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Signing Jadeveon Clowney could reveal NY Jets’ view of key player

Jadeveon Clowney
Jadeveon Clowney

What message would it send if the New York Jets signed Jadeveon Clowney?

The New York Jets continue to be closely linked with free agent edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney. The former No. 1 overall pick met with New York last week, and according to one report, the Jets are “highly motivated” to get a deal done.

Adding Clowney would help the Jets rebound from the loss of Bryce Huff in a huge way. In 2023, Clowney tied his career-high with 9.5 sacks while ranking 11th among edge defenders with a career-high 71 total pressures. On top of his surprising spike in pass-rush production, Clowney remains a revered run defender. His 9.8% run-stop rate ranked sixth-best among 88 qualified edge defenders (min. 150 run defense snaps).

The Jets would certainly become a better team with the addition of Clowney. But his arrival would beg the question: What does this say about their plans for Will McDonald?

New York’s 2023 first-round pick played only 19% of the Jets’ defensive snaps across 15 appearances in his rookie year. He averaged just 12.2 defensive snaps per game, including a measly 6.6 pass-rush snaps per game.

Presumably, the Jets’ plan was to substantially increase McDonald’s snap count in 2024, just like they did with Jermaine Johnson last year. Johnson jumped to a 66% snap ratio in 2023 after playing 34% as a rookie.

Once Huff bolted to Philadelphia, it seemed as if the door was wide open for McDonald to step into a much larger role. Huff played 42% of the Jets’ defensive snaps last year.

But if the Jets sign Clowney, where does that leave McDonald?

Clowney played 57% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps in 2023, so if he joined the Jets, he would likely demand significantly more snaps than Huff did. After all, Clowney is a two-way player whereas the Jets were clearly afraid of utilizing Huff in the run game. It would be surprising if Clowney played even an equal role to Huff, let alone a smaller one. Clowney was an excellent player in 2023 and deserves to at least maintain his 57% snap ratio.

So, if Clowney projects to out-snap Huff… where are the Jets going to find snaps for McDonald?

The Jets’ pursuit of Clowney (and Shaquil Barrett before him, who had a 62% snap ratio last year) is a somewhat troubling message regarding the team’s outlook for McDonald. If they trusted McDonald to play a bigger role, one would think that the Jets probably wouldn’t explore adding starter-level edge rushers who will demand over half of the snaps.

Going into free agency, my hunch was that the Jets were projecting McDonald to step up and take over Huff’s snaps (or possibly giving him an even larger role) while using free agency to add a pass-rush specialist who would take over McDonald’s role.

Now, with Clowney’s arrival on the horizon, it’s becoming difficult to envision what the Jets could do to give McDonald more playing time.

Conceivably, if the Jets do plan on giving McDonald more snaps (rather than Clowney being an indication that they do not trust him), there are a few different ways the Jets could pull it off.

For one, it’s possible that the Jets plan on giving Clowney a much smaller role than last year. While I find that unlikely considering how well he played, it’s a possibility worth mentioning. Maybe the Jets foresee the 31-year-old Clowney thriving in a smaller role within their rotation-heavy scheme. In addition, Clowney has had injury issues in the past (he missed 19 games over the previous four seasons before playing all 17 in 2023), so a smaller role could maximize his chances of staying healthy.

Again, though, I do not see that happening. Even the 57% ratio that Clowney played in 2023 was a career-low (save for an injury-riddled four-game rookie campaign). He’s a two-way edge defender who produced at a tremendous level last year. If the Jets sign him, they probably plan to use him for over half of the snaps.

So, what else could the Jets do?

One option is to trade John Franklin-Myers. The 27-year-old still has two years remaining on his deal, but he is a solid two-way edge defender who also offers the versatility to play inside. There are teams who would give up a decent return for Franklin-Myers. The Jets could also gain some cap relief by dealing him, which can help them make room for future contract extensions.

