New York Jets NFL Draft Decision: Variety vs. Redundancy

Dan Essien examines the NFL’s best defensive fronts and how they should influence the New York Jets 3rd overall pick.

The biggest debate for the Jets front office and for the fans is who the Jets should draft in the first round. With Nick Bosa almost a sure thing to San Francisco at 2,  much of this debate has centered around Quinnen Williams and Josh Allen. Lately, Ed Oliver has started to gain some steam. While the strategy of best player available has been the Jets approach, I believe there’s a league pattern they should be paying close attention to. Especially if they end up not trading out of the 3rd overall pick Let’s discuss how some of the best front lines in the NFL have valued variety over redundancy when building their defensive front.

One of the most commonly discussed hypotheticals amongst draft analysts and Jets twitter when it comes to the draft is the idea of having both Leonard Williams and Quinnen Williams along the Jets defensive front. Some think it would open things up for Leonard Williams, who had a decent season in 2018 but failed to have any significant production. Some think it would make the Jets defensive front a dominant force. However, from what we’re seeing around the league, I think there’s a reason to be cautious.

The Problem of Redundancy

The Big Three

There’s an obvious, go-to scenario for Jets fans that are against the Jets drafting Quinnen Williams. It’s what the Jets went through with the trio of Mo Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams. While we often forget the good times those players had, there are some aspects that are worth examining. All three of them preferred playing 3 to 5-tech. All three weren’t fans of the dirty work of fighting through doubles as a 0 or 1-tech. There was no feasible way for them to be on the field at the same time and at their most effective.

In their final season with all 3 players togethers in 2016, the Jets finished 29th in sacks, 28th in sack rate (which is a percentage based on opponents pass attempts). The following season with Williams and Wilkerson, the Jets were 28th in sacks, 28th in sack rate. The biggest difference was in run defense. They were 2nd in the NFL in 2015. Then they dropped to 11th in 2016. Then after Richardson departed in 2017, they plummeted to 24th with Williams and Wilkerson.

Last season, only Leonard Williams remained from that initial group. But the Jets also added Henry Anderson. Fascinatingly, the Jets pass rush actually improved. But not a significant amount. They finished 18th in sacks and 24th in sack rate. They were also 26th in run defense.  But an interesting detail: almost 50% of the share of sacks belonged to Jordan Jenkins, Brandon Copeland, and Henry Anderson. They also had three edge players in double digits in QB hits. If those results don’t cause you to think, there’s perhaps an even more effective cautionary tale from last season.

The Suh Experiment

Last offseason, the Rams signed Ndamukong Suh. Many of us thought the Rams would have the best defensive line in the NFL. The potential of the interior pressure they could put together seemed incredible. Also, they seemed like a sure a thing as run defense at least. To be clear, this duo is better than what Leonard Williams and Quinnen Williams would project to be. We’re talking about the best defensive player in the NFL in Donald, and a firmly above average interior defensive lineman in Suh. Should be unstoppable, right? But that wasn’t the case at all.

The Rams finished 23rd in run defense. Aaron Donald had a career year with 20.5 sacks and 41 QB hits. But despite all of that, the Rams finished 15th in sacks overall and 12th in sack rate. Including the postseason, they gave up 150 or more yards rushing 4 times (including 154 in the Super Bowl against New England) and only held teams under 100 yards rushing in 7 of the 19 total games they played.

There’s a reason why the Rams traded for Dante Fowler Jr. in the middle of last season. There’s also a reason why the Rams ended up re-signing Fowler early this offseason, and let Suh test the market. They realized variety was a greater value in their defensive attack then the redundancy between Suh and Donald that didn’t quite work as expected. We often think defensive coordinator will just “figure it out” when it comes to these matters. Well, Wade Phillips is one of the best of all time and it’s not like Suh is suddenly terrible. They were great together at times but statistically the Rams had a much better pass rush the year before without Suh.  What took place in the trenches for them last season should give us pause.

