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NFL Draft

3 Defensive Free Agents Jets Should Target

  • The Draft Network
  • February 22, 2021
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The New York Jets have a new head coach, will soon have a new quarterback, and have a ton of money to spend in free agency. No team could turnover more than the Jets from last season to this one upcoming. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing redeemable to retain from last year’s performance: namely, the run defense.

The Jets were ranked eighth last season in rush defense DVOA, as ex-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams prioritized box counts and aggressive defensive line play to discourage the run. That often left an undermanned secondary in dangerous spots—28th-ranked pass defense by DVOA—but there was still exciting play up front. Beyond star second-year defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, the Jets have an exciting rotation of defensive linemen with Foley Fatukasi, John Franklin-Myers, Henry Anderson, and Nathan Shepherd. They need a quality EDGE rusher (more on that later!) but the defensive front is solid.

This offense is in more dire need of immediate juice than the defense, so I’m not endorsing super-high spending on defense—though I list plenty of secondary options to improve at cornerback, the weakest spot on the roster. Let’s get one big-ticket player and go to work developing the youth.

Carl Lawson, EDGE, Cincinnati Bengals

If the Jets are going to pour money into the defense, then Lawson is the move. I’m not sure exactly how much money he’ll demand—he only has eight-plus sacks in one season, which was his rookie year, and has only been available for two full seasons following injuries. I’ve seen projections for Lawson deals between $8M and $13M APY—that’s the difference between Preston Smith and Carl Nassib—a wide spread.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating with Lawson: you have to watch the film. Even Lawson’s ninth-ranked pass-rush productivity (via PFF) does not fully encapsulate just how successful he is on long and late downs. Even with slide protection coming his way, when Lawson is teed off to rush the passer, his combination of explosiveness and quick power, as well as an array of techniques, has Lawson as the likely best pass-rusher on the market (assuming Tampa Bay re-signs Shaq Barrett).

Lawson isn’t an elite run defender, which may worry a coach like Robert Saleh who likes to play with light boxes. But Lawson has a similar build and usage as Dee Ford, who the San Francisco 49ers traded a pretty penny for this past offseason. They still need a Nick Bosa to pair with their Lawson, and they’d love to find the pass-rusher at the end of the first round come April—but as it is, Lawson gives the Jets the dangerous outside rush presence they haven’t had in more than a decade.

Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, Dontae Johnson, Jamar Taylor, K’Waun Williams, Jason Verrett, CBs, San Francisco 49ers

Yeah, it sounds like a bit—and of course, every defensive free agent leaving San Francisco will be tied to their ex-defensive coordinator who’s now the head coach of the Jets. But for as much as it’s a light-hearted joke, it’s also kinda serious. 

The 49ers’ cornerback depth was worked last season, as they endured pretty significant injuries across the board. All of the listed players took at least 200 snaps on defense in 2020. Witherspoon, Sherman, and Verrett all played exclusively outside alignments; Taylor and Williams manned the slot; Johnson took equal snaps at both alignments as the 49ers’ last-chance option. 

The 49ers can’t bring all of those players back, especially because their rostered cornerbacks that aren’t unrestricted free agents (Emmanuel Moseley, Ken Webster) are both exclusive-rights restricted free agents and also need to be tendered to stay on the roster in 2021. The 49ers don’t have a corner rostered in 2021 who took a snap in 2020. Suboptimal!

So yes, whoever the 49rs lose will be of interest to Saleh and the Jets—especially those players who can reliably fill out the depth chart on a cheaper price tag, like Williams, Taylor, and Johnson. In that the Jets have little corner depth and would welcome competition at all three starting spots, New York will be beggars and accordingly not choosers on the corner market.

Kevin King, CB, Green Bay Packers

If the Jets want a starting cornerback target that isn’t a San Francisco product—and accordingly, one that may come cheaper than a Sherman or Verrett—I think Kevin King is a desirable target. Yes, King’s last game with the Packers leaves sour memories—he was burned for a critical, end-of-half touchdown by Scotty Miller against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC championship game—but he’s had better games across his career.

King was considered an ideal step-kick Cover 3 corner—a player in the Seattle mold—when he came out of Washington. In Green Bay, he played primarily in zones, but often split-field coverage like Cover 2 and Cover 4, which didn’t give King as much of an opportunity to use his length and physicality at the line of scrimmage.

Saleh ran a variety of coverages in San Francisco and is not as tethered to the true Cover 3 approach the way other Seattle cast-offs are (like Dan Quinn and Gus Bradley). But Saleh will see King as a familiar body type and skill set to Sherman and Witherspoon, who have both played in this system before. King is a high-ceiling gamble on a player whose defensive coordinator Mike Pettine—since fired—was never able to maximize and develop in Green Bay.

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