3 options for NY Jets to replace injured DT Sheldon Rankins

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By: Michael Nania

New York Jets must figure out a short-term solution to replace Sheldon Rankins

New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins suffered a dislocated elbow in the team’s Week 9 win over the Buffalo Bills. Per ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Rankins could miss up to 4-6 weeks.

Head coach Robert Saleh said Rankins is week-to-week and that the team hopes it can avoid placing him on injured reserve (which would keep him out a minimum of four weeks).

Rankins is having a strong season for New York. The veteran has been active as both a pass rusher and run defender, collecting 14 pressures, two sacks, and 11 run stops in nine games.

How will the Jets replace Rankins while they wait for him to heal? They have plenty of options. Let’s discuss a few of them.

Before getting into the Jets’ options, it is important to understand exactly who the Jets are trying to replace here. What is Rankins’s role in the Jets’ defense?

What is Sheldon Rankins’s role?

Rankins is the left-side defensive tackle for the Jets’ starting defensive line, playing opposite Quinnen Williams, who starts at right defensive tackle. Rankins rarely moves off the left side of the line, as he has played 88.3% of his defensive snaps on the left side this season.

Rankins plays just about every position on the interior defensive line, although he mostly plays 2i-technique (over guard’s inside shoulder) and 4i-technique (over tackle’s inside shoulder).

The Jets trust Rankins to play a fairly large number of snaps. Over the first eight games of the season, Rankins was averaging 39.3 defensive snaps per game. He played about 57% of the Jets’ defensive snaps on average. Each of these numbers ranked second among the Jets’ interior defensive linemen, trailing only Williams.

Solomon Thomas and Nathan Shepherd serve as the Jets’ second-string defensive tackles. Thomas backs up Rankins on the left side while Shepherd backs up Williams on the right.

Rankins’s absence will likely result in more playing time for Thomas and Shepherd; particularly Thomas since he is Rankins’s backup on the left side. Against Buffalo, Thomas ended up playing a season-high 44% of the snaps due to Rankins’s early exit (Rankins exited after playing only 10 snaps).

But the Jets didn’t rely solely on Thomas to overtake Rankins’s vacated snaps on the left side. Shepherd also played a season-high 37% of the snaps. The Jets had him pitch in to replace Rankins by giving him more left-side snaps than usual. Shepherd played six snaps on the left side against Buffalo after playing only three over his first eight games.

I would expect Thomas and Shepherd to see larger roles going forward, but they certainly won’t eat up all 39 of the snaps per game that are left open by Rankins. Someone else is going to join them in replacing Rankins.

Let’s look at a few different ways the Jets can disperse the rest of Rankins’s snaps.

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1. Sign Linval Joseph

The Jets hosted veteran defensive tackle Linval Joseph for a visit back on October 21. No deal was reached, but Joseph remains on the market as of November 8.

Joseph, 34, has 12 seasons of experience in the NFL. He most recently played for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2021, when he showed he still has plenty of gas left in the tank as he tied for 16th among defensive tackles with 27 run stops.

I do wonder if Joseph is an ideal fit for the Jets’ scheme. Joseph weighs in at 329 pounds and is not known for being the greatest athlete. He’s more of a space-eater while the Jets’ scheme typically favors smaller, more athletic defensive tackles who can shoot gaps and get after the quarterback.

It’s also worth noting that Joseph has spent a lot of time in the NFL as a pure nose tackle, whereas the Jets are looking to replace Rankins’s impact at the 2i-technique and 4i-technique positions. Joseph has occasionally played at these positions, but it’s not his bread and butter.

Despite these concerns, New York made the effort to bring Joseph in for a visit, so the team surely thinks there is some sort of role for him in the defense. Perhaps the Jets give Joseph a call back.

2. Push John Franklin-Myers inside

The Jets have used John Franklin-Myers both inside and outside this season, although the edge remains his primary home. Franklin-Myers has played 29.9% of his snaps on the interior and 70.1% on the edge. Most of those interior snaps come in obvious passing situations.

Perhaps with Rankins out, the Jets could push Franklin-Myers inside more often while giving his vacated edge snaps to a pair of youngsters who are deserving of more reps: Jermaine Johnson and Bryce Huff.

Franklin-Myers is already used to playing on the left side of the defensive line, as he’s played 95.9% of his defensive snaps on the left side this year. He plays Rankins’s position in obvious passing situations. So, kicking inside wouldn’t require a significant adjustment. He’d just be doing it more often.

Johnson is capable of overtaking Franklin-Myers’s edge reps in the Jets’ base defense. The rookie is a reliable run defender who can be trusted on early downs. Huff, meanwhile, deserves a shot to prove he can maintain his pass-rush efficiency over a larger sample of snaps.

3. Call up Tanzel Smart or Jonathan Marshall

The Jets have a pair of intriguing defensive tackles on their practice squad in Tanzel Smart and Jonathan Marshall. Rankins’s injury could pave the way for one of them to get their first snaps of the season.

Smart is already 28 years old, but it feels like he may have some untapped potential, as he looked excellent in back-to-back preseasons for the Jets. Over six preseason games from 2021 to 2022, Smart had 13 pressures, two sacks, 16 total tackles, and zero missed tackles. He shows good snap timing and impressive explosiveness off the ball; two traits that should make him an ideal scheme fit.

It feels like New York might have something in Smart. In each of the past two seasons, I was surprised when Smart did not make the team’s opening-week roster.

Marshall was chosen by the Jets in the sixth round of the 2021 draft. He only played four games as a rookie and showed very little, recording one pressure and two tackles over 77 defensive snaps. Marshall also had a missed tackle and a penalty.

In the 2022 preseason, Marshall failed to make a strong enough impression to crack the Jets’ opening-week roster. He only had one pressure and five tackles (with one missed tackle) in three games despite playing 82 snaps.

However, Marshall does offer tantalizing upside thanks to his historically great athleticism. His Relative Athletic Score (RAS) was 9.99 out of 10, the second-best mark in league history for a defensive tackle prospect. But the Jets have given Marshall plenty of opportunities to prove he can translate that athleticism into on-field impact. He hasn’t been able to do it.

Still, Marshall is a sixth-round pick who is only in his second year, so the Jets might not be ready to give up on him just yet.

The Jets are going to need a fourth defensive tackle on the roster while Rankins is gone. Unless they sign Joseph or commit to using Franklin-Myers on the inside full-time, it seems likely that either Smart or Marshall will be called up. I’m curious to see who the Jets choose.

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