The New York Jets have been in search of quality players at the defensive edge for what seems an eternity. The last top edge rusher the Jets had at the position was John Abraham. Abraham last played for the Jets in 2005. Since then the team has been wandering in the wilderness when it comes to edge rushers.
When Rex Ryan took over the team in 2009 the team improved the pass rush, but it was mostly based on scheme and Rex’s aggressive and creative blitz packages. The Jets, to the puzzlement of many fans, largely ignored the edge position in the draft and in free agency. They tried to make something out of a holdover from the prior regime, former first round pick Vernon Gholston. Unfortunately Gholston wasn’t very good at the game of football. The Jets chose Quinton Coples, a player too big and not explosive enough for the edge, in the first round of the 2012 draft, and they tried to turn Coples into an outside linebacker. That did not go well. In the end the Rex regime’s best edge rushers were guys like Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas. These were solid NFL players, good at setting the edge and stopping the run, but they were not well suited to bring maximum pressure on the quarterback.
When the Rex regime finally was ushered out of New York and a new general manager and head coach in Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles were welcomed in, there was hope that the Jets might finally manage to find a top pass rusher on the edge. Alas, it was not to be. The new regime has been much like the old regime when it comes to edge rushers, patching together the edge with mid round draft picks and discards from other teams, hoping to find some diamonds in the rough. It has not worked. It has not worked, that is, until 2018.
Yes, I can hear the derisive laughter in the room. I can feel the waves of utter disdain. Coming into the 2018 season I thought, as many of you may have, that this might well be the worst group of edge rushers in the NFL. On one side the Jets had Jordan Jenkins, a third round selection from the 2016 NFL draft and a solid player against the run, but a guy who did not represent much of a threat to opposing quarterbacks. Jenkins is something of a poor man’s Calvin Pace. On the other side, well, who knew? It was going to be whomever emerged from the usual Jets odd assortment of flotsam, washouts from other organizations, failed prospects, has beens and never weres. It was not, in short, an inspiring group from which to find somebody to instill fear in opposing quarterbacks. If the Jets strategy was to find the proverbial diamond in the rough, well, it didn’t get much rougher than the 2018 options to man the Jets edge position opposite Jenkins.
There was Brandon Copeland, a washout from the Detroit Lions organization and a player who in two prior NFL seasons had pieced together a grand total of two quarterback hits and half a sack. There was Jeremiah Attaochu, a former second round pick of the Los Angeles Chargers who in four prior NFL seasons had managed more than two sacks and more than four quarterback hits exactly once. There was Frankie Luvu, an undrafted free agent rookie who failed to make the team in September and started out on the practice squad. And there was Tarell Basham, a former 2017 third round pick of the Indianapolis Colts whom the Colts gave up on after just one season in the NFL. This was the unlikely group of misfits from whom the 2018 Jets sought to produce an edge rush.
Somehow, out of this group of nobodies, a decent edge rush has emerged. I know, you don’t believe it. So how about if I lay a few numbers on you and see if maybe you change your mind, if only just a little? That sound good?
Lets start with this. In nine games in 2018 that group of edge rushers has quietly put together 10.5 sacks, 29 quarterback hits and 13 tackles for loss. That means these guys as a group have hit the opposing quarterback about 3.2 times per game. That’s about once every eleven times the opposing quarterback drops back to pass. Does that sound a bit better than you expected coming into the year?
Let’s take a look at how this group of edge rushers holds up to previous groups over the last dozen or so years. I know, I know, that’s a bit like looking for the fastest snail, but hey, you gotta start somewhere to put these numbers into context. Would you be surprised if I told you the 10.5 sacks the 2018 group has posted in nine games is more than the 2017 group put together the entire year? How about if I told you the 2018 group has already surpassed the full season totals for the 2016 and 2015 teams as well? OK, the competition isn’t great, but at least it represents progress, right?
Now let’s get to some really juicy stats. The 2018 group has 29 quarterback hits in the first nine games of the season. That is more than the 2017 group had for the entire season. And the 2016 group. And the 2015 group. And it gets better. The 2018 group prorates to 19 sacks and 52 quarterback hits over a 16 game season if they keep up the same pace. Both the 19 sacks and the 52 quarterback hits would be the most any Jets group has achieved in the last dozen years. In fact, the 52 quarterback hits would annihilate every other group fielded by the Jets since John Abraham left. The most quarterback hits any Jets group of edge rushers has achieved since the departure of Abraham was 38, by the last Jets team Rex Ryan ever coached in 2014. That group was Calvin Pace, Quinton Coples, Jason Babin and Antwan Barnes.
OK, so maybe I’ve convinced you this group is the fastest snail, so to speak. But compared to other NFL teams they still kinda stink, right? Well, maybe not so much.
According to Pro Football Focus, Brandon Copeland and Jordan Jenkins rank 31st and 33rd, respectively, among the 65 NFL edge rushers with the most pass rushing snaps this season in Pass Rush Productivity (PRP), a metric that combines sacks, quarterback hits and quarterback pressures (as judged by PFF personnel), weights sacks more heavily than hits or pressures, then produces a per pass rush number that purports to measure how productive each player is on a per pass rush basis. 31st and 33rd certainly doesn’t sound dominant, but it also doesn’t sound like the dregs of the league. Basically the Jets, as evaluated by Pro Football Focus, have two NFL average starting edge rushers. The Jets are one of only nine teams to have two edge rushers in the top 33 in PRP among the 65 edge rushers with the most pass rush snaps this season. That sounds, well, not bad at all, right? And even better, both Frankie Luvu and Jeremiah Attaochu, two rotational players who don’t play enough snaps to rate among the top 65 edge rushers in terms of pass rush snaps, in limited action have PRP numbers better than either Copeland or Jenkins.
Now, none of this shows the 2018 Jets group of edge rushers is anywhere near elite. No offensive coordinators are kept up late at night sweating out how in the world they can manage to stop the Jets juggernaut of sheer pass rushing terror. The Jets shouldn’t give up their search for a really great edge rusher because they already have what they need in house. No, this group isn’t great. But it isn’t bad, and its production, given preseason expectations, has been surprising, in a good sort of way. And in a season where not a lot has gone the Jets way, this pleasant surprise built out of the wretched refuse of the NFL’s teeming shores is a little something to enjoy for Jets fans understandably upset by much of what they see. It seems the Jets have found an edge, and in the most unlikely of places.