Offseason Outlook: Interior Defensive Line

Hello, there. I'm back, coming right at you with the next entry in my offseason outlook series. After concluding my outlook at the offensive side of the ball last time around, I'm switching it up and now starting my look at the defensive side of the ball. I'm going to begin with an analysis at the defensive line's interior, because that's always where the most excitement is on the defensive side of the ball.

The DL entered the 2021 season with a lot of hype around it. Even after the season-ending Achilles tear that stole Carl Lawson away, there was still hope that the interior could hold its own even if the edge presence was lacking. Unfortunately, that did not happen; the Jets defense was the worst in the NFL in large part because the much-hyped interior was unable to meet expectations, but then again, it probably never could have made up for all the deficiencies behind it. John Franklin-Myers does not count on the list (he is regarded as an edge rusher because that is where he played 94% of his defensive snaps), so the Jets only had one defensive tackle rank in the top 50 by PFF's overall grading (minimum 300 snaps), and it was Quinnen Williams ranked as the 38th-best DT (Foley Fatukasi was ranked 53rd). Moving Franklin-Myers both inside and outside in 2022 will hopefully help the line reach its potential, but there's still some work that needs to be done.

In this post, I'll be analyzing what the Jets have at the position now and what their options are at the position. I'm going to do my analysis of external options a little differently in this piece, as I personally have some concerns to how they may approach the offseason with this position. First, though, I'll focus on who we have now.

Feel free to leave your feedback or suggestions below this post.

Not including players on future contracts, the Jets have four players that play or will likely play defensive tackle in 2022. Next season, the Jets are set to spend over $30 million in cap on their top four interior DLM; for context if you include Franklin-Myers as an interior man (which I do). Per Spotrac (which isn't perfect, since it counts Quinnen as an edge rusher), that is fifth in the NFL. That's a lot of cap to spend to run it back with guys who underwhelmed in 2021, but again, Franklin-Myers was playing on the edge far more often than he should have been, so hopefully giving him a more even split between reps on the interior and exterior can go a way toward fixing the DL.

Of those four DTs, I will analyze them in order of 2022 cap hits from highest to lowest.

John Franklin-Myers, Age 25, 4 Years of Experience

Franklin-Myers strip-sacked Tom Brady in Super Bowl 53 in 2019 and was rewarded for it by being waived by the Rams on cutdown day. The Jets claimed him off waivers, but he ended up not playing that season due to an injury (that they mishandled, go figure). He made his return in 2020 as a somewhat underutilized player; he only played 500 defensive snaps, probably serving as a designated pass-rusher that season while playing both inside and outside (mostly outside). In 2021, however, he was thrust into a full-time starting role, and he certainly made the most of his opportunity, earning a midseason extension for four years after playing in 4 games.

In 2021, he was the Jets' highest-graded player (regardless of position, not including special teams) by PFF with a score of 80.3. He played in 16 games (missing one due to COVID-19) and tallied 35 tackles (17 solo), 6.0 sacks, 6 TFL, 1 FF, 1 PD and 1 INT. He's credited with 9 QB hits by PFF (14 by PFR, strangely enough) on 53 pressures. A lot of Jets fans found buyer's remorse pretty quickly after he was extended as his sack numbers (3 in the first 4 games of the season) declined, but he was still an effective player. It is true that he did put together two bad games coming out of the bye week against the Patriots and Bengals, he re-discovered his balance and only had one game the rest of the season without appearing on the stat sheet (the game in Miami). Outside of a truly horrible penalty against the Dolphins at home that arguably cost the Jets the game, he was good if not great for the rest of the season.

He's going to be on this team next year; Joe Douglas extended him for a reason. I will confess that I was a little irked by the length of the extension when it was announced; I definitely wanted the Jets to extend him, but I was thinking for two years, not four. Still, for a player of his age coming off the best four-game stretch of his career where he was forced to almost exclusively play at the edge, I can't fault Douglas for wanting to lock him up for the long term. The Jets use far too much rotation along that DL for my liking, but for Franklin-Myers (who played 64% of the defensive snaps of the games he was in), rotating him into both the interior and exterior is probably what will get the best out of him, even better than this season.

