As the new league year looms, the Jets are positioned to make a splash in free agency. With twenty-three unrestricted free agents on expiring contracts and ~$100,000,000 in cap space, the team has a lot of holes to fill and a lot of money to make it happen. This is old news. As we’ve seen in years past, cash doesn’t fill holes, players do. It is up to Mike Maccagnan and his staff to properly utilize their plentiful resources and stock the roster with talent. This group’s success in free agency has been middling at best. That being said, there is an abundance of talent available in the areas of the Jets’ biggest needs. We will be taking a look at these areas of need over the next few weeks and the players available at those positions. This week: the edge defenders.
The Current Situation:
The Jets’ defense is in a state of flux with Todd Bowles’ scheme out the door and Gregg Williams bringing some fresh looks to Florham Park. However, some things never change. Jordan Jenkins (seven sacks in 2018) is still the Jets best option on the edge. While Brandon Copeland had a surprising season, he is not the long term (or short term) answer. Furthermore, there is some question as to how either linebacker would play with their hand in the dirt.
Gregg Williams primarily ran a 4-3 defense in the past, but recent news indicates that he will run a 3-4. In reality, he will likely run multiple looks (often out of the nickel) to best utilize his personal and keep offenses on their toes. With that in mind, we will be highlighting the best edge defenders in a scheme-agnostic vacuum and with the hope and assumption that Williams will put them in a position to succeed.
Best Available Players:
Once just a pipe dream, DeMarcus Lawrence has once again popped up on Jets fans’ radar. It was recently reported that DLaw would not sign a second consecutive franchise tag. However, it sounds like the Cowboys are willing to do what it takes to keep Lawrence in house. Talent like that usually doesn’t hit the market.
Should Lawrence slip into free agency, however, he would quickly become the consensus top available player and be offered a contract well in excess of $100 million. Pass rusher is the second most coveted position after the quarterback and they get paid like it.
Lawrence has a strong first step and great anticipation. He is very active with his hands and has a full array of pass rush moves. He is no slouch against the run either, Lawrence is very gap disciplined.
He isn’t as explosive as some other edge defenders and tends to turn outside too quickly if laundry looks too dirty. Finally, there is some concern about his injury history and how it affected his 2016 season.
Still, Lawrence is a force off the edge. He would instantly become the Jets best front seven player and fill a vacancy that has been around since John Abraham signed out.
Clowney is another free agent who is unlikely to make it to free agency; another candidate for the tag. However, if he does, he would present a major upgrade for the Jets front seven. Clowney has certainly not lived up to the hype that led him to be the first pick in the draft. Injuries are certainly part of the problem. When you line up next to JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus, you can’t use double teams as an excuse.
That being said, Clowney is still very young (26-years-old!) and has improved with each year as a pro. Clowney put together a Pro Bowl season in 2016 with JJ Watt sidelined. His combination of size, strength, and speed is rare even in the NFL. His motor can run a little hot and cold, and his run discipline isn’t always perfect, but he is a disruptive force that can change a game.
Trey Flowers is the first edge player on this list who likely won’t see the franchise tag. Flowers has done a little bit of everything for the New England Patriots over the last few seasons. He has spent time at end, at outside linebacker, and even as a tackle. Flowers was instrumental in the Patriots last two Super Bowl runs and keeps offensive gurus like Matt Nagy up at night.
His numbers don’t pop off the screen but he is very disruptive and tough against the run. He is strong and quick. He put up 60-plus pressures in 2017 and 2018 (according to PFF). His versatility would be an excellent fit in the myriad fronts we expect to see from the Jets in 2019.
Dante Fowler Jr
Dante Fowler’s name was floated around #JetsTwitter last season when he was put on the trading block. After he was dealt to the Rams, the Jets (as they are wont to do) let it be known that they made a strong push for his services. Fowler, a relative disappointment after getting injured in his rookie training camp, did some nice things for the Rams in route to the Super Bowl. A huge asterisk, however, is that he showed up when playing next to Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh.
That being said, the traits that pushed Fowler to the top of the draft are still there. He has impressive speed and bend. He can rely too heavily on that at times, keying defenders off to his telltale speed rush. As Fowler matures, so too has his pass rush repertoire. He has a nice spin move to counter the outside speed rush and has improved his hand use. And to top it all off, Fowler is young at 25-years-old and still has room to develop. He may not be the most inspiring choice, but Fowler would certainly add some much-needed juice off the edge.
Who is Preston Smith? Not a household name to be sure. However, that may not be the case for long. Smith was a rising star on the outside for Washington. Like Flowers, his numbers haven’t jumped off the page but his production has.
He had 53 total pressures in 2018 and was very stout against the run. His game is reminiscent of Jordan Jenkins with plus athleticism. He tends to win on inside moves and has heavy hands. His outside rush needs some work but his versatility helps him compensate. He lined up all over the formation for Washington; everything from a true 3-4 outside linebacker to a 0-tech nose.
Don’t let his age fool you (31), Brandon Graham can still get after it. Graham is a do-it-all edge player. He can rush with speed, he can attack the inside, he can even drop into coverage. Graham sealed the Eagles Super Bowl victory with a strip sack, a microcosm of his career in Philadelphia. He just makes plays.
Some may be leery of signing a 30+ player but the Jets need to think outside the box to fill their myriad holes and can’t be afraid to take a swing on a player with proven production. Plus, better to sign the known commodity now and take advantage of Sam Darnold’s rookie contract.
Za’Darius Smith hasn’t been a world beater for the Ravens but his 8.5 sacks would handily top the Jets 2018 sack leaders with 7. He uses his hands well and has had success with the chop. He is quick but not fast and strong but not powerful. He, like many of the above players, is versatile. He lined up all over the formation for the Ravens and found production in each spot.
Now, 2018 was Smith’s “breakout year,” which has to leave you concerned about the potential of overpaying for a one year wonder. That being said, edge rushers are highly coveted league-wide and there is a chance that your dream player doesn’t make it to market or gets swooped up by a team with a front office that has a better history of closing deals. Za’Darius Smith is a good edge defender and would be a nice consolation prize should the field thin quicker than the Jets would hope.