Breaking down the secret weapon on the Jets’ defensive line

2M9RPT6 New York Jets defensive end Micheal Clemons (72) during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

• Not Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers nor Jermaine Johnson II: It's Micheal Clemons, a 2022 fourth-round pick who quietly excelled in his rookie campaign.

• Clemons put himself among the game's elite: The only rookie defensive linemen in the PFF era to earn a higher run-defense grade than Clemons were Aaron Donald and Sheldon Richardson.

• Pass-rush struggles leave plenty of room for improvement: Clemons still has much to work on in his second season after earning a 58.6 pass-rush grade in 2022.

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

The New York Jets’ defensive line is loaded. It is arguably the team's best unit, especially considering their pass-rushing depth. They continued to add to it this offseason by drafting first-rounder Will McDonald IV as somewhat of a luxury option.

Here are some of the components of the Jets’ defensive line last season:

  • The highest-graded run stopper of any defensive lineman in the NFL
  • The only edge defender in the NFL to play at least 300 snaps and not miss a tackle
  • The second-highest-graded rookie defensive lineman in the NFL, only behind Aidan Hutchinson

Logical matches for these descriptions should probably be All-Pro Quinnen Williams, PFF secret superstar John Franklin-Myers and 2022 first-round pick Jermaine Johnson II. They’re all solid-to-excellent players, but none of them fit the above criteria. In fact, only one player matches all of it.

Micheal Clemons is that player. The fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M came to New York with little fanfare. He was an older rookie with a monstrous 6-foot-5, 270-pound frame and a high motor. His pass-rush moves needed refinement, but the ability was there. He tallied 46 pressures in his final year in College Station, the fourth most in the SEC.

His non-stop hustle and sheer aggression were evident early on:

Clemons is not the guy you want to get a free shot at the quarterback. His 58.6 pass-rush grade isn’t wholly impressive, but there were moments when his potential as a power rusher shined.

Trent Brown weighs upward of 370 pounds, and Clemons basically bench-pressed him and threw him to the side. Continued production like this in the passing game would put Clemons in Pro Bowl conversations.

Where Clemons really makes his impact, though, is in the run game. Despite being criminally underused at times, he was the NFL’s highest-graded run defender among all defensive linemen. It marked just the second time in the PFF era (since 2006) that a rookie led all NFL defensive linemen in run-defense grade.

Who was the first? Aaron Donald, of course, in 2014, which brings us to the historical context of Micheal Clemons’ production.

Highest Run-Defense Grade by a Rookie Defensive Lineman (min. 150 run-defense snaps)
Aaron Donald, 2014 90.8
Sheldon Richardson, 2013 90.7
Khalil Mack, 2014 90.3
Micheal Clemons, 2022 86.4
Leonard Williams, 2015 86.3
Joey Bosa, 2016 85.2

Clemons is obviously in elite company. The primary difference is that he played only 311 total snaps and the rest of the group all played well over 550. Why Clemons didn’t play more is a mystery, but it was clear that he could make immediate contributions.

The above clip was in Week 1 against an elite running team in Baltimore. Clemons continued to make plays all year, culminating in a season-high 78.3 run-defense grade in Week 15 against Detroit:

It wasn’t until that Week 15 performance that Clemons was unleashed to play 30-plus snaps in the following two games. In between all the splash plays, he also doesn’t make many mistakes in the run game. He earned a negative grade on just 4.3% of his run-defense snaps, the seventh-best rate among NFL defensive linemen with 150 run-defense snaps played.

Jets’ defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich recently said Clemons has bulked up to around 290 pounds in order to increase his versatility and help on the inside, where the Jets are thinner.

Wherever Clemons plays in 2023, it’s obvious that he needs to play more and has the skill, especially in the run game, to back it up. He is as talented as the numerous first-rounders the Jets deploy on the defensive line. He had an excellent rookie season. If the Jets field a top defense in the NFL this season, Micheal Clemons will be a big reason why.


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