It has been a couple of days since the Robert Saleh era began for the NY Jets. In fact, it was just this past Thursday that the team came to terms with the former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator to become their next head coach.
Saleh is the most celebrated head coach hire in recent memory by Jets fans. Although, it is rather easy to follow the disappointing hire of Adam Gase.
General manager Joe Douglas wanted to hire someone who can rally the entire team, be a leader, and help establish a winning culture in Florham Park. Something that the Jets have not done much of over the past decade.
Members of the 49ers who played for Saleh, including Richard Sherman, congratulated the Jets on their hire.
The @nyjets got a great one! Congrats to them!
— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) January 15, 2021
One of the most notable quotes from Douglas during the hiring process was how “we’re looking for a great partner.” Furthermore, the Jets are going to be among the teams with the most salary cap space available in free agency.
With the Jets having plenty of needs on both sides of the ball, the Jets could look to acquire numerous 49ers players through Saleh. Bringing veterans with experience in his system could be huge to the Jets — especially in terms of establishing leaders in Gang Green’s young locker room.
Having taken a look at the offensive side of the football, now it is time to examine which free agent 49ers might make a move to MetLife Stadium in 2021. Here are five former 49ers defensive players who Robert Saleh should target.
Next: 1. A young starting cornerback
1. The NY Jets could target cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon
This past season, the 49ers were the fifth overall defense, only giving up 314.4 total yards per game. This coming with numerous major injuries, from Nick Bosa to Richard Sherman.
Yet somehow, the 49ers finished the season with the fourth-best pass defense, only giving up 207.9 yards per game. One of the reasons behind this was because of the deep rotation and next-man-up mentality Saleh’s secondary has.
Luckily, Saleh is going to have a handful of cornerback options to recruit from San Francisco. One of the most intriguing possibilities is four-year pro Ahkello Witherspoon.
The soon-to-be 26-year-old is a former third-round pick in 2017 out of Colorado by the 49ers. What is interesting about his draft year is it also was the first season Saleh was the team’s defensive coordinator.
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Over four seasons, Witherspoon has made 33 starts in 47 career games. He has 117 total tackles, 24 pass deflections, and four interceptions over the span. Witherspoon has also battled injuries, having never played in all 16 games in one season.
While the injury concerns are obvious, Witherspoon could be a high-upside signing. Despite battling injuries in 2020, he posted an 80.9 grade in coverage on his way to a career-high 80.2 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.
With the Jets needing to make multiple additions at the corner, Witherspoon is a name to watch.
Next: 2. Reunion with an old friend
2. The NY Jets could target defensive end Kerry Hyder
One of the most amazing parts of Saleh’s defense this past season and recent years overall has been the play of the defense line. Specifically, when the 49ers have dealt with injury.
This past season, members of the 49ers front suffered significant injuries, such as star Nick Bosa suffering a season-ending torn ACL in Week 2. From there, Saleh always got the best out of his players, once again displaying the next-man-up mentality.
Of those players who stepped up is Kerry Hyder. The soon-to-be 26-year-old defensive lineman has been a journeyman most of his career, having played for four teams in his six-year career. And the team that happened to be his first was in fact the Jets back in 2014.
The Texas Tech product got his chance to be a primary starter when Bosa got hurt, and he answered the call. Hyder had a career-high 8.5-sacks, beating his 8.0 mark with the Detroit Lions in 2016. Per PFF, he graded out as the 40th-best edge rusher out of 112 who qualify.
Hyder is not going to solve the Jets’ pass-rushing issues. Nonetheless, Hyder has proven to be a productive, well-rounded player when receiving the reps, and capable of applying pressure. In this league, there is no such thing as too many edge rushers.
The Jets have a young and talented starting trio in Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, and Folorunso Fatukasi.
However, Saleh primarily employs a 4-3 front, as opposed to the Jets 3-4 front over the past decade. Meaning that the Jets will be looking to add more players who can fit in the 4-3 system.
And Hyder is a productive and not-expensive option to do exactly that.
Next: 3. A potential key replacement
3. The NY Jets could target cornerback K’Waun Williams
In the Adam Gase era, the cornerback position was always a constant rotation. In 2019, Darryl Roberts, Arthur Maulet, and Nate Hairston were staples in the lineup. In 2020, it was Blessuan Austin, rookie Bryce Hall, and Pierre Desir, until his release.
