New York Jets – What Are The Defensive Line Roles In 2018?

Connor Rogers breaks down the projected roles on the New York Jets defensive line in 2018…

While all of the talk has centered around free agent additions and drafting a quarterback third overall, the Jets have quietly made a significant effort to revamp their defensive line this offseason.

After re-signing Mike Pennel, drafting two from the 2018 class and using another pick to trade for Henry Anderson, this is a unit that will look a bit different going forward.

What roles will each player take on? Will it be an upgrade from 2017? Let’s break it all down.

Leonard Williams

Height: 6’5″
Weight: 302 lbs.
4th season
Age: 23
2017: 47 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception

After a seven sack campaign in 2016, Williams hit a bit of regression in his third season in terms of production. With Sheldon Richardson traded to Seattle and Muhammad Wilkerson a shell of himself, the 23 year old drew a majority of the double teams.

This is no excuse for Williams, who as an expected premier player will be expected to thrive no matter the circumstances, but a very important note when looking at his 2017 stat line.

With that being said, there are a lot of bright spots on the film of his third NFL season where it’s hard to believe he was only 23 years old.

Not much will change for him in terms of role this upcoming year. He’ll play both 3-tech and 5-tech (along with everything in between), a rotation that many members of this unit will be used in. The combination of quickness and power he possesses is often a mismatch against guards, making the 3-tech alignment the most ideal fit.

On occasion in 2017, he did see time all the way inside as a nose tackle or shade nose. This makes sense on passing downs as the traditional nose tackle Mike Pennel will come off the field, allowing Williams to kick all the way inside while rotational rushers take the field around him. He’s the one member of this deep unit that is a true 3-down defensive lineman right now, something expected of a premium talent.

His length and hand usage will always aid him as an interior pass rusher, but if he can continue to get stronger as he gets older his ability to consistently disrupt should increase in 2018.

Steve McLendon

Height: 6’3″
Weight: 310 lbs.
9th season
Age: 32
2017: 46 tackles, 1.5 sacks

The true veteran of the group, McLendon is the only player in the defensive trenches for the Jets over thirty. He’s five years older than the next closest seasoned player in Mike Pennel, but still a very effective run stopper from the interior.

When the Jets let Damon ‘Snacks’ Harrison walk in free agency and brought in McLendon from Pittsburgh, there was a misguided narrative that he would fill Snacks’ role as a space eating, true nose tackle. He’s more of a three tech that has the ability to kick all the way inside, but don’t expect much of that from him this year.

Most importantly he needs to stay healthy, which he did last year after missing a decent chunk of time in 2016. Playing in a 6-7 man rotation should increase the odds of that.

Once an entrenched starter, that’s now far from a sure thing. The addition of Henry Anderson gives the Jets yet another defensive lineman with versatility, but McLendon is still expected to see around 30% of the defensive snaps this upcoming season.

Mike Pennel

Height: 6’4″
Weight: 332 lbs.
5th season
Age: 27
2017: 35 tackles

Pennel is the biggest member of this unit and the ideal player to handle the true nose tackle and shade nose spot. He is rarely moved off the line of scrimmage and can handle double teams at the point of attack against the run.

While he had quite a few frustrating penalties last year, the dirty work he did in the trenches was quietly impressive. Oddly enough, his role seems to be the most obvious to define as the member of this unit that will consistently line up over the center. He’ll come off the field on passing downs.

Henry Anderson

Height: 6’6″
Weight: 301 lbs.
4th season
Age: 26
2017: 22 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble

It’s been a bit of a wild ride for Anderson in three NFL seasons. He played well as a rookie before losing the rest of his season in early November to a knee injury.

After a relatively quiet 2016 season, he bounced back very strong in 2017 before going down in November with a throat injury.

It’s no secret that Anderson has a ton of talent. He’s an efficient run stuffer that thrived as a five-tech defensive end in Indy when on the field. He even offered ability as a high effort pass rusher when given the opportunity.

As the Colts have changed schemes, they were willing to move on from the former Stanford standout for the extremely low cost of a seventh round pick.

If he can remain healthy, Anderson will be a consistent starter alongside Leonard Williams in the Jets base defense. He’s too talented and efficient to not see the field, but can he remain on it for the long-term?

Xavier Cooper

Height: 6’4″
Weight: 300 lbs.
4th season
Age: 26
2017: 17 tackles, 1.5 sacks

When the Jets officially moved on from Muhammad Wilkerson playing any remaining snaps towards the end of the season, Cooper stepped in with solid play.

The former Browns third round pick had 8 tackles and a sack in the final three games for Gang Green, but that clearly was not enough to earn the coaches confidence for 2018.

With multiple additions to this group, it’s going to take an unfortunate injury or two for Cooper to stick.

Nathan Shepherd

Height: 6’4″
Weight: 315 lbs.
Age: 24
2017: 38 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks

The ultimate wildcard of this group, Shepherd has a chance to steal playing time from McLendon and Anderson, but he’s going to need to come into camp and make an instant impact to do so.

Where the rookie from Fort Hays State can separate himself is his ability to win as a pass rusher. Leonard Williams can’t be the only threat to disrupt the pocket out of this entire group.

If Shepherd manhandles guards and centers much like he did in college, Bowles will put him on the field right away.

Much like Williams, he’ll play a versatile role as a three-tech, five-tech and everything in between.

Foley Fatukasi

Height: 6’4″
Weight: 318 lbs.
Age: 23
2017: 45 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks

When the Jets took Fatukasi it initially felt like overkill, but after watching more of his film the talent might have been too good to pass up in round six.

He played a ton of nose tackle for UConn, where he was a disruptive force against the run. His raw power helped him take on double teams, find his way into the backfield and even push the pocket at times.

Having two true nose tackles in Pennel and Fatukasi would keep Leonard Williams away from this role, something that could significantly help his production. Outside of being Pennel’s back up, he could see time on the goal line defense as well.

The Jets have found diamond in the rough run stuffers in the past. Is Fatukasi the latest gem? He certainly has a chance.

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