After quarterbacks, it’s edge rushers (defensive ends and outside linebackers) that are paid the most in the NFL. Given it is such a valued spot, teams pay a premium to acquire anyone with the skill and potential to succeed. Except the 2019 New York Jets have not done that, and the franchise itself hasn’t done it in years. The last premiere edge rusher the Jets had was back in 2005 – the final season of John Abraham. Abraham wracked up 53.5 sacks in six seasons with the Jets before being traded to Atlanta prior to the 2006 season. Since then, nobody has come close to replicating what Abraham provided for the Jets defense. From Muhammad Wilkerson to Sheldon Richardson, and who can forget Quinton Coples, the Jets have had numerous “next big things” that just have not paid off.
2019 will be the 14th season since Abraham last struck fear into quarterbacks eyes as a Jet. That being said, today on the 2019 New York Jets Preview series, let’s take a look at who will be the edge rushing savior for the Jets in 2019.
2019 New York Jets Preview: Edge Rushers
The Starters: Leonard Williams (LDE), Henry Anderson (RDE), Jordan Jenkins (LOLB), and Brandon Copeland (ROLB)
This is a very solid group for the Jets. Returning the whole starting group is huge, given the provided chemistry already in new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams‘ aggressive scheme. Last season, these four combined for 24 sacks, which is not that impressive upon realizing Aaron Donald had 20.5 himself. So how will this group improve in 2019?
First, we begin with Henry Anderson. The former Colts third-round pick was traded to the Jets last offseason for a seventh-round pick. The trade was a huge win for New York, as Anderson remained healthy last season and totaled seven sacks as a situational pass rusher. Entering 2019, Anderson is in the first of a three-year deal signed this offseason to stay in Gotham Green as the starter opposite of Leonard Williams.
Williams enters his fifth season, and it is a big one. The former sixth overall pick back in 2015 has 85 quarterback hits to his name in four seasons. His presence along Gregg Williams’ defensive line is going to be vital to the success of this unit. Having just turned 25, “Big Cat” enters a big contract year.
Then comes Jordan Jenkins and Brandon Copeland. Jenkins is a rare example of a Mike Maccagnan draft pick that turned out well. Starting 37 of 46 career games, Jenkins has continued to improve as a pass rusher. Following a career-high seven sacks in 2018, Jenkins should breakout in 2019. Copeland stands opposite of Jenkins. The former undrafted free agent is the likely starter at right outside linebacker following a five-sack performance in 2018.
Each player here comes with similar concerns. Anderson just signed a three-year deal worth $25 million to remain a Jet. The concern clearly being what if he does not remain healthy, or if 2018 was a fluke. After all, three of his seven sacks came in one game.
What were to happen if Brandon Copeland cannot replicate his 2018 performance? On a one-year “prove it” deal, the money is not a concern as it is for Anderson, but the team is once again thin at edge rusher.
Lastly, what if Leonard Williams does not return to his 2016 Pro Bowl form or Jordan Jenkins does not improve? Both enter contract seasons and the Jets simply cannot afford to see either falter in 2019.
The Backups: Jachai Polite (OLB)
Once again, the Jets are top heavy at a position, with heavy competition for the backup spots. The only one who is a lock is their 2019 third round pick Jachai Polite. Polite was once thought of as a top 15 worthy talent. Nonetheless, concerns over his maturity, character and overall off-fields issues caused his slide to the third round. This leaves the Jets with a potential steal. The 6-3 and 258 lbs. Polite is explosive off the ball, ability to turn corners and overall length is why the Jets took the risk. Polite enters training camp as the only clear backup, with potential to earn snaps as the season goes on as a situational pass rusher on early downs.
The Bubble: Frankie Luvu (OLB), Tarell Basham (OLB), James Burgess (OLB), Jamey Mosley (OLB), Nathan Shepherd (DE), Folorunso Fatukasi (DE), Bronson Kaufusi (DE), Justin Alexandre (DE), and Kyle Phillips (DE)
At outside linebacker, four naturally fit the position and given Polite’s likely backup spot, at least one more is up for grabs. Frankie Luvu is a former undrafted free agent out of Washington State. His speed was utilized in 14 games to generate three sacks and 11 quarterback hits. Tarell Basham was a third-round pick by the Colts in 2017 but wound up with the Jets by the end of 2018. Basham got limited action, but his raw power and size are promising. James Burgess is a former starter for Cleveland until injuries pushed him out. Burgess brings the most experience of the four. Lastly is the younger brother of Jets star linebacker CJ Mosley. Jamey Mosley has the size and IQ to compete for a roster spot, but limited play time at Alabama leaves him with a lot to prove at training camp.
At defensive end, both backup spots are open to five players. First is Nathan Shepherd. The Jets 2018 third round pick will be 26 this season and did not make much of a splash last season. Similar to Shepherd, Folorunso Fatukasi was only active for a single game last season and did not produce anything in it. Fatukasi does double as a defensive end and tackle. Bronson Kaufusi is another failed third round pick, this time by the Ravens, who have journeyed to the Jets. At 6-6 an 275 lbs., Kaufusi’s size could benefit the Jets anywhere along the front. Justin Alexandre and Kyle Phillips are both undrafted free agents. Both are practice squad candidates. Alexandre has good size and length but is a developmental prospect. Phillips also has good size and traits, and at the same time lacks speed off the ball.
Last Word on the 2019 New York Jets Preview: EDGE Rushers
Whether the Jets next John Abraham is on the roster or not remains to be seen. Either way, there certainly is promise along this line. The starting group (assuming they remain healthy) will be productive and benefit from each other. Gregg Williams will bring out aggression in their play, something we have not yet seen. And Jachai Polite should emerge as a pass rushing threat by seasons end. Lastly, this competition for the backups along the edge will be vital because of Gregg Williams’ need for fresh and aggressive bodies for his scheme.
Stay tuned for the next article in the 2019 New York Jets Preview series with a look at New York’s interior defensive lineman!
Embed from Getty Images