NY Jets: 5 edge rushers to target in 2021 free agency

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The NY Jets have been searching for pass-rush help for what feels like the better part of two decades. But under new head coach Robert Saleh, will the Jets finally be able to adequately address what has long been one of the weakest position groups on the roster?

They’ll certainly have their fair share of options.

While there is no one top pass-rusher in this year’s draft, the class is ripe with late-Day 1/early-Day 2 talent that the Jets could look to target. But even more importantly, there are quite a few appealing options in free agency.

With the implementation of Saleh’s new 4-3 defense, the Jets are in need of true five-technique defensive ends to play that 4-3 end role. At the moment, the roster is pretty barren at that spot.

They’ll need a complete overhaul of the position in the offseason and that will start in free agency.

Now that the Jets have their new head coach, the free-agent plan becomes a bit clearer. Don’t expect them to target players like Matt Judon or even Leonard Floyd as both are better fit as 3-4 outside linebackers.

For a variety of reasons, the following five players make sense as potential targets come mid-March. The Jets need pass-rush help and these players could certainly provide that.

Let’s take a look at five edge rushers the Jets could target in free agency this offseason.

Next: 5. Yannick Ngakoue

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5. The NY Jets could target Yannick Ngakoue

One of the more high-profile names set to hit the market, Yannick Ngakoue is coming off another eight-sack year, this time split between the Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens.

The former Jacksonville Jaguars pass-rusher fits the prototype of what the Jets are looking for. An athletic pass-rush specialist with Pro Bowl upside and excellent production.

That said, there are a few reasons why he’s number five on this list.

Despite the eight sacks, Ngakoue is coming off arguably the least efficient season of his career posting a career-low 42 pressures which ranked 31st among all edge rushers.

His 69.2 Pro Football Focus grade was also respectable, but it was still good for the lowest mark since his rookie year. That said, his woeful 46.7 run-defense grade clearly had something to do with that.

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Ngakoue remains one of the better pass-rushers in the NFL with 45.5 sacks over the first five years of his career. But don’t expect much contribution from him in the run game — he’s strictly a pass-rush specialist.

That and his prior off-field antics in Jacksonville could scare someone like Joe Douglas away. His price tag might also be a bit higher than what the Jets are willing to pay given his average 2020 season.

Still, he’s just 25-years-old and has the athletic upside and sack production the Jets are looking for. He’s someone they should certainly consider, even if he’s not atop their list of potential targets.

Next: 4. Kerry Hyder

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4. The NY Jets could target Kerry Hyder

With Saleh now in New York, it would make sense for him to attempt to bring over some of his former players from San Francisco. And one player that seems like a logical target is Kerry Hyder.

Originally an undrafted free agent in 2014, Hyder’s first stint was actually with the Jets, but he spent the entirety of his rookie season on the team’s practice squad.

From there, he would make a name for himself following an eight-sack season with the Detroit Lions in 2016 before settling back into a reserve pass-rusher role. That was until the 2020 season.

Following a slew of injuries on defense, Hyder filled in for superstar pass-rusher Nick Bosa and put together the best season of his career recording a team-leading 8.5 sacks. Now, Hyder is set to hit free agency and there’s a good chance the Jets are interested.

The Texas Tech product fits the mold of a true five-technique defensive end and provides a more well-rounded skill set than someone like Ngakoue for a much more affordable price.

His 69.9 PFF run-defense grade ranked 24th of all edge defenders showing he can be efficient both rushing the passer and stopping the run.

The biggest downside is that he’ll turn 30-years-old in May making him more of a short-term fix than a true high-upside, long-term solution.

Hyder would give the Jets a starting-caliber defensive end who can fill a major need for the time being. He wouldn’t be a flashy signing, but he fits the system and would be a worthwhile addition for the right price.

Next: 3. Trey Hendrickson

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3. The NY Jets could target Trey Hendrickson

Trey Hendrickson was one of the breakout stars of the 2020 season as the former third-round pick burst onto the scene in his first year as a starter recording 13.5 sacks despite entering the year with just 6.5 in his career.

