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Should New York Jets consider this stunning defensive change?

Solomon Thomas, NY Jets, NFL, Stats, Film
Solomon Thomas, New York Jets, Getty Images

The New York Jets could shock fans with a defensive lineup shift

The New York Jets seemingly cemented Javon Kinlaw’s status as a starter by giving him $7.25 million. That’s not backup money.

Or is it?

The Jets are trying to win a championship. If they have another player at the position who’s better than Kinlaw, maybe they’ll make a change.

What if a different former San Francisco 49ers first-round bust could give the Jets more than Kinlaw?

Yes, I’m talking about Solomon Thomas. Jets X-Factor’s Joe Blewett and Michael Nania have said they believe Thomas outplayed Kinlaw in 2023. Thomas is making just $3 million, but could the Jets elevate Thomas’ playing time and reduce Kinlaw’s?

Background and career

Thomas

The 49ers drafted Thomas at No. 3 overall in 2017. He was listed at 6-foot-3 and 273 pounds when he came out of college, making him a tweener inside and outside. He was considered an elite run defender and a promising pass rusher. The biggest concerns in his profile were only one year of true pass rush production, lack of size to play defensive tackle, and not enough experience along the edge.

Thomas posted a Relative Athletic Score of 9.71/10.00, including a 4.69 40-yard dash, ranking in the 81st percentile among defensive ends and the 90th percentile among all defensive linemen. He came into the league listed at 273 pounds but is now at 295, per the Jets’ official website.

Unfortunately, Thomas has failed to live up to his potential at the NFL level. In 48 games (30 starts) for San Francisco over four seasons, he recorded just six sacks, 16 tackles for loss, and 23 quarterback hits. He had just a 6.8% pressure rate with the 49ers, well below the position average of 8.3%.

As a run defender, Thomas graded out as decent over his first two seasons, posting Pro Football Focus grades of 65.4 and 64.9. This was in part because he played more on the edge during those seasons, whereas he played on the interior afterward. In 2021, his lone season with the Raiders, he converted to a full-time defensive tackle. Consequently, Thomas has graded out below 50.0 as a run defender in each of his last four seasons.

In 2022, Thomas’ first season with the Jets, he posted just a 5.7% pressure rate and a 47.1 run defense grade.

Kinlaw

Kinlaw was drafted in 2020, a year without draft measurements or in-person meetings with prospects. This caused several players to be drafted higher than they may have been otherwise. Still, Kinlaw’s lateral athleticism and power at 324 pounds were enticing to NFL teams.

Interestingly, PFF’s draft profile of him lists almost the exact same concerns that Blewett did in his film review based on Kinlaw’s 2023 season.

PFF (2020)

  • Sloppy hand placement — wide hands
  • Does not do well against double-teams
  • Top-heavy, gets off balance too easily against chips and double-teams
  • moves are reactive instead of proactive
  • only a few pass-rush moves
  • rushes high

Blewett (2024)

  • Lacks a consistent rush plan
  • High waisted
  • Balance
  • Plays high
  • Pass rush lacks variety
  • Can play out of control
  • Wasted movement (can run feet with no purpose)
  • Run game recognition
  • High in bull rush
  • Doesn’t roll hips in bull rush with consistency
  • Can be late off snap
  • Hand usage
  • Hands tend to land high
  • Struggles to shed blocks
  • Lacks counters
  • Tries to stutter/hesi o-lineman but doesn’t eat up enough space
  • Can shut down rush early (especially vs. double teams)
  • Doesn’t run stunts well
  • Can shed too early, want him to hold stack longer at times

The 49ers drafted Kinlaw at No. 14 overall in 2020. Like Thomas, Kinlaw failed to live up to his draft hype. In 41 games (28 starts), Kinlaw posted just five sacks, seven tackles for loss, and 11 quarterback hits. As a rookie, he posted just a 5.6% pressure rate. After being limited to just 10 games over the next two seasons due to injury, Kinlaw improved statistically in 2023 with a 9.6% pressure rate, 3.5 sacks, and four tackles for loss.

