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Bargain free agent targets at NY Jets’ underrated position of need

Armon Watts
Armon Watts

The New York Jets must find value to fill one of their smaller holes

Going into the 2024 offseason, the New York Jets aren’t exactly overflowing with cap space. According to Spotrac, they rank 21st in the league with $7.56 million in cap space.

This number will increase once the Jets make some cuts, trades, and restructures, but the point stands that New York will not be a major player in the open market this year.

With the few high-end signings they will be able to afford, the Jets will undoubtedly focus on offensive linemen and wide receivers. This will leave them to scrape the bargain bin to fill the rest of their needs.

Here are some affordable targets the Jets could pursue to address one of their lesser-discussed needs.

The Jets need a run-stopping defensive tackle who is a slightly better athlete and pass rusher than Al Woods

Al Woods is set for free agency. Considering he is 36 years old and coming off an Achilles injury, it seems unlikely the Jets will bring him back.

Woods made a substantial impact on the Jets’ run defense, which is what they brought him in to do. The Jets allowed 3.1 yards per rush attempt when Woods was on the field compared to 4.2 when he was not.

The Jets will be looking for someone to fill Woods’ shoes as the run-stopping specialist of the defensive line. However, I would argue they should not try to find an exact clone of Woods. Instead, they should try to find someone who can fill the same role but is a better fit for their scheme.

Woods was unathletic and made essentially no impact in the passing game (2 pressures in 6 games). Whenever he got caught on the field for a passing play, it was a near-lock that the quarterback would receive a comfortable pocket. And this happened more often than you’d think – 47% of Woods’ snaps were pass plays, and he averaged about 13 pass-rush snaps per game in five games not affected by injury. That’s a lot of reps for a guy like Woods. You can’t hide a defender from the passing game in today’s NFL.

It was surprising to see the Jets add this type of player to their scheme – an aggressive 4-3 front that relies heavily on the four-man rush to win without the help of the blitz on first and second down. They have typically targeted undersized defensive tackles who are explosive and athletic, prioritizing gap-shooting over space-eating.

While it is difficult to find someone who fits that bill and thrives as a run-stopping specialist, the Jets need to try and get as close to that mold as they can. If they have to sacrifice a little bit of run-stopping skill to get someone who is slightly more productive in the passing game than Woods was, I would argue that is a worthy trade-off.

Look at what Woods was giving the Jets in the passing game in the clips below. Not only did he rarely get home, but he was usually held completely stationary at the line of scrimmage, creating enormous pockets for the quarterback. Woods’ lack of movement also made it harder for his teammates to win, as he didn’t create any havoc to disrupt the other blockers.

With Woods on the field, the Jets generated a pressure rate of 30.6%, per Next Gen Stats. For perspective, that would be the second-worst rate of any team in 2023, only beating the two-win Panthers’ 29.8%.

When Woods was not on the field, the Jets generated a 41.7% pressure rate, which would rank second-best behind only the Cowboys’ 42.5%. Essentially, his presence turned the Jets from a top-two pass rush to a bottom-two pass rush. That’s a hefty price to pay for his gap-plugging against the run, especially when his role had him playing against the pass on nearly half of his plays.

Overall, the Jets finished fifth in pressure rate at 40.6%, so their struggles on Woods’ reps cost them a few spots on the final leaderboard (even with him playing only six games). Improving the pass-rush production out of this spot would help push the Jets one step closer to becoming the undisputed No. 1 pass-rushing team in the NFL.

Can the Jets find a defensive tackle who is slightly less harmful in the passing game than Woods while still providing valuable run defense? All at an affordable cost?

Here are two free agents who could fit the bill.

Jonathan Harris, Broncos

At 6-foot-5 and only 295 pounds, Harris fits the Jets’ preferred build at defensive tackle. Despite his undersized frame, the former undrafted free agent established himself as a solid run defender in 2023.

Among 140 defensive tackles to play at least 100 snaps against the run, Harris had the 34th-highest run-stop rate (8.5%) and the 12th-lowest missed tackle rate against the run (2.4%). Harris made 41 tackles in the run game and only missed one tackle.

Similar to Woods, Harris’ presence improved the Broncos’ run defense. Denver allowed 4.7 yards per rush attempt with Harris on the field compared to 5.3 when he was off.

Harris is nowhere close to being a stud pass rusher but he isn’t as brutal as Woods. While his pass-rush win rate (per PFF) of 5.3% ranked 107th out of 158 qualified defensive tackles (min. 60 pass-rush snaps), Woods’ rate was 1.6%, ranking 151st.

Harris was an undrafted free agent in 2019 and hardly played in his career until this season. His stats don’t jump off the page besides the ones I mentioned. I doubt he is going to get paid anything more than $1-2 million.

I’m not listing earth-shattering superstars here. We’re looking for bargains who fit a specific archetype. Harris is a guy who can give the Jets respectable run defense as their fourth-string defensive tackle at an affordable price, all while still being athletic enough to fit their scheme and not be a complete statue in the passing game.

Armon Watts, Steelers

Watts, 27, joined the Steelers on a one-year, $1.2 million deal and played a small role in Pittsburgh’s defensive line, averaging 18.2 snaps per game across 15 appearances. The former sixth-round pick aided Pittsburgh’s run defense while bringing surprisingly good pass rushing over a limited sample.

The on-ball stats are decent. Among 140 qualified defensive tackles, Watts ranked 70th in run-stop rate (6.6%) and had the 39th-lowest missed tackle rate (5.9%), missing just one tackle against 16 run-game tackles. His on-off numbers are more promising. Pittsburgh allowed 4.4 yards per rush attempt with Watts on the field compared to 5.5 with him off. That’s a -1.1 margin, equal to Woods’ with the Jets (3.1 versus 4.2).

While he only played 149 pass-rush snaps, Watts made the most of his reps. His pass-rush win rate of 12.3% ranked 28th among 138 qualifiers (min. 100 pass-rush snaps). This was a significant outlier for the fifth-year man compared to the rest of his career, so it likely won’t be maintained. Still, in his 2022 season with Chicago, he was 92nd out of 143 qualifiers at 5.6%, slightly better than Harris’ number this year. It’s not good but it’s not Woods, and that’s the level we’re looking for in this price range.

Watts is a more traditionally sized defensive tackle at 6-foot-5 and 307 pounds. While he is not necessarily athletic (he had a 3.72 Relative Athletic Score coming out of Arkansas in 2019), he offers more mobility and pass-rush production than the 331-pound Woods at 36 years old, all while providing the same on-off impact in yards per rush attempt.

The Jets could decide to fill this hole by going after a guy like Harris or Watts in free agency. They could also try to knock it out with a late-round draft pick or undrafted player. Regardless of the path they take, the archetype we laid out today seems to make the most sense for what the Jets need in this role while being realistic about their budget.

It would be awesome if you could fill every position with a perfect player, but realistically, budget restrictions force you to make some trade-offs to fill out a roster. In this particular role, I believe the Jets should try to give back a little bit of Woods’ run-stopping ability to get back a little bit more pass-rushing, therefore making their run-stopping specialist less one-dimensional. The resumes of Harris and Watts lay out the blueprint for this kind of player.

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Jonathan Richter
Jonathan Richter
5 months ago

Good article. Good recommendations.

5 months ago

This will be highly unpopular but they could potentially draft a guy to fill this role.