By John Turney
Muhammad Wilkerson was drafted by the New York Jets in the first round (30th overall) of the 2011 NFL Draft. Two years later Sheldon Richardson was taken by the Jets in the first round (13th overall) of the 2013 NFL Draft. Leonard Williams was taken two years after that in the first round (6th overall) of the 2015 NFL Draft. Richardson and Williams were All-Rookie selections and all three were Pro Bowlers a single time. Wilkerson was Second-team All-Pro in 2013 and 2015.
The third player in the mix is nose tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison who started in between Wilkerson and Richardson from 2013 to 2015.
The question is while these were all highly talented players only Williams is still with the team and while this group was together, did they achieve what they should have given that talent?
Here are the individual statistics of the players in question:
In 2013 Wilkerson was a Second-team All-Pro and in 2015 he was a Pro Bowler and a Second-team All-Pro. (Also was a PFJ Second-team All-Pro in 2013 and 2015).
Wilkerson moved around on the line some, but generally, he was a defensive end on the left side of the defense, a five-technique. From 2013 to 2015 he averaged about 7 stuffs and 9.5 sacks and 5 PDs a season.
Richardson was a Pro Bowler in 2014 and also a PFJ Second-team All-Pro. In the Jets scheme Richardson was listed as a defensive tackle, mostly playing the three-technique, though like Wilkerson, he moved around some. That was especially true in 2015 when he played some outside linebacker in the Jet 3-4 defense and some defensive end and defensive tackle in four-man lines.
Williams was a Pro Bowl choice in 2016 and also a PFJ Second-team All-Pro that same season. Williams was often listed as a defensive end in 2015 and 2016 but he was usually a defensive tackle. he was highly graded in 2016 by pro scouting firms.
So, while it is 100% true that the entire burden of the defense does not fall on the front three, it's a fair question to ask, what happened?
In 2013 and 2014 the Jets rushing defense was horrid, they allowed over 4.4 yards per rush and around 2220 yards per season. With Harrison, Wilkerson, and Richardson as your front three, it seems that they should have done better. In 2015 when the defense played a lot more 4-man lines (and Richardson played some OLBer) they improved but they still were not stellar.
The only two seasons they were able to generate a pass rush (along with the edge rushers and inside backers) with 41 and 45 sacks was again, 2013 and 2014. It seems when they were fair versus the run they didn't get a pass rush and when they did get a pass rush the run defense fell off the map.
In February 2018, Wilkerson was released by the Jets and a month later he signed a one-year contract with the Green Bay Packers. The day before Wilkerson signed with the Packers, Richardson signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
So, Leonard Williams is left alone with a group of players who were much lower draft picks and/or free agents and we will see if they can improve the productivity of the Jet defense. In 2017 the run defense was above (1702 yards for a 4.0 average) but only totaled 28 sacks. If they could match the 2011 run defense with the 2014 pass rush the Jets might have a shot at the playoffs. If not, they may be in for another 5-11 season. They sure didn't get it done with three supreme talents on the front line. It begs the question of if it is necessary to have three stars up front in your 3-4 defense to be successful in your defensive goals and to winning.
Perhaps the Los Angeles Rams should take note with Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Michael Brockers as their front three in 2018.