In 2013, former undrafted defensive tackle Damon Harrison took the league by storm, becoming the best run-stuffer at his position in just his second season out of William Penn. The third member of the "'Sons of Anarchy's" newfound fame was well-deserved, but it came at the expense of another player at his position who was deserving of recognition.
While Harrison was soaking up the praise, former third-round pick Kenrick Ellis enjoyed his best season as a pro, which would have been worthy of a starting role on about 20 other teams.
Like Harrison, Ellis is a small-school prospect who has an incredible blend of size and athleticism. Due to some issues related to health and the law, it took Ellis a bit longer to get used to the steep learning curve of the NFL—but he appears to be ready to break out at any second.
Harrison's dominance (in combination with some nagging injuries) limited Ellis to just 210 snaps in 2013—roughly one-fifth of the defensive snaps in a single year. However, he managed to make the most of the opportunity he was given.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), who named him as one of their "Secret Superstars" in May, Ellis was the third-best defender on the team, only behind Harrison and Sheldon Richardson.
Ellis recorded fewer "stops" than Harrison, but his rate of 17 per 210 snaps was higher than Harrison's 39 out of 510 snaps
Despite playing in 300 fewer snaps than Harrison, Ellis was a much more efficient pass-rusher, recording seven quarterback hurries to Harrison's nine.
As impressive as Ellis was relative to the gold standard of the league (Harrison) from a statistical standpoint, his personal improvement from year to year is even more crucial to indicating his ability to continue growing into an even more dominant player than he was a year ago.
Prior to the season, it was difficult to predict any kind of growth from Ellis simply because he did not have the body of work necessary to derive any valuable information. Not only did he spend his first two years backing up Sione Pouha, but he was half the player he was capable of being after suffering a knee injury in Week 6 of the 2012 season—just as he was starting to separate himself as the superior player to Pouha.
Had Harrison emerged as anything less than the best player at his position in 2013, Ellis may have owned the title of being one of the most dominant run defenders at his position—especially considering the fact that he had a slow start to the season as he nursed a back injury.
|Kenrick Ellis' Development|
|Pro Football Focus|
When Harrison was drafted in the third round of the 2011 draft, he was regarded as a "project" player because of how he would have to adjust to the steep climb in competition level. The Jets already had an established nose tackle in Pouha, but Ellis' blend of size and athleticism would pay dividends down the road.
Now entering his fourth season with a clean legal record and bill of health, the stage is set for Ellis to become the dominant player they invested in years ago.
As promising as the numbers are, what Ellis has shown on the field gives the Jets true hope that his development will accelerate.
Plays like this simple run play won't make highlights or even be seen by many fans. However, Ellis shows a ton of ability by stacking the guard, shedding him and getting across the line of scrimmage to limit the gain as much as possible.
These are not plays made by average defensive linemen. Essentially, Ellis blew up the play by himself by winning his one-on-one battle (by a long shot) and putting in extra effort to make the tackle.
Ellis showed at least as much as dominance as a pass-rusher—an area of the game that Harrison has not been able to match with his run defense.
On this play against the Baltimore Ravens, Ellis bull-rushes the guard (A.J. Shipley) a good five yards right into the quarterback.
He did not get credit for the sack because of offsetting penalties (Ellis touched Shipley's facemask, Shipley was called for holding), but this was a display of pure dominance in every sense of the word.
Plays like these show why the Jets were willing to take on a project like Ellis in the draft four years ago. Eventually, his NFL experience and acumen would catch up to his supreme physical gifts to equate to a dominant, well-rounded player.
Unfortunately for Ellis, he finds himself in a difficult situation to blossom into a full-blown star simply because of the amount of talent around him. Not only does he have Harrison in front of him to eat up the majority of snaps, but the Jets' entire defensive line is littered with stars that will consume the spotlight.
Even Harrison was a victim of being lost in the shuffle at times, as first-round picks Richardson and Wilkerson were far more recognized by their efforts. Richardson would go on to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, while Wilkerson was named team MVP by his teammates despite the fact that, at least on a snap-by-snap basis, Harrison was the better player.
Ellis' ceiling this year will be to split time evenly with Harrison. This may not seem like an impressive feat on the surface, but when referring to the ultra-talented Jets defensive line, simply making the roster is quite an accomplishment.
Eating into the snaps of the top nose tackle in the game last year is a testament to how good Ellis was and is capable of becoming.
What makes Ellis' performance in 2014 even more intriguing is that his contract is set to expire after the season. If Ellis did not already have enough motivation to take his game to the next level, landing a huge payday in 2015 by outshining the likes of Damon Harrison gives Ellis a direct path to a huge second contract.
A dominant Ellis would make the Jets happy in the short run while they enjoy their unusual defensive line depth, but it would also make him nearly impossible to retain after the season with so many other star defensive linemen to pay—assuming, of course, he lives up to his potential on the field.