The longest tenured New York Jets player is backup defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd, and many fans have questioned that fact over the past couple of seasons.
Last summer, the unspectacular 2018 third rounder made the 53-man roster over 2021 draft pick Jonathan Marshall. Later, the second-year prospect was poached off the practice squad by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Head coach Robert Saleh praised the staff favorite’s tremendous effort and work ethic in practice throughout the 2022 campaign when questioned on this decision, but Shepherd’s grinder mentality hasn’t always shown up on gameday. He has just six sacks and 13 tackles for a loss since entering the league 73 NFL games ago, and Pro Football Focus has only given him a run defense grade above 65.0 once in five seasons (rookie year). His career missed tackle percentage is also an exorbitant 16.7% (17.5% in 2022).
Based on all this, NFL writer Jim Cerny recommended that the Jets replace Shepherd — an unrestricted free agent — in 2023 during an article with Clutch Points. He even came up with a suggestion that has ties to both Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas.
49ers Free Agent DT Hassan Ridgeway Suggested as Nathan Shepherd Replacement
“When it comes to the interior of their defensive line, the first things the Jets must do this offseason are sign All-Pro Quinnen Williams to a contract extension and re-sign starter Sheldon Rankins,” Cerny wrote. “From there, they need to let Nathan Shepherd and Solomon Thomas leave as free agents and find upgrades for each backup.”
He continued: “Hassan Ridgeway fits the bill and should be an affordable option. He’s big (6-foot-3, 305 pounds) and athletic. Pro Football Focus reported that he did not miss a single tackle this season, finishing with 10 stops on 139 run snaps and an NFL career-high 28 tackles in a situational role.”
Finally, Cerny revealed the Ridgeway connections, concluding: “Jets GM Joe Douglas was in the front office for the Philadelphia Eagles when they acquired Ridgeway in a 2019 draft day deal. Assistant GM Rex Hogan worked for the Indianapolis Colts when Ridgeway played there. So, New York is very familiar with the player.”
Don’t forget, Ridgeway’s also familiar with Saleh’s scheme, playing for understudy DeMeco Ryans and the San Francisco 49ers in 2021 and 2022.
Comparing Hassan Ridgeway to Nathan Shepherd & Solomon Thomas
Now, Shepherd might resonate more with fans as frustrating for several seasons, but Ridgeway could also replace Thomas as Cerny illustrated above. Both rotational D-tackles are free agents in 2023, along with Rankins, and the Jets have some work to do improving the interior.
So, how would Ridgeway upgrade the position and how much might he cost?
In all honesty, the veteran’s production isn’t that far off from Shepherd or Thomas when you look at the numbers on a surface level but diving deeper, Ridgeway wasn’t given as many opportunities in San Francisco. The former fourth-round selection of the Colts logged just 285 defensive snaps in 2022, with one sack, eight quarterback pressures and 12 key defensive stops. Respectively, Shepherd registered 1.5 sacks, 17 QB pressures and 15 key stops over 416 snaps while Thomas had 0.5 sacks, 11 QB pressures and 12 key stops over 374 snaps.
The major difference between Ridgeway and the two impending free agents is consistency. The Niners DT doesn’t miss tackles as Cerny alluded, with zero last year and a career missed tackle rate of 5.5%. He’s also only been charged with six penalties his entire career (one lone flag in 2022).
We already noted Shepherd’s atrocious missed tackle rate above, but Thomas’ isn’t much better at 14.8% on his career. Both have also proven to be liabilities in terms of flags, as “Shep” has been flagged 12 times over his NFL tenure and Thomas has been flagged 20 times.
Let’s get into the brass tax. Shepherd only cost the Jets $1.085 million last year and he actually provided decent bang for your buck for Gang Green. Thomas was the bigger issue in this regard, earning $2.25 million for a pedestrian impact on the field.
Ridgeway was similarly priced, making $1.7 million with the 49ers in 2022 according to Over the Cap. He’s also right in between the two in age at 28 years old (Shepherd is 29, Thomas is 27).
In the end, this swap makes a lot of sense because of the Jets desperate need for a more consistent run defender on the interior. Williams, Rankins, Shepherd and Thomas are all pass rushers first, and run stoppers second.
Ridgeway provides a specialty that the others do not, and whether it’s Shepherd or Thomas that goes, one of these rotational pieces could easily be replaced by the Niners free agent this March.