps for the two edge rushers they spent first-round picks on? (And Huff.) It would be a no-brainer if they thought Clemons was capable.
If the Jets don’t move Clemons inside, I would trust their judgment, as I’m not in the building on a day-in, day-out basis. Nevertheless, based on all of the evidence and arguments I presented above, I strongly believe Clemons would be successful if he moved to the interior.