NY Jets: Analyzing 5 edge rushers the team should target in free agency

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The NY Jets have been searching for premium edge rushers for a long time, but for several years now, they haven’t been shopping for them in the top-tier of free agency or the draft.

With the Jets on the verge of entering the 2021 NFL free-agency period, which officially begins on March 17th, perhaps they will finally make the aggressive play to acquire a dynamic outside pass rusher.

Not since Gang Green broke the bank for Calvin Pace in 2008 (6 years, $42 million, $22 million guaranteed) have the Jets prioritized addressing this problem spot in free agency.

The Jets’ franchise has largely tried to address this position over the years with mid-round picks and reclamation projects off the scrap heap.

Outside of Jordan Jenkins, who turned out to be solid,  the Jets have journeyed through the valley of death with players like Aaron Maybin, Jachai Polite, Lorenzo Mauldin, Freddie Bishop, Dylan Donahue, Obum Gwacham, Tarrell Basham, etc.

Call it the curse of Vernon Gholston, who was drafted in the same year that Calvin Pace was signed. Gholston, who was picked sixth overall, flopped on an epic scale (zero sacks in three seasons). So much so that that the franchise has been scarred from it ever since.

The Jets struck out wildly swinging for a home run, and ever since, they have been trying to get on base by bunting their way on. It’s time for a change, and a change is coming. It has to.

The change begins with the Jets returning to the 4-3 defense for the first time since the 2005 season — coincidentally, the final year that the franchise’s last great pass rusher John Abraham played for them.

Newly-minted defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich will be calling the plays for a defense that new head coach Robert Saleh is extremely familiar with.

It’s a defense that requires putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks with a premium placed on the players up front, particularly on the edge.

In San Francisco, Saleh’s defense had more than one elite edge player, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just won a Super Bowl, making life a living hell for Patrick Mahomes with two fantastic edge rushers wreaking havoc on him.

The modern-day NFL is evolving but what has always separated the good teams from the bad is the number of impact players you have on your roster. The Jets’ offense and defense lack explosive dynamic playmakers, specifically at the most crucial positions that teams need to win.

The Jets might not be able to address all of their needs in one offseason, but it’s pivotal that the team finally gets itself premium outside pass rushers. The Jets need difference-makers who strike fear in opposing teams.

You could argue that the Jets should come out of this offseason with more than just one edge rusher because of the scheme change on defense.

If Robert Saleh and Joe Douglas truly have designs of competing for championships. And if they want to be able to stand toe-to-toe and beat the likes of Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes in the future, the Jets must make it a top priority to add difference-making edge rushers to their defense this offseason.

Luckily for the green and white, this year’s free-agent market is loaded with dynamic edge-rushing talent.

The Jets could choose to wait until late April’s draft to add an edge rusher, but the marketplace has proven commodities available for the taking in free agency. With $67 million dollars in cap space, this is the area where the Jets’ should be willing to use that luxury.

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There are so many proven quality pass rushers available that didn’t make the final five. But the need for upgrading the Jets pass rush is so crucial that all of them should definitely be considered.

Players like Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, Jadeveon Clowney, Leonard Floyd, Melvin Ingram, Justin Houston, Markus Golden, and Haason Reddick should all be on the team’s radar.

The free-agent pool at edge rusher is incredibly deep.  Any one of these players would be welcome additions to the Jets’ defense.

Let’s take a look at five specific edge rushers in more detail, that the green and white should target in free agency.

Next: 5. Carl Lawson

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5. NY Jets free agent target: Carl Lawson, EDGE, Cincinnati Bengals

At only 25-years-old, it’s surprising that a team like the Cincinnati Bengals didn’t utilize their franchise tag on one of their best young players in Carl Lawson. Cincy still wants to re-sign him to a long-term deal, but Lawson should have plenty of suitors.

Despite only having 5.5 sacks in 16 games last year. Lawson is a budding star whose best football appears to be in front of him.

In the right system, which many would argue the Bengals didn’t have, many believe that Lawson can be a double-digit sack player. Lawson had 44 pressures and 32 QB hits last season.

Pro Football Focus graded Lawson 13th among all edge players. (76.3) and ninth in pass-rush grade (84.9). The 6-foot-2, 265-pound Lawson is powerful and stout at the point of attack.

Can Jeff Ulbrich, Robert Saleh, and the Jets’ new defensive staff tap into Lawson’s immense potential? The talent is certainly there.

The question is the evaluation of the Jets front office and the new defensive staff on Carl Lawson.

If it’s favorable, Lawson could be a good fit based on his skill set.

Next: 4. Romeo Okwara

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4. NY Jets free agent target: Romeo Okwara, EDGE, Detroit Lions

The Nigerian-born Romeo Okwara was one of the league’s best-kept secrets entering free agency. In recent days, the soon-to-be 26-year-old pass rusher’s value has been picking up steam in league circles as he enters free agency.

From undrafted to a back-of-the-roster afterthought to nearly being franchised at the deadline. Romeo Okwara is not a secret anymore.