By trading Franklin-Myers, the picture would become a whole lot clearer. Franklin-Myers played 55% of the Jets’ defensive snaps in 2023. Clowney could slide right into that role. McDonald, meanwhile, could slide into Huff’s 42%. Then, the Jets would have to fill out the rotation with one more player to take over McDonald’s situational role.

Still, Franklin-Myers is a valuable cog in the Jets’ defensive front. He is an excellent edge-setter against the run, creates pressure at an above-average rate off the edge, and can rush the passer from the interior at a high level on pass downs. JFM brings everything together for this defensive line. He has played a pivotal role in the defense’s dominance over the past two seasons.

In a win-now season, do the Jets really want to dump Franklin-Myers so that they can gamble on an unproven player in McDonald? Which, mind you, would only be done so they can try to justify their decision to draft him in the first round? This wouldn’t even be considered if McDonald were less than a first-round pick.

Another way to find snaps for McDonald is to reduce Micheal Clemons’ snap count. Clemons played 35% of the Jets’ snaps in 2023, an increase from 29% in his rookie year, but his production fell off. Clemons went from zero missed tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 16 defensive stops as a rookie to five missed tackles, 0.5 sacks, and 12 defensive stops in his second year despite playing 57 more snaps.

The Jets should recognize Clemons’ drop-off and significantly reduce his snap count to open up snaps for McDonald. Not to mention, Clowney’s strong run defense reduces the need for Clemons (who is only on the field for run defense), so Clemons would become nearly obsolete in the Jets’ rotation. They could push him all the way down to around 15% of the snaps. This would mostly negate Clowney’s increased snap count over Huff, allowing McDonald to stay in a similar role as last year, but it could potentially open up a handful of extra snaps for McDonald if the Jets use Clowney less than expected.

Nonetheless, even with a massive Clemons reduction, Clowney’s arrival places a cap on McDonald’s snap-count ceiling. At best, I could see McDonald landing around 30%. Here’s how he can get there.

Say the Jets slice Clemons down to 15% (-20% compared to last year) while cutting Clowney down to 50%, which is a slight reduction from his 57% last year but still 8% higher than Huff. That vacates 12% of the snaps, which can be tacked onto McDonald’s 19%, pushing him to 31%.

While that’s a decent-sized increase, a 31% snap count is certainly not what you envision for a top-15 draft pick in his second season. That’s even less than Johnson’s rookie-year snap count. Furthermore, Johnson was 23 years old at the time – McDonald will already be 25 this year.

It will be fascinating to see how the Jets’ edge rotation shapes up if they seal the deal with Clowney. While he’d be a fantastic win-now addition, the move would also raise questions regarding how the Jets really feel about their 2023 first-round pick.

Ultimately, it all comes down to what the Jets are seeing from McDonald behind closed doors. While Jets fans did not get to see much of him in 2023, the Jets’ coaches see him in practice every day. They have a good feel for where he is in his development.

Just look at how the Jets handled Jermaine Johnson. Despite Johnson having a mediocre rookie year as a pass rusher (42nd percentile in pressure rate among 125 qualified EDGE), the Jets showed immense belief in him by nearly doubling his snap ratio in 2023 (34% to 66%). This was a change that New York decided upon before Johnson earned it via on-field production. He played 71% of the snaps in the 2023 season opener after never playing more than 50% of the snaps in a game in 2022.

Johnson proved his coaches right by forging a massive breakout campaign. He tripled his rookie-year numbers in sacks (2.5 to 7.5), tackles for loss (3 to 11), and quarterback hits (5 to 16) while quadrupling his total pressures (14 to 56). Johnson also recorded seven pass deflections after failing to make one as a rookie. You can throw a pick-six, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery onto his resume in a Pro Bowl season.

Jets fans might remember that Johnson’s offseason transformation was constantly praised by his teammates and coaches prior to the year. Many people in the organization were predicting his breakout. Once the lights came on, it was clear their praise was legitimate all along. You could see that Johnson earned a bigger role through what he showed the Jets off the field, as his rookie-year production on its own certainly wasn’t stellar enough to demand a near-double snap count.

