Barring any surprises, the New York Jets interior defensive line will not bring a ferocious pass rush. Instead, the team once again will hope to have an elite run defense. Over the past decade, the Jets have ranked in the top five against the run five times, and in the upper half of the league seven times.
Their dominance against the run has been in large part because of smooth transitions at nose tackle. Three players held the position over the span, being Sione Pouha, Damon Harrison, and most recently Steve McLendon. Now, despite a career-year in 2019, McLendon is not getting any younger. With training camp underway, let’s take a look at the interior defensive line for Gang Green in 2020 and beyond.
2020 New York Jets Preview: Interior Defensive Line
The Starter: Steve McLendon
Steve McLendon brings the perfect example of the New York Jets nose tackle. An elite two-down run defender who simply gets the job done. In four seasons, McLendon has started 53 of 59 games, with 7.5 sacks and 144 tackles. What is most impressive though is in his tenth season in 2019, McLendon put up a career-high 10 tackles for loss on his way to an 81.3 overall grade from PFF.
That being said, it was not shocking the Jets welcomed McLendon back on a one-year deal this off-season. A respected veteran in the locker room, McLendon will once again be the starting nose tackle for Gang Green. It is not easy for a 34-year old to replicate the success McLendon had in 2019, it is not impossible. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ play-calling and rotations will help keep him fresh and ready to go.
This past season, McLendon started 16 games for the first time in his career. In ten seasons, McLendon only has played a full season five times. Thankfully, he only has missed five games with the Jets, although with his age nothing is guaranteed. A large part of that has been his 41.25% usage rate since 2016. The team has used depth to its advantage in keeping him fresh and effective against the run. McLendon may have graded out as the 28th best at his position at getting after the quarterback, yet he only totaled seven quarterback hits in 2019. With McLendon’s age and playing style, it is hard to expect the same level of play from him in 2020.
The Backup: Folorunso Fatukasi
Again, Steve McLendon is 34-years old and returning on a one-year deal. The Jets have a steady pattern of smooth transitions from one nose tackle to another. And after a dominant season in a rotational role, Folorunso Fatukasi appears to be the next man up.
The 25-year old former sixth-round pick out of Connecticut enters his third season in 2020. Last year, Fatukasi only played 35% of the team’s defensive snaps. Yet he managed to earn the 10th highest overall grade of and interior lineman, headlined by a 87.6 grade against the run. After only playing in one game his rookie year, Fatukasi played in 14 last season. Fatukasi stood out in his small role, racking up seven tackles for loss and three quarterback hits. His productive play in a small role will surely see a usage increase in 2020. That being said, Fatukasi has a chance to be starting over McLendon by seasons end.
The Bubble: Sterling Johnson and Domenique Davis
The Jets have plenty of versatility along their defensive line, with multiple players on the edge who can kick inside. That being said, Nathan Shepherd and Kyle Phillips also double as a backup interior defensive lineman. Unfortunately, that makes rookies Sterling Johnson and Domenique Davis’ chances of making the roster slim.
Coastal Carolina product Sterling Johnson has the athletic ability to move inside or out with excellent size and length. He brings that gritty run defense the Jets look for, as well as the ability to move the pocket. With limited pass-rushing moves and leaner frame in need of bulk, Johnson is a player that needs time to develop.
The same goes for Domenique Davis. A prototypical two-down run defender, Davis has great size at nose tackle. Adding more bulk to his frame and improving his technique will go a long way, as Davis already has flashed solid pass rushing tools. Ultimately, both players are promising prospects, as the Jets could look to develop them on the practice squad in 2020.
Last Word on the 2020 New York Jets Preview: Interior Defensive Lineman
No, the Jets are unlikely to get after the quarterback consistently. But with the duo of McLendon and Fatukasi stopping the run, they hope to maintain their elite run defense. With the COVID-19 pandemic hurting team’s chemistry, to retain a primary duo upfront will be huge for the Jets. Especially with the way Gregg Williams utilizes extra pass rushers, nose tackle is as important as any other position for Gang Green.
Stay tuned for the next article in the 2020 New York Jets Preview series with Linebackers!
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