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Don’t Forget About Defensive Tackle

NFL: New York Jets at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

During Joe Douglas’s end of season press-conference, we heard the phrase that has become a little bit of an annual tradition, and it revolves around the trenches.

There is a firm understanding at One Jets Drive that the philosophy from the top is that you build sustained success inside out, meaning it all starts with the offensive and defensive lines.

We’ve heard a lot about the offensive line. Should the Jets draft Evan Neal from Alabama? Ekonwu from North Carolina? Cross from Mississippi State or Tyler Linderbaum from Iowa?

Should the Jets make a run at Connor Williams in free agency? How about Brandon Scherff or Andrew Norwell? The Jets can go in a number of directions with the offensive line, but what about the defensive line?

The Jets had the 29th ranked run defense in the league in 2021, which was a huge drop after being ranked as the 12th best run defense unit in 2020.

The Jets on average gave up 7.6 rushing first downs a game, good for 26th in the league. 4.5 yards a carry (24th), 1.6 rushing touchdowns per game (32nd) in short, it wasn’t very good.

Now let me preface this by saying it doesn’t all rest on the shoulders of the big men upfront. Outside of CJ Mosley the linebackers didn’t do enough and the safeties were below average, often taking a detour to the ball carrier and running themselves out of plays (looking at you Ashtyn Davis).

But, saying that, the defensive line, especially up the middle were vulnerable. I know people tend to disagree with PFF grades but Quinnen Williams (59.0) and Foley Fatukasi (57.3) were below average and Nathan Shephard (46.8) and Jonathan Marshall (38.3) were even worse.

It was quite the fall for Foley Fatukasi who’s been widely regarded as one of the better defensive tackles in football at defending the run, and while I sometimes feel that PFF overrate failures, the eye test hasn’t been pretty for Foley this season.

The Jets have a big decision in relation to Foley who’s set to become a free agent this off-season. Usually, you’ll find pending free agents magically put together a career year when the big-money free-agent contracts are on the horizon, but for Foley it’s gone the other way.

We know Fatukasi wants to test free agency and I fully expect the Jets to hold firm while his agent works through his market. This means we have one huge gaping hole in the middle of that defense and knowing how Joe Douglas prioritizes the trenches, you have to imagine that will be a priority.

Some have indicated that drafting an edge would allow the Jets to kick John Franklin-Myers inside to play next to Quinnen Williams, and in terms of run defense, JFM is the highest-rated lineman on the Jets (75.5). So that’s absolutely something to consider going forward.

As we talk about all these prospects in the first round, I can’t help but think about the talent inside at defensive tackle. I don’t think Jets fans will be happy with a defensive lineman in the first round and I’m not saying this is the direction I’d go, but could I see Joe Douglas doing it? Absolutely.

Whether that’s 6’6 340lb Jordan Davis from Georgia or his running mate Devonte Wyatt (More a day 2 pick). Maybe Texas A&M’s DeMarvin Leal would be attractive to Joe considering his dominant form in the run game.

Personally, I think you can get value at that defensive tackle position further down the draft. I’m thinking guys like Buffalo’s Harrison Phillips who was taken in the 3rd, Seattle’s Al Woods who was taken in the 4th or even the Bengals D.J Reader who went in the 6th, so I wouldn’t be on board taking Leal or Davis in the first round, but would I be shocked if Joe Douglas took Ekonwu on the offensive line and Davis on the defensive line? No.

Prospect to watch: Otito Ogbonnia - UCLA

I did want to put Keeanu Benton in here, a hulking 6’3 315lb defensive tackle who plays with the anchor and power to clog that middle and shut down the run...but he declared he was returning to Wisconsin for his senior season in 2022 last night (keep an eye on him for next year).

Instead, I’ve gone for Otito Ogbonnia out on the west coast, a guy who’s likely to hear his name around the 5th round of the 2022 draft, and he has already declared. He’s a big man at 6’4 and 320lbs, but he also plays with good leverage, solid anchor and enough power in his hands to rock a lineman or two.

He had a production 2021 campaign for the Bruins with 27 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks and one forced fumble. He also led the Buins with 13 defensive stops.