It’s up to McDonald to do the same thing. Johnson’s 2023 season could not have been predicted by his in-game production as a rookie. But the Jets foresaw it anyway, so they handed him the keys with full confidence. Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich showed they are willing to trust a young player with a bigger role if he earns it in practice.

As of now, it does not feel as if McDonald has impressed the Jets in the same way that Johnson did.

McDonald demanded significantly less playing time as a rookie than Johnson, and on top of that, the Jets did not seem as urgent to add to the edge position after Johnson’s rookie year. Granted, the loss of Huff affects their current free agency approach, but as I mentioned earlier, if the Jets felt good about McDonald stepping into a bigger role, they would focus on adding low-cost situational pass rushers while projecting McDonald as Huff’s replacement. Instead, through Shaquil Barrett and now Clowney, they have targeted starters.

McDonald has plenty of time to change how the Jets feel about him, even if Clowney does join the team. If McDonald proves he deserves a larger role in training camp, I’m sure the Jets would not hesitate to reduce Clowney’s role if it allows for McDonald to receive the snap count he deserves. There is no semblance of veteran bias on this Jets defense. Whether it’s Johnson, Tony Adams, Michael Carter II, Sauce Gardner, or Quincy Williams, this Jets regime has established that young defenders can win bigger roles at any time as long as they earn it.

While he hardly played, McDonald did show glimpses of potential in his rookie season. On just 99 pass-rush snaps, he was in on four sacks and had 12 total pressures. His 12.1% pressure rate was above the league average for edge rushers (11.6%) and well ahead of Johnson’s rookie-year mark (9.3%). His 4.0% sack rate was more than double the league average for edge rushers (1.9%).

Obviously, it’s a minuscule sample size, so we cannot fully trust him just yet. And the Jets seemingly do not fully trust him either. But the ceiling is clearly there, and he still has plenty of time to reach it.

Until McDonald earns the Jets’ trust, it’s smart to load up the defensive line with as many proven bodies as possible. That is why pursuing Clowney makes sense. It raises the unit’s short-term floor without necessarily hindering McDonald’s future.

Clowney was a great player last year. If he joins the team, the Jets’ defensive line will return to nearly the same talent level it had when Huff was on the team. There would be a drop-off in the passing game, but the run defense would take a significant leap. And if Clowney can maintain his 2023 production, the pass rush drop-off wouldn’t be enormous.

The Jets are trying to win Super Bowl 59. They should not allow draft-pick bias to hold them back from adding players who help them accomplish that goal. If McDonald wants to be a bigger part of the team’s title pursuit, he needs to earn it like Johnson did. In the meantime, Clowney would give the Jets security in case McDonald does not pan out as hoped.

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1 month ago

I don’t necessarily see signing Clowney as a slight to WMD. I sincerely hope that he has a JJ-type progression (and with JJ as a mentor, there’s no reason to doubt this). The step from year one to yr two as a professional in the NFL is huge; familiarity with the routines of camp and the facility, and with the systems, allows for physical talents to shine. I also think we will see a bigger, stronger WMD.
At the same time, we’re talking about signing someone who had 9.5 sacks last yr…that’s some damn good insurance, and even more mentorship for WMD.
Personally, I would cut or, if possible, trade Clemons… a guy that size and with his athleticism has to be more impactful than what he was in year two (and the penalties!).

1 month ago

I enjoyed the read. I did think some of the same things as you upon first glance. However, after thinking about it a little more I think McDonald will step into much of Huff’s role. I think between Clowney and Mconald, they can split the workload of Lawson and Clemons, who may not even make team. Then I think JFM will see a small reduction in snaps on the edge and JJ will also see a decrease as the plan was never for him to play as many snaps as he did and to be fair he had spans where he was not highly effective. He was good player but not a Pro Bowler (despite playing in the game) as he was a 5th alternate which was about as good he could have hoped for. What are you thoughts on this reconfiguration.