Daily Focus: Who can step up on Jets' defensive line?
Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.
Muhammad Wilkerson could miss start of training camp
Following Sheldon Richardson’s one-game suspension, the news out of Jets camp is that Wilkerson is unlikely to attend the start of training camp later this month. That’s not likely going to affect his status for the regular season, but it means more potential first-team reps for the players behind him on the depth chart. Unfortunately, the Jets are fairly thin on the defensive line after several departures this offseason: Damon Harrison left in free agency, taking with him a league-high run defense grade and 51 stops, while the team’s two primary backups at DE — Leger Douzable and Stephen Bowen — are also gone.
In response, the team added Steve McClendon (Steelers) and Jarvis Jenkins (Bears) in free agency. McClendon, like Harrison, offers very little as a pass rusher, but he’s consistently graded positively in run defense, although his production with the Steelers (+23.1 cumulative run defense grade over the last five seasons) was not remotely close to Harrison’s (+37.1 in 2015). With Jenkins, the drop-off is steeper; he’s graded below average in both run defense and pass rushing all four seasons of his career, and his production has gotten increasingly worse each season. Further, the Jets didn’t spend any draft picks on interior defenders.
Fortunately, Richardson’s suspension is only one game and there’s also Leonard Williams coming off of an outstanding rookie season in which he finished with the 12th-highest overall grade among interior defenders and the eighth-best mark against the run. But behind those two and Wilkerson, the line looks thinner than in previous seasons.
Jets should see more production at TE with Jace Amaro back
In other Jets news, the team’s tight end group should get a boost from the return of Jace Amaro, who missed the entire 2015 season with a shoulder injury. Taken in the second round (49th overall) in the 2014 draft, Amaro caught 38-of-52 targets for 345 yards over 380 snaps and 14 games during his rookie season. He also forced four missed tackles, a figure that tied for the 14th-most at the position. But he still graded below average overall, in part due to six dropped passes (only six of 38 qualifying tight ends had a worse drop rate in 2014). Last season the Jets quarterbacks targeted tight ends less frequently than any other team with just 18 passes thrown to players that started the play lined up at a TE spot. So even with the drop concerns, New York should see a substantial increase in production from that group.
It will also be interesting to see how Amaro fares in inline play, which the Jets coaches have pinpointed as an area for potential improvement. He graded roughly average as a run blocker during his rookie year. His pass protection was slightly worse with one sack allowed in 10 snaps there, which was one of the worst per-snap rates in the NFL, albeit in an extremely limited sample compared to most full time tight ends.
Packers’ Datone Jones’ move to OLB
In Green Bay, Datone Jones is reportedly enjoying the transition from defensive line to outside linebacker, where he switched late last season. To this point, Jones has managed just 1092 snaps over his first three seasons after being taken in the first round in 2013, which likely influenced the Packers decision not to pick up his option for the 2017 season, making this season a contract year for the former Bruin.
Despite the somewhat limited snap count, Jones’ production has increased each season and he’s coming off the best year of his career, grade-wise, with positive marks in both run defense and as a pass rusher (35 combined pressures). On a per-snap basis, his grades were as good, or better, than teammate Clay Matthews, who’s also moving back to OLB full time this season (and is potentially a negative move). That’s good news for the Packers if he can keep up that improvement; Green Bay got fairly pedestrian production from their front-seven, outside of Mike Daniels, while Julius Peppers was the team’s only full time edge defender with an above-average pass rush grade.