The Jets will have a lot of personnel decisions to make over the next few months, but the defensive tackle position is a particularly interesting one.
Led by Quinnen Williams’ standout all-pro season, this was probably the Jets’ most-improved unit in 2022. Against the run, the Jets improved from 4th-worst in the NFL to middle of the pack (and from 24th in terms of yards per attempt to 10th). They were productive against the pass, too, although most of this was from Williams himself.
However, it could have a very different look in 2023. Williams is currently under contract for just under $10 million due to the Jets exercising his fifth year option, although you would expect the Jets to lock him up long term during the offseason - potentially even with a lower cap number in 2023. Apart from him, the other three players who were part of the main rotation at defensive tackle are all out of contract.
The Jets might like to keep this unit intact but the cost of extending all three might be prohibitive. Let’s consider each one in turn:
Sheldon Rankins was in the second year of a two-year deal that was worth $11 million but included a further $6 million in incentives and escalators, many of which he presumably earned as he played 31 games, starting 18, and racked up 75 tackles and six sacks over the two seasons.
In a recent article, ESPN’s Rich Cimini predicted that Rankins will be re-signed, saying that he “has earned a multi-year deal”. However, if his previous deal paid him up to $8.5 million a year, could the 28-year old’s next deal exceed this? If so, it may be difficult to justify, even though the team values his leadership.
The second unit usually comprised Solomon Thomas and Nathan Shepherd, who would typically enter the game together. What’s interesting about Thomas’ 2022 season is that it played out very similar to Nathan Shepherd’ 2021.
In each case the player remained in a backup role basically all season long and wasn’t particularly statistically productive but then played really well down the stretch. Thomas entered the last three game with 17 tackles, one tackle for loss and no quarterback hits. However, he had nine tackles, another tackle for loss and four quarterback hits in the last three games despite not seeing an increase in playing time.
Shepherd struggled for most of 2021, but similarly played better down the stretch. Having not looked like a candidate to return at midseason, the Jets were obviously hoping he had gradually figured out the system and what was required of him within it so they brought him back in March.
The Jets’ faith in Shepherd paid off as he was much more consistent and a valuable low cost reserve in 2022. Now, with their hope that Thomas has similarly figured things out and can carry that into 2023, the team could look to re-sign both - and are likely prepared to give each of them a pay bump to keep them on board.
If the Jets allow Rankins to walk, they could perhaps bring in a rookie to develop alongside Shepherd and Thomas and fill out their four-man rotation. The question is, though, how well this group could hold up if Williams ever missed some time?
The other question is whether Shepherd or Thomas would be happy to return in a cut-price rotational role or would either of them want an opportunity to start and potentially earn more? If Rankins is allowed to walk, promising either or both of them the opportunity to compete for his starting role could be a good negotiation tool.
What that would mean in practice is a bump in playing time of about 10-15 snaps per game (Rankins averaged 37 snaps per game while Thomas and Shepherd were both just under 25). However, it’s not just taking some of Rankins’ workload - you are also offering a tantalizing opportunity to line up alongside Williams more often, with the ability to profit from the extra attention he draws from opposing offensive lines.
It’s also worth mentioning two players who remain under contract; John Franklin-Myers and Micheal Clemons. Franklin-Myers kicked inside on passing downs, although he was typically lined up over left tackle rather than inside. Clemons occasionally played this role and even took some reps as a conventional defensive tackle in preseason action, but didn’t do this in the regular season. While these players give the Jets some options, neither does anything to alleviate the need for four active defensive tackles each week.
Although Franklin-Myers was usually paired with Williams and two edge rushers in those packages, Rankins also saw some action in these situations. That’s the other thing the Jets can tempt Thomas and Shepherd with - more opportunities to line up in this pass rush package, as Rankins usually did a handful of times per game.
Finally, there are two other defensive tackles under contract for 2023, as both Tanzel Smart and Marquiss Spencer signed futures deals.
Smart was spending his third season on the Jets’ practice squad and saw action in a few games due to Rankins and Williams being hurt. He did a reasonably good job in relief and has been around the team long enough that he’s a popular teammate now.
With the current rules the way they are, a player like Smart can establish himself as a good locker room guy who practices hard and gets a chance to fill in from time to time but doesn’t have to make the active roster to have this role. In the past, such players would have been going from team to team as a journeyman nomad.
The 25-year old Spencer may have more upside than Smart so he could push for a similar role or even an eventual roster spot. Again, though, he’d be considered an outside bet to achieve this. As noted above, look for the Jets to bolster this group with a rookie or two.
(Note: The Jets also apparently just claimed Isaiah Mack off waivers and he’s on a similar level to Smart/Spencer, who probably would be a long-shot to compete for a main roster role. He’s actually out of contract anyway, but the Jets could bring him back by tendering him as an exclusive rights free agent).
In conclusion, the Jets had a good group in 2023 and would like to keep it as intact as possible, but at the same time, they may not view any of the non-Williams options as irreplaceable, so could be on the lookout for cheaper options in free agency or the draft to replace at least one and perhaps two of the top four.