Julian Okwara, Curtis Weaver, A.J. Epenesa
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Jets haven’t received double-digit sacks from an edge rusher in over a decade. Could the solution be in the 2020 NFL Draft?

Kyle Newman

Joe Douglas wants to build inside-out. Offensive and defensive lines are priority No. 1 and 2 for the former big heavy. That means he’ll be on the lookout for an edge rusher to help the New York Jets putrid pass rush.

In 2009, Calvin Pace tallied 10.5 sacks. No Jets edge rusher has picked up double-digit sacks since. That’s the longest such streak in the NFL.

The 2020 free-agent class is a deep one at edge rusher. Players like Jadeveon Clowney, Yannick Ngakoue, Matt Judon and Dante Fowler Jr. are all set to hit the market. The Jets should have enough money to get a big name edge rusher, but they shouldn’t stop there.

Jordan Jenkins is also set to hit the market. That leaves the Jets with two big holes to fill at edge rusher. Unfortunately, the 2020 NFL Draft is not deep at edge rusher.

The Jets are going to be looking for a diamond in the rough in this top-heavy class. With that in mind, here are five potential edge rusher options for the edge-needy Jets:

A.J. Epenesa, Iowa

A.J. Epenesa is a flash player, meaning he shows up to make a big play in every game; but, for the most part, is ineffective. Think Saquon Barkley with the Giants, who led the league in run-stuffs in 2018, but also led the league in rushes over 30 yards.

Epenesa is that all-or-nothing defender. He doesn’t always win snaps, nor is his motor always running. Nonetheless, the finds a way to make splash plays every week.

This style of play is caused by Epenesa’s excellent technique and his average athleticism. When he’s got his technique going he’s going to flash and put his potential on full display because his athleticism isn’t going to hinder him. On the other hand, when the technique doesn’t win out, his athleticism isn’t good enough to make up for it.

This was the conundrum for some with Nick Bosa in the 2018 draft. The technique was amazing, but the athleticism was awful. Nick Bosa has come out and dominated the NFL in his rookie year.

Epenesa doesn’t have Bosa’s level of technique and shouldn’t be expected to dominate in that way at the next level. His 6-foot-6, 280-pound frame speaks to the player he is: an old-school, 4-3 defensive end.

Against the run is where Epenesa shines. He sets the edge extremely well and he’s a sure tackler. He’s going to make some big plays in the run game in the NFL early on and it’s likely going to be how he finds his way into a starting lineup.

Over the long-term, Epenesa has a chance to be an above-average possibly elite-level edge rusher in the mold of Clowney—that run stuffer who doesn’t need double-digit sacks to be elite play style.

In the meantime, expect Epenesa to be a day one starter due to his NFL-ready technique when rushing the passer and against the run.

It’s unlikely the Jets go edge rusher in Round 1, but if they do, it’ll likely be Epenesa. He’s the only edge rusher other than Chase Young worth a top-15 selection.

Curtis Weaver, Boise State

Curtis Weaver is a polarizing prospect. Most everyone has him listed as a day-two prospect, but there’s a great debate as to where on day two. Some believe he’s a top-of-the-second-round player, while others believe he’s a mid-third rounder. The debate is easy to follow.

Weaver’s size is deceptive. He’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 265 pounds, but he plays bigger. He looks more like a traditional 4-3 end than a 3-4 OLB. He plays like it, too.

Weaver has an excellent first step and his technique is excellent. His hand fighting may be the best in the class by an edge rusher not named Chase Young. So, it’s hard to see how Weaver wouldn’t develop to be a useful player in some capacity.

The issue is that Weaver lacks athleticism and length. He has shorter than ideal arms and he’s below average athletically for his size. He’s not going to beat linemen with his speed or power, he’s looking to out-technique them.

That works in college, especially in a non-power five like the Mountain West. It doesn’t work so well against higher-level competition. That’s something Weaver learned first-hand in his bowl game against Washington when he was nearly completely neutralized.

However, his run defense will always be solid with the potential for more. His big frame and quick first step always put him in a position to make a play in the run game. The issue is his lack of length makes him a worse tackler. He’s more likely to disrupt a play then end up with a sack or a tackle for loss.

He’s similar in a lot of ways to New York Jets free agent edge rusher Jordan Jenkins when he came out of Georgia—a strong run defender with a growing pass-rush skill set that has a limited ceiling.

Weaver isn’t for everyone, but he should be a competent strong side edge rusher at the NFL level. His lack of a star ceiling may turn some off, but the Jets could be looking to replace Jenkins for the 2020 season. Weaver would be a good way to do that seamlessly.

Julian Okwara, Notre Dame

Julian Okwara is a pure speed rusher. There isn’t a whole lot more to say about him. His ceiling is limited because of it, but not by much.

Okwara doesn’t have a ton of production at the college level and the reason is simple: Okwara lacks power, so when double-teamed, he’s completely washed out of a play. If a team didn’t want him in a play, they could easily remove him.

NFL teams aren’t likely to double team Okwara though because of the talent that will be around him. If the New York Jets draft Okwara, it would be hard to double team him when Quinnen Williams, Foley Fatukasi and Steve McLendon are clogging up the middle.

Joe Douglas, G.M. Joe T-Shirt

Okwara is fast and bendy. When he’s put one-on-one with a tackle, it’s usually trouble. He’s a disruptor and his ability to rip the ball free is fantastic. He’s always on the hunt for a sack or a turnover when rushing the passer and the motor doesn’t stop.

In the run game, Okwara struggles to set the edge due to his lack of strength. He’s much better in the open field as a tackler. That said, his motor is never-ending and his pursuit skills are among the best in this class at his position.

Okwara is likely looking at a being a situational pass rusher in year one with upside to be an above-average starting weakside edge rusher.

If the New York Jets decide to go edge rusher in Round 2, Okwara makes a ton of sense. His pass-rush potential is undeniable, especially compared to the players who will likely still be on the board.

Josh Uche, Michigan

Josh Uche is a boom or bust prospect. He’s an incredibly athletic edge rusher, and he uses that to his advantage. He converts his 6-foot-2 and 250-pound size into an impressive speed-to-power rush. It may be his best pass rush move.

He loves beating tackles with his athleticism. He has freaky bend off the edge, which combined with his speed can destroy offensive lines.

His length and power are also impressive. He managed to bull-rush standout Iowa tackle Tristan Wirfs. However, his bull-rush is better at clearing space for other than getting any real pressure.

His issue is that he has little technique right now; he just wins with pure athleticism. He looks like he’ll be a situational pass rusher in his rookie year as he develops his pass-rush technique.

That’s for the best, as Uche also struggles mightily in the run game. He’s a poor tackler and his run-stuffing IQ is poor. It’s unlikely he’ll ever be a strong run defender.

Right now, Uche is a third-round prospect. His athleticism will likely make him a combine warrior in February. It’s possible he could shoot up draft boards into the mid-second round.

Either way, he should be on the board for the Jets if they want him on day two. If you hit on a guy like Uche, you have a dominant speed rusher. If you miss, you end with players like Jachai Polite.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Jets risk so much on a pass rusher for the second straight year.

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