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Jets' defense struggled when highly paid D-line trio played together

The combination of Leonard Williams (left) and Sheldon Richardson was one of the more effective groupings the Jets employed. Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports

Is Sheldon Richardson worth keeping?

It's a question the New York Jets have been mulling for months, one they will continue to examine. If they don't trade him before or during the upcoming season, they will have to decide if they want to re-sign him as a free agent in 2018.

Some might argue it behooves them to keep the Richardson-Leonard Williams-Muhammad Wilkerson troika together, giving them a potent one-two-three punch on the defensive line. We're talking about three talented players, a havoc-wreaking trio that boosts the defense whenever they're on the field at the same time.

Except that wouldn't be accurate.

This might be hard to believe, but the defense was terrible last season when the Big Three played together. I'd like to say, "You can look it up," but you can't. Those statistics are virtually impossible to unearth, but our man Zach Mariner from ESPN Stats & Information did just that.

Richardson, Wilkerson and Williams played together for 513 of the 998 defensive snaps last season, and the results were ugly -- 8.0 yards per pass attempt, a bloated 79.6 QBR, a 19-2 touchdown/interception ratio and only six sacks.

That's not what you call dominant defense.

Of the four different combos involving at least two of the Big Three, this one ranked as the least productive.

How do you explain something like that? They should have been able to create favorable matchups, with two players drawing double-teams and allowing the third to be singled up against one blocker. It apparently didn't happen too often, perhaps because one of them -- most often Richardson -- was forced to play out of position. That's what happens when you have three defensive tackles.

This much can't be disputed: They were a better defense with Richardson on the field.

Let's have some fun and pick out the best combo in various situations. Such as:

Against the run: With Richardson and Wilkerson in the game (no Williams), the Jets yielded only 3.1 yards per carry, significantly better than any other combo.

Against the pass: The defense was better in most statistical categories with Richardson and Williams on the field, not Wilkerson -- only 5.3 yards per attempt, with one touchdown and three interceptions.

On third down: Surprisingly, the defense was more efficient with Williams on the bench, with Richardson and Wilkerson in the game -- a 33 percent conversion rate.

As you can see, it's hard to pinpoint a dominant trend. That would make it easy to assess the value of each player, which would come in handy if they have to pick an odd-man out. It really comes down to the coaching staff being able to find ways to better utilize the three players, especially when they're on the field together.