Jets 2021 Position Breakdown: Is New York finally equipped with consistent edge rushers?

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Vinny Curry/Carl Lawson Treated Image
Vinny Curry/Carl Lawson Treated Image

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 Jets position group. This time, we’ll go in-depth on the defensive ends…

Projected Depth Chart

Strongside Defensive End: John Franklin-Myers, Ronald Blair, Kyle Phillips
Weakside Defensive End: Carl Lawson, Vinny Curry, Jabari Zuniga
Depth: Bryce Huff, Hamilcar Rashed Jr.

- Key additions/losses: Signed Lawson, Curry and Blair. Didn’t re-sign UFAs Jordan Jenkins and Tarell Basham.

- Top Performer in 2020:
Lawson 36 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 32 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles (for Cincinnati).

-2020 end of season rank via PFF: 18th (for the pass rush generally).

What Jets’ defensive ends have going for them

The Jets invested $15 million per season in a three-year deal for Lawson, who might be the most talented pure edge the team has had since John Abraham was traded 15 years ago. They’ve needed someone who can generate consistent pressure off the edge for years and Lawson led the entire NFL in quarterback knockdowns in 2020, so he fits the bill.

In addition to Lawson, the Jets also added a pair of solid veterans in Curry and Blair, both of whom have had good success in wide-nine fronts during their career to date.

Of the returning players, Franklin-Myers is the most promising. The 24-year old broke out last year with some impressive pass rushing, ending up second on the team for quarterback hits. Franklin-Myers has played both inside and out in the past but should be a good fit coming off the edge in Robert Saleh’s system.

Key concern: Sack numbers

The Jets have invested a lot into their pass rush, but still don’t have a single player on the roster that’s ever managed to achieve a season with double digits in sacks. Lawson, Curry and Franklin-Myers all generated good pressure last season, but only combined for 11.5 sacks and the Jets will need that number to be higher in 2021.

Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich is confident that it will be, telling the Jets’ official team website that the strength of their defensive interior will ensure that quarterbacks are unable to step up to evade pressure off the edge.

Player who must step up: Jabari Zuniga

Zuniga was a third round rookie last season but missed eight games and barely did anything of note in over 100 snaps in the rest. With all the additions made to strengthen the line-up, the Jets may not have the luxury of being patient with Zuniga and waiting for him to develop so he needs to step up otherwise he’ll be off the team.

Every defensive end currently on the roster has a shot at contributing this year, even if they start off the year on the practice squad or injured list. Huff showed more than Zuniga as an undrafted rookie last season, recording two sacks and four quarterback hits. In addition, Rashed could be a great find as an undrafted rookie this year. Rashed had 14 sacks as a junior playing in the Pac-12 but saw his stock fall after an injury-plagued senior season.

Biggest camp battle: John Franklin-Myers Vs. Vinny Curry Vs. Ronald Blair

It’s not immediately clear who will be the other starter across from Lawson, because none of the three main candidates have been full time starters over the past few years. Curry will turn 33 before camp gets underway, so he might be best suited to a situational role. Blair, a favorite of Saleh’s, is coming off an injury but could perhaps see action in base packages while Franklin-Myers is more of a pass rush specialist.

Phillips could also theoretically get in the mix, but he is also coming off an injury and seems less likely to be healthy in time for training camp. He could therefore start the year off on the PUP list. Ultimately, with the depth they’ve created, the Jets will probably adopt a committee-based approach that will seek to keep everyone fresh.

2021 Outlook

The Jets are banking on good production from their defensive ends this year, which is essential to Saleh’s defensive system operating efficiently. If they can generate good edge pressure, this will help the back seven within their coverage roles and should help to create some turnovers.

The focus is on the pass rush, but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the run defense will need to be good too. Fortunately, the Jets were already strong against the run, so this season’s contributors at defensive end should be able to succeed there, too.