After a non-descript first couple of seasons in the league as an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame, Okwara showed glimpses of breaking out in 2018 with the Detroit Lions

He amassed 7.5 sacks, the performance netting Okwara a two-year extension, but injuries and a lack of playing time derailed his follow-up 2019 campaign.

Okwara returned in 2020 with a vengeance with a breakout campaign which saw him set career highs with 10 sacks, 44 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 29 QB hits, and 30 hurries while also forcing three fumbles.

In Detroit last year, The long and lanky 6-foot-4, 263-pound Okwara displayed a great combination of power and speed, with an improved array of pass-rush moves. Okwara was a one-man show for the Lions in 2020, as the rest of the Lions defense had only 14 sacks total.

With the top-five edge rushers in the NFL averaging over $20 million per year in salary. Some teams like the Jets might be banking on signing the ascending Okwara rather than breaking the bank for more well-known players at the position.

Some may see Okwara as a one-year wonder, while others are enamored with his upside and think he’s only scratching the surface.

Could Romeo Okwara be the next Shaquil Barrett? Like Okwara, Barrett emerged as a star later in his career after going undrafted.

Next: 3. Bud Dupree

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3. NY Jets free agent target: Bud Dupree, EDGE, Steelers

The only reason that Bud Dupree is not back with the Pittsburgh Steelers is because they’re in salary cap hell. A year after being franchise-tagged, Pittsburgh is forced to set Dupree free into the open market.

Though he’s never blown people away with significant sack totals over his career, Dupree is a complete player, with high marks for his character and toughness.

Dupree has gradually improved every season in the league. His last two years have been his most productive as a pass rusher (22 sacks in his last 27 games).

The 28-year-old is a menace in opposing teams’ backfields averaging over 40 QB pressures per season since 2017.

Although Dupree has never played exclusively at defensive end in the NFL, coming from Pittsburgh’s 3-4 scheme, an argument can be made that a transition to the 4-3 could free him up more to get to the quarterback as an edge player — with less reliance required of him in coverage.

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There are some valid concerns with Dupree. The first of which is that his improved play came while having T.J. Watt on the other side.

The other two concerns are that he’s coming off of a torn ACL and that Dupree will command/demand top money at his position (roughly $15-20 million in salary per season).

In many ways, Dupree reminds me a lot of former Jets player Calvin Pace. Not a superstar pass rusher, but solid in every respect.

Dupree has his detractors who feel he is not worthy of superstar billing, but quality edge players are valuable. Just like Pace was.

Next: 2. Trey Hendrickson

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2. NY Jets free agent target: Trey Hendrickson, EDGE, New Orleans Saints

One of the players that became an unexpected force in 2020 was Trey Hendrickson.

After only totaling 6.5 sacks in his first three seasons and not becoming a starter until late 2019, the former Conference USA Player of the Year at Florida Atlantic, Hendrickson broke out with a 13.5 sack performance last season.

Trey Hendrickson not only showed up, but he showed out in the Saints’ biggest games last season. Against the Bucs and Chiefs, Hendrickson sacked Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes a total of four times. Twice in each game.

Hendrickson played at the right defensive end spot in the Saints defense but has enough length/size (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) and versatility to kick inside or play on the left side if needed. He’s a speed rusher with power, and last season, he used both to become an elite player on the edge.

If it weren’t for the Saints’ significant cap issues, New Orleans would’ve tagged Hendrickson rather than tagging safety Marcus Williams, whose tag is at a more cap-friendly level than a defensive end would command.

The Jets have an opportunity to land an emerging star like Hendrickson at arguably the new defense’s most important position. Gang Green will have plenty of competition for Trey Hendrickson’s services.

He played himself into big money, and New York has the big money to spend to win a bidding war if necessary.

Next: 1. Shaquil Barrett

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1. NY Jets free agent target: Shaquil Barrett, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The one that got away. He might get away again before this time next week.

A couple of years back, Shaquil Barrett entered the 2019 free-agent market with very little fanfare. Barrett spent five years in Denver, made 15 starts, and had 14 sacks in total.

Playing in the great Von Miller’s shadow did Barrett no favors, specifically because his production with the Broncos was modest at best as a situational pass rusher.

While Barrett struggled for suitors in free agency, many savvy Jets fans at the time called for their team to take a shot on him. Partly out of desperation because of how poor Gang Green’s pass rush has been, but some saw Barrett’s potential.

Instead, former Jets head coach Todd Bowles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a flier on Shaq Barrett, signed him to a one-year deal worth $4 million. Barrett went on to become a star in 2019 for Tampa with a franchise-record 19.5 sack season.

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Barrett is now one of the league’s premier pass rushers, and at the moment, he’s a free agent. That could change quickly, rendering this ranking useless, but for the time being, Barrett is exactly the type of dynamic edge rusher that the Jets desperately need.

A true superstar.

The feeling is that Tampa will eventually convince him to return, but Barrett has missed out on the big payday that he’s earned the last few seasons, and he wants to cash in. In 2020, Barrett played on the franchise tag at $15 million.

At 28-years-old, Shaquil Barrett is looking for long-term stability. Tampa might give it to him because he’s earned it, but the Bucs will need to get creative and rework some deals to make it happen.

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If they don’t, the Jets need to make the call that they didn’t back in 2019.