With the regular season underway, we’re going to be looking at the players the Jets have added since cutdown day, continuing today with Jordan Willis.
The 24-year old edge defender is listed at 6’4” and 275 pounds and was a third round pick out of Kansas State in 2017. He spent his first two seasons with the Bengals, registering 33 tackles, two sacks and a pass defensed. He was waived after the first game this year and claimed by the Jets.
Willis played high school football in Missouri, where he racked up 22 sacks in his last two seasons to earn a scholarship at Kansas State.
In his first season with the Wildcats, Willis only had one tackle, but it was a sack and that led to his role and production increasing over the next three seasons as he was a full-time starter.
After recording 4.5 sacks as a sophomore, Willis broke out with 9.5 in his junior year and then won the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award in his senior year. He ended up with career highs of 52 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks and was also named as a second-team all-American.
He ended his career with 115 tackles, 26.5 sacks, seven passes defensed and six forced fumbles and then impressed scouts and coaches with a dominant performance at the senior bowl. He then had a good combine workout, solidifying his status as a day two pick.
The Bengals drafted him in the third round, with the expectation being that he’d take over from Michael Johnson. However, his impact was minimal and he only started two games over his first two seasons, recording one sack in each year.
He played in the first game of this season, but was then released and claimed by the Jets. He made his debut for the Jets in Sunday’s loss to the Eagles.
Now let’s take a look at what Willis brings to the table, divided into categories.
Willis had a terrific combine workout at 255 pounds, posting good numbers across the board with a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash, a 6.85 three-cone drill and a 39-inch vertical.
However, the Bengals decided to bulk him up and he’s now listed at 275. Many Bengals fans criticized this decision, stating that it robbed him of some of his quickness.
Willis has average length and his combine bench press (24 reps) was solid, but not as good as his speed, explosiveness and agility numbers.
In his last two years at KSU, Willis played almost exclusively as an edge defender on the left side. However, earlier on in his career he had a more versatile role, including some reps on the interior. With the Bengals, he mostly played defensive end as a rookie but they got him to stand up or play inside more often in his second season.
He’s mostly played with his hand in the dirt - in both three and four-point stances - but has also played as a stand-up linebacker at times.
Although he only started two games, Willis got a decent amount of playing time with the Bengals, playing over 500 snaps in 2018, including 66 in one game. He averaged 65 snaps per game in his senior year at KSU, so he’s used to a starter’s workload.
On the field, he works hard and shows physicality as well as pursuing to the whistle. On this play from Sunday’s game, he was initially blocked to the ground but scrambled to his feet to still get to the quarterback.
Willis has been a productive run defender who showed improvement over his time with the Wildcats and recorded 11.5 tackles for loss against the run over his last two seasons there.
In Cincinnati, he was primarily employed against the run in his rookie year and did a solid job, but they expanded his role to include more pass rushing in year two and his play against the run was less consistent. However, he stopped six runs behind the line of scrimmage over the two seasons.
Willis seems to do a good job of taking on blocks, moving laterally and coming downhill. He made this nice play in his Jets debut, aggressively extending his arms to get the separation to free up his outside arm to make the play.
He generally holds up well at the point of attack but can lose leverage battles from time to time. On this touchdown run, he initially penetrates, but then the offensive tackle regains control and seals him to the inside.
Willis entered the league as a highly regarded pass rusher with the potential to generate a lot of pressure. In 2016, he was tied for the third highest number of total pressures in the nation, just behind Derek Barnett and just ahead of his new Jets teammate Tarell Basham.
With the Bengals, he only has two sacks in regular season action and his pressure rate has been underwhelming. In addition, one of the sacks was a cheap one where he barely got his hand on the quarterback in clean-up.
However, he’s been really productive in preseason action with eight sacks in 12 games. That shows some potential to perhaps ramp up his regular season production if he gets a significant role with the Jets.
The first thing that stands out about Willis is his get-off. He’s explosive out of his stance and has a knack for timing up the snap count. He only has one offside penalty in two seasons but he plays it pretty close to the vest at times as you can see.
He doesn’t completely rely on his speed though, as he has an arsenal of pass rush moves that he likes to use. However, scouts have said that he will sometimes be deliberate and slow to come up with a counter if initially repelled. On this edge rush, he gets the tackle leaning inside with a jab step and head fake to the inside.
Willis has strong hands, but his placement and timing need work. However, he seems to have good balance which enables him to fight off blocks and make plays against the run.
His best pass rush move is the arm over move, which he employed to get a hit on Carson Wentz in Sunday’s game. Impressively this came after he burst out of his stance and drove pro bowl tackle Jason Peters back off his spot.
He’s also shown an ability to get low coming around the edge and is capable of spinning off a block with good balance to get to the quarterback.
Willis is sometimes employed on the interior and he had an impressive bull jerk move to lead to a sack for his teammate on this play. Here is a good example of his initial move being repelled but him transitioning to a secondary move, showing some growth and development in any area of weakness.
Willis is usually a good tackler, who wraps up and finishes well. He also shows his ability to break down in the open field and reach beyond his frame to make a tackle on this play.
Willis didn’t miss any tackles in his rookie year but missed six last year, including this one where he could have had another sack.
He’s shown a knack for forcing fumbles with six in his college career and another two in NFL preseason action.
Willis has hardly ever been required to drop into coverage, which he might need to do from time to time in Gregg Williams’ system. He has a knack for batting down passes at the line, though.
Willis seems to read the action well, taking on blocks with his head up and reacting to the action. He rarely seems to fall for misdirection and doesn’t get fooled on read-option type plays, as he shows here.
Willis didn’t play much on special teams in college, although he did block a field goal. His role has increased at the NFL level as he’s covered some kicks and blocked on the return units in addition to rushing kicks.
He had one special teams tackle on a kickoff in preseason action, but also had a missed tackle in regular season action.
Although he had one penalty for running into the kicker, his rookie season was highlighted by this punt block.
Willis is soft-spoken and not very demonstrative on the field, but he has a good work ethic and is regarded as mature. There are no off-field character concerns and he is said to train diligently.
Willis doesn’t seem to have had to deal with any major injury concerns in his career so far.
The Jets keep cycling in edge defenders with the hope that one might be able to produce as a situational pass rusher. However, Willis also has some ability against the run which, with the Jets depth chart looking the way it does, could mean he competes for a starting role by the end of the year.
The fact he added weight to fit in with the Bengals is notable and the Jets may opt to get him to slim back down to perhaps give them a more dynamic option on the edge.
Willis was impressive in his Jets debut last week, but that’s not the first time a recent Jets’ edge defender has impressed compared with what came before. Both Jeremiah Attaochu and Basham came out of the gates fast last season but ultimately didn’t make a major impact.
However, it was a performance that definitely warrants more opportunities for playing time. The unfortunate thing is that with Jordan Jenkins and Brandon Copeland both expected back this week, that might dramatically eat into the number of available reps.
Hopefully Willis does get more chances to shine because he’s clearly a player with more upside than most of the edge defenders the Jets have had on the roster over the past few years.