It all starts up front.
Jets GM Joe Douglas and new HC Robert Saleh have been out front when it comes to talking about the importance of controlling the line of scrimmage -- on offense and on defense. They recently addressed the outside with the free-agent signing of DE Carl Lawson.
"I think it starts up front, and I think it starts with the offensive and defensive lines," Douglas has said. "That's going to lead to the rest of the team, and so we really have to win the line of scrimmage first."
The Jets' interior defensive line, already a strength with budding-star Quinnen Williams (team-leading 7 sacks in the 2020 season), was fortified with the signing DT Sheldon Rankins, the 12th overall pick in the 2016 draft. Up front, the Jets are transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive scheme.
With Williams and Rankins plus the return of Folorunso Fatukasi, Nathan Shepherd and John Franklin-Myers, the notion of taking an interior defender early on in the NFL Draft (which begins April 29 in Cleveland) may be unlikely. Add to that a relative absence of impact players according to many draft gurus, including Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network who lists only two interior defensive lineman -- Washington's Levi Onwuzurike at No. 28 and Iowa's Davyon Nixon at No. 45 -- among his top 50 players in the entire draft.
The Jets still have the opportunity to sign available free agents but could instead opt for some young talent available in the draft. Here are five defensive tackles prospects in focus.
Top of the Class
Levi Onwuzurike (6-3, 290 ), Washington
Onwuzurike (pronounced own-zerr-EE-kay) opted out of the 2020 season and declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. In 39 career games for the Huskies, Onwuzurike — a fifth-year senior from Allen, TX — had 95 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 7 sacks. His numbers included a career-high 45 tackles as well as 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks and a blocked punt in the 2019 season. During his time at Washington, he earned an undergraduate degree in sociology.
His strong 2019 season raised expectations for 2020, with some seeing him as a preseason All-American. But before the Pac-12 season's late start, he decided to skip his fifth season of eligibility (he was redshirted as a freshman).
Finally, Onwuzurike is rated as the No. 1 defensive tackle in the draft by Bucky Brooks of NFL Network.
Christian Barmore (6-5, 311), Alabama
Barmore has a limited collegiate pedigree, having played only two seasons for the Crimson Tide. But with his size, speed and strength, he could make for an interesting selection.
He was named the Defensive MVP of the 2021 national championship game when the Crimson Tide rolled over Ohio State. In the game, he made 5 tackles, 2 for a loss, and notched a sack. He was named to the first team All-SEC after recording 37 tackles, 9.5 for a loss, and 8 sacks in Alabama's 2020 season.
In 2019, as a redshirt freshman, Barmore had 26 tackles, 6 for a loss, and 2 sacks; and was named to the SEC's All-Freshman team. He can be explosive off the line, especially for a big man, and can be equally adept rushing the passer or defending the run.
Daviyon Nixon (6-3, 306), Iowa
Nixon has taken a long and winding road to a possible spot in the NFL. After receiving a diagnosis of a learning disability, his academic performance disqualified him from admission to Iowa. Instead, he went the junior college route, playing in 2017 at Iowa Western Community College as he improved his grades. He dominated at the JUCO level, logging 44 tackles, 9 for loss, and 5 sacks as Iowa Western went 11-1.
In his first season, 2019, playing for the Hawkeyes, Nixon was used in a DL rotation amassing 29 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and 3 sacks. Last season he led the Big Ten with 13.5 tackles for loss, and his 5.5 sacks were second in the conference. He even scored his only career TD on a 71-yard interception return against Penn State. He was a consensus All-American, voted the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy.
Osa Odighizuwa (6-2, 280), UCLA
Odighizuwa (pronounced oh-DIGGY-zoo-wah) was a three-year starter for the Bruins who has a quick first step, is explosive, is rarely knocked off his feet and has the ability to power his way past blockers.
Redshirted as a freshman so he could bulk up, Odighizuwa in 2017 played in all 13 games for the Bruins, registering 15 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, and a fumble recovery for a TD. He turned it up in 2018, collecting 9 total tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 deflections, and a forced fumble and continued his improvement in 2019 as a full-time starter with 46 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Last season he earned All-Pac-12 first team honors when he made 30 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, and a career-high 4 sacks.
Osa, whose older brother was drafted in the third round in 2015 by the Giants, squatted more than 700 pounds, benched more than 420, and posted a 32-inch vertical leap.
Day 3 Diamond
Jay Tufele (6-3, 315), USC
Tufele, a former rugby player, was the No. 1 ranked football player in the state of Utah as a senior in high school. He rebuffed overtures from Utah, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oregon and BYU, even though he missed the 2016 season with a torn knee ligament. He sat out his freshman season at USC to bulk up in the weight room.
Tufele appeared in 12 games in 2018, starting 5; he made 23 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks. In a game against Utah, Tufele returned a fumble 48 yards for a touchdown, making him a nominee for the 2018 Piesman Trophy, which is awarded for the most impressive play made by a lineman. As a redshirt sophomore the next year, he started all 13 games and made 41 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks. He was named to the All-Pac-12 first team.
He opted out of the 2020 season after his sister contracted a serious case of COVID-19 last August.