Forty years after he was drafted as an unheralded prospect out of East Central Oklahoma, Mark Gastineau remains the New York Jets' all-time sack leader. That's a credit to Gastineau, one of the most prolific pass-rushers of his era, but also a commentary on the franchise. Except for a few good seasons by John Abraham in the early 2000s, the Jets have lacked an edge-rushing threat that instills fear in quarterbacks.
That could change soon because general manager Mike Maccagnan is holding a winning lottery ticket.
With the third pick in the 2019 NFL draft, and with $102 million in salary-cap room, the Jets are in such prime position that it's almost impossible for them to come out of this offseason without a new stud in the front seven. Maybe it will be a rush linebacker; that would be ideal. Maybe it will be an interior monster. Maybe it will be both; that would be a Powerball-like payout.
Maybe, if everything falls right, it can be the New York Sack Exchange 2.0.
The point is, something needs to happen, because new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, like his predecessors, won't be able to field an elite defense unless the Jets upgrade the pass rush. In 2018, they were fourth worst in the NFL based on the ESPN pass-rush win rate (42 percent) -- the ability to beat a block within 2.5 seconds.
How do they attack it? It's a multilayered issue, so let's peel it apart, one layer at a time.
Is Leonard Williams part of the solution?
Based on what new head coach Adam Gase told reporters at the scouting combine, the answer is yes. Gase downplayed Williams' low sack total (17 in four years), insisting the number doesn't accurately reflect his impact as an interior lineman who sometimes plays defensive end. It certainly appears as if the Jets won't trade Williams, which means paying a hefty $14.2 million in the final year of his contract.
"He was always very challenging for us to go against," said Gase, referring to his former team, the Miami Dolphins. "We'd always account for him. We'd try to double him. He's hard to stop. We basically could not run the football because of him. He was always very disruptive in our games. We struggled in pass protection against him. He was very disruptive. For me, I never look at the sack numbers. I'm always going to look at pass disruption: How many hits on the quarterback does he have? How many pressures? Then you throw in the sacks and now your number is going to look the way you want it."
Gase wasn't blowing smoke. In four of the past six meetings, the Jets held the Dolphins under 68 rushing yards. In some ways, those games were a microcosm of Williams' career. He was strong against the run, but he had no sacks and seven quarterback hits.
The previous coaching staff tried to explain Williams' lack of productivity by citing constant double-teams. Fortunately, in today's world of analytics, we have the ability to look that up. According to ESPN pass rush metrics, powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, Williams was double-teamed on 55 percent of his 455 pass rushes. That ranked 25th in the NFL among players with 300-plus pass rushes, including playoffs.
So, yes, he was doubled a fair amount of the time. If the Jets can add another threat to the front seven, whether it's the interior or on the edge, it should create more one-on-one opportunities for Williams.
"He fits in very well for us," Gase said. "What Gregg has planned for him, and the multiple things that he likes to do with players, he's going to fit into our defense just fine."
Is there room for Henry Anderson?
A lot of folks, myself included, figured Anderson was a goner when Williams was hired, assuming he would play a 4-3 base scheme. Gase said it will be a 3-4, which suits Anderson's game better than a 4-3. So, does this mean the Jets will re-sign Anderson, a pending free agent?
He is a good player, and you want to keep good players in the building. The Jets know this, and they're trying to get something done. The problem is that Anderson, who is coming off a career year (7 sacks), is expected to draw interest on the open market. The smart teams will figure out that he can be a productive player when healthy and used correctly. Here's a telling stat that will surprise you: He was double-teamed on 60 percent of his 367 pass rushes, which ranked 11th among defensive linemen and outside linebackers with at least 300 rushes.
Anderson drew more attention than Williams. Bet you wouldn't have guessed that.
Who will the Jets draft with the third pick?
It's too soon in the process to know that, but the Jets are guaranteed to get one of the top three defenders (arguably the top three players in the draft) -- defensive end Nick Bosa, defensive tackle Quinnen Williams or outside linebacker Josh Allen. If quarterback Kyler Murray goes No. 1 overall, the Jets will have a choice of defenders.
Quinnen Williams put on a show at the combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.83 seconds at 303 pounds. As a comparison, Leonard Williams, picked sixth in 2015, clocked a 4.97 at 302 pounds. Bosa didn't burn it up (4.79) in the 40, but his 10-yard split (1.55) was impressive. More than anything, Quinnen Williams and Bosa have excellent college tape. So does Allen, who recorded 17 sacks last season, the most by an SEC player since the NCAA starting officially counting sacks in 2000.
"Oh, yeah, I think I'm the best player in the draft, but I believe that," Allen said before running a solid 4.63. "I think every guy here should believe that, and if a team doesn't believe that, I'll see them during the season."
This could come down to a fascinating decision for Maccagnan: Would he prefer the outside rusher (Allen or Bosa) to fill a need or would he opt for the freakishly gifted tackle (Williams)?
That decision could be based on what happens in free agency.
Can they find a pass-rusher in free agency?
The top players will be tagged. One of those, Dee Ford of the Kansas City Chiefs, reportedly is available in a trade, but it makes little sense to give up an asset and take on a huge contract. The Jets should stay away. Frankly, they should proceed with caution in free agency. Unless there's a perfect match, why spend crazy money when they can simply draft a younger and cheaper player to do the same thing?
They could double down, a route they appear willing to take. They're showing interest in Dante Fowler Jr. (Los Angeles Rams), Ezekiel Ansah (Detroit Lions) and Preston Smith (Washington Redskins), sources said. The Jets also reportedly have interest in Trey Flowers (New England Patriots).
Ansah (injuries, age) and Fowler (lack of consistency) come with red flags, so I would be hesitant to invest $15 million a year in either of them. Smith is a solid, complementary pass-rusher. Flowers is a very good, three-down player who developed nicely under coach Bill Belichick, so he would be worth a splurge. Pair Flowers with Leonard Williams and, say, Josh Allen, and you can bet the Jets' pass rush would improve significantly.