The New York Jets defensive line has been anchored with experience in a veteran-laden group for years, but after making several moves this offseason, they are moving forward with the young guns up front.
Muhammad Wilkerson will maintain his spot at the five-technique, defensive end Mike DeVito will likely be supplanted by Quinton Coples, and Kenrick Ellis should fill the nose tackle spot left vacant by Sione Po'uha.
The veteran defensive tackle was cut at the beginning of free agency in a cost-cutting move; his contract was set to count $6.2 million against the cap, far too much for a player who contributed on just 30 percent of defensive snaps in the games he played in 2012 and never played more than 60 percent of snaps in a season.
Granted, at his best, Po'uha was a very formidable 3-4 nose tackle and arguably one of the best in the game. He ranked second in run-stop percentage in 2011, and third in 2009. At 34 years old, and with back problems creeping up, the Jets decided it was time to get younger.
Ellis is certainly built for the spot; at 6'4" and 346 pounds, he's an inch taller and 16 pounds heavier than Po'uha. Both were primarily used at nose tackle in the base 3-4 defense in 2012.
He was also used similarly; the two played a majority of their snaps on running downs, where their size in the middle was of great value to plugging up the gaps in the middle of the line.
Like Po'uha, Ellis is at his best when lined up directly over the center, as in the example below.
This is textbook technique for any nose tackle. Ellis gets low ground on Bills center Eric Wood and drives him into the backfield, out of his lane.
Bills running back C.J. Spiller attempted to cut back through the lane, but with the safety in the box, his path was cut short. When he tried to cut back through the lane vacated by Ellis, the defensive tackle shed the block from Wood and wrapped up Spiller.
Ellis can even do things Po'uha struggled with, such as creating disruption in the backfield by splitting blocks.
Once again, Ellis was lined up directly over the center, and with Fitzpatrick lined up under center, no one could be certain whether this was going to be a run or pass play.
It almost doesn't even matter; Ellis is in the backfield before the ball is handed off, and his disruption would have been enough to either:
- bring Bills running back Fred Jackson down in the backfield,
- force him to bounce the run to the outside, with defenders waiting,
- put pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick in the event of a pass.
As it turned out, option A was the end result, with Jackson attempting to evade Ellis, but instead bouncing into the waiting arms of a defender for a 3-yard gain.
Of course, the primary directive of any nose tackle is to be able to command double-teams and to even be able to win some of those battles.
He did so against the Miami Dolphins, winning a double-team with left tackle Jake Long and guard Richie Incognito in the B-gap.
He forced the double-team with a subtle move to his right—the offense's left—at the snap of the ball.
Ellis was able to hold his ground against the two maulers and even tossed Incognito aside.
Ellis won his matchup and was part of a gang tackle of Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas.
Judging by Ellis' skill set, he should be a suitable replacement, but like Po'uha, the question is whether he can stay healthy. Po'uha dealt with lingering back problems in 2012 and was rendered less effective as a result.
Ellis suffered an MCL sprain in the Jets' Week 5 loss to the Texans. He didn't return until Week 11, but even then couldn't stay on the field when he injured his knee again and played just three snaps that week.
The Jets were wise to move on from Po'uha's heavy contract, but plugging in Ellis won't fix the woes of the defense. A space-eater in the middle is important, but it's not as effective without pressure off the edges.
Moving from Po'uha to Ellis is just one step in a long series of retooling moves along the Jets' front seven.