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Jets Film Mashup: The Unheralded Behemoths Up Front

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NFL: New York Jets at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After cutting Muhammad Wilkerson, the Jets have been quiet along the defensive front, with their “biggest” moves being the re-signings of nose tackle Mike Pennel and defensive end Xavier Cooper.

It seems the Jets are comfortable with staying cheap and continuous along the defensive line, and I think that’s fine. While they lack a true game-breaker outside of Leonard Williams, like they once had when all of he, motivated Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson were in green at same, the Jets do have a group of solid players along their defensive front. Let’s take a look back at some plays from the D-Line in 2017 that give us promise they can be a strong unit in 2018.

Over the final two games of the season, the Jets shifted to a defensive front featuring Mike Pennel at the nose with Leonard Williams and Steve McLendon outside. McLendon has spent most of his career primarily playing the nose, but actually continued to play pretty well when the Jets shifted him outside, getting snaps in both 3-technique and 5-technique type roles. Considering the Jets did not take the $3M+ in savings that would come from cutting the 32-year old McLendon, and also the contract they gave Mike Pennel that makes him one of the highest paid nose tackles in the league, it seems this trio up front could be the plan going into next season.

Here’s a look at the front used by the Jets commonly over the final two games with Mo Wilkerson on the bench. Mike Pennel is at the nose with Williams and McLendon to his sides.

McLendon is a very underrated player. He’s a 32-year old, 310 pound nose tackle by trade who will never come close to leading the league in sacks, but has extremely surprising quickness for his size (and age). He posted some really promising reps playing outside.

Here’s an impressive inside move, one he is surprisingly adept with.

It looks like McLendon lines up as a 3 technique here, a spot where he got a lot of time over the last couple weeks. He penetrates the double team well enough to force this run outside and then somehow still makes the tackle.

Good work staying with the play while moving laterally, anticipating this outside run falling into his lap, and peeling off the block to make the play. Tackling is not an issue at all with McLendon. He’s an excellent finisher.

Let’s move on to Mike Pennel. Still only 26 (soon to be 27) with not much mileage on his tires, there could be some untapped potential left in him. The penalties (4 in 2017) need to drop, but he looks to be a strong nose tackle who will make a respectable rate of stuffs while taking up space in the middle. A middle-class Damon Harrison (a godlike run stopper), if you will. Here’s a stat I dug up on Pennel; not scientific, but I feel representative of his performance in 2017.

Let’s take a look at Pennel at his best. The 332-pounder (93rd percentile for defensive tackles) is capable of relocating bodies up front to clear a path to the football behind the line.

Don’t get me wrong, he is no super-athlete. You’ll rarely see him getting to the quarterback or making too many plays laterally. But, you’ll also rarely see him taken out of the play. He’ll eat up one or two things: space or one of your interior offensive linemen.

Pennel showcases great hands and strength off the snap, tossing Eric Wood cleanly out of the way to clear the path for a stuff.

Xavier Cooper is a solid depth re-signing for the Jets. He showed up with a few promising plays in his 8 games as a Jet in 2017. At 26 with only three seasons under his belt, there’s a non-zero chance his best is yet to come.

From watching Cooper closer, I thought his quickness was the positive trait that showed up the most. Now looking at his measurables, that shouldn’t be a surprise at all.

A 4.86 40 time at over 290 pounds is electric. His cone and shuttle times stand out as well. Below, you can see that all come together. Brees holds this ball a long time, but great motor by Cooper as well to get there and contribute to this interception.

On this pressure of Philip Rivers, you can again see some quick change of direction from Cooper, and the ability to slip between tight windows in the trenches.

I wonder how effective McLendon will be if the Jets both increase his workload and move him outside, especially at his age, but his performance inspires confidence he can stay productive. Pennel is a solid nose tackle. Cooper has pass rushing upside worth keeping on the roster.

I’m OK with how the Jets are handling the defensive line. If you aren’t going to invest big in a game changer up front (and they do have one in Leonard Williams), it’s a good idea to stay cheap and safe with strong and relatively reliable role players.

The Jets are absolutely not going to get bundles of sacks out of this group, but that’s not what they are there to do. They are there to create havoc, stop the run, and open things up for the edge rushers; the defensive position where the Jets are truly weakest. If you want to complain about the lack of a pass rush, the edge is where you should point your fingers. This group isn’t going to wow you or catch the eye of some Buccaneers or Titans fan looking at numbers on a Pro Bowl ballot, but I’m confident they’re going to do their jobs pretty darn well.

Poll

Are you confident in a McLendon-Pennel-Williams trio up front?

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    Extremely
    (113 votes)
  • 55%
    I guess so
    (290 votes)
  • 15%
    Meh
    (79 votes)
  • 6%
    Not really
    (32 votes)
  • 2%
    Get that fixed immediately, Maccagnan
    (11 votes)
525 votes total Vote Now