Pro Football Focus has just released their top 32 ranked interior defensive linemen heading into the 2021 season, and the New York Jets lead the way with four on their roster.
While other NFL franchises are higher on the list, with players like Aaron Donald or Chris Jones (top two ranks), no other organization has as many total occupants as the Jets defense. The next closest was the Pittsburgh Steelers with three top-ranked interior D-linemen.
With all the focus on additions like edge rusher Carl Lawson and a rookie class with a ton of upside potential, the casual fan may forget just how solid the Jets were up the gut in 2020 despite their record.
Quinnen Williams is coming off a monster sophomore campaign that yielded a career-high 7 sacks (14 QB hits) and 55 total tackles (10 for a loss). PFF awarded the young stud with an 81.4 grade, touting his league-leading run-stop percentage for all qualifying interior defenders (14th ranked in top 32).
Nose tackle Folorunso Fatukasi (27th in PFF top 32) also developed into one of the better run-stuffers in the game, a former sixth-round pick out of UConn. Against the run, Gang Green ranked (tied for) sixth in yards per attempt allowing just 4.0 rush yards per carry.
The team they were tied with? The San Francisco 49ers, coached by Robert Saleh.
What Can Saleh’s Presence Do for This Unit?
Rounding out the Jets representatives in PFF’s top 32 are free-agent pickup Sheldon Rankins (28th ranked) and versatile fan-favorite John Franklin-Myers (30th ranked). The latter was a waiver wire steal by general manager Joe Douglas, one of his first moves on the job in fall 2019.
It’s expected that this defense will only improve under the tutelage of head coach Saleh, an NFC Champion defensive coordinator in 2019 who was mere moments from winning a Super Bowl ring — especially since he brought a lot of his staff with him from San Francisco.
A player like Franklin-Myers seemed to unlock different aspects of his game in 2020, with a career-high three sacks and 13 QB hits as a rotational defensive lineman. Perhaps this coaching staff can tap even further into JFM’s potential, as Solomon Thomas played a similar inside/outside role for Saleh with the Niners.
Rankins also loved the idea of playing under the ex-49ers DC. During an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio, according to JetsWire, the former New Orleans Saint said, “When he called me and expressed his interest and how much he really wanted me to be a part of this and the vision he had for me and Quinnen [Williams] inside and Carl [Lawson] out on the edge, it got me fired up.”
Rankins, a former first-round pick, has been slowed by injuries the past two seasons but had his most productive campaign in 2018 when he recorded eight sacks (15 QB hits) and 40 total tackles (12 for a loss). He only turned 27 years old in April 2021.
Defensive line was no doubt the Jets’ deepest positional group heading into the NFL draft, but it didn’t hurt that Douglas managed to snag a diamond in the rough with the Jets’ last pick of 2021. The 207th pick out of Arkansas was defensive tackle Jonathan Marshall, a sleeper by most accounts.
Saleh and Douglas aren’t worried about overstocking the D-line; they both know that football games are won and lost in the trenches. The 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles, which Douglas was key in building, both had phenomenal defensive lines during their recent Super Bowl appearances.
Next Steps for Jets Defense
A front four of Lawson, Williams, Rankins/Fatukasi and Franklin-Myers/Vinny Curry is certainly tantalizing, but the Jets shouldn’t consider the defense complete. They could still use a number-one cornerback, whether it’s a Richard Sherman-type sage or a Steven Nelson-type scheme-fit.
The Jets could also consider bringing in another edge rusher on a one-year deal if the price-tag fits. Melvin Ingram is a game-changer who’s still available on the open market, and the Jets still have nearly $28 million in cap space according to Spotrac, the third-most in the NFL.
You can never have enough talented bodies in football, whether accounting for injury or fatigue, and the Jets should continue to stack up on areas of need. After all, the better this defense performs in 2021, the less pressure there is on rookie quarterback Zach Wilson.