Jets 2021 Position Breakdown: Defensive interior remains one of New York's main strengths

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Jets DT Treated Art Quinnen Williams Sheldon Rankins and Folorunso Fatukasi
Jets DT Treated Art Quinnen Williams Sheldon Rankins and Folorunso Fatukasi

Heading into the 2021 season, the Jets have made a series of moves to improve the state of their roster and overall depth, but are they ready to compete for a playoff spot?

In this series, we’ll break down the depth chart for every position group. This time, we’ll go in-depth on the defensive tackles…

Projected depth chart

One-Technique Defensive Tackle: Folorunso Fatukasi, Nathan Shepherd
Three-Technique Defensive Tackle: Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins, Jonathan Marshall

Depth: Tanzel Smart, Michael Dwumfour

- Key additions/losses: Signed Rankins, drafted Marshall

- Top Performer in 2020: Quinnen Williams - 55 tackles, seven sacks, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles

- 2020 end of season rank via PFF: Williams (14th), Fatukasi (27th), Rankins (28th)

What Jets’ defensive tackles have going for them

After coming on strong in the second half of the season, Williams is on the verge of being considered one of the league’s elite interior defenders. The former third overall pick is still only 23 and should be a foundational piece for years to come.

The other starter, Fatukasi, has also established himself as a top-level interior defender, especially against the run, but that didn’t prevent the Jets from acquiring Rankins on a two-year, $15 million deal during the offseason. Rankins is another former first-round pick who has had some great seasons early on in his career.

These three give the Jets one of the most loaded three-man rotations in the NFL on the inside and if they remain healthy, this should be the unit that provides a foundation for the entire defense.

Key concern: Scheme Change

Fatukasi and Williams were so effective together in 2020 that there may be some concern that they won’t be as effective in the new defense.

Robert Saleh’s system operates with a four-man front that is spread out wide, putting additional pressure on the interior linemen to occupy blockers. However, they may view this as an opportunity rather than a cause for concern, as it will also give them more license to attack rather than having to two-gap.

Rankins is another attacking lineman who has obviously been specifically targeted as someone the Jets see as an ideal fit for their system and should be able to mentor some of the younger reserves. The main concern with him is whether he’ll remain healthy after a couple of injury-plagued seasons.

Player who must step up in 2021: Quinnen Williams

It may seem strange to single out Williams as someone who needs to improve after he was one of the Jets’ most outstanding players in 2020. However, he has the potential to be even more of an impact player than he was last season.

Statistically, Williams’ production was much better over the second half of the year and if he can emulate that over a full season, he’ll probably be in the mix for his first Pro Bowl selection. He’ll also be eligible for a big-money extension after the season, so that should give him additional motivation to achieve this.

Biggest camp battle: Nathan Shepherd vs. Jonathan Marshall

If everyone is healthy, this group seems ideally set up for Fatukasi, Williams, and Rankins to operate a three-man rotation with each receiving approximately two-thirds of the available snaps. However, the team will carry at least one more defensive tackle to back up or fill in as necessary.

Shepherd has been a reliable rotational player but not much more since being drafted in the third round in 2018. He’s showed flashes from time to time when given opportunities but has fallen behind Fatukasi in the pecking order despite the fact that he was selected three rounds higher than the former UConn product in that 2018 draft. Notably, Shepherd's contract is up at the end of the season, although Fatukasi's is, too.

The Jets selected Marshall with the final one of their 2021 draft picks and seem certain to retain him on the active roster even if he’s a year away from contributing. Marshall lacks length but has an outstanding combination of strength and athleticism and should be a perfect fit as an attacking interior lineman in Saleh’s system. If he can refine his technique and develop quickly, he could push Shepherd for that fourth spot.

Dec 18, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; New York Jets defensive end Nathan Shepherd (97) celebrates dropping Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (not pictured) for a loss during the second quarter at SoFi Stadium.
Dec 18, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; New York Jets defensive end Nathan Shepherd (97) celebrates dropping Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (not pictured) for a loss during the second quarter at SoFi Stadium.

2021 Outlook

The defensive interior is important to Saleh’s system and he was no doubt grateful to inherit a roster that already had two studs in Williams and Fatukasi, who should adapt well to what he requires of them.

The addition of Rankins gives the Jets another disruptive force that could make them a nightmare for opposing offensive lines.

While there is uncertainty at almost every other position, this group is the most settled on the team and Saleh will be depending on them to produce consistently.