The 2014 New York Jets Defensive Roster: Better or Worse?
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.
CB: Dee Milliner, Dimitri Patterson, Darrin Walls, Kyle Wilson, Johnny Patrick, Ras-I Dowling, Ellis Lankster – For most of the 2013 season the Jets secondary was terrible. Dee Milliner played like a rookie that had missed some OTA’s due to shoulder surgery and some training camp time due to a contract issue as well as another injury. Antonio Cromartie suffered the steepest decline in play from one year to the next that I have ever seen. In 2012 he was a number one corner that could shadow the opposing team’s best receiver and take them out. In 2013, partially because of a hip injury, Cromartie was terrible. He got burned repeatedly, mostly deep, and was picked on despite Milliner’s struggle. Walls played well at times in Milliner’s stead. The Jets let Cromartie go after the season because of his high cap number and although they thought they had a deal with Vontae’ Davis (he backed out when the Colts upped their offer), and didn’t meet the contract demands of other corners on the market. They finally settled on Dimitri Patterson, who had four interceptions in six games for the Dolphins last year before an injury ended his season. The Jets acquired Johnny Patrick, a favorite of the team leading into the 2010 Draft as documented in the book Collision Low Crossers, off waivers from the Chargers. Patrick is a very aggressive corner that excels in press man coverage and will improve the depth of the cornerback group. Ras-I Dowling, formerly of the Patriots, was on the Jets practice squad last year. Dowling was a 2nd round pick of the Patriots that started two games as a rookie before having two injury-filled seasons there. He has the size at 6’1″ and 4.4 speed, coupled with the willingness to press and play aggressively that could make him a potential diamond in the rough this year. Dowling is still only 24 and Patrick 26 so they can still reach their potential. Both are an improvement over last year’s group. The group this year will be a deeper group that all are very aggressive and have excellent ball skills. Couple that with the pass rush and the amount of turnovers created by the defense should increase.
Verdict – Improved based on 2013. Milliner was excellent in the last month of the season and Walls, Patterson, Patrick and Dowling should bring an aggressiveness that wasn’t there last year. Expect the team to spend an early draft pick on another starting-caliber cornerback. Just about anyone would be an improvement over the play of Antonio Cromartie of 2013.
Oct 13, 2013; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets free safety Antonio Allen (39) warms up before facing the Pittsburgh Steelers at MetLife Stadium. The Steelers won the game 19-6. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
S – Dawan Landry, Antonio Allen, Josh Bush, Jaiquawn Jarrett, Rontez Miles – This is the same group as last year. This is a group that, for the most part, struggled in coverage, taking poor angles and missing tackles. Antonio Allen grew as a player and improved his coverage skills. He showed the quickness and physicality necessary to cover tight ends like Rob Gronkowski while maintaining his blitzing and excellent run support. Dawan Landry was average and cannot be trusted playing centerfield because he does not have top end speed. A name to look out for this year is Rontez Miles. Miles, who spent last year on the practice squad, brings speed and nastiness to the free safety position. The team will most likely take a mid-round free agent to add to the mix.
Verdict: Same group with an ascending player in Antonio Allen and a descending player in Dawan Landry. Whether Miles or the mid round draft pick emerges will tell the tale of whether this group is improved or not.
K – Nick Folk – Folk was terrific last year and earned a big raise as a result. A career 80% kicker (77% before last year), Folk hit on 33 of 36 field goals, with one that went over the goal post and should have been ruled good, for nearly 92%. Can he repeat his success again?
Verdict – Same guy, hopefully same results. Keep your fingers crossed because the law of averages usually comes into play with kickers. Even at 85% as long as Folk hits the clutch ones the Jets will be fine.
P – Ryan Quigley – Quigley was average at best, although he did a good job pinning teams inside the 20. As usual competition will be brought in and Quigley will have to earn his spot again.
Verdict: Incomplete. Quigley still needs to overcome the competition that will be brought in. He is no lock to be the punter in Week 1.
KR/PR – Jacoby Ford – After having one of the best kickoff return units going all the way back to 2002 under Mike Westhoff, the unit was terrible in 2013 under Ben Kotwica. Kotwica took the Redskins job in the offseason and the Jets are better off for it. The team hired Thomas McGaughey of LSU. The LSU special teams units have performed very well, especially in the return game. The question this season is whether the problems last year were player-related or coach-related. Anyone would be better as a punt returner than Jeremy Kerley, who has still not figured out that you can run when you catch the ball instead of just calling for a fair catch.
Verdict – I think the unit will be better because of the influence of coach McGaughey. Whether it