Tough decisions come in every NFL offseason and the New York Jets have plenty to make in 2022.
Certain positions will even pose a double-whammy for general manager Joe Douglas and defensive tackle is one that stands out this spring. This was an area that media and fans looked at as the Jets’ greatest strength heading into 2021 but nothing went as planned for this unit.
First, the season-ending losses of Carl Lawson and Vinny Curry shifted John Franklin-Myers to the outside exclusively. That forced Nathan Shepherd into a key rotational role behind Quinnen Williams, Foley Fatukasi and Sheldon Rankins.
You see, head coach Robert Saleh believes in a heavy snap share on the D-line and players like Rankins and ‘Shep’ were often gouged as a pairing on run defense. Williams and Fatukasi also had down-years in a new system. Now, Douglas must figure out how to fix this fallen asset — if it needs to be fixed at all.
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Intriguing Options at DT
I say if at all because one potential plan is to run it back. Who knows, this group could turn things around in year two of Saleh’s system. That would mean re-signing free agents, Fatukasi and Shepherd, and doing so without cutting anyone.
When your team allows the fourth most rush yards in football the year before, a proposal like this becomes unlikely.
The second is to allow Fatukasi or Shep — or both — to walk in free agency. Then, replace them with players that fit the scheme. The former was a Jets captain in 2021 but he’s built to be a 3-4 nose tackle.
Based on the assumption that Fatukasi will price his way off this roster, many figure him as the main piece that will leave in free agency this March. Of course, there’s always one final option.
John Butchko of Gang Green Nation suggested the alternative. While weighing the pros and cons of offseason cuts, the writer brought up Rankins as a possible one-and-done with the Jets.
He wrote: “This signing didn’t work out the way the Jets hoped. I think they envisioned Rankins returning to his 2018 form and joining Quinnen Williams as a dynamic duo at defensive tackle. Rankins had his moments, but his play was an issue on an underperforming defense.”
Butchko is right. Rankins was signed to bring about a winning culture in New York and while the former New Orleans Saints first-rounder had his moments as a pass-rusher, he was a total liability against the run.
Pro Football Focus credited Rankins with a 34.4 on run defense in 2021 with an astounding 20.6% missed tackle rate and a 29.6 grade as a tackler. His 24 quarterback pressures did finish third on the Jets roster but at what cost?
Shepherd finished fourth in pressures and he couldn’t stop the run either — not a tremendously intelligent pairing for one another.
Butchko continued: “I’m not sure we will ever see the guy who looked like a rising star all those years ago in New Orleans before he got hurt. I would be inclined to move on [from Rankins], especially if it cleared room to re-sign Foley Fatukasi. But I guess I could understand it if the Jets wanted [to] take one more shot on him refinding his game and channeling his ability.”
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Pros & Cons of Cutting Rankins
Although his play didn’t always set the standard, Rankins did appear to take on a leadership role in the locker room this season. That is a positive in keeping him around but eventually, you have to perform.
Money saved would be a pro in favor of releasing the veteran DT. Douglas signed the ex-Saint to a clever deal in 2021. It kept Rankins under contract two years but gave Gang Green an out after one. If cut, the Jets only forfeit $750,000, saving $5.441 million and change.
His pressure rate would be another tally on the “cons” side of the debate. One fan tweeted: “People really want to cut Sheldon Rankins when he’s getting double more than Q [Williams] and leading to more opportunities for Q to rush 1v1?” He included a graph from ESPN analytics expert, Seth Walder.
Rankins pressure rate on pass-rush snaps was 5.839% according to PFF. Franklin-Myers led the group at 12.3% while Williams followed at 9.41% and Fatukasi at 5.67%. So, while his pass-rushing was solid, it was not spectacular.
The run defense is an obvious negative but you have to wonder if Rankins might have had more luck with a better partner. Shepherd might as well have been a poor man’s clone and next to a run defender, the veteran may have even thrived.
All this sets up a major choice for Douglas and Saleh, who will be tasked with determining what’s best for the organization moving forward.