INDIANAPOLIS — With the release of Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson this week, the perception is the defensive line got weaker and there is a need to add to the unit in the NFL Draft.
Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan disagrees slightly, saying defensive end Leonard Williams continues to anchor a versatile unit.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the Jets need another pass rusher for a unit that finished 28th in the NFL with 28 sacks.
“I don’t necessarily view it as a position of need, per se, for us right now,” Maccagnan said this week from the NFL Scouting Combine. “I think we feel pretty good about the players we have. There are other positions we’re probably more focused on going into the offseason.”
This week, the Jets talked to several of the top defensive linemen in the draft, which included N.C. State end Bradley Chubb, LSU end Arden Key and Alabama end Da’Ron Payne.
The Jets are in desperate need of a quarterback and could draft one in the first round. But in 10 of the last 11 years, the Jets used their first-round pick on a defensive player. Four of those players were defensive linemen. The last time the Jets selected an offensive player first was Mark Sanchez in 2009.
Everything could change if the Jets sign a quarterback in free agency. If that’s the case, despite Maccagnan’s claims that the defensive line isn’t a position of need, there is some quality there.
“I feel like I’m the best player,” Chubb said. “I’m not going to say one person’s better than me. There are a lot of great players. Saquon Barkley put up ridiculous numbers yesterday. Josh Allen, Josh Rosen. All the quarterbacks you’re hearing about, a lot of great players. I just feel like I’m up there at the top.”
Versatility is a key for the Jets’ defensive line because Todd Bowles likes to use some players to play off the edge or line up between the center and guard. Of course, the Jets’ 3-4 scheme requires big defensive ends like Williams and Wilkerson, players who not only can rush the passer but stop the run. Bowles doesn’t mind using players for certain situations such as Kony Ealy, who was mainly a pass rusher.
Several players in the draft offer the ability to play outside linebacker or defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.
“I think I fit right in with their defense,” Boston College end Harold Landry said Saturday. “To be honest, I can play 4-3 end or 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL and I think I’ll show that this weekend. I think I’m strong enough to play 4-3 defensive end and athletic enough to play 3-4 outside linebacker.”
The Jets’ defensive line has taken on a drastic look from where it was in 2015, Bowles’ first season as coach. That season, the starters were Damon Harrison, Williams and Wilkerson with Sheldon Richardson as the main backup.
Williams (2016), Wilkerson (2015) and Richardson (2014) have been Pro Bowlers with the Jets.
Harrison left the Jets after the 2015 season to sign with the Giants. Harrison was named a first-team All-Pro in 2016.
So as talented as the Jets’ line was back in 2015, there is now a drop-off, with Williams clearly their best lineman.
“There’s always players in pro free agency,” Maccagnan said. “There’s players in the college draft at that position. Whether we add one at some level, I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out but I don’t think it’s a high priority for us, right now.”