As we continue to project the New York Jets’ final 53-man roster, we reach the best position group on the team, the defensive line. The Jets could not be happier with their group of linemen, and as such there is very little suspense regarding the position.
Starters: Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson
Reserves: Leger Douzable, Kenrick Ellis
The Jets are mostly likely going to carry the same five linemen they did last season, when they ranked third in the NFL in rush yards allowed and first in yards per attempt. Wilkerson, Harrison, and Richardson are all 25 or younger, so the Jets are expecting them to only get better.
Wilkerson is the Jets’ best player and one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in football, and he is coming off a season in which he recorded 63 tackles and 10.5 sacks while being equally outstanding against the run and pass. The sky is the limit for Wilkerson, and the Jets expect him to continue to develop into an elite talent and anchor their defensive unit.
Richardson won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award in large part due to his dominant run defense. He is an extremely promising player, but he must complete his game. The Jets expect much more than 3.5 sacks out of Richardson this season, and he has publicly discussed his own need for improvement as a pass rusher. If Richardson takes the kind of leap Wilkerson did last season, the Jets’ defensive line could be unstoppable.
In between them is Harrison, who was arguably the best run defender in football last season. Harrison was a breakout star last season, and he had the second best run stop percentage in the league according to Pro Football Focus. Only his backup Ellis posted a better figure, but Harrison played far more snaps. It is not Harrison’s job to rush the passer, and as long he continues to anchor the Jets’ elite run defense, they will be very happy.
Douzable and Ellis return as the reserves, and they both played well when given the opportunity last season. As mentioned above, Ellis had the highest run stop percentage in the NFL, making him a very suitable replacement when Harrison comes off the field or when the Jets play them side by side. Douzable is not the best insurance policy for Wilkerson and Richardson, but he is a solid role player who does his job well when called upon. Frankly, the Jets could not survive a major injury to either of their star linemen, regardless of what Douzable does.
If there is any question on the defensive line, it is depth. The Jets made it through all of last season with just five linemen, and they look like they will attempt to do it again. However, it might not be a bad idea to keep one extra player just to be safe. If the Jets go that route, it will certainly be T.J. Barnes, an absolutely massive tackle (6’7″, 364 lbs) who has really impressed this preseason. However, it looks like Barnes will get caught in the numbers game, even though on merit he deserves to make the team.
Tevita Finau, Kerry Hyder and Zach Thompson all remain on the team, but it seems unlikely that any will crack the final roster. Finau’s versatility is appealing, but that won’t be enough to beat out Barnes if the Jets decide to keep six linemen. Either way, it appears that the final roster spots will be used on linebackers and defensive backs, as they are much more important to special teams.
The Jets are hoping to repeat last season’s outstanding performance from their defensive line, and there is no reason to believe that they won’t. This is a young, exceptionally talented group that has the potential to be special, and if they all continue to develop this could be the best defensive line in the NFL.