For the first time since 2005, the New York Jets will employ a 4-3 defensive scheme. That means the defense will feature four down linemen and three linebackers, as opposed to the 3-4 defensive scheme they have run over the past decade and a half. The move comes with the hire of San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as their new head coach. With a young, rebuilding team in the Jets, Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas are going to work closely to evaluate how the scheme switch impacts their personnel. Currently, the Jets have 10 defensive linemen under contract for 2021, counting veteran Henry Anderson, who is expected to be cut to save over $8 million in cap space. Already, the team has begun to explore options outside of the organization to continue to strengthen one of their stronger position groups. Chances are, moves will be made to replicate the strong fronts Saleh had with San Francisco. For now, though, he will need to determine how these nine linemen can contribute to the new 4-3 front. Here is a breakdown of the New York Jets defensive scheme shift to a 4-3 from a 3-4.
New York Jets Defensive Scheme Shift To 4-3 Breakdown
Potential Starters on Roster
In the 4-3 defense, there are two defensive ends, one defensive tackle, and one nose tackle. Chances are the Jets could have three spots along the front filled. The first is at defensive end, where John Franklin-Myers will look to take on a full-time role. As a role player this past season, Franklin-Myers had three sacks on 13 quarterback hits and two fumble recoveries. He finished with a 76.4 pass-rush grade from PFF, and the Jets can definitely use his ability to get after the quarterback in 2021. At 6’4″ and 288 pounds, the soon to be 25-year-old makes for a promising starting defensive end in the new scheme.
Meanwhile, along the interior, budding star Quinnen Williams will resort to his natural defensive tackle spot. The former third overall pick took a leap in his second season, and finished the season as one of the highest-graded interior defensive linemen. In 13 games, Williams had seven sacks, 55 total tackles, ten tackles for a loss, and two forced fumbles. Joining Williams along the interior will be elite run-stuffer Folorunso Fatukasi. As the Connecticut product enters a contract year, it will be interesting to see how he is utilized as his 6’4″ and 318 pound frame is bigger than the typical nose tackle. Nevertheless, Fatukasi only trailed Aaron Donald as the highest-graded run defender in the game.
Lastly, the opposite spot of Franklin-Myers is where things get interesting. Henry Anderson is likely gone, leaving Nathan Shepherd as the team’s other defensive end. An addition in free agency or the draft is extremely likely, as Shepherd has not become more than a solid rotational piece. Yes, Shepherd is a former third-round pick by Mike Maccagnan, but at 6’4″ and 315 pounds, his versatility might be worth keeping around for the final year of his rookie deal.
The 4-3 Defensive Ends
One of the more interesting things to watch with the New York Jets 4-3 scheme will be how Saleh approaches the team’s depth. In the 3-4 defense under Gregg Williams, the Jets had a handful of situational pass rushers off the edge. How will they be utilized in the 4-3 scheme?
Kyle Phillips should have a similar role. The 6’4″ and 277 pound Tennessee product has been a versatile player, lining up at defensive end, defensive tackle, and outside linebacker. With the coverage ability that 4-3 linebackers must have, Phillips will become a defensive lineman full-time, most likely on the end.
As for Jabari Zuniga, expect to see a completely different player in his second season. Zuniga missed significant time last off-season during training camp due to a calf injury that saw him miss the first half of the season. As he settles back in for year two, Zuniga is finally going to be correctly implemented into the defense, which should help cure his rookie year struggles. At 6’3″ and 246 pounds, Zuniga is a powerful edge setter who fits as a 4-3 defensive end. Although the Jets cannot enter training camp with him as a starter by any means, he could develop nicely in the new scheme.
The biggest wild card is Bryce Huff, who is a fantastic situational pass rusher. Undrafted out of Buffalo last year, Huff is 6’3″ and 245 pounds, and profiles as more of a tweener than Zuniga. Huff wins with his explosiveness off of the line, not power, baring the question of whether he can be a 4-3 defensive end, or if he fits the mold of a career 3-4 situational rusher. Of course, he showed flashes this past season that leaves Jets fans hoping he can transition into the 4-3 scheme.
The 4-3 Defensive Tackles
Lastly, there is a reason why the Jets were looking into interior defensive linemen in the draft. They do not have the traditional one-technique nose tackle, someone who can anchor over the center and stop the run. Obviously, Fatukasi is great at stopping the run and will hold the position this season. However, he is in a contract year, and who knows how well he will adapt to the 4-3 scheme.
Behind Williams and Fatukasi at defensive tackle, Trevon Coley and Tanzel Smart are the only players under contract at that position. Coley has played for three NFL teams in four seasons and has started 31 of 44 games played. He may not load the stat sheet, but Coley is still a productive defensive tackle who should compete for a roster spot. Coley also has a rather compact frame, being 6’1″ and 310 pounds.
As for Tanzel Smart, he does not bring the stout frame or experience that Coley does. In four seasons, he has four starts and 24 total tackles in 34 games. He also stands at 6’1″ and 295 pounds. The former sixth-round pick by the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 has shown promise, earning a career-high 70.4 grade from PFF this past season with Gang Green.
There is no doubt that the defensive line is one of the stronger position groups for the New York Jets. Quinnen Williams is a budding star who the unit will be built around. John Franklin-Myers and Folorunso Fatukasi are solid starters who are looking to build off breakout campaigns in contract years. And the Jets certainly have some promising depth pieces already in place. However, as Robert Saleh and Joe Douglas build this team their way this off-season, do not be surprised if changes are coming to the defensive line to adapt to the new 4-3 front.