Secret Superstars 2014: Jets
One thing that has been a consistent for the Jets under Rex Ryan is a defensive line that can stop the run. In his first year he had Shaun Ellis, Calvin Pace, Marques Douglas, Sione Pouha, Mike Devito, and Kris Jenkins all with a positive grade against the run.
As the years have gone on most of those players have left the team. This has left the Jets investing heavily in the position including several recent first-round draft picks. Among the Jets’ starting linemen, two of them made our Top 100 and another just missed the cut. While a lot of the reason the line is so good is due to those three starters, another reason for it is their depth. With starters like that, it’s easy to miss just how dominant Kenrick Ellis was at stopping the run.
Jets Line Makeover
In 2010 the Jets had Shaun Ellis, Mike Devito, and Sione Pouha as their starters while Vernon Gholston and Trevor Pryce were the backups. That was the last time Gholston and Price saw NFL snaps, and the Jets decided it was time to move on from Ellis. This left the Jets with just two defensive linemen who had significant playing time.
In the 2011 draft they added Muhammad Wilkerson in the first round and Kenrick Ellis in the third round. A pair of 2008 undrafted free agents passed Ellis on the depth chart which led to Ellis only playing 69 snaps as a rookie. He made an impact in his very first game as a pro in Week 6 of the 2011 season having had two tackles for a loss, one for short gain, and one pressure all in 18 snaps. Over the other three games he played in, he had three more stops in the run game. His Run Stop Percentage of 13.6 was third-best for all 3-4 defensive ends with 20 or more snaps against the run.
Second Year Setback
In 2012, Ellis was able to pass the 2008 undrafted free agents on the depth chart, but also saw the Jets take Quinton Coples in the first round of the draft. In Week 1, Ellis played in 30 snaps which was a career high for him. Over the first three games of the season he already accumulated five tackles for short gains or better.
The following two weeks were a low point for Ellis’ career. The 49ers’ offensive tackles who had the two highest run block ratings for tackles that year did a strong job of blocking Ellis inside when their runs went out. The following week Texans center Chris Myers had his best game of his season blocking Ellis. To just make his day worse, Ellis suffered a medial collateral ligament injury which took Ellis out of the lineup for the middle of the season. He made his return in Week 11 with just three snaps. While he had five more stops over the rest of the season, he never returned to the playing time or impact he had to begin the season.
Third Year Breakout
The Jets’ defensive line continued to make changes for the better in 2013. Coples moved to outside linebacker and Devito left for the Chiefs. To replace them the Jets added Sheldon Richardson in the first round of the draft. 2012 undrafted rookie Damon Harrison passed Ellis on the depth chart. Harrison went on to have a Run Defense rating of +37.6 which was significantly higher than any other defensive or nose tackle.
This led to Ellis only playing in 210 snaps all season. Despite never playing more than 16 snaps against the run in a game all season, he definitely made the most of his opportunity. In his first game despite playing just 18 snaps, he had three highly-graded plays thanks to beating his block to make run stops. There was not a single game where he had a negative rating in run defense all season.
He ended up making 17 run stops on 114 run snaps on the season, which gave him a Run Stop Percentage of 14.9%. Over the last six years, John Henderson in 2010 was the only defensive or nose tackle with at least 100 snaps against the run and a better Run Stop Percentage. He was also 1.7% better than the second-best defensive tackle in Run Stop Percentage; teammate Damon Harrison. While his strength was in stopping the run, he also had seven hurries on 85 pass rushes.
Though stopping the run is his strength, he did record seven pressures on 90 pass rushes which is decent for a nose tackle. They even tested him out at fullback late in their Week 17 game on a play that consisted of three defensive linemen in the backfield.
The Jets were a rare team who saw just five defensive linemen see any snaps with the defense all season. For once the Jets didn’t invest in their defensive line in the draft, and with all five defensive linemen returning the Jets hope to have a similar performance to last year. With the great starters, it will be difficult for Ellis to earn much more playing time despite his great play on a smaller sample size. His role with the team seems set for this year, and he should again be able to make the most of the opportunities he’ll be given.
His contract is up after the 2014 season. It will be very difficult for the Jets to keep their starting three linemen together, and even harder if they want to try to keep Ellis. Regardless of if his future is with the Jets or if he will have a big payday elsewhere, Ellis should have a bright future ahead of him.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @PFF_NateJahnke