Foley Fatukasi, Nathan Shepherd
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

Foley Fatukasi, Nathan Sheperd and Tarell Basham help provide a glimpse into the New York Jets future in Orchard Park. 

Michael Nania

The New York Jets’ season-ending victory over the Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park was cloaked in a preseason-type feel. Buffalo, locked into the No. 5 seed, seldom played its starters. Thus, the Jets’ starters found themselves out there against a litany of reserves, giving them a golden opportunity to put some high-quality moments on film going into the offseason.

Adam Gase’s offense was putrid, but Gregg Williams’s defense was tremendous, yet again. Williams’s unit took full advantage of a favorable matchup against the atrocious Matt Barkley, giving up a season-low 6 points.

Williams led the injury-plagued, talent-deficient Jets defense to 10th in DVOA, but what was most impressive about Williams’s work this season was his exceptional fostering of young players. Numerous young Jets took significant forward leaps this season, setting the franchise up with a bright future on the defensive side of the ball.

In Buffalo, plenty of young Jets defenders capped off the 2019 season with some tremendous moments.

Folorunso Fatukasi

Foley Fatukasi was the breakout star of the defensive line, blossoming from a sixth-round pick who played three snaps as a rookie to a core piece of an elite run defense. Pro Football Focus graded Fatukasi as the fourth-best run defender among defensive tackles.

In the preseason, Fatukasi flashed exciting potential with his consistently impeccable snap timing. He was able to translate that ability to the regular season, blowing up tons of run plays with instant destruction upon the snap. Here, Fatukasi obliterates backup center Ike Boettger, presenting Nathan Shepherd with an opportunity to make the stuff.

Fatukasi did not get any statistical credit for this play, even though it is a show of pure domination that made a big impact on the game. When you simply scout the box score, you will miss a lot of important plays like this one.

Nathan Shepherd

Nathan Shepherd was a regular part of the rotation in his 2018 rookie season, but he made little impact, seldom winning his battles as either a pass rusher or run defender.

In 2019, Shepherd took a big step forward in his age-26 sophomore season. He rose from 59th in pass-rush productivity as a rookie to 18th in 2019, and from 128th in run-stop percentage to 72nd.

The Canadian is a behemoth with great athleticism for his size. Williams gave Shepherd the opportunity to maximize that athleticism, affording him the freedom to shoot gaps with aggression. Pass rushing has always been Shepherd’s bread-and-butter, and under Williams’ tutelage, he was able to fully unlock his potential in that phase.

Jordan Jenkins recorded a strip-sack on Barkley that Tarell Basham recovered, but it was Shepherd and Jamal Adams who made the play happen. Shepherd (left defensive tackle) is initially doubled, but Adams comes in late and attacks the right guard (Spencer Long) full-on, forcing him to leave Shepherd one-on-one with the right tackle (Cody Ford). Shepherd takes advantage, squeezing through to create the pressure on Barkley that eventually leads to a turnover.

Tarell Basham

Basham, a 2017 third-round pick of the Colts, had struggled to live up to his potential over his first two years in the league. He had a minor role as a rookie with the Colts, one which he was unproductive in. In 2018, Basham was waived by the Colts mid-season and joined the Jets, getting only a small amount of playing time over seven games with the team.

Basham got the opportunity to start in 2019, and took full advantage. He led the Jets with 39 pressures, also chipping in 14 run stops. Over the last four weeks, he went on a tear, collecting 10 pressures, three passes defended, a blocked punt, an interception, a fumble recovery, and a strip-sack that was (incorrectly) overturned.

Seen below is said strip-sack. Basham (outside linebacker on right side of picture) gets a one-on-one against backup tackle Ryan Bates, and dominates the matchup, breezing by with a rip move to force the fumble from behind.

The officials reviewed the play and reversed the call to an incompletion, a ruling that seemed to be the incorrect call. Basham took out his anger on the next play. Lined up as the right outside linebacker once again, Basham cuts underneath the pulling blocks of both the right guard (Long) and the fullback (Patrick DiMarco), grabbing Frank Gore by the legs to halt him well behind the line of scrimmage.

Also take notice of Foley Fatukasi (left defensive tackle) disengaging Mitch Morse, one of the better centers in the league.

Basham is under contract for 2020. While the Jets desperately need an upgrade on the edge, as evidenced by the fact that Basham’s team-leading 39 pressures ranked 62nd in the NFL, Basham has proved that he can be an excellent depth piece going forward. And, who knows? Given that he is still only 25 years old and will be turning 26 in March, the possibility exists that Basham can leapfrog off of his breakout 2019 and reach an entirely new level in 2020.

It will be just his fourth season in the league. Perhaps he is a late bloomer.

Of course, a breakout to elite status is unlikely, and edge remains a major need. However, regardless of whether or not he makes another leap, Basham’s emergence has already provided the Jets with depth and intriguing upside — two things they have sorely lacked for a long time.