Grading the 2017 defensive line situation

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 06: Sheldon Richardson
MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 06: Sheldon Richardson /

The best positional unit on the New York Jets is without question their defensive line. Look for the big boys to continue to eat in 2017.

You can laugh all you want at the holes on the New York Jets roster as there is a handful of them. The one group you can’t poke fun at is their defensive line. Poor health and fourth quarter deficits in 2016 put them outside of the top-five in run defense for the first time since 2013, but expectations are still sky-high. There simply isn’t a trio across the league better than Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams in a 3-4 look.

Wilkerson wasn’t his usual self last season, recording just 4.5 sacks, 58 tackles and one forced fumble in 15 games. The All-Pro suffered a broken fibula in Week 17 of the 2015 campaign and blamed the training staff for not rehabbing him correctly.

Whether he’s being honest or making an excuse for his regression, it has to be a bit concerning for general manager Mike Maccagnan when you consider the contract he gave him last offseason. Regardless of what it may be, he has accomplished way too much to be viewed as a liability. All signs point to him bouncing back and giving the Jets the production they’re used to seeing from him.

Richardson, on the other hand, didn’t necessarily have a bad 2016 despite it being his worst season statistically (only 1.5 sacks). The 2013 first-rounder earned an 83.3 overall grade on Pro Football Focus and played just about everywhere in the front-seven. Head coach Todd Bowles used him out of position at both outside and inside linebacker to make up for the injuries to Jordan Jenkins and David Harris.

He also received 761 snaps, which was 88 less than Wilkerson’s count and 137 less than what Williams saw. If he had been utilized properly, his sack total would’ve been much different. He’s due for a new deal in 2018, so we might be in line to see his best season to date.

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Williams is the most intriguing of the three. He led the way with seven sacks, 68 tackles and two forced fumbles in 2016 while receiving the best PFF grade of the entire roster (87.5).

Let’s not forget he made the Pro Bowl as well. The 23-year-old is establishing himself as one of the league’s budding defensive stars on a team that already has two studs alongside him. Just imagine what he could do if he was on his own.

The trio absorbs a majority of the spotlight, although the unit has other pieces worth addressing. Steve McLendon was one of the more underrated signings in the 2016 offseason before missing the last five contests. The nose tackle is no Damon Harrison, but he did finish with 3.5 sacks, 28 tackles, and a forced fumble.

Deon Simon played in McLendon’s absence and made his case to be part of the future. He ended the year with 23 tackles and 1.5 sacks under a 204 snap count. The 2015 seventh-rounder earned a 75.8 overall grade on PFF on top of those numbers. The big question is how often will he chime in when everyone is healthy.

Lawrence Thomas, Mike Pennel, Anthony Johnson, Brandin Bryant, Claude Pelon and Patrick Gamble make up the rest of the bunch. Assuming Maccagnan keeps six, Thomas is in the driver’s seat to win the final spot after making the roster last season. Pennel is the veteran who will push him and the other four will battle for what could be two spots on the practice squad.

Must Read: Grading the 2017 offensive line situation

Overall, New York’s defensive line is tremendous and the slight dip in 2016 doesn’t hurt their grade. It has talent, experience, and depth. We all know what this group is capable of.

Grade: A