Kinlaw has graded out as a very poor run defender throughout his NFL career, posting grades below 47.0 in each of his four seasons, including below 37.0 in his last two.

2023 playing time comparison

In 2023, Thomas saw 483 defensive snaps, 46.2% of which were as a pass rusher. Overall, he played 43% of the Jets’ defensive snaps. That wasn’t necessarily representative of his true role, though. He was the Jets’ fourth defensive tackle until Al Woods got hurt, then moved up to the No. 2 spot when Quinton Jefferson went down.

Before Week 8, Thomas had played 36% of the snaps, and between Weeks 9 and 14, he was at 38.2%. It’s fair to say that 36% would’ve likely been his snap count without injuries.

Kinlaw, meanwhile, saw 476 defensive snaps, 67.6% of which were as a pass rusher. He played 44% of the 49ers’ defensive snaps in all 17 games.

Overall, Kinlaw and Thomas saw similar playing time in 2023, albeit in very different roles. The Jets used Thomas primarily in run situations, whereas Kinlaw was more of an exclusive pass rusher for the 49ers.

Both players saw a significant amount of time at 2i technique (lined up over the guard’s inside shoulder).

Run defense comparison

PFF sees both Thomas and Kinlaw as extremely poor run defenders on the interior. Thomas ranked 97th out of 103 qualified interior defensive linemen (min. 150 run defense snaps) with a 32.2 PFF run defense grade. Kinlaw was even worse at 31.3, ranking 99th.

Both players were below average in run stuff* rate: Kinlaw at 6.6% (57th) and Thomas at 5.6% (73rd).

* A run stuff is a tackle that constitutes a failure by the offense; on a run play, that is defined as gaining less than 40% of the required yards on first down, 50% on second down, and 100% on third/fourth down.

However, Thomas was better at making impactful stops near the line of scrimmage. Thomas’ 1.4-yard average depth of tackle ranked 13th, while Kinlaw’s 2.7 ranked 69th.

Both players have a major awareness issue in the run game. Joe Blewett detailed how Quinnen Williams accurately diagnoses plays and shifts his technique to hold up against them. Thomas and Kinlaw are classic examples of what not to do as a defensive tackle against the run. In the 4-3 penetrating scheme, both players run upfield with abandon, completely ignoring whether the offense is allowing them to do so to trap/draw behind them.

Both Thomas and Kinlaw are also extremely movable on double-teams and combo blocks.

Thomas does show superior hustle downfield, and he has solid speed for the position. Ironically, one draft profile of his referred to a lack of effort, but the opposite shows up on his Jets film. He is a high-motor player who will chase a play from the backside to make the tackle. If anything, Kinlaw is the one who doesn’t hustle as much when a play is away from his side or downfield.

Thomas also makes more impact plays in the run game than Kinlaw. He has an easier time shedding blocks in time to affect the play. His superior speed in knifing through the middle can also result in more tackles for loss.

Pass rush head-to-head

Kinlaw’s pressure profile was significantly better than Thomas’ in 2023, at least statistically. Kinlaw beat Thomas in pressure rate (9.6% to 7.6%), adjusted pressure rate (9.6% to 8.4%), pass rush win rate (10.3% to 7.5%), and true pass set* pass rush win rate (18.1% to 8.4%).

true pass sets are plays that isolate defender vs. offensive lineman without screens, fewer than four pass rushers, releases in under two seconds, or play-action.

However, Thomas’ pressures were far more impactful; i.e. he was better at turning his pressures into sacks or hits. His 41.2% impactful pressure rate ((sacks + hits) / pressures) ranked 13th out of 103 qualified DTs and dwarfed Kinlaw’s 19.4% (65th). This was even more pronounced in true pass sets (40% vs. 11.1%).

