Jets Could Upgrade on Foley Fatukasi With Robert Saleh Disciple

D.J. Jones

Getty San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle D.J. Jones (#93) celebrates a sack on November 11, 2019.

A recent report claimed that New York Jets free agent defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi could make double digits in March.

Based on what we’ve heard, there is almost a zero percent chance the 2021 team captain returns at that price tag. To be blunt, Fatukasi no longer fits the system and Joe Douglas won’t overpay to keep him around.

He was an underrated 3-4 nose tackle before Robert Saleh took over, with run-stuffing numbers that rivaled some of the best in the NFL. In the 4-3 attacking front, however, he got torched on the ground most outings.

It’s hard to say whether it was the gap assignments or the pass-rushing mentality but Fatukasi ended up having his worst campaign on a contract year, and if a 3-4 defense is willing to pay him $10 million-plus per season, the Jets will wish him the best and move on.

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Replacing the Big Man

If Fatukasi does walk as expected, you have to fill the void by bringing in some sort of run defender up the gut. Without him, the active roster flaunts Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins, Jonathan Marshall and John Franklin-Myers as potential D-tackles, none of which are known for their run-clogging ability.

One suggestion was trading for an established 4-3 veteran DT like Grady Jarrett or Fletcher Cox. Another is going the cheaper route in free agency or the draft, with a value target that would only play on rushing downs.

The third is spending in free agency, but rather than spending on Fatukasi, you bet on a player that you know fits the scheme. Insert San Francisco 49ers success story D.J. Jones, an ex-Saleh disciple that feels like the No. 1 candidate on the market for the Jets at the position.

During a recent mailbag column, I mentioned Jones as a name to watch for the honor of Douglas’ first call of free agency. The reunion just makes sense on so many levels.

The under-the-radar talent has actually had a very similar career trajectory as Fatukasi. He began as a sixth-round pick in 2017 and didn’t get much burn in year one. Then at age 23, he started his first four games and appeared in 10 on the season.

Within Saleh’s heavy rotation out in San Fran, Jones rose through the ranks as the secondary run-stuffer behind DeForest Buckner. Upon the All-Pro’s departure via trade in 2020, Jones began to see an increased role.

In 2021, he had his best campaign, breaking out for the Niners with 56 tackles (10 for a loss), two sacks, and a whopping 46 defensive stops on Pro Football Focus. That final statistic ranked fourth for all NFL D-tackles behind Aaron Donald, Jeffery Simmons and Cameron Heyward.

For reference, Fatukasi had 28 stops last year. Saleh groomed Jones from the early stages of his career and it only makes sense that the Jets might try and poach the 4-3 scheme fit for “49ers east.”

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Contract Projections & Speculation on Jones

For starters, the Jets have been connected to Jones throughout the early stages of his first major free agency experience. uSTADIUM listed the 27-year old DT as an “FA the Jets have interest in,” according to their sources.

Some within the Jets community have also suggested the addition, like Michael Nania of Jets X-Factor or Will Parkinson of the “Turn on the Jets” podcast.

It’s unclear exactly what Jones might command on the open market but PFF projected him at a slightly lower average than what Mike Garafolo rumored for Fatukasi — which should be right in the Jets’ wheelhouse. The grading site awarded him “three years, $26.25 million ($8.75M per year, $15.5 million total guaranteed).”

Even if he ends up making a little more than that, the reason you pay Jones over Fatukasi is that Jones fits. Douglas could always cut Sheldon Rankins if he needs to free up some extra space with Franklin-Myers most likely transitioning back inside and Marshall — or a new rookie — on the roster as a cheaper pass-rushing option.

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