According to Pro Football Focus, Jets nose tackle Kenrick Ellis is among the best interior linemen in the NFL, according to their statistics through Week 14. This after there were doubts he would ever develop into a serviceable defensive lineman.
The ranking from Pro Football Focus is judged on a per snap basis, where he is the best defensive tackle in terms of run stop percentage.
His turnaround started in the classroom of all places. Every mistake Ellis made in practice or in a game, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar would highlight in film study after. After awhile, he got tired of “being pointed at every day.” So he set about to get better and improve.
“Things I was told all my life that I didn't take to, like using your hands. It's easy, you hear 'Use your hands, use your hands.' Just getting your hands on people,” Ellis told Metro. “I was too busy trying to be physical with them. Whoever has their hands inside usually wins. You have leverage, you can control someone if your hands are on the inside.”
Ask Ellis about his play, and he quickly turns to the play of the entire defensive line, deflecting attention away from himself.
Ellis, a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, served prison time during the offseason following his rookie year stemming from an arrest in college.
During training camp, Ellis had an injury to his vertebra he was worried would keep him off the field and bury him on the depth chart – if not worse. He cited former Jets nose tackle Sione Pouha, a fan favorite who suffered a similar injury and was cut by the Jets this past offseason.
In the NFL, Ellis realized you are one injury away from never coming back.
“I'm just happy to be here competing. After I herniated a disc in my back – Sione Pouha had that injury – and you know [what happened],” Ellis said. “I hurt it on Aug. 12 in camp. I just try to compete; I don't know what to tell you. I was down. I didn't know how many games I was going to miss, [or] if I'd be here. That's the great feeling, just to be here helping.”
His job is a thankless one and one of the few on the field that can't be measured in statistics. At the center of the defensive line, his role in the 3-4 is to push the pocket and fill the gaps. It means he doesn't get his name in the box score very often. But when Muhammad Wilkerson or Sheldon Richardson get a sack, it is often the work of Ellis or fellow nose tackle Damon Harrison who pushed the pocket back so that the quarterback can't step up.
He was always an athlete, even at 6-foot-4 and 346 pounds, but he has worked on his leverage and using his hips better. Now his outstanding footwork has combined with improved hand technique to create a matchup problem for opposing teams. The Jets force double teams with Ellis and Harrison, freeing the likes of Wilkerson, Richardson, Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace to come off the edge.
“There is more work to be done,” Ellis said. “I feel like I haven't had a big game. There's so much room for improvement. I'm happy just to be here. But there is more work to be done.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.