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Football Outsiders: Jets Defensive Lineman Leonard Williams Is on a Hall of Fame Trajectory

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NFL: New York Jets-Training Camp Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Each year Football Outsiders puts together a comprehensive preview of the NFL season with an in-depth look at each team.

Vincent Verhei wrote the chapter on the Jets. Vincent is a friend of GGN. You might have heard him as a guest on our podcast last week to talk about 2017 for the Jets. Vincent is back to answer five more questions.

To what extent are there reasons to feel optimistic about Christian Hackenberg’s potential? Are there any examples of quarterbacks who had such a rough college career improving into quality NFL starters?

Hackenberg was never especially good at Penn State, and it's concerning that his numbers got worse after his freshman year. He completed 53.5 percent of his passes in 2015, which made him one of the worst quarterbacks in the Big Ten. (https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/conferences/big-ten/2015-leaders.html). Hackenberg is one of six quarterbacks from 1996 to 2016 to go off the boards in the top 100 picks of the NFL draft despite competing less than 55 percent of his passes in his last college season. The other five: Brock Huard, Dave Ragone, Kyle Boller, Marques Tuiasosopo, and Quincy Carter. That quintet totaled 86 touchdown passes and 101 interceptions (48 and 54 by Boller) in the NFL. So yes, success for Hackenberg would be pretty much unprecedented. The only reason for hope might be that Hackenberg is so young (still just 22) that there’s a lot of room for development. It just seems like the end point of that development is still going to be awful.

What do you think is Leonard Williams’ ceiling?

We have a stat for defenders we call defeats, which tallies any play that results in a loss of yardage, a turnover, or a third- or fourth-down stop. Among interior linemen (3-4 linemen and 4-3 defensive tackles), Williams ranked 13th in defeats as a rookie. Last year, he was third, finishing with one fewer defeat than either Ndamukong Suh or Aaron Donald. This on two defenses that both rank in the top ten against the run in our database, which goes back to 1989. So Williams' floor is "one of the best interior linemen in the NFL," and he's already there. His ceiling? It depends on how long he can go and how consistently he can maintain that production, but careers that start like Williams' have a tendency to end in Canton.

Understanding that his injury history is a concern either way, how much should fans buy into Morris Claiborne’s strong play when he was on the field in 2016 relative to the struggles for the rest of his career?

We use two stats to evaluate corners in pass coverage, and they're both pretty simple. The first is success rate, which is how often a corner forces an incomplete pass or a short reception. The other is yards allowed per target, which is the average yards an offense gains when throwing at this defensive back, including pass interference penalties. Both are adjusted for the quality of receiver a corner was covering. In 2016, Claiborne had a 62 percent success rate and allowed 4.4 yards per target. Because he only played seven games, he didn't qualify for our cornerback leaderboards; if he had, he would have ranked fourth in success rate and first in yards per target. However, these numbers are way out of whack with the rest of his career. In his first four years, he never ranked in the top 30 in either category, and usually much worse. We have found these numbers can vary widely from one season to the next, depending on pass rush, safety help, and many other factors. But for the bulk of his career, Claiborne hasn't been much better than what Darrelle Revis was last year.

I think everybody agrees the days of Matt Forte being a full-time back are over, but the almanac notes he still does some things well. What is the best way to use him?

First of all, screen passes. The Jets were the NFL's best team at running back screens last year (yes, the Jets offense actually led the NFL in something positive), averaging 7.0 yards per play. Forte was among the top ten players in total value on running back screens. Forte was also excellent in short yardage, picking up a first down on 77 percent of his carries with 1 or 2 yards to go (NFL average: 68 percent). In short-yardage, Forte was one of the NFL's ten most valuable runners last year. In all other carries, he was among the bottom ten.

You noted that the 2016 Jets run defense was one of the best in recent memory. Is there any reason to think they will not remain near the top of the league?

Not really. Run defense is usually more consistent from one year to the other than pass defense, and the Jets still have three of the NFL's best run-stuffers in Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Sheldon Richardson. That's a half-ton of trench-busting fury right there. Losing David Harris won't help, but he was getting up there in years, and you could do a lot worse than Darron Lee and Demario Davis to replace him.