New York Jets – Breaking Down The Defensive End Battle

Clayton Smarslok breaks down the New York Jets positional battle at defensive end

What has long been the premium position for the New York Jets, the defensive end spot has quietly lost some talent over the last couple of years. In 2015 the Jets were flushed with goods to say the least. Muhammed Wilkerson was having a career year, Sheldon Richardson was as versatile as it got for a man his size and Leonard Williams the sixth overall pick and arguably the best player in the 2015 draft. Not to mention they had one of the best nose tackles in the game with Damon “Snacks” Harrison as well. It’s unfortunate they weren’t able to win when those guys were on the roster but now we have a whole new cast of characters to take a look at, outside of Leo of course.

While this was a very busy offseason for the Jets, no position had more changes than defensive end. During the free agency period they released Wilkerson after not living up to the enormous contract hesigned following the 2015 season. The next move actually wasn’t until the draft. Draft weekend came along where they brought in three new guys; two rookies in Nathan Shephard and Foley Fatukasi as well as the 4th year man Henry Anderson who they acquired in a trade with Indianapolis. Those three will be fighting with Xavier Cooper for the remaining 3 spots at the position. With all of these guys in the mix, which one will come out on top?

ICYMI 

Henry Anderson 6’6, 301 pounds, 4th Season

On Day 3 of the draft, the Jets were able to trade only a 7th round pick for the proven man out of Stanford. Anderson will make his return after a bizarre throat injury kept him sidelined a good portion of last season, missing 7 games. The throat injury may have been a freak incident but the injuries to both of his knees his first two years are concerning. Staying healthy will be his top priority after missing 19 of a possible 48 games.

Coming over from the Colts, he was transitioning to play on the edge in a 4-3 scheme after playing as an end in a 3-4 defense his whole career. This meant he had to shed some weight, losing 25 pounds to get down to 270. After putting in that hard work he now has to put all of that weight back on so he can get back to his normal position in a 3-4 scheme. According to Menish Mehta of the NY Daily News, his ultimate goal is to get back to 295 but that can take a little bit of time.

When Anderson has been on the field he shows he has great length and uses his long arms well to get extension. A lot of his game seems to be more on passion and having a relentless motor rather than being overpowering or anything. He doesn’t have a quick first step but he is a smart player who still finds his way into rushing lanes. With the playing experience Anderson has, he will have a solid chance to get on the field for majority of the snaps, barring an injury of course.

Xavier Cooper 6’4, 300 pounds, 4th Season

Cooper was signed after being released last October during the season, making his debut with the team week 9. Throughout the rest of the season he received a good amount of playing time in the defensive line rotation, even playing in 72% of the snaps the last two games. Making enough impact for the front office to want to bring him back.

It’s safe to say when the former Brown and Niner came in we weren’t expecting much of him. He hadn’t shown much in his two and a half seasons after being a third round selection, only having 46 total tackles and 2 sacks to his name. The one thing we could maybe hope for was that those two teams actually had some talent on their defensive lines and couldn’t hold onto him.

Once Cooper starting playing he actually showed some flashes. I noticed that he had excellent vision, whether that meant getting into passing or rushing lanes or just finding the ball to make a play. He may never be the guy that creates pressure from the inside or be that stout run defender but during his time in green and white he proved he could provide solid depth if there was an injury.

Foley Fatukasi 6’4, 318 pounds, Rookie

Foley was the third lineman they brought in during this past draft, after being selected in the 6th round. It was a bit of a surprise considering the Shephard pick and Anderson trade and also needing depth at other positions. However, it’s obvious they are trying to build a deep rotation along the line.

The former Husky is a versatile piece who could see time as an end or kicked inside to nose tackle, often playing there for Connecticut. He’s powerful at the point of attack and does a great job taking on multiple blockers to fill gaps against the run. Keeping solid pad level to go along with his strength will make it hard for opposing lineman to knock him off his assignment.

If he does see the field this season, expect to only see him on early downs. He doesn’t have great athleticism to get around the edge and his interior rushing moves could use some refinement. Foley always goes 100% so sometimes he can lose some control getting him either out of position or just out of the play completely.

Nathan Shephard 6’4, 315 pounds, Rookie

The first of the new lineman brought in, the Jets selected Shephard with their 3rd round pick. Since then we have all heard about his age and his incredible story on how he worked his way to get to this point, but the work isn’t over just yet and he knows it.

Coming over from a school like Fort Hays State, there will be a HUGE step up in competition after not competing against higher level prospects. However, before he broke his hand during practice at the Senior Bowl, he was the talk of the event dominating against now NFL offensive linemen in 1 on 1 drills.

Shephard is versatile enough to possibly play inside at nose tackle in addition to the 3-tech or 5-tech. No matter where he’s lined up, he has great strength and an anchor to not be overpowered against the run. What stands out is the violence in his hands, something that reminded me of Leo when he was a prospect.

The NFL is a copycat league and if one strategy show success others will follow. The Eagles won their very first Super Bowl in February, which was ultimately clinched by their defensive line. Not only did they have studs, they had depth at every spot. This is what the Jets are looking to build towards.

At the end of the day I believe they will enter the season with six defensive lineman, just like they did the last two seasons. As far as I can tell there are three definites to make the team; Williams, McClendon and Shephard. While not a lock, Anderson is the closest thing to it and could definitely be in play to be the opening day starter opposite Williams.

Between the other two openings, I think it will end up being Pennel and Fatukasi. Cooper did play well in his limited time last season but they don’t owe him anything, he was a waiver claim last year just like Pennel. However Pennel will likely be McClendon’s backup but also has the versatility to play end if needed and has proven to be a tremendous asset against the run. As for Fatukasi, we look at Maccagnan’s drafts between 2015 and 2017 and see that only 3 of 22 of his picks have been released. Because we know he prefers to keep his own guys, it should be expected that Foley gets an opportunity as well. With all of these guys having a legitimate shot, it will be very interesting to see how snaps will be split up throughout training camp and preseason.

Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com