Lichtenstein: Where Will Jets Pass Rush Come From In 2020?

By WFAN Sports Radio 101.9 FM/66AM New York

As NFL free agency proceeds into its second week, Jets general manager Joe Douglas has already crossed off his No. 1 priority — stocking his offensive line.

Over the weekend, former Carolina guard Greg Van Roten joined center Connor McGovern and tackle George Fant as presumptive new starters up front. In addition, Douglas re-signed guard Alex Lewis and inked interior lineman Josh Andrews to bolster depth.

While none of the above would be considered all-world caliber, they fit Douglas’ profile of hardworking, fundamental players who have a history of avoiding penalty flags.

Douglas isn’t done retooling the offense. The Jets will surely look to add another tackle and a wide receiver (or two) in the coming weeks on the back end of free agency and/or in the draft.

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick passes as he is pressured by Jets linebacker Jordan Jenkins on Dec. 8, 2019, at MetLife Stadium. Al Bello/Getty Images

Among the Jets’ own 30-odd free agents, Lewis is the sole member from last season’s offense that Douglas has opted to retain as of this writing (though I wouldn’t rule out receiver Robby Anderson just yet). 

That’s a lot of change in one offseason, even if it was necessary after such ineptitude (last in yards, next-to-last in points) in 2019.

As for the Jets defense, however, it seems Douglas could be happy with simply running it back.

In the last few days, Douglas extended five defensive starters from the end of last season: linebackers Jordan Jenkins, Neville Hewitt and James Burgess and cornerbacks Brian Poole and Arthur Maulet. The only projected new starter Douglas has acquired this offseason is cornerback Pierre Desir, who is coming off a frustrating, injury-plagued season in Indianapolis.

Bringing Poole back made the most sense, especially at the same bargain $5 million, one-year price as Jenkins. Only San Francisco’s Richard Sherman allowed fewer yards per coverage snap than Poole last season among cornerbacks with at least 250 coverage snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Poole fit perfectly in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ schemes in that he wasn’t afraid to tackle in run support and was even an effective blitzer, ranking fourth among 24 corners with at least 15 pass rushes in pressure percentage.        

Jenkins’ contract may not be burdensome, but it’s probably a signal that the Jets are out of the market for a big-money edge rusher, Gang Green’s biggest need on the defensive side of the ball.

Once again, the Jets will be asking Williams to work miracles. Through the good fortune of a tissue-soft schedule and Williams’ creativity, New York managed to yield only 18.5 points and 294 yards per game in going 6-2 down the stretch last season. Had the Jets matched that level of stinginess in the first half of the season, we’d be talking about the league’s fourth-best defense.

But we know they didn’t. The Jets placed 26th in both statistical defensive categories because when they faced higher-quality teams early in the season, they couldn’t stop a nose bleed.

Benching brutally performing cornerbacks Trumaine Johnson and Daryl Roberts, both of whom were cut last week, in favor of Maulet and rookie Blessuan Austin helped stabilize the back end in the late-season run, but we don’t know if their success will translate against the stiffer competition the Jets are slated to face this season.  Williams might not be able to mask their weaknesses through exotic blitzes and zones when he goes up against the mighty NFC West instead of the weakling East.

We do know that the Jets’ pass rush last season was anemic. Per PFF, they ranked 24th in pressure percentage. They reached 24th place in total sacks only because 12 of their 35 were accrued in back-to-back games versus rookie quarterbacks Daniel Jones (Giants) and Dwayne Haskins (Redskins).

How’s that going to improve in 2020? Relying on Jenkins, who may have led the Jets with eight sacks last season but ranked 65th among 98 outside linebackers in pressure percentage, per PFF?

I know Jenkins has many fans in the media. He’s hailed for not taking plays off. But his record obviously didn’t impress the rest of the league.  Otherwise, he wouldn’t be back here on a prove-it deal. 

According to The Athletic’s Connor Hughes, Jenkins, 25, was thinking he could ink a multiyear contract in the $10 million-per-year range. The Jets were said to be out of the running to retain their 2016 third-round draft pick.

Jenkins then watched seven other edge rushers get more last week, with sack machine Dante Fowler Jr. leading the way with a $45 million contract from Atlanta for the next three years. Four others have yet to sign their franchise tag tenders. The Raiders gave Leonard Floyd twice as much as Jenkins following a less productive season in Chicago. That speaks volumes about both the Raiders and Jenkins.   

If Douglas was going to break the bank for anyone this offseason, I was hoping Fowler would be that guy. Those that can get to the quarterback are immensely valuable.

With Jenkins, the Jets will be getting what they were willing to pay for.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.