Quinnen Williams, Age 24, 3 Years of Experience

Williams was the Jets' 3rd overall pick in 2019, and there's a strong chance that he will be the only Maccagnan pick left on the team next year (Edoga, Wesco and Cashman are all under contract for next season but are strong cut candidates this offseason). While I think we can agree that Williams is one of the Jets' best players on defense, I also think it is fair to say that he has not lived up to expectations since being drafted. He has never played more than the 613 defensive snaps he got in 2021, which was only 51.6% of the Jets defensive snaps. He's hardly been the game-changing talent that you'd expect to get from a pick so high (playing in 41 of a possible 49 games, he's only ever been graded above 75.0 overall by PFF in 8 games).

In 2021, he played in 15 games (14 with significant snaps) and tallied 53 tackles (36 solo), 6.0 sacks, 7 TFL, 0 FF, 3 PD and 0 INT. PFF gave him an overall grade of 64.4, down from the 81.4 grade he received in 2020. He was above average as a pass-rusher (34 pressures in 15 games), but below average as a run-stopper (career-low 59.0 grade). He also missed 4 tackles (tying his 2020 total) for a tackling grade of 57.1. That's really not good enough, and you can only blame battling a shoulder injury and COVID-19 in the final five weeks of the season for so much. He needs to be better than this in 2022 to justify his place on the starting unit, even if he's only getting 59% of defensive snaps in the games he plays.

I fully expect Williams to be on this team next year at his $10.55 million cap hit. You can't cut him (only save $200 thousand), but I would still take trade offers for him. I doubt I'd be able to get a 1st round pick for him, which is my asking price, and even then, I'd need to have a plan in place to have someone immediately take his place (no, Franklin-Myers alone doesn't work; the Jets need two starting DTs in their 4-3 offense), which likely would require the use of a draft pick within the first two rounds. I don't want to trade Williams, but that's a steep cap hit for someone who has not earned his cap allocation in two of his first three years.

The real question with Williams is whether or not the Jets should exercise his fifth-year option. OTC currently projects his option to be worth $10.3 million (which would be a lesser cap hit than 2022), though the Jets could fight to lower it down to somewhere around $8.8 million (per OTC) if they contest what position he plays. Contesting that probably isn't a good idea; it's not a lot of savings to get in return for pissing off a player you may or may not want to extend. Right now, I expect the Jets to exercise the option even if it fully guarantees his 2023 salary, but there are no guarantees he would be on the roster in that season if he doesn't recapture his 2020 form next season.

Sheldon Rankins, Age 28, 6 Years of Experience

The former first round pick left the Saints to sign a two-year contract with the Jets last offseason to help be a pass-rushing specialist up the middle. Unfortunately, that was about the extent of his contributions; he was arguably the worst run-stopper on the team in addition to being the worst tackler on the team by a fairly wide margin. Seriously; he had 7 missed tackles compared to 15 solo tackles, which means he nearly had a missed tackle for every 2 solo tackles made. Among all NFL defenders with at least 300 snaps played, Rankins tied for the 24th-worst tackling grade from PFF with a lowly 29.6 score.

He finished the season playing in 16 games (missed the Eagles game with a knee injury) and recording 32 total tackles, 3.0 sacks, 5 TFL, 0 FF, 0 PD and 0 INT. Even just isolating his pass-rushing performances, PFF only credits him with 24 pressures on 411 pass-rushing snaps (barely 5.8% pressure rate) and gave him a season-grade of 60.0 in that regard. He only had 2 games with more than 2 pressures, which were the Titans game (where the entire DL went stir crazy with pressures and he played the most snaps in a game) and the road Dolphins game (and he's still graded only 56.3 as a pass rusher for that game).

