The Jets have been searching for an edge rusher for 15 years. Is this the year they finally land one … or two?
Free agency begins at noon Monday when the negotiating window between teams and agents open. Jets general manager Joe Douglas is expected to target edge rusher as the team sees an opportunity with $69 million in salary cap space and a free-agent market at a position that is stronger than usual.
It has been a position of need since the Jets traded John Abraham away after the 2005 season. Since then, three other Jets GMs have failed to adequately fill the hole even with defensive coaches in charge such as Eric Mangini, Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles.
The Jets have a defensive-minded head coach again in Robert Saleh, who needs some pass-rushing help to succeed.
There have been whiffs in the NFL draft at the position by the Jets, most notably Vernon Gholston, but they have not chased many pass rushers in free agency through the years. That is because typically the best pass rushers do not hit the open market.
That is what makes this year different and presents an opportunity for Douglas to strike. Shaquil Barrett (Buccaneers), Yannick Ngakoue (Ravens), Matt Judon (Ravens), Trey Hendrickson (Saints) and Carl Lawson (Bengals) lead the way in free agency and all would be franchise-tag candidates in most years. With the salary cap decreasing this year, more good players are hitting the market. With so many good edge rushers available, Douglas should be able to find value without overpaying.
Former NFL safety and current ESPN analyst Matt Bowen pointed to Ngakoue as the best fit for the Jets. He turns 26 in two weeks and has never had fewer than eight sacks in his five-year career. He had a strange 2020 where he was traded twice, but still managed eight sacks. He can be a liability against the run, but the Jets could live with that. Saleh was the linebackers coach with the Jaguars in 2016 when Jacksonville drafted Ngakoue out of Maryland.
“Yannick Ngakoue would be one of my top priorities,” Bowen said. “I think he has natural bend and twitch off the ball. I think he’s got disruptive traits. You look at Robert Saleh’s defense and how they scheme their pass rushers. They do so much with their front four, more than people think. It’s not just, ‘Hey, let’s rush the quarterback and play zone.’ They do so much with multiple fronts.”
The expectation inside the Jets is they will add two edge rushers for Saleh. That could come in free agency or they could sign one edge rusher and draft one. This year’s draft does not have any elite pass rushers like Chase Young or the Bosa brothers. Prospects such as Miami’s Gregory Rousseau, Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari and Penn State’s Jayson Oweh all could be potential targets with the Jets second first-round pick (No. 23 overall), but they all come with questions.
The new coaching staff is excited about what the Jets have on the interior defensive line with Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers and Folorunso Fatukasi. The feeling is if they can get a strong rush off the edge it will prevent Williams from getting double-teamed and free him up to rush the passer more.
The last big pass rusher the Jets signed in free agency was Calvin Pace in 2008 when he signed a six-year, $42 million contract. Pace had 46 sacks in eight years with the team but was never dominant. He had double-digit sacks just once.
For the last decade, the Jets have had to get their pass rush from interior linemen such as Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams or from blitzling linebacker Demario Davis or blitzing safety Jamal Adams.
Douglas has a chance to give Saleh something his predecessors have not had — a big-time edge rusher. That could happen as soon as Monday.