And it couldn’t have come at a better time either.

Hendrickson was little more than a situational pass-rusher through the first three years of his career as he battled through injuries. But he proved in 2020 that he could be one of the better pass-rushers in football.

Now entering free agency for the first time, the 26-year-old is looking to earn a sizable payday. And it’s unlikely that payday comes from a cap-starved New Orleans Saints team.

Hendrickson is likely to be one of the more coveted players on the market given his age and production in 2020.

His 13.5 sacks are impressive, but they weren’t hollow sacks either as his 49 pressures were good for top-20 at his position and his 77.0 PFF pass-rush grade was among the best of all edge defenders.

Hendrickson will likely cost a pretty penny and there is something to be said about paying a player based on one year of production. But both the stats and analytics support that his 2020 season wasn’t a one-year fluke.

There are no obvious indicators that regression is coming.

The Jets may want to steer clear of Hendrickson’s market if it takes off, but he’s absolutely someone they should and will consider.

Next: 2. Romeo Okwara

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2. The NY Jets could target Romeo Okwara

Romeo Okwara quietly put together one of the best 2020s of any pass-rusher in football. He just did so on a poor Detroit Lions team and without the flashy sack numbers.

Okwara finished his breakout campaign with a career-high 10 sacks and a whopping 61 pressures which were fifth-most among all edge rushers in the NFL.

Combine that with his elite 84.5 pass-rush grade and you have a player who was pretty clearly a top-10/15 pass-rusher in the league a year ago.

And at just 25-years-old, he’ll likely be looking to parlay his success in 2020 into a shiny new contract. The Jets should be one of his top suitors.

Okwara was outstanding last season and has shown the ability to get to the quarterback at a high rate in the past racking up 7.5 sacks just two years ago. While his run-defense is shoddy at best, few players rushed the passer at a more efficient rate than Okwara last season.

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On top of that, at 6-foot-4, 263 pounds, he perfectly fits the archetype the Jets are looking for at defensive end. He’s your prototypical five-technique defensive end with enough athletic upside to shine in Robert Saleh’s defense.

Because of his low-profile and lack of elite sack production throughout his career, he may not garner as much interest as someone like Yannick Ngakoue or even Matt Judon.

But make no mistake about it, Okwara would be a better signing than both players and is someone the Jets must target this offseason — provided he hits the open market.

Next: 1. Carl Lawson

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1. The NY Jets could target Carl Lawson

If Romeo Okwara isn’t the most undervalued pass-rusher in free agency this offseason, it’s because Carl Lawson is.

A former fourth-round pick, Lawson burst onto the scene as a rookie racking up 8.5 sacks despite playing a part-time role. But he’s somewhat faded into NFL obscurity since then having flown under-the-radar on an abysmal Cincinnati Bengals team.

But in 2020, Lawson was quietly one of the best pass-rushers in football.

Don’t be fooled by his mere 5.5 sacks, Lawson was downright unblockable for the better part of 2020. The former Auburn star finished with a whopping 64 pressures which ranked fourth among all edge rushers in the NFL.

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The only free agent who tallied more pressures in 2020 was Shaquil Barrett — who would have been on this list if it wasn’t already clear that he will be returning to Tampa.

Lawson’s 84.9 PFF pass-rush grade was top-eight at his position and he gets the nod over Okwara because he is a more capable run-defender. Fortunately, much like Okwara, he’s someone who could very well get overlooked in a deep free-agent crop of edge rushers.

PFF even insisted in a recent article that “there is an argument to be made that Lawson is the best pure pass rusher to hit free agency this offseason.” He’s that good.

Lawson fits the exact mold of a five-technique defensive end, is a well-rounded run defender, and was one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL a year ago. All at just 25-years-old.

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Out of all the free agents the Jets might target at any position this offseason, Carl Lawson should be near the top of their list.