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While the rumored total firesale never materialized on trade deadline day, the Jets made one move, dealing defensive lineman Leonard Williams to the Giants for two 2020 picks. Let's consider how they might look to replace his contributions within the defense.
Williams' statistical production has been widely criticized this season. Through seven games, he had just eight solo tackles with no sacks or tackles for loss. However, the Jets coaches had repeatedly praised his disruptiveness and given him credit for contributing to some of their successes on the defensive side of the ball. Of course, this may have been an effort to keep his trade value up, though.
Although the Jets lost six of their first seven before dealing Williams, they've quietly played at a high level against the run, holding their opponents to just 3.3 yards per carry; the second-lowest mark in the NFL. With Williams penetrating, occupying blockers and taking on double-teams, other players have been able to make plays. However, as we wrote in the run-up to the deadline, Williams wasn't being paid over $14 million this season just to occupy blocks.
As a pass rusher, Williams failed to record a sack, but had been creating some pressure despite again dealing with plenty of double-teams. His five quarterback hits gave him the second-highest total on the team over the first seven games. Even so, these positive contributions still fell short of what he's been able to produce in previous seasons.
While replacing his statistical production seems achievable, the Jets still need to find a way to replace his workload. Williams had played over 50 snaps in every game before leaving Sunday's game with a minor injury in the fourth quarter. His replacement may also need to take on more blocks and contribute by occupying blocks and doing more "dirty work" than they perhaps were while playing alongside Williams.
The Jets only have five defensive linemen on their current roster with two of those - Kyle Phillips and Henry Anderson - likely to share reps at the strongside end position. Another is Steve McLendon, who will continue to start at the nose tackle position.
The obvious candidate to replace Williams as the Jets' most disruptive interior defender is rookie Quinnen Williams. The younger Williams has shown flashes over the past few games, having been slowed by an ankle injury over the first month. In the long-term, he's going to take over as the focal point of the defensive line, but it will be interesting to see how soon he can step up. He might find himself the recipient of more double-team attention now but had proved capable of handling that in college.
The rookie was announced as a nose tackle when he was drafted but has played all over the defensive line and is currently listed as a starter at defensive end, which was not the case earlier in the season.
The only other defensive lineman currently on the roster is also someone who could thrive in an expanded role. 2018 sixth-round pick Folorunso Fatukasi has done an outstanding job as a run defender and grades out well in advanced metrics with Pro Football Focus giving him the highest overall grade on the team through seven games.
Fatukasi barely played in his rookie year and was inactive a couple of times early in the season, but his playing time has been creeping up over the past few weeks and he has responded well. He is tied for second on the team with four tackles for loss, including three over the past two games. It will be interesting to see how he responds to an increase in workload and also whether he can contribute to the interior pass rush.
Another 2018 draft pick, Nathan Shepherd, is eligible to return from a six-game suspension this week or next week, so he's another option to be added into the mix. Shepherd has been a disappointment so far, and was outplayed by Fatukasi in preseason, but perhaps he will respond well if given a second chance. Shepherd started five games last year, but his production was underwhelming with just 15 tackles, one tackle for loss and five quarterback hits.
One final option could be for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to make some systemic tweaks, especially in light of the Jets' injury crisis at the inside linebacker position. A few weeks ago, the Jets ran some defensive packages with just one inside linebacker on the field, which effectively operated with a five-man front. That could be a good way of getting more linemen on the field and giving them a chance to shine.
As for Leonard Williams, it will be interesting to see how much of an impact he has with the Giants and how his contract saga unfolds.