He was one of only three multi-year contracts the Jets handed out in free agency last year (along with Carl Lawson and Corey Davis), though unlike those guys, Rankins has a feasible out after one year. His charge is just under $6.2 million for 2022, but the Jets can cut him for only $750 thousand. Personally, I think this is an easy cut; I don't think he even has that much value as a backup now that he's had two consecutive seasons of poor tackling (32.7 grade in 2020 from PFF) and he's only average on special teams (career-low 59.0 grade on special teams with a career-high 94 snaps after his previous high was 14 from his rookie season). Still, Joe Douglas did not exercise the outs on the contracts of Alex Lewis and Greg Van Roten ahead of the 2021 season, so he might want to try giving Rankins another chance. If he does, though, I hope he's willing to accept a pay cut of more than half his 2022 salary to get him down to $3 million at a maximum.

Jonathan Marshall, Age 24, 1 Year of Experience

Marshall did not see much playing time in his rookie season, battling injuries and COVID-19 from behind four guys on the depth chart. He only got on the field for 76 defensive snaps (1 special teams snap) across four games, usually being held out as a healthy inactive so that he was only a deep reserve. It's very difficult to judge what he was off his limited playing time, but then again, he was a 6th round rookie that was likely not expected to be a contributor in his rookie season anyway.

He recorded 2 tackles (1 solo), none for a loss or for a sack. The only other time his name appeared on the play-by-play was an illegal use of hands penalty against the Eagles. PFF gave him an overall grade of 37.7, the worst among interior defenders on the team (Freedom Akinmoladum in his one game played had a slightly higher grade of 45.2). You'd hope that increased playing time would help his overall grade rise (decent pass rushing grade of 61.2 with a poor run-stopping grade of 38.3), but the Jets limited his snaps for a reason. I don't fully understand why they only gave him a single special teams snap in Miami for the whole season (which is the game he recorded both of his tackles and his lone QB hit), but he should have more time to develop over the course of the 2022 offseason.

He's entering the second year of his rookie contract and will count for just over $867 thousand. I think his roster status is fairly safe, though a release at the end of the preseason would cost little more than $42 thousand for the season. At the same time, though, I don't think the Jets should enter the offseason thinking he can be a first backup or specialist. He was on the depth chart behind Nathan Shepherd and Foley Fatukasi for a reason, making him DT5 in his rookie year. I think him rising from DT5 to DT4 in his second season is about a reasonable goal. If Rankins is not here, they need to bring in another frontline tackle to slide in front of him on the depth chart.

So, with only four guys set to be on the roster next season (and one of them I'd strongly like to move off the roster in the offseason), the Jets will need to add to this room in some manner. I'm going to do something different for my three favorite options and I'm not going to separate them into tiers (only separated by pre-draft and draft options). I'm just going to list my three favorite options from those conditions.

With that in mind, let me list my three favorite options that can be acquired before the 2022 draft.

Folorunso Fatukasi, Age 27, 4 Years of Experience

I'll start with the obvious choice in Fatukasi, who has been on this team through three head coaches (four defensive coordinators) and is set to hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in a few weeks. Like Marshall, Fatukasi was a 6th round pick who barely played as a rookie, but his role increased over the course of his career to the point where he carved out a nice role as a rotational player on the Jets DL.

In 15 games in 2021 (missing 2 due to COVID-19), Fatukasi accumulated 46 tackles (25 solo), 5 TFL, 0 sacks and 0 PD. He's not a particularly effective pass-rusher, tallying 16 pressures on the season and 5 QB hits on his 282 pass-rushing snaps (5.7% pressure rate). He did have 7 missed tackles on the season and had a season grade of 57.3 as a run-stopper, but his two previous seasons saw him graded above 86 as a run-stopper; I think his low grade can be blamed a lot on the fact that the rest of the line and the linebackers also had pretty poor run-defense.

Fatukasi is going to enter free agency and is probably looking for a long term deal that pays him the money he did not make on a 6th round contract. If you're a fan of his and want him to be given that contract, I'm afraid that I can't agree with you. I think he's a better run-blocker than his 2021 grade indicates, but at the same time, he's only ever been a role-player at a non-premium position. He's never played more than 50% of his team's defensive snaps in a season (and I think he'd also want to leave for playing time in addition to money) and isn't effective enough as a pass rusher to be an every-down DT. Even in a Saleh defense that loves to rotate guys in and out along the line, the Jets already have Quinnen Williams and John Franklin-Myers to take the bulk of the snaps. It's my hope that Fatukasi would be willing to take a hometown discount (as a New York native) to remain with the only professional team he's been a part of for one more season.