On film, there doesn’t seem to be as big a difference in their pass-rushing prowess as the stats would indicate. Neither Kinlaw nor Thomas can beat a double-team as a pass rusher. Kinlaw has more power as a bull rusher, but he plays with such high leverage and has few counters beyond his initial bull. Thomas also has more mobility when the play breaks down, allowing him to chase down the quarterback more easily.

It’s worth noting that through Week 14 before Quinton Jefferson got hurt, Thomas’ pressure rate was 9.2% (13 pressures on 141 pass rush snaps). Perhaps Thomas is best used on a smaller volume of pass rush snaps.

The fact that both these players are inferior pass rushers could hurt the Jets’ pass rush significantly. Not only do the Jets no longer have Jefferson, whose 12.1% pressure rate ranked in the top 10 at the position, but they also don’t have John Franklin-Myers moving inside on passing downs. Jefferson and Franklin-Myers were far superior to Kinlaw and Thomas as interior pass rushers.

One thing the Jets might do to deal with this issue is play three edge rushers on passing downs. In 2023, they utilized Jermaine Johnson standing up in the B-gap with C.J. Mosley mugged up in some obvious pass-rushing situations. They even occasionally lined up Bryce Huff inside. Jeff Ulbrich could utilize this set more often to mitigate the effect of poorer interior pass rushers.

Furthermore, this gives undrafted free agent Leonard Taylor a serious shot at making the roster. Taylor had a 28.6% pass rush win rate at three-technique and posted a 10.4% pressure rate despite seeing significant snaps at nose tackle. Taylor could take on a Huff-esque role in the interior.

Comparing Kinlaw and Thomas, though, it doesn’t seem like there’s as big a gap between them as PFF would indicate. Neither one is an impressive pass rusher. If anything, Thomas has the advantage of more sacks (5.0 to 3.5) in nearly 100 fewer pass rush reps (223 vs. 322).

So is Thomas better?

Well, if Thomas is a more impactful run defender and the two are similar as pass rushers, the answer is yes. At least when comparing their 2023 seasons, Thomas was a better player than Kinlaw. Despite the difference in their pay, Thomas should be considered the starter. Given the pay difference, though, Kinlaw will likely see more playing time.

Still, the playing time distribution might be more even than we think. Here’s how the defensive tackle distribution broke down for the Jets last season:

  • Quinnen Williams: 778 snaps in 17 games, 69% total
  • Solomon Thomas: 483 snaps in 17 games, 36% before injuries, 43% total
  • Quinton Jefferson: 468 snaps in 13+ games, 49% in games played, 41.5% total
  • John Franklin-Myers: 202 snaps in 17 games, 17.9% total
  • Al Woods: 140 snaps in 6+ games, 32% in games played, 12.4% total
  • Everyone else: 225 snaps, 20% total

Theoretically, this means there are 1,518 snaps available to divide up between Thomas, Kinlaw, Taylor, and Leki Fotu.

Let’s assume that Fotu sticks with Woods’ 32%, giving him 361 snaps. Taylor would take Franklin-Myers’ 202 snaps at 17.9%. That leaves 955 snaps to divide between Kinlaw and Thomas. If the two split snaps evenly, that would give each of them 42.4%, which is very close to their 2023 totals with their respective teams.

Even if Kinlaw gets more snaps, Thomas could still see more than the 36% he had before Woods and Jefferson got hurt. The Jets could divide it 45%/39% or something similar. They could also give Kinlaw 49% and stick Thomas back at 35%.

What will likely happen

The Jets paid Kinlaw $7.25 million to be their starting defensive tackle. They rarely move off their highly paid players even when underwhelming. Unlike the benching of Allen Lazard and the reduction in playing time for C.J. Uzomah in 2023, the Jets don’t have a younger player at the position to whom they want to give more playing time (unless Taylor blows their minds, which he likely won’t have the opportunity to do).

Therefore, expect Kinlaw to play close to 50% of the snaps and Thomas to be back at his 36% rate from before the Woods and Jefferson injuries. Kinlaw’s 2023 film was not better than Thomas’, though, which should temper Jets fans’ expectations for Kinlaw in 2024.

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