Everyone who follows the New York Jets knows the team has sorely needed productive edge rushers for over a decade now. Yes, there have been some great campaigns, such as Muhammad Wilkerson in 2015 (12.0 sacks), but there has been no consistency to their pass rush.
With the hiring of Head Coach Robert Saleh, New York needed to resolve this issue. Looking at his time with the San Francisco 49ers, his 4-3 defense starts and ends with being able to get after the quarterback. Therefore, it makes sense that General Manager Joe Douglas brought in a handful of new faces along the edge.
Here is how the Jets edge rushers will line up in 2021…
2021 New York Jets Preview: Edge Rushers
The Starters: Carl Lawson (LE), Vinny Curry (RE)
This off-season, Gang Green’s biggest addition was former Cincinnati Bengals defensive end, Carl Lawson. Signing a three-year worth $45-million deal, Saleh hopes Lawson will be his new Nick Bosa. And it is not a reach to say he can become exactly that – an elite pass rusher.
Standing at 6’2” and 265 pounds, Lawson has the power and moves to be a menace to opposing offenses. The 26-year-old had 32 quarterback hits last season, as well as two forced fumbles. His 84.9 pass-rush grade from Pro Football Focus even ranked eighth among all 99 eligible edge rushers. It goes without saying that Lawson will make a huge impact on this defense.
Meanwhile, opposite of him could very well be veteran Vinny Curry. The 33-year-old enters his 10th year in the NFL and brings all that experience to a young Jets defense. Chances are he will be the Week 1 starter.
Curry is a solid player, and Lawson’s upside is through the roof, but can they actually bring down opposing quarterbacks? When with the Bengals, Lawson was among the most dangerous edge rushers when it comes to creating pressure, but only had 5.5 sacks in 2021. Whereas Curry, who has never been a sack artist per se, had 3.0. New York is banking on Lawson to turn quarterback hits into sacks and for Curry to set the edge to be successful, which is a dangerous assumption. Then again, if anyone can get them to play at a high level, it is Robert Saleh.
The Backups: Ronald Blair, Jabari Zuniga
Last season, Ronald Blair spent the year on the PUP list before the San Francisco 49ers released him in March. Now, he looks for a fresh start by rejoining Saleh in the Big Apple. Blair, a former fifth-round pick by the 49ers in the 2016 NFL Draft, has made a career out of being a versatile depth piece. His 6’4” and 270-pound frame saw him line up across the defensive front, something he will carry to the Jets. Saleh loves keeping his edge rushers fresh, so Blair will get plenty of playtime with the Jets early on.
As for Jabari Zuniga, the Jets can only hope he can have that kind of an impact. Taken in the third-round last year, Zuniga struggled once active during the second half of the season. In 2021, he looks to prove to the Jets that his talent can translate into production. Like Blair, Zuniga has the size necessary to play anywhere across the defensive line. This will be a big year for the Florida product to show he belongs.
The Bubble: Bryce Huff, Kyle Phillips, Hamilcar Rashed Jr., Michael Dwumfour
Again, Saleh loves having depth along the defensive front. Moreover, he could carry a handful of edge rushers. One thing for sure is he has plenty of options behind the four previously mentioned.
First is Bryce Huff, was impressive in a situational role in 2020. In 14 games, Huff had eight pressures, two sacks, and four tackles for a loss. The Memphis product is a twitchy rusher and would provide speed off the edge.
On the other hand, Kyle Phillips brings a similar set of skills as Blair or Zuniga. At 6’4” and 277-pounds, Phillips can play inside or out. He enters his third year out of Tennessee following an up and down season. This year Phillips must improve as a pass rusher, and not just be a solid run defender.
A surprise undrafted free agent, Hamilcar Rashed Jr. is hungry to make teams regret passing on him. He had a down season in 2020, but in 2019 the Oregon State product had 14.0 sacks and 22.5 tackles for a loss. While those numbers are unlikely to translate to his rookie season, he has the tools to be a strong situational rusher for New York.
Last but not least is the homegrown talent from Rutgers, Michael Dwumfour. At 6’1” and 296-pounds, he is another versatile lineman. He is not going to make a big impact in the pass rush but is another people’s mover for Saleh to incorporate into the rotation.
Final Edge Rushers Analysis
It has been a long time since Jets fans could watch a game and not roll their eyes at their inability to rush the passer. This year, that may finally change. Lawson is an athletic freak, who will form an exciting duo with defensive lineman Quinnen Williams for years to come. Of course, it will not be for another month and a half until they take the field together. But Saleh has the players necessary to get a productive pass rush from the Jets edge rushers.
Stay tuned for the next article in the 2021 New York Jets Preview series with linebackers!
2021 New York Jets Preview Series: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Offensive Tackles, Interior Offensive Lineman, Interior Defensive Line
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