Inside Linebacker – David Harris and Demario Davis – Few inside linebackers play downhill as well as Harris and Davis. They fill the gaps and stop the run with the best in the league. Harris even showed an improved speed and was slightly better in coverage than in the past. That being said Harris is still a liability in coverage especially against speedy hybrid tight ends and backs. Davis was terrible in coverage he has the speed and the ability to play well in that regard but it didn’t translate in his 1st year as a starter. Hopefully he comes back having worked on that in the offseason and is able to translate that work to the field. Davis is one of the emotional leaders of the team but that won’t mean much if he is a liability on the field.
Cornerback – Dee Milliner and Antonio Cromartie – Dee Milliner finished the year by being named the Defensive Rookie of the Month in December and the Defensive Player of the Week for his two interception day against the Dolphins. Milliner really struggled coming out of the gate due to a contract holdout and injuries. He had to be pulled from three games for ineffectiveness but the team stuck with him and it paid dividends at the end of the season. If Milliner continues his ascent and proves his worth as a top 10 pick, that in itself will improve the Jets secondary. An early season injury to his hip effected his performance the entire season. Cromartie will be cut as a salary cap casualty then resigned for somewhere around $3-5 million. His body of work says that he will rebound and the fact that he keeps himself in great shape will help him recover from injury. Cromartie should have rested his hip during the season but he and team decided he should try to play through because of his worth to the defense. If Cromartie can be 3/4 of what he was in 2012 the Jets will be in good shape.
Safety – Jairus Byrd and Antonio Allen – The success that Ed Reed had in the last few weeks in the season and what his brother was able to do with a playmaker in Kenny Vaccaro might finally prove to Rex Ryan the value of a playmaking safety. Byrd is too good of an opportunity to pass up. He is a terrific coverage safety that can play center field and by signing him you weaken a division rival. While it will be expensive to sign him, this is the type of player to invest in, a 27-year-old player in the early part of his prime. Antonio Allen has continued to improve his coverage skills to go along with his abilities against the run and blitzing. The job he did on Rob Gronkowski was a huge part of the Jets victory against the Patriots last year. He still is a bit raw coming in from a hybrid linebacker role in college but he keeps improving. I asked Rex Ryan at Jets House about Kenny Vaccaro and if that changed his view about safeties and Rex answered that Antonio Allen is the Jets version of Vaccaro and he pointed out the game against the Patriots as an example. I think Allen is not on that level yet but he certainly has a high ceiling.
Kicker – Nick Folk – I don’t see this as a lock at all because I can’t see the Jets committing big money, 2.5 million or so, and giving out a long-term contract to a kicker who other than this year has been at about 77% and does not handle kickoffs well. That being said Folk had a great season only missing two field goal attempts all year and his leg seems to be getting stronger as he has been more accurate from 50 yards and out than I can remember. If they don’t lock up Folk and a team throws a bunch of money at him I would look for the Jets to use one of the compensatory picks on a kicker rather than picking up a retread.
Punter – Ryan Quigley – Quigley had a decent season for the Jets and should be back after the usual training camp competition. There were plenty of struggles but he also showed promise especially pinning teams inside the 20. He averaged 45.9 yards per punt with 21 landed inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. He only had three touchbacks showing good control and depth perception. If the new coordinator Thomas McGaughey can get more consistency out of Quigley he can be more than a serviceable punter for the Jets.
Kickoff Returner – Odell Beckham Jr. – As McGaughey knows because he coached him at LSU Beckham is an electric returner that is a threat to score any time he touches the ball. His final year at LSU he averaged 26 yards per return and he scored twice on punts in 2012. The Jets were a disaster in the return game in 2012 which is contrary to their successes in the previous 11 years under Mike Westhoff. Better field position is essential to help the offense not have to drive 80 yards each time and the momentum a big return gives you is something that stats don’t translate.
Punt Returner – Golden Tate – Tate averaged 11.5 yards per punt return in 2013 for the Seahawks. That is two yards better than the Jets did in 2012. The other notable thing about Tate’s returns is they got better as the game went on, in fact he averaged 17 yards per return in the 4th quarter and 20 yards per return in overtime. Putting Tate back there is just another example of putting your best players in position to get the ball and make plays.