Most reports say that Aaitui - a 320-pound nose tackle with two-gapping ability - spent training camp last summer with the Dolphins, but I don't believe that's entirely accurate. They brought him in several times to try out, but never actually signed him until they added him to their practice squad in October, so he wasn't with the team in preseason. Still, Sparano would be familiar with him from that time. He did return for 2012, though, and played extensively in the preseason this year.
After the jump, I'll be reviewing his preseason performances and considering what he could provide the Jets with this year and going forward.
Aaitui basically spent the entire preseason on the third unit, so with several veterans head of him, it was apparent they were likely to try and add him to their practice squad if nobody else claimed him. This meant that his reps varied from game to game. In game four, he saw action in all four quarters as part of a rotation. On the whole, he averaged about 25 snaps per game.
For each game, I'm going to highlight all the plays where Aaitui did something of consequence or otherwise was involved in the success or failure of the play, using bold text to highlight particularly notable plays. I'll then summarize his performance.
Week One: Tampa Bay
- Held his ground at the point of attack and the runner ran into the back of his man before being stuffed for no gain
- Moved well laterally on a run to the edge and got in on the tackle for a short gain- Was driven off the line initially by a double team, but fought back
- Repelled on his intial pass rush, he tried a spin move, but the quarterback got rid of the ball
- Was almost driven out of the play but managed to recover, getting good leverage upfield to fight back into position
- Tossed his man aside and charged up the middle for a hit on the quarterback- Got some good pentration, leaving the runner with nowhere to go
- Couldn't get off his block, allowing a meaningless 19 yard run to the edge on the last play of the game.
Already in this game, it was apparent that Aaitui was drawing a lot of double teams. He managed to penetrate a few times to affect plays in the running game and showed good effort and counter-strength whenever he was pushed off the line.
Week Two: Carolina
- Was blocked to the ground, although this looked like it could have been a hold. The runner tripped over him for a short gain
- Got swallowed up by a double team, although he wasn't driven back off the line
- Beat his man on a stunt, but the quarterback threw a quick screen pass
- Drew a holding penalty at the point of attack on a running play that was bounced outside
- Picked up a sack as he easily beat the right guard on the inside and came up the middle
- Was called for a facemask penalty on the above play
- Beat his man into the backfield. The runner was stuffed for a loss
- Missed a tackle on a diving attempt to bring down the runner in the backfield
- Was blocked to the ground by another double team
- Moved well laterally to stay in front of a run that was stacked up for no gain
- Was blocked to the ground again.
In this game, Aaitui was having some issues staying upright, but when he kept his balance his did affect several running plays and was getting into the backfield a lot. The facemask penalty was just unlucky.
Week Three: Atlanta
- Got upfield and redirected the runner inside where he was stuffed for no gain
- They ran at him to convert in a short yardage situation
- He picked up his only tackle of the game on an 18-yard screen pass that he chased down from the opposite hashmark- Was blocked to the ground once
- Got driven back and turned around on one running play.
Aaitui didn't get many opportunities in this game, which ended up in a torrential downpour in the fourth quarter. However, the athleticism he showed on the screen pass was impressive. Once again, he was double teamed a lot, including in pass protection.
Week Four: Dallas
- Got a surge and collapsed the pocket to flush the quarterback out. He ended up rolling out and getting sacked
- Came up the middle as he stunted to pressure the quarterback- Got good penetration and redirected the runner twice on one series
- Destroyed the right guard as he bullrushed powerfully and hit the quarterback- Chased down the quarterback and tackled him downfield for a seven yard gain, although there was holding on the play anyway
- Was driven way off the line on one running play, after the run had gone in the other direction, perhaps showing tiredness or a lack of effort
- Shot a gap to beat the left guard to make a tackle in the backfield- Was initially driven off the line by a double team, but fought it off and stuffed a run up the middle for no gain- Was driven out of one other play
This was Aaitui's best game in terms of impact plays, although he did show signs of tiredness towards the end. Fighting off double teams to make plays and getting into the backfield is impressive stuff. He even dropped into coverage twice, showing off more athleticism.
This looks like a move made with an eye on next year. Having added Kenrick Ellis and Quinton Coples to the defensive line rotation, it's likely that Marcus Dixon would have regularly been on the inactive list in 2012 and he would be a restricted free agent in 2013. Therefore, the Jets are clearly thinking ahead to how they address their defensive tackle depth when Sione Po'uha and Mike DeVito inevitably move on. Although they've already found one possible diamond in the rough with Damon Harrison this offseason, it makes sense for them to hedge their bets with Ellis far from a sure thing at this stage of his career.
I don't buy the suggest that letting Marcus Dixon go was a "penny pinching move" because the amount saved ($150K) could just as easily have been saved in a number of other ways. Gates over White cost them an extra $75K, as did McIntryre over Sapp, Trufant over Posey and any other number of possible moves they could have made. They could save over $100K just by keeping one fewer player on the practice squad all year. As Bassett identified a week or so ago, Mike Tannenbaum is always looking to maximize value, so if he sees greater upside at a position which will require depth in a year or two, it makes sense.
I was impressed by Aaitui, so maybe it's not even certain that Dixon would have had a better season than him in 2012. Dixon was employed primarily as a pass rusher during the first half of 2011 and did not produce much, albeit often rushing 3-on-5 or 4-on-6. It was only in the second half of the year when he was filling in on running downs for the injured Ropati Pitoitua and Devito that he started to get into the backfield and make some plays. While he was unquestionably one of the most improved Jets over the second half of the season, it's possible he benefited from the fact that he was playing alongside Po'uha and Wilkerson and they were drawing double teams to help make his life a little easier.
Aaitui looks like more than just a space stuffer. While he took on a bunch of double teams, what stood out was his athleticism. He had some nice production as an interior pass rusher and affected a load of running plays with his penetration. There were some signs of rawness and he did end up on the ground quite often, but if I put together a highlight reel of all his best moments, you'd all be seriously drooling over his potential. Yes, all his reps came against backups, which would lead me to think it's unlikely he could have the same effectiveness if called into action during the regular season, but the same was also the case for Dixon this preseason and their production was similar, with each having their best game in week four.
The most head-scratching element of this pickup is the fact that the Jets already have Damon Harrison on the 53-man roster. He's showing so much promise that they obviously don't feel they can afford to expose him to another team at this time. To persevere with this move suggests they hold Aaitui in similar regard in terms of his potential. He does look like a great prospect, but that I'm not entirely sure whether he's ready to do anything for them this year. We'll have to wait and see if he sticks around.
I'll be back with a look at Konrad Reuland later.