When looking at the top 10 defenses in the NFL, almost every team has an elite pass rusher. The Pittsburgh Steelers have TJ Watt, the Chicago Bears have Khalil Mack, and the Kansas City Chiefs have Chris Jones. While some teams have multiple guys who can get after the quarterback, the New York Jets have not had one in over a decade.
Although what they do have is a play-calling genius in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. In 2019, he managed to overcome a poor pass rush, injuries to C.J. Mosley and Avery Williamson, and a rotating door at cornerback. Despite these setbacks, Williams still led the Jets to the 16th best defense in the league and seventh in total yards allowed.
For 2020, the team has not only their stars back from injury, but various new additions to Williams’ unit. Thus, he will be able to focus on the aggressive pass-rushing style his defenses are known for. But who exactly will be getting after the quarterback if there is no elite pass rusher?
2020 New York Jets Preview: Edge Defenders
The Starters: Henry Anderson (DE), Quinnen Williams (DE), and Jordan Jenkins (OLB), and Jabari Zuniga (OLB)
Beginning with defensive end, Henry Anderson brings the most experience to the group. The former Indianapolis Colts third-round pick enters his third season with Gang Green at 29 years old. After an impressive seven-sack campaign in a rotational role in 2018, Anderson joined the starting lineup in 2019. Having missed time battling a shoulder injury last season, the hope is he will return to full strength in 2020.
Playing opposite of him will likely be the third overall pick in 2019 – Quinnen Williams. His athleticism allows him to play all over the line, as he was mainly used inside his rookie year. However, once Leonard Williams was dealt, Quinnen replaced Leonard on the outside. It is known Williams can hold his own in the run game, as shown by grading 33rd out of 119 defensive linemen according to PFF. He will need to show that athleticism in getting after the passer this season to help put pressure on the quarterback. With his raw talent, it would not be shocking to see a sophomore breakout from Williams.
Moving onto outside linebacker, the Jets re-signed veteran Jordan Jenkins to a one-year deal. He is not a game-changing pass rusher, but the Jets’ most reliable one. The 26-year-old has improved his sack total every year as he racked up eight last season. Joining Jenkins will likely be rookie Jabari Zuniga. The third-round pick out of Florida has a good combination of size and raw power, yet needs to refine multiple areas of his game. With limited talent at outside linebacker, Zuniga has a great chance to win the starting job and to learn as he goes.
Gregg Williams sent additional pass rushers more often than not in 2019 and may have to do it again in 2020 if the injury bug hits again. Anderson was a shell of his 2018 form, with only one sack in 13 starts. If he continues to struggle, the Jets could quickly turn to Nathan Shepherd to take the starting job. Meanwhile, Quinnen Williams is going to be the starter as long as he is healthy. With all eyes now on him to put up big numbers, opponents are also going focus extra blockers on Williams.
For Jenkins, he excels at setting the edge, not rushing the passer. While the Jets defense is elite against the run, they need Jenkins to naturally produce sacks, rather than getting them in cleanup. After all, Jenkins only managed 13 quarterback hits last season. As for Zuniga, whether or not he is starting, he will need to stay healthy and develop at the same time. He often missed time at Florida with various injuries, including eight games his final season. Ultimately, health is just the first of a handful of circumstances that must go well for the starting unit to be effective without help.
The Backups: Nathan Shepherd (DE), Kyle Phillips (DE), and Tarell Basham (OLB)
Fortunately for the Jets, they happen to have a very promising rotation of players up front. First is former third-round pick, Nathan Shepherd. Drafted at 25 years old, Shepherd was expected to produce right away, but a disappointing rookie year left him on the bubble last off-season. He made the roster and emerged in the second half of the season as a productive defender against the pass. In a rotational role, Shepherd totaled five quarterback hits, two sacks, five tackles for a loss, earning a 71.3 grade. Expect Shepherd to split snaps and challenge Anderson for the starting job throughout the season.
Another surprise emergence for the Jets this past season was Kyle Phillips, an undrafted defensive lineman from Tennessee. Playing in 15 games with four starts, Phillips finished with a 76.6 grade against the run, providing a very good edge setter. Phillips’ role will continue to grow in Gregg Williams’ heavy defensive rotation in his second season.
Lastly, Zuniga’s challenger at outside linebacker will be Tarell Basham. Coming off of a career season, Basham saw a steady role for the first time in his career, earning a 73.1 grade. The 26-year-old outside linebacker has the size to line up on the defensive line too, and maybe even start if Zuniga is not ready.
The Defensive End Bubble: John Franklin-Myers (DE), Jordan Willis (DE), and Bronson Kaufusi (DE)
The 2020 New York Jets have a handful of players on the bubble who can all fill in different roles. John Franklin-Myers, Jordan Willis, and Bronson Kaufusi are all castaways the Jets picked up over the past two seasons. Franklin-Myers is a prototypical defensive end who was cut by the Los Angeles Rams last off-season after battling an injury. The Jets acquired him off of waivers and have stashed him ever since. Jordan Willis was an early third-round pick by the Cincinnati Bengals who simply got lost in the fold. Unlike Franklin-Myers, Willis played in nine games for the Jets last season, even getting one sack. For Kaufusi, he has been around the Jets since 2018, bouncing between the practice squad and 53-man roster after being let go by the Baltimore Ravens. The older brother of Jets lineman Corbin Kaufusi, Bronson did impress Jets staff last year during training camp.
The Outside Linebacker Bubble: Frankie Luvu (OLB), Harvey Langi (OLB), Ahmad Gooden (OLB), Wyatt Ray (OLB), Bryce Huff (OLB)
Speaking of training camp impressions, Frankie Luvu and Harvey Langi both have stuck around the Jets since 2018. The lean speedster Luvu enters his third season, offering a situational pass rusher for Gregg Williams’ defense. With four sacks and 13 quarterback hits in 27 games, Luvu has proved he can produce in that role. As for Harvey Langi, he did start three games last season in part due to the Jets injuries at linebacker. With the versatility to play outside or inside linebacker, the Jets love Langi’s skill set.
Finally, the Jets have a trio of unproven undrafted free agents fighting for roster spots. Both Ahmad Gooden and Wyatt Ray were picked up of the waiver wire last season. Both bring effortless demeanors but have a long way to go to be well-rounded players in the pros. For Bryce Huff through, the Jets may immediately use him as a situational rusher. Slightly undersized at 6’1” and 254 pounds, Huff was given the highest contract of all Jets undrafted free agents this off-season. With his explosiveness off of the edge, the Jets knew they had to lock him up. While that is no guarantee to make the roster, Huff is certainly in a great position to make the roster.
Last Word on the 2020 New York Jets Preview: Edge Defenders
The 2020 New York Jets are not going to break any records and will need a major leap from someone to have an impact pass rusher. However, that does not mean the group does not have any promise. Whether it is Zuniga or Basham in the lineup, the Jets will once again be at the top of the league in setting the edge against the run. With Gregg Williams’ heavy depth usage and aggressive playcalling, expect the Jets to at least have an effective front in 2020.
Stay tuned for the next article in the 2020 New York Jets Preview series with Interior Defensive Lineman!