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Linsey: Robert Saleh is making the defensive line a priority again with the New York Jets

Dec 22, 2019; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (95) celebrates with teammates after a sack during the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Optimism will bubble to the surface any time an NFL franchise drafts a quarterback at No. 2 overall. Zach Wilson represents a blank slate for the New York Jets — an opportunity to make up for the disappointment that defined Sam Darnold’s tenure with the team. The optimism in New York is about more than just the addition of Wilson, though.

The Jets got off to a good start building around their rookie quarterback, adding Alijah Vera-Tucker and Elijah Moore in the 2021 NFL Draft and former Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis in free agency. Those pieces will give Wilson and first-year offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur more to work with as they look to rebuild what has been the NFL's worst offense over the past three seasons.

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LaFleur and a new coaching staff headed by Robert Saleh are as big a reason for hope as any change that the Jets made over the past six months. Saleh brought on Atlanta Falcons linebackers coach and interim defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich as his defensive coordinator in New York. But it’s difficult to imagine that Saleh won't heavily influence how the Jets run their defense.

Saleh led an impressive turnaround for the San Francisco 49ers defense in his four years there as defensive coordinator. The 49ers featured the 28th-ranked defense in EPA allowed per play in 2016, the year prior to him taking over. Over the past two seasons combined, they had the third-best defense in the league, trailing only the Pittsburgh Steelers and Los Angeles Rams.

49ers defensive rank by EPA allowed per play since 2016
Season Rank in EPA allowed per play
2016 28th
2017 27th
2018 26th
2019 2nd
2020 5th

That fifth-place rank in 2020 is even more impressive than the second-place finish in 2019 given the losses San Francisco overcame. Nick Bosa and Richard Sherman missed significant time with injuries. Dee Ford, a major trade acquisition from the Kansas City Chiefs prior to the 2019 season, played in just one game. And DeForest Buckner was traded before the 2020 campaign for a first-round pick. Yet, the 49ers' defense still performed at a high level. Saleh has shown the ability to evolve when push comes to shove — a necessary quality for any good coach.

He did have an elite (and expensive) defensive line to fall back on, though. The 49ers spent the No. 17 overall pick on Arik Armstead in 2015. They then drafted Buckner with the seventh overall pick in 2016 and proceeded to make Solomon Thomas the third overall pick the following offseason. San Francisco took a hiatus in 2018 by selecting Mike McGlinchey in the first round, but the team went back to the well during the 2019 offseason, drafting Bosa with the second overall pick and trading for Ford.

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