The Production of Variety

The idea of interior pressure makes sense. It’s the shortest path to the quarterback. When the quarterback scrambles outside of the pocket, you cut the field in half for them. In theory, your run defense should improve as well. The previous examples show that logic isn’t always that simple. Individual stats need to looked at in context. Yes, Chris Jones had a spectacular season rushing from the interior. But he had Justin Houston and Dee Ford on the outside. DeForest Buckner had a breakout season for the 49ers on the interior but they finished 23rd in total sacks and in sack rate and were a middle of the road run defense. Interior pressure isn’t simply valuable on its own when it comes to the overall success of the defense.

These next few examples are of dominant defenses who’s success directly correlated to winning. You’ll see that perhaps the value in a defensive front should be in the ability to attack from multiple pressure points, with interior pressure as a complimentary piece. All of the teams that finished in the top 10 in sacks and in sack rate, had a significant presence on the edge. Let’s take a closer look at 3 of those teams to give better context.

New Orleans Saints

For the New Orleans Saints, as much as we talk about their offense, their defense was a big part of their NFC Championship run last season. With a star like Marshon Lattimore their secondary is often discussed. But it’s their front line that was truly dominant. Their starters feature Cam Jordan, Sheldon Rankins, Malcom Brown, and Marcus Davenport. Jordan is an all-around, elite edge. Brown is a space eater and an ideal 0 or 1-tech. Rankins is an ideal 3-tech with impressive pass rush ability. Davenport is a young developing edge with a more power based attack. The result of their variety up front was quite a success. They finished 2nd in run defense, and 2nd in adjusted line yards, a stat used by Football Outsiders to track the best defensive lines in the NFL. They also finished tied for 5th in sacks, and 5th in sack rate. In both the playoffs and regular season, they only gave up 100 or more yards rushing 4 times in 18 games.

Chicago Bears

The Bears defensive front has been the center of attention since they traded for Khalil Mack and for good reason. They are one of the best units in the NFL.  The Bears boast Mack, Akeim Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Leonard Floyd up front. Mack is the best edge defender in the NFL. Goldman is a 320-pound disruptor at nose tackle. Hicks is an elite 3-4 defensive end who can also play 3-tech or interior rush in passing situations. Floyd is a typical 3-4 outside linebacker. The Bears attack comes from all pressure points. As a result they finished 1st in run defense, and 9th in adjusted line yards. They also finished tied for 3rd in sacks and 9th in sack rate.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers combo up front includes Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, and T.J Watt. In their 3-4, Heyward and Tuitt are the defensive ends at the 5-tech. Tuitt is an above average end while Heyward is a Pro Bowler.  Hargrave is the nose tackle and resident run stopper. But it all comes together with OLB T.J Watt. Together they were the 6th best run defense in the NFL, 2nd in total sacks, and 3rd in sack rate in 2018. I mentioned Tuitt in an article in 2017 as a player to help give context to Leonard Williams’ production. They actually continue to have similar issues with pressures not converting to sack totals. Tuitt had 20 QB hits but only 5.5 sacks while Williams had 20 QB hits and 5 sacks. The difference is what Williams is being depended on for compared to Tuitt.

Williams is the focal point of the Jets defensive line. He has to produce in what can otherwise be a toothless front. Tuitt’s lack of production doesn’t matter because of what the Steelers get out of Cam Heyward and T.J Watt. In fact, they even got pass rush production from Hargrave, their nose tackle, who finished with 6.5 sacks. The balanced in Pittsburgh’s defensive front is another example of why being able to disrupt an offense from different points of attack is so valuable.

Draft Decision

So given all this, if the Jets do plan to address their defensive front in the first round, who should they target? I don’t think there’s an egregiously bad pick amongst Quinnen Williams, Josh Allen, and Ed Oliver at 3. I do think the poor drafting in the past means they no longer can responsibly operate under a blind BPA philosophy. Based on what they have now with Leonard Williams, Henry Anderson, Steve McClendon, and Nathan Shepherd, it’s time for them to add balance with an effective edge presence.

The best case scenario would be trading down within the top 10 and either Josh Allen drops or you target Brian Burns. The next best thing, I believe, would be securing an early 2nd round pick via trade and targeting Chase Winovich. But if there is no way for them to trade out of that pick, they have to ask themselves a few questions: Would the trio of Leonard Williams, Quinnen Williams, and Henry Anderson fair any better than the trio of Mo Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams did? Is the upside of their defense with Josh Allen greater? Or really the most important question: can Ed Oliver play edge?