Revisiting Expectations: Elite Defensive Linemen

Dan Essien revisits where Leonard Williams stacks up against his peers.

One of the most polarizing topics this season is what the Jets should do with Leonard Williams. In a contract year, there’s increasing uncertainty around his long term future. In May of 2018, I wrote about managing expectations for Leonard Williams based on three different criteria. Much has happened since then. Let’s revisit those criteria. Most importantly, let’s use stats and film to view the progress of the other lineman I suggested as a base comparison for his growth.

Not the scheme

One of the criteria discussed in the original piece was the scheme the Jets run defensively. They played Williams as a 3-4 defensive end. This was a popular excuse for his lack of production because 3-4 defensive ends often have to do a bit more dirty work. However, with the Jets hiring Gregg Williams as the defensive coordinator, they are utilizing more 4 down lineman defensive looks. Even last year, the Jets used more 4 down lineman looks, particularly with Henry Anderson’s big season. It hasn’t really seemed to make a difference for Williams so far.

In reality, this was never a good excuse. Gerald McCoy might’ve oversimplified it in this tweet but his overall point is salient. If you’re an elite interior defensive lineman, your ability should shine through in any scheme. The Jets drafted Williams with a top 10 pick. As a result, the expectation should be for him to be an elite defensive lineman no matter what the scheme is. At this point, he’s been used in every kind of front already.

Peer Comparison

In the initial write up, Stephon Tuitt, Chris Jones, and Jurrell Casey were the three players used as points of comparison for Leonard Williams. The idea was that Williams should be performing above or at least level with these linemen (none of which were top 10 picks). Last season, however, Williams performed towards that lower end of that grouping.

By The Numbers (2018)

Stephon Tuitt

Leonard Williams numbers last season most closely resemble those of Stephon Tuitt. This is a player Williams should be clearly surpassing in every sense. But it seems they were similar statistically last season. In 2018, Tuitt had 5.5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, and 20 QB hits. Williams had 5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and 20 QB hits. The big difference between him and Tuitt is that Williams played 173 more snaps than Tuitt. So while, Leonard Williams averaged a QB hit every 43 snaps, Tuitt averaged one every 35 snaps. In fact, Williams played more snaps all of the players we mentioned as comparisons.

Jurrell Casey

Jurrell Casey finished 2018 with 7 sacks, 11 tackles for loss and 11 QB hits. He finished 9th in pressure percentage amongst interior defensive lineman according to PFF. Williams was outside the top 10. Casey matched that with a 5th place finish with 35 run stops in 2018 and with a top 10 overall grade as an interior defender. Casey was able to get that production with 121 fewer snaps.

Chris Jones

Chris Jones is the real eye opener. I tabbed him as a comparison at the perfect time. He exploded for 15.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, and 29 QB hits. He had the 2nd fastest sack of the season (1.95 secs) according to NFL next gen stats. Jones was the only interior defensive lineman in the top 10 (which might clearly debunk the “shortest path to the QB” theory for defensive lineman investment). Jones is now the standard for an elite defensive lineman you give a massive second contract to. Also, he did all that with 93 fewer snaps than Williams.

Now you may start to wonder if maybe Williams snap count is too high and affecting his production. But let’s use another peer to immediately remove the overuse excuse. DeForest Buckner was the 49ers 2016 first round pick (7th overall) and carries the same expectations as Williams. Buckner had only 14 fewer snaps that Williams and finished with 12 sacks, 17 tackles for loss, and 20 QB hits in 2018. Buckner was still going strong at the end of the year, too. In week 15, he had one of his best performances of the season with 11 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks. Williams’ higher snap count should’ve resulted in much better production.

By the film

Some of Williams’ peers have already put on film some eye-popping play this season. Without branching out and watching strong defensive line play on other teams, you can sometimes miss out on what elite defensive line play is supposed to look like. Based on the initial point about schemes, I want to include another peer into our comparison group: Grady Jarrett of the Atlanta Falcons.

Like the others, Jarrett was not a first round pick. He was a 5th round pick by the Falcons in 2015. He earned a consistent starting spot by year 2, solidified himself years 3 and 4. Last offseason, he signed a 4-year $68 million contract with Atlanta. He’s currently considered on a higher tier than Williams despite not having better career numbers. Why’s that? Let’s review some week 2 film of Jarrett, Stephon Tuitt and Chris Jones to see the levels of dominance the Jets consistently need out of Williams.