There were many corners over to start for the Jets over the past two seasons, with only one playing at a high level — Brian Poole.
The Jets slot corner has played at an elite level, both against the run and in coverage. In 23 games with the Jets, he had three interceptions, 12 pass deflections, 103 total tackles, and a 78.1 average grade from PFF.
This offseason, Poole is once again a free agent, and at only 28-years-old, he is unlikely to settle for a one-year deal as he did in 2020. Whether fans like it or not, there is a chance that Poole is not a Jet in 2021.
If Poole winds up out of the Jets price range, the Saleh can make a case to reunite with 49ers corner K’Waun Williams.
A versatile defensive back, Williams has become a staple in their secondary since signing there in 2017. Williams is going to be 30-years-old this season and should be attainable for a team-friendly team.
Not to mention, Williams is a New Jersey native, coming from Paterson. Like Witherspoon, Williams has also battled injuries, except when on the field, he has been reliable.
Having spent the past four seasons with Saleh, it would not be surprising to see him replace Poole in 2021.
Next: 4. Depth along the front
4. The NY Jets could target defensive lineman D.J. Jones
Turning back to the defensive line, the Jets will need to bulk up their defensive line. Injury or not, Saleh likes to maintain a talented, athletic, and versatile defensive front.
There are some good depth pieces on the roster in Kyle Phillips, Nathan Shepherd, and even to-be second-year edge rusher Jabari Zuniga. There are few who can step up for a multi-game span if anyone got hurt.
That being said, there is no reason why Saleh and Joe Douglas should not add more talent up front. Solomon Thomas is an interesting option, except his struggles with the 49ers could lead him to want a fresh start in another system.
Instead of Thomas, the Jets could look at another player from the 49ers’ 2017 NFL Draft class in D.J. Jones.
The sixth-round pick has improved every season, and his coming off of a career year. Jones started all 14 games he played in, with three sacks, 20 total tackles, with seven for a loss.
Moving to the 4-3, the Jets need more players who naturally fit the defensive tackle mold. Jones, at 6-foot-0 and 321 pounds, is a stout and powerful interior defensive lineman who can make for a great rotation piece behind Quinnen Williams and Folorunso Fatukasi.
Jones is a player who is familiar with Saleh and will not have a high price tag to bring on as a rotation piece. For the Jets, who are looking for overall talent to add to the roster, Jones makes for a strong target in free agency.
Next: 5. Young cornerbacks need a veteran presence
5. The NY Jets could target cornerback Richard Sherman
Once again, let’s turn back to the cornerback position. The biggest issue for the Jets last season at the position was the inexperience.
Blessuan Austin was very inconsistent in his second season, while rookie Bryce Hall showed promise. Outside of the two, the Jets turned to undrafted rookies such as Lamar Jackson to start.
And as the league saw against Henry Ruggs and the Las Vegas Raiders, it did not go well.
What the Jets need at cornerback is a leader and someone who has experience. Someone who can be viewed as a starter every time he is in the lineup, and lockdown a team’s No. 1 cornerback.
While the Jets may be against signing an over-30 corner, the Saleh connection may overrule in this situation. At cornerback, the free-agent market is rather thin, and the Jets may look into signing the shell of prime Richard Sherman.
Sherman is going into his age 33 season and was limited to five games last season due to injury. But he still makes for one of the better starting cornerbacks across the league when healthy and has played well under Saleh.
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He has five Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro appearances to his name. But the fact he has not played more than 16 games in the past four seasons will keep him from receiving a large contract.
Bonus: The NY Jets could target cornerback Jason Verrett
Should the Jets decide against Sherman, they could look into another veteran who played under Saleh. Jason Verrett has essentially revived his career this season in San Francisco.
Verrett burst onto the scene in his second season with the then-San Diego Chargers, only for injuries to follow. From 2016-2019, he only played in six games. Then, this past season, Verrett started all 13 games he played in, showing he can still be a viable starter.
Ultimately, both Sherman and Verrett would be excellent additions to a youthful Jets cornerback unit that would benefit from a veteran presence.
They both have performed extremely well under Saleh and could end up in Gotham Green in 2021.