So many intriguing storylines emerged during the Jets' win over the Falcons on Monday night, including the progression of Jets rookie QB Geno Smith under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Atlanta WR Julio Jones working against DC Antonio Cromartie late in the game and TE Tony Gonzalez continuing to defy Father Time at 37 years young were also fun to watch.
There's one storyline that stands out more than the others, though, and it's the way the Jets' defensive front manhandled Atlanta's offensive line.
The Jets have invested three of their past four first-round picks on defensive linemen and those investments are paying off. They took DE Muhammad Wilkerson out of Temple with the 30th pick in 2011, they took DE/OLB Quinton Coples out of North Carolina with the 16th pick in 2012 and they took Sheldon Richardson out of Missouri with the 13th pick this year. Let's focus on Wilkerson and Richardson, who shined Monday night.
Wilkerson recorded seven tackles, two tackles for loss and a strip sack. At 6-foot-4, 315 pounds, Wilkerson has impressive versatility for a man his size and the Jets moved him all over the front, making it tough for Atlanta to locate him and adjust its blocking schemes to account for him. His 35-plus inch arms, upper body strength and active hands were noticeable regardless of where he lined up. He discarded blockers with relative ease whether he was rushing the passer or defending the run.
The strip sack is an excellent example of how good Wilkerson is with his hands right now. He beat the right tackle with a quick swim move to the inside and knocked the right guard's hands down before extending that long left arm and knocking the ball out of QB Matt Ryan's hands. The way he played Monday night reminded me of Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, who was selected 19 picks earlier than Wilkerson in 2011.
Players like Wilkerson and Watt are rare. There is one draft-eligible player who has that kind of frame and upside in this year's class, though. Even if Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt isn't quite as big (as I suspect) as his listed size of 6-7, 322 pounds, he's more than big enough to hold his own on the inside and agile enough to play on the outside. He's an above-average hand fighter who appears to have long arms and shows above-average upper body strength on film. If he can refine his technique and improve his consistency in terms of pad level, he has the potential to be a difference-maker at the NFL level. This is why he projects as a first-round pick.
Another versatile draft-eligible defensive lineman to keep an eye on is 6-5, 275-pound Missouri DE Kony Ealy. He's undersized for an interior lineman and he's had some problems getting off blocks when he's lined up on the inside but he has the potential to improve in this area. Ealy has a good frame and he continues to improve his muscle mass. In terms of what he brings off the edge, Ealy is an explosive pass-rusher with above-average first-step quickness and closing speed for his size. One of the reasons he projects as a fringe second-round pick and not a first-round pick is he's still developing as a hand fighter. The good news is it's only a technique issue as he flashes active and violent hands.
As for Richardson, he isn't quite as fast or agile as Wilkerson, so he's not as effective rushing the passer lined up on the edge. However, he can hold his ground against the run working against offensive tackles and he can wreak havoc on the inside. It showed on Monday, as he recorded five tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack in addition to deflecting a pass. At 6-3, 294 pounds, Richardson doesn't have elite size for the position and he can get pushed around when he plays high, yet he can hold his own at nose tackle when teams run at him and he regularly pushes the piles as an interior pass-rusher. The reason is he's strong for his size and more importantly he's quicker than he's fast. He uses that explosive first step to beat blockers to the point of attack and he's tough to handle once he establishes position.
There are two draft-eligible defensive tackle prospects who can make an impact despite weighing less than 300 pounds. At 6-2 and 298 pounds, Florida State's Timmy Jernigan can shoot gaps and disrupt plays in the backfield but doesn't have to win with quickness to be effective. He's stout one-on-one thanks in part to his lower center of gravity and he even flashes the ability to split double-teams. Though he would do well to improve his variety as a pass-rusher, he has some upside in this area and he's an adequate bull-rusher who can move quarterbacks off the spot. All of these attributes make him a late first-round prospect at this point.
Listed at 6-foot, 285 pounds, Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald has marginal size for a defensive tackle prospect and he doesn't have great growth potential, either.
He can get moved off the ball when he doesn't play with sound technique, but I still gave him a second-round grade based on his 2012 tape. Like Richardson and Jernigan, Donald uses his superior quickness to beat interior offensive linemen to the spot and maximizes his strength by staying low when he's not blowing up run plays in the backfield. Once he establishes position, Donald is an effective hand fighter who flashes the ability to control bigger blockers. He's an even better pass-rusher and he's gotten to the quarterback six times in four games this year. He slips blocks when he doesn't win with his first step as an interior pass-rusher and he flashes above-average speed to power when he rushes off the edge. Plus, he does a nice job of tracking quarterbacks and getting his hands up in passing lanes.