This is part two of a series projecting the opening day starting lineup for the Jets. You can read part one on the offense here. With free agency a month away and the draft a little less than 90 days away this is the only downtime for NFL news during the year so the best way to make it through is to try and look ahead and guess at what the team will be when they kickoff for real in September.
For the sake of this article I will list the starting lineup for a 3-4 alignment, but since the Jets are multiple in their fronts, it may not correlate to what the first play might look like. Just a best guess.
Defensive Ends – Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson – The Jets are most talented along the defensive line and especially at defensive end where Wilkerson is already a second team All-Pro selection and Richardson is the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Wilkerson improved his pass rush ability generating 10.5 sacks while still being a force against the run. The only question in the offseason for Wilkerson is will the Jets give him a new contract or will they activate the fifth year option in his rookie contract that would keep him under contract through 2015 and only have his salary jump to six million during that year. The best business decision is to activate the 5th year option let him play for two million this year and address the contract after the 2014 season. Sheldon Richardson was among the top rated defensive end/tackles in the league when it came to stopping the run and his 3.5 sacks was low compared to the pressure he caused. Expect Richardson’s sack totals to jump in year two.
Nose Tackle – Damon Harrison – Harrison came from a part-time player who made the team as an undrafted free agent his rookie year to one of the best run-stuffers in the league in his second year. He has worked extremely hard and has taken the coaching that Karl Dunbar has given him and made himself into an integral part of the Jets defense now and for the foreseeable future. Kenrick Ellis lost his starting job when he had a back injury during the preseason and never got it back due to Harrison’s play.
Outside Linebacker – Quinton Coples and Jason Worilds – Worilds is an ascending player at age 26 that has been looking for a role as a starter. Despite only starting 11 games with Pittsburgh in 2013 he led the team with 8 sacks. The Steelers are, as usual, cap strapped and that usually costs them in free agency. He went to high school in Carteret, New Jersey so choosing the Jets from amongst his free agent suitors would be a homecoming. Worilds will be highly coveted but the Jets have the money to outspend the others to acquire a player just entering his prime. Quinton Coples had a rough beginning to 2013 fracturing his ankle while he was trying to learn the outside linebacker position. Once he got back in the lineup and got to full speed he was the Jets best defensive player the final month of the season notching all 4.5 of his sacks and getting consistent pressure. If Coples fulfills his promise as a player the Jets pass rush will be upgraded immensely. There are only so many lineman and you can’t double team Wilkerson, Coples, Worilds, and Richardson at the same time so this has the potential to be a very dynamic group. Not to mention the return of Antwan Barnes from injuries will help with depth and help prevent the defense from tiring as the season came to a close.
Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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.