Jets must stop talent drain on once-powerful defensive line

With free agency approaching (March 14), we're analyzing each position on the New York Jets' roster and examining possible upgrades:

Position: Defensive line

2018 cap hits of top returnees:

Pending free agents: DE Kony Ealy, NT Mike Pennel and DE Xavier Cooper (restricted).

Key stat: The once-formidable run defense regressed in 2017, as the Jets allowed 1,887 yards, their highest total since 2012. On a per-carry basis, their 4.05 average ranked 15th in the league. A closer look reveals the root of the problem: Shoddy tackling. They allowed 951 yards after contact, a ranking of 29th, per ESPN Stats & Information.

Money matters: The Jets are expected to part ways with Wilkerson before March 16, when his $16.8 million salary becomes fully guaranteed if he's on the roster. They will save $11 million in cap room, which basically covers their draft. If they designate him a post-June 1 cut, the savings will be a whopping $17 million. The downside to that approach: They have to carry his $20 million cap charge until June 1 even though he wouldn't be on the roster. Also, a $6 million charge would be deferred to 2019. The Jets have until early May to exercise Williams' fifth-year option, a no-brainer.

Big picture: It's amazing -- and sad -- how much the talent level has slipped in recent years. In 2015, the first year of the Todd Bowles-Mike Maccagnan regime, the defensive line was absolutely loaded with Wilkerson, Williams, Damon Harrison and Sheldon Richardson. Maccagnan let the best player leave in free agency (Harrison) and picked Wilkerson over Richardson (traded), which seemed like the right move at the time. The surplus is long gone. They will need a starting-caliber end to replace Wilkerson and an heir apparent for McLendon, 32, who is entering the final year of his contract.

Free-agent market watch: DE DeMarcus Lawrence, DE Ezekiel Ansah, Richardson, DT Star Lotulelei, DE Adrian Clayborn, DT Dontari Poe, DT/DE Shamar Stephen and DT Bennie Logan

Also could become available: DT Ndamukong Suh, DE Cameron Wake, DE Robert Ayers, DE Jerry Hughes, DT Corey Liuget, DT Sharrif Floyd and DE/DT Tyson Alualu.

The game plan: They can start by dumping Wilkerson, re-signing Ealy (a one-year contract) and extending an RFA tender to Cooper. Ealy and Cooper can be rotational players, creating depth. Cooper replaced the exiled Wilkerson in the final three games, earning praise from the coaches.

Williams needs a new sidekick, but the free-agent class is thin. The Jets would love Lawrence (14.5 sacks) -- who wouldn't? -- but there's no chance he gets away from the Dallas Cowboys. He'll get a new deal or the franchise tag. What about a Richardson reunion? Some in the organization wouldn't mind it, but it's unlikely to happen. For one thing, Richardson, coming off a solid year with the Seattle Seahawks, will command at least $10 million a year -- risky for a player with off-the-field concerns.

Ansah can be the edge pass-rusher the Jets so desperately covet (12 sacks in only 489 snaps), but the price will be exorbitant -- figure $13 million a year. Look for the Jets to take the moderately priced route. Stephen, who played 372 snaps for the Minnesota Vikings as a rotational player on first and second down, is a good scheme fit and he's only 26.