There will be 7 new starters on defense this year as the team breaks in younger, faster players. The key word this year is versatility as many of the players can play multiple positions and are flexible enough to play in multiple schemes. Rex Ryan takes over the playcalling from the departed Mike Pettine who left for Buffalo despite Manish Mehta’s pleas to stay. This group will be super aggressive and will be blitzing from everywhere. There will be a time of transition but by the end of the year I have little doubt that this will be one of the top defenses.
The defensive front stars Muhammad Wilkerson who in his third year has steadily improved into one of the top defensive ends in the league. Wilkerson plays both defensive end, defensive tackle and was even lined up as a rush linebacker in the last preseason game. This year his pass rush skills seemed to have improved so look for him to improve on last year’s 5 sacks. First round draft pick Sheldon Richardson is as quick and agile as a near 300 pound man can be. He is most comfortable as a penetrating defensive tackle in a 4-3 front but can play some downs as a nose tackle and comfortably line up at end as well. He is a man who was used as a spy for Missouri on Johnny Manziel and help him to his lowest rushing total of the year. If Kenrick Ellis can ever stay healthy he can be an excellent anchor against the run. Ellis is 346 pounds and is hard to move so his health will occupy blockers and let the linebackers do their jobs. Damon Harrison has filled in for Ellis while he rests his back and has been deft at stopping the run and put some pressure on the quarterback as well.
Quinton Coples’ move to rush linebacker has been a hot topic of conversation. While some took his transition to outside linebacker literally and questioned having a 290 pound man trying to cover in space the reality of the situation is that his job will be to get the quarterback or ball carrier by rushing up the field he will not be asked to cover very often and his freakish athleticism will help him make plays. Demario Davis takes over at inside linebacker for Bart Scott. Davis is much faster than Scott and can cover backs and tight ends out of the backfield as well as blitz. What he is missing is Scott’s experience, as Davis is still learning the position and needs to learn to act without thinking so he can be ahead of plays not trying to catch up with his athleticism. David Harris needs a bounce back year because last year he was slow and exposed in coverage. This year he has lost weight but was victimized in the Jacksonville game by backs and receivers when he was isolated. Antwan Barnes is 2 years removed from a 12 sack season in a part-time role and here he will be put in advantageous positions by Rex Ryan to go get the passer. He is Aaron Maybin if Aaron Maybin were a good football player.
The secondary needs to overcome the loss of All-World corner Darrelle Revis who was traded to Tampa Bay. Antonio Cromartie inherits the shutdown corner role which he did well last year after Revis tore his ACL. Dee Milliner was drafted to play opposite Cromartie and is freakishly athletic but has not been healthy after he held out for the first week of camp. Milliner, who has already had 5 surgeries in his career but didn’t miss any games, needs to contribute and succeed as a rookie because Kyle Wilson cannot cover quality receivers on the outside. Wilson got abused by Hakeem Nicks in the last preseason game committing 3 penalties and allowing a long completion. Wilson needs to play a hybrid nickel corner/safety role where he can focus on what’s in front of him instead of press coverage. Darrin Walls is an emerging player that will do well this year. He can stay with just about anyone he just needs to refine his technique to make sure he looks back at the ball to avoid pass interference calls. Isaiah Trufant is a small player but he has been laying the wood as a tackler and has been doing a good job with the backups. Dawan Landry is steady at one safety position but the combination of Antonio Allen and Jaiquawn Jarrett has not been getting the job done at the other. No one has stepped up to take that other safety job. If nobody grabs it in the last preseason game I would expect the Jets to comb the waiver wire looking for an improvement or at least better depth.
This year the defense will be able to drop from 23.4 points per game down to 20 and will keep the team in most of its games. If the team’s strong defensive line can stop the run then this will be an elite defense. They will be able to get to the quarterback both conventionally through a 3 or 4 man rush and exotically through blitzes. Will the back-end of the defense be able to hold up behind Cromartie? I see Wilkerson rising to an All-Pro level, Richardson developing into a transcendent talent by the end of the year and Coples will adjust well to his new rush role. Milliner will struggle more than we think due to injuries and the time it takes to adjust to the pros (even Revis wasn’t Revis in year 1) and the play of Darrin Walls will be key for the defense. They need to find a safety opposite Landry that can cover or the linebackers will be exposed.