Stephon Tuitt

Here’s Tuitt creating for T.J Watt on a stunt. I wrote about the importance of balance and variety along the defensive front, particularly when it comes to pass rushing. Here’s how it can work to perfection. Tuitt (91, 3 technique shading right guard) gets a immediate depth in his rush with a quick rip to the outside. As a result, Watt cleanly loops around him to the inside and gets a clear shot on Russell Wilson.

Here’s Tuitt showing his power. On this rush, Tuitt (over the right tackle) slants to the inside as the Steelers run a blitz scheme with a safety blitzing between Tuitt and T.J Watt. Tuitt completely mauls the right guard and as Russell Wilson tries to avoid the free rushing safety, he runs right into the right guard as Tuitt collects the sack.

Now here is Tuitt using his speed and power. A few issues with Leonard Williams in pass rush have been getting stalemated at the line far too often and not finishing sacks. Here Tuitt is lined up in a 1 technique, shading the center. At the snap, the right guard attempts to kick over and block as the center helps on Cam Heyward. Tuitt immediately chops his hands away and rips past him, putting immediately pressure on the pocket. He then finishes the sack on a very mobile QB in Russell Wilson.

Seahawks took a chance constantly leaving him single blocked in pass rush and it failed miserably. He had 2.5 sacks last week. He’s a big reason why the Steelers consistently have had one of the best statistical defensive fronts in the NFL the last 2 seasons.

Grady Jarrett

Here’s Jarrett causing havoc inside in pass rush. He’s lined up in a 3 technique, shading the right guard. He engages the guard at the snap, and immediately discards him, getting upfield and forcing Carson Wentz to try to escape. The refs eventually blow the play dead. Jarrett doesn’t get the sack on the stat sheet but he made this play happen.

This play is Jarrett being relentless. Here Jarrett is lined up in a 3 technique shading the left guard. At the snap, Jarrett rushes hard to the outside of the guard. He gets depth in his rush but when he gets level with Wentz, he forces his way back inside in the guard. Wentz starts to scramble but Jarrett bounces off the center, chase him back around the guard, and makes the sack. This is great display of athleticism and desire.

Often double teams are identified as an excuse for lack of production. Jarrett doesn’t care about that nonsense. On this play, Jarrett is in a 3 technique, shading the left guard.  Here the center is supposed to be helping the left guard with Jarrett in pass protection. But at the snap you see Jarrett setup the guard with a hesitation, and then swim past both him and the center who came to help. Then he finishes the pressure with a hit on Wentz.

Here’s Jarrett defying another double team. On this play, Jarrett is lined up in a 3 technique shading the right guard. The right tackle and right guard are supposed to combo block on him to the inside linebacker. Jarrett refuses to comply. He stands his ground on the initial double team, not allowing the right tackle to cross his face. Then, when the right guard peels off to block the inside linebacker, Jarrett sheds the right tackle and makes the play on the running back.

Chris Jones

Chris Jones has seen such an incredible amount of growth to his game. But it really starts with his incredible instincts and athleticism. Here he’s lined up in a 3 technique shading the left guard. The Raiders attempt to get the left tackle to reach on him on this play, but it fails right away. After the snap, Chris Jones flies into the backfield after immediately identifying the left guard blocking down, and makes the play on the running back right after the ball was handed off.

This is where Chris Jones’ ceiling is starting to get scary. He is lined up in a 3 technique shading the right guard here. The Raiders unwisely leave him single blocked on this passing play. At the snap, Jones sizes up the right guard with a stutter step, chops his hands away while ripping past him and sacks Carr. The Jets have needed Williams to be unblockable one-on-one like this, but that just hasn’t been the case.

On this play, Jones is shading the right guard in a 3 technique. The Raiders run an outside zone to his side. The center and the right guard attempt to combo block him to the playside linebacker. Chris Jones makes them look like children. He occupies both of them, identifies the running back, fights to outside, shedding both center and guard, and makes the tackle.

Conclusion: What to do?

With Leonard Williams in a contract year, the Jets have a big decision to make. We discussed a select group of peers but the Jets need to take a look at the league as a whole. Is Williams a player that elevates the entire unit? Is he a player that the unit will break down without?

Sheldon Rankins and the Saints had 2nd best run defense in the NFL. He also added 8 sacks on top of that. Akeim Hicks and the Bears had best run defense in the NFL in 2018. Hicks added 7.5 sacks on top of that. Fletcher Cox and the Eagles had 7th best run defense in the NFL. He added 10.5 on top of that. You have to consider where Williams falls in the grand scheme of the NFL. That should dictate the direction the Jets go with him. Defensive line is not a position that you throw a ton money at if you’re not looking at a player with top 10 or even top 15 potential. When will Williams reach that? Is it worth paying to find out?