- Matt Williamson, ESPN.com
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To keep in line with the other AFC East blog posts I have written this week, let’s discuss the status of the Jets’ defensive line.
New York used two early draft picks on defensive big men and Shaun Ellis is now with the rival Patriots. Trevor Pryce didn’t play a lot of snaps for the Jets last year, but he was effective when he saw the field. He is currently a free agent without a team. So there will be significant changes.
Let’s discuss the draft picks and how they fit in. New York used its first-round pick on Muhammad Wilkerson and a third-rounder on Kenrick Ellis. Wilkerson is an excellent physical specimen who looks custom made for defensive end in Rex Ryan’s version of the 3-4. A bigger body than Wilkerson but not as quick or explosive, Ellis is also dripping with potential. Ellis could be a king-sized end, or, if he can prove to consistently play with leverage and keep his pads down, a force in the middle at nose tackle. If not for off-the-field issues, Ellis would have been drafted much higher.
But like all rookies currently getting acclimated to the league, the learning curve for these two is especially steep this season due to the lockout. Compounding matters, Wilkerson is transitioning from Temple and Ellis from Hampton -- which are not exactly NCAA powerhouses. But even if Wilkerson struggles to read blocks and hold the point of attack on early downs as a starting defensive end, he should be quite effective as a rookie rushing the passer in the Jets’ sub packages.
Because of the emergence of Sione Pouha as an upper-echelon nose tackle, New York should be able to bring along Ellis slowly at that position -- maybe just rotating him in from time to time to give the massive Pouha a breather. Pouha offers nothing as a pass-rusher, but he knows how to use his big body very well versus the run. It generally takes two interior offensive linemen to move him backward. And his presence allows the Jets’ exceptional set of inside linebackers to shine.
Although one starting end spot is vacant with Shaun Ellis elsewhere (New York surely would like Wilkerson to grab that job by the throat this preseason), Mike DeVito is among the most underrated players in the league. He is a rock at his end spot. Much like Pouha, DeVito is a simply exceptional player versus the run. But as a pass-rusher, DeVito leaves something to be desired. That being said, you can win an awful lot of games with Pouha and DeVito anchoring the defensive front.
Outside of the four mentioned above, the Jets are a little light on the defensive line, which is a bit concerning considering where Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis are in their development right now. One name to keep in mind is Jarron Gilbert, who was a failure in Chicago’s upfield 4-3 scheme. He really didn’t fit the mold of the Bears’ defensive ends or interior linemen. But Gilbert is only 24, is built like a 3-4 end and has rare athletic ability for such a big man. Gilbert could be exactly the type of guy whom Rex Ryan cultivates and turns into a productive player.
One other wild card at defensive end in this equation is Ropati Pitoitua. We haven’t seen much of Pitoitua, but he has rare size for the position and has reportedly been quite impressive thus far in camp.
The Jets still have one of the better defensive lines in football. But it isn’t without some uncertainty.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.