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New York Jets Year in Review: Grading the 2018 defensive line

New York Jets Leonard Williams (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
New York Jets Leonard Williams (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
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With the 2018 season officially over, it’s time to break down the performances of each of the New York Jets positional units. In this edition, we take a look at the team’s defensive line.

The New York Jets defensive line is likely due for a makeover in 2019 as the team transitions to a 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. That makes it even more important for the team to analyze the players they have on the roster and determine who could fit into their future plans and remain on the team.

That’s somewhat what we’re going to look to accomplish here.

The Jets defense as a whole showed flashes in 2018 but ultimately failed to live up to expectations. The same could be said for the defensive line which didn’t meet preseason projections either.

The team finished with the seventh-worst run defense which is pretty disappointing given the defense’s status as the supposed strength of the team. A lot of the blame should fall on the defensive line for failing to plug their gaps and allowing opposing running backs to run free.

But the entire defensive line wasn’t a disappointment. Let’s take a look and examine the play of each player that saw significant snaps on the defensive line for the Jets in 2018.

Leonard Williams

We have to start off with the “Big Cat” himself, Leonard Williams.

Williams entered 2018 coming off the heels of a massively disappointing season that saw the former Pro Bowler record just two sacks in a full 16-game season. While sacks are never the be-all-end-all of defensive production, he regularly failed to make much of an impact in games and was a relative afterthought most of the time.

Jets fans hoped that 2019 would be different and while there was a noticeable uptick in production and level of play, Williams failed to return to his dominant 2016 form. The USC product picked up five sacks this time and recorded 11 tackles for loss as opposed to his three last season but still didn’t quite seem like the same player.

He wasn’t a weakness, but he was far from a strength of the team. The excuses of him getting double-teamed are tiresome as Williams is not double-teamed nearly as often as some think he is and even so, great players are able to beat double teams every so often.

Williams is far from a great player and at this stage has performed at the level of a mid-tier starter at best. We know he has the talent to be a very good, if not a great player, but it’s just about maximizing his talent and transforming it into production.

The former first-round pick will hopefully benefit from the move to a 4-3 defense as he will shift to his more natural position as a 3-technique defensive tackle. But as it stands, 2018, although improved from his 2017 season, was nowhere near the production you’re looking for from a former sixth-overall selection.

Final Grade: C+

Henry Anderson

Williams may have failed to live up to expectations in 2018 but Henry Anderson is one player who far exceeded them.

Anderson came over this offseason as a part of a draft-day trade with the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a seventh-round pick. It’s safe to say that this trade worked out in the Jets favor as Anderson went on to have a career year with the team in 2018.

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The Stanford product tied for the team lead with seven sacks and tallied seven tackles for loss and 16 QB hits, all three career highs. Anderson was a constant presence defending both the pass and the run game getting consistent penetration against opposing offensive lines.

The former third-round pick made the most of his playing time originally beginning the season as a nickel package substitute on passing downs before transitioning into a full-time starting role.

Despite his stellar season, Anderson is unlikely to return to the team in 2019 following the Jets shift into a 4-3 defense. The Colts originally moved on from Anderson after the team made a similar defensive shift meaning a similar fate could be in store for him again with his contract set to expire.

At the very least, the Jets were able to get a career year out of a player for the small price of a seventh-round pick, even if it was only for one season.

Final Grade: B+

Nathan Shepherd

Despite beginning the year as the team’s starting defensive end in the base 3-4 defense, Nathan Shepherd failed to provide much of an impact in his rookie season.

The 2018 third-round pick began the year as a starter but saw his snap count slowly drop until he, for all intents and purposes, lost his starting job to the aforementioned Anderson. Shepherd did little with his snaps early on and found himself relegated to a rotational role by the end of the season.

Although he will be in just his second year in the NFL, Shepherd will be 26-years-old come September. With the Jets move to the 4-3, Shepherd will be asked to play a 3-technique defensive tackle role, a position he played and excelled at while in college.

There’s no guarantee, however, that Shepherd will be given a starting role come 2019 meaning he may have to earn his snaps once more. If the Jets opt for a big-name free agent signing, such as a Grady Jarrett, or address the position with a top draft selection, such as a Quinnen Williams, Shepherd’s road back into the starting lineup may become even sketchier.

Given his preseason hype and his status as a third-round pick, it’s disappointing that Shepherd couldn’t do more with his playing time.

Final Grade: D

Steve McLendon

While never the flashiest or most noteworthy player, Steve McLendon has filled a role for the Jets for the past three seasons and he fills it well. On top of that, he has been a vocal leader both in the locker room and on the field, something invaluable for any team.

McLendon totaled 34 tackles in 2018, the second-most in his Jets tenure but a step down from his 46 tackles last season. His 78.5 Pro Football Focus grade ranked 30th out of all interior defensive linemen making him a solid starter at his position.

However, being a nose tackle might be his downfall with the team. McLendon is set to be a free agent this offseason and at 33-years-old and given the absence of a true nose tackle in a 4-3 defense, it is unlikely that he will return to the team.

And that’s a shame given his incredible leadership and solid rotational play over the past few years. Still, his 2018 season was a solid indication that he still does have a bit left in the tank if another team is looking to give him a chance.

Final Grade: B-

Mike Pennel

Much like McLendon, Mike Pennel serves a role on the Jets as a rotational run-stuffing nose tackle in the team’s base defense. And much like McLendon, he serves that role very well.

Pennel totaled 27 tackles in 2018 and earned a stellar Pro Football Focus grade of 87.1 which ranked 16th out of all interior defensive linemen in the league. At 6’4″ and 332 pounds, Pennel has the ability to plug up multiple gaps in the run game as is asked of all defensive linemen in a 3-4 defense.

Unlike McLendon, the former Green Bay Packer might be able to stick around in 2019 as he still has a couple more years left on his contract. Gregg Williams tends to rarely stick in his base defense anyway so Pennel could likely hang around as a role player if the team opts to go in that direction.

Next. Grading the 2018 Jets offensive line

Still, 2018 was a pretty solid year for Pennel increasing his chances of sticking around with the team.

Final Grade: B-

Final Team Grade: C+

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