After roughly a month of the offseason it is time to take our first impression of the roster to date and see whether the team has improved at each position. On Thursday, I wrote about the offense and you can find that here. Today we move on to the defense and special teams. A reminder that this piece is a comparison to 2013 so we are talking about the 2013 version of each player. The obvious example is Antonio Cromartie, who has been great in the past but was a complete disaster last year due to an injury he played through and natural decline. Once again we will keep this to starters and key reserves only.
DL – Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, Kenrick Ellis, Sheldon Richardson, Leger Douzable - The Jets best unit in 2013 stays completely intact with the two biggest transactions being resigning DL coach Karl Dunbar and key reserve Leger Douzable. Wilkerson is an All-Pro at this point in his career and will continue to ascend but the player who should make the biggest jump is reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson. Richardson was excellent against the run and did push the pocket well at times but his pass rush skills were still developing. Expect those to improve in 2014. Having a healthy Antwan Barnes, a full year of Quinton Coples and the return of Calvin Pace will all help as they can play the rush end position in four down lineman looks as well as spell Wilkerson or Richardson so they are fresher later in the season.
Verdict – Same group and with the youth of the players it is reasonable to expect a slight improvement in 2014.
LB – David Harris, Demario Davis, Calvin Pace, Antwan Barnes, Quinton Coples, Jermaine Cunningham - This group is another that has stayed intact for the most part. Other than resigning Calvin Pace, and his ten sacks in 2013, the most important acquisition is the return of Antwan Barnes from his season-ending ACL injury. Barnes had two sacks in five games and generated a lot of pressure every time he was on the field. Barnes is not a full-time backer but a situational one that comes in on passing downs. Demario Davis showed he belonged as he worked to replace Bart Scott. Davis was stout against the run and a better blitzed than advertised as well. Davis really needs to work on his coverage skills because he was exposed early and often in year one for him. David Harris had one of his best all-around seasons but it is clear that he has begun his decline and is a two down linebacker that should be subbed on 3rd down because his coverage skills are not what they used to be. Harris is still a leader and an excellent run defender but the Jets should draft his replacement this year as they need to get younger and more athletic at the position. Quinton Coples had to both adjust to playing outside linebacker and recover from a fractured ankle that cost him the last two games of the preseason games and the first two games of the regular season last year. Coples turned the corner in the last four games having 3.5 sacks in those games and looking like the dynamic player that has flashed at times. If he stays healthy, Coples should breakout this year, and if he does it will add another weapon that offenses have to account for, thus allowing more one on one match ups for Wilkerson, Richardson, Barnes & Pace as well as generating free rushers. This group will probably not get the performances that they got last year from Harris and Pace but that should be offset by having a full year of Coples and Barnes.
Verdict: It’s a push with the same group returning. Without a draft pick or two to bring in new blood, a breakout season for Coples and a full, healthy season for Barnes this group could decline due to the age of Harris and Pace as well as the unit’s lack of coverage ability.