If Fatukasi were to sign with the Jets, I project it would be on a one-year, $5 million contract, the same contract the Jets gave Jordan Jenkins in the 2020 offseason (to poor results, but shush now). I think he's definitely going to get better offers, but he might be willing to bet on himself playing even better in a hopefully-improved defense in 2022 to try getting a bigger contract the following offseason. If he does, great; I'd love to keep him in the locker room. If he leaves for the more money and increased playing time elsewhere, though, then I'd wish him the best and hope that I can get a replacement elsewhere.

Sheldon Richardson, Age 31, 9 Years of Experience

Welcome back to Jets circles, Sheldon. The former Jets first round pick was cut by his fourth team in the Browns in the 2021 offseason as a cap casualty. He rejoined the Vikings for the season and played to about an average level, serving as a backup for the first half of the season before moving into a starting role at the edge. He was pretty versatile for the Vikings, splitting time serving as an interior rusher, defensive end and even a standup rush backer. At his age, he's probably not getting too many more opportunities to start, but he still looked like a serviceable starter. Hopefully, the Jets could get something out of him if he were to return.

In 2021, he played in all 17 games and recorded 39 tackles (24 solo), 2.5 sacks, 6 TFL, 1 FF, 4 PD and 0 INT. PFF credits him with 37 pressures on 468 pass-rushing snaps (7.9% pressure rate) for 11 hits and a 60.9 pass-rushing grade. Though that is his lowest grade since converting to DT, he was playing on a team that ranked second in the league with 51 sacks, even after losing star pass rusher Danielle Hunter after 7 games. He was still contributing by at least drawing attention in his appearances. His run-stopping was also at its worst grade since leaving the Jets, though it was still fairly average with a 61.0 PFF grade (same as his tackling grade).

If Richardson were to sign with the Jets, I project it would be on a one-year, $2.5 million contract fully guaranteed. He made $3.5 million from the Vikings and had a down season, possibly showing signs of his age, but he can still play. I'd be interested in seeing how he could do as a DT in the Jets' system after he only played as an edge when he was last here, and I think he would make a fine DT3 like he did with the Vikings this season. I don't know if there are contending teams that would offer him a chance to join them, but I think that this offer is reasonable given his age and expected role. Still, he could decide to go elsewhere for his own reasons, prompting the Jets to look elsewhere.

David Onyemata, Age 29, 6 Years of Experience

Well, the last guy they brought in from the Saints might not have performed up to expectations, but Onyemata has always been the better interior defender of the two and I'd like to give him a try if he's available. The two of them are both better at pass-rushing than run-stopping, but Onyemata is not nearly as deficient as a run defender, with only two of his six seasons grading below 75.0 in that category and no lower than an average 55.5 grade from his rookie season. If the Jets move on from Rankins, I think replacing him with his former teammate would be something to consider.

In 2021, Onyemata only played in 11 games after serving a 6-game suspension to start the season due to a PED flag. Once he returned, he started every game and recorded 34 tackles (12 solo), 2.0 sacks, 2 TFL, 0 FF and 0 INT. I know that these numbers don't pop (and his tackling has always been somewhat suspect with a below average 43.5 PFF grade in that category), but he had a very good 2020 season where he had 44 tackles (20 solo), 6.5 sacks, 10 TFL, 0 FF, 2 PD and 1 INT. He did a lot of work getting others on his team sacks, racking up 32 pressures in his 11 games (nearly 3 per game) and 7 QB hits.

Onyemata is currently under contract for the 2022 season, but I think he is a cut candidate to help alleviate the Saints' awful cap situation. The Jets, however, could look to acquire him via trade. If they do, they would have to be using assets from their 2023 draft since the only way the Saints could save enough money to justify moving him would be to use a post-6/1 transaction. If a team were to trade for him, they would be acquiring a one-year, $8.5 million contract (could be $7.5 million; it's unclear which team would be responsible for paying his roster bonus). That's a lot to pay for a backup, but it is possible that the Jets could work out an extension or pay reduction for a reduced role, or they could even use him as a starter if they decide to use a lot of formations with John Franklin-Myers on the outside.

If the Jets were to trade for him, I think it would take a 2023 6th round pick. The Saints' primary motivation for moving him is creating cap room, and this move would create at least $7.5 million for 2022. If there's a bidding war in a trade, I'm not sure I'd be willing to offer more than that (maybe I'd make it a conditional pick that could get higher based on playing time), but the Saints would be wise to take what they can get for him unless they really want him on the team for the long haul. I think he would be a good pass-rushing piece in rotation with Quinnen Williams and John Franklin-Myers up the middle that could be the guy the Jets hoped Rankins would be.

Honorable mention: Harrison Philips, Age 26, 4 Years of Experience

Phillips was a good rotational piece for the Bills each of the past four years after they drafted him in the 3rd round, his workload in 2021 increasing and giving him the starting role at times. He's likely looking for a long term deal as he hits free agency at the age of 26, though he might be willing to remain in place in Buffalo at a low price for one more season should he feel that he can continue his increased playing time on a contending team that he's been a part of his whole professional career.

In 2021, he played in 14 games (serving as a healthy scratch in the other 3) and recorded 51 tackles (28 solo), 1.0 sacks, 4 TFL, 0 FF, 1 PD and 0 INT. He started 8 games (the most of his career) and played 44% of his team's defensive snaps. Though he's not one to be the primary pass-rushing option up the middle, he still recorded 21 pressures on 243 pass-rushing snaps for an 8.6% pressure rate and an average 60.3 grade in that category. His primary appeal is as a run-stopper, and he graded 79.8 as a run-stopper from PFF in 2021 on the most snaps of his career.

If Phillips were to sign with the Jets, I project it would be on a three-year, $15 million contract with $7 million guaranteed. He might look to stay with the Bills at a reduced price- or chase playing time at a comparable contract elsewhere- but I think that this is a reasonable contract. He'd be changing defensive systems and working in a rotational unit that would hopefully get the best out of him as a run-stopper while limiting his pass-rushing snaps (not that he's bad on them). Still, he might choose to go elsewhere, leaving the Jets in need of looking somewhere else for a DT.

Draft Options

Unless the Jets were to trade Quinnen Williams in the offseason (and I'm not actively rooting for that to happen), I don't think I'd be comfortable spending one of the Jets' first four picks on a DT. So, assuming that he remains on this team, I'm limiting my scope to guys who are expected to go in the third round or later.

Travis Jones, Age 23, UConn

If the Jets look to find their Folorunso Fatukasi of the future, they may look to draft another UConn interior defender that has similar measurables. Jones is that guy in the 2022 draft, filling the interior of the Huskies defense and filling it quite admirably. He hasn't had much starting experience (he was a rotational player in 2018 and a usual starter in 2019 while not playing in 2020 due to COVID-19), but he definitely showed his potential in 2021 as a full-time starter.

He played in 11 games (missing one due to injury) and tallied 47 tackles (16 solo), 4.5 sacks, 7.5 TFL, 0 FF, 0 PD and 0 INT this past season. PFF graded him as the 8th-best interior defender of 2021 with an overall grade of 87.6. He was also graded 78.8 as a pass-blocker and 86.8 as a run-defender. While UConn usually doesn't play that many opponents of note, his highest graded game of the 2021 season was against Clemson where he recorded 3 tackles, 1 for a loss. His superb run-defense and great pass-rushing in college would hopefully not totally be diminished in 2022 when he makes the jump to the NFL.

The Jets would likely have to spend a 3rd-round pick to draft Jones. His stock could rise at the Senior Bowl playing on the Jets' team, but unlike others who I've mentioned that will be playing at the Senior Bowl, I don't think it can rise too high based off this game. I certainly hope he doesn't bump his stock higher than the Jets' pick at 69 since- as I said before- I would not be comfortable spending one of the first four picks on a non-premium position for a player who would be a backup in his first year. If he's available at 69 and the Jets haven't found their DT3 in free agency, this could be a good swing. Still, though, they might want to look later for a DT.

Haskell Garrett, Age 24, Ohio State

Garrett offers some enticing traits as a very experienced Big Ten DLM. In five years with the Buckeyes, Garrett played in 53 games (only became a full-time starter for the final 20) and will come into the NFL with a lot of prior work against NFL prospects. I don't think he's a starting-caliber DT at the next level as he never popped against the top tier teams (not good against Alabama or Clemson in his three games against them), but he could be a role-player in the right environment.

In 2021, he had 22 tackles (12 solo), 5.5 sacks, 7 TFL, 0 FF, 1 PD and 0 INT. PFF credits him with a 68.5 pass-rushing grade and a 71.0 run-defense grade for a 74.2 overall grade. It's down from his strong 2020 season in 8 games when he had an overall grade of 88.1, but he was still a good player in his final college season. I think he probably could be a good rotational player that subs in on some obvious passing downs in his rookie season, though the Jets probably don't need much immediate help at pass-rushing up the middle.

The Jets would likely need to spend a 5th round pick on Garrett, though I've seen some mock drafts where he goes in the 4th round. The Senior Bowl and combine will help determine where he goes, and playing on the Jets' team will help the Jets determine how much they like him. He needs some development in his first year, and hopefully he could get that development playing on special teams and as a backup to Quinnen Williams should they draft him.

Thomas Booker, Age 23-24, Stanford

Booker served as a defensive end and tackle in college, but most think he projects as an interior defender only at the next level. With the Cardinals, he was a role player his first two years before becoming a full-time starter in his latter two years. He was pretty good when working off the edge, though perhaps his production declined over time due to him stacking on weight to become a full-time starter. Moving him to the inside could mean that he would be more likely to keep on the extra mass, though if a team wants him on the outside, he might need to shed it.

In 2021, he tallied 42 tackles (27 solo), 1.5 sacks, 5 TFL, 1 FF, 1 PD and 0 INT. I don't have PFF grades for him unfortunately, but I suspect he's got a good special teams grade at the very least, as he blocked 3 extra point attempts in his college career. Stanford's athletic department says that he had 6 hurries in his senior season, though it doesn't contain numbers on his pressures or QB hits.

The Jets would likely have to spend a 6th round pick to get Booker (they don't currently have a 6th or 7th). He's participating in the East-West Shrine Bowl, so his stock could go up slightly, but I think there's a greater likelihood he goes undrafted than in the 5th round. If the Jets acquire one of those late picks and don't have more pressing needs, Booker could be a good swing for his value on special teams alone. Hopefully, getting penetration on kicks in his rookie season could be a good path to him getting penetration on defense in his subsequent seasons, though I wouldn't be surprised if he needs to spend time on the practice squad before getting consistent defensive snaps.

Bonus Options in the 2022 Draft

There are some options expected to be undrafted that I would like to give a chance. These guys would compete with those on the future contracts for back-end roster and practice squad spots. Without going into too much detail, here are my three favorite options that I'd expect to go undrafted.

The first is Glen Logan of LSU (I'm not totally certain he intends to play football anymore; he signed a deal with WWE in December, so he might be moving into a professional wrestling career). He's a very sizable interior defender who could be a good anchor in the run game, though he likely needs some time on the practice squad first. The second is Kurt Hinish of Notre Dame. He's played more games than any player in school history; his experience is valuable, though he probably projects as a backup at the NFL level at best since he's a bit undersized to play up the middle. Finally, I'd like to bring in Jordan Williams of Virginia Tech (formerly of Clemson, please don't hurt me). He is another sizable figure that could be a good run defender on early downs, though with his relative lack of starting experience in college, being on the practice squad is probably his best bet in his rookie season.

My Preference

I'd be pretty inclined to cut Sheldon Rankins right away to save the $5.4 million. If Foley Fatukasi wants to remain with the Jets at a discount, I'd keep him for one more season. I wouldn't fight to keep him otherwise, so I'd turn my attention to former Jet Sheldon Richardson to bring back and see if he can play as a backup DT in this system at the listed contract. I'd also like to grab Haskell Garrett in the fifth round if possible and use him as a long term backup, hopefully one that can be molded into what Quinnen Williams was in 2021 for his career.

Thanks for reading if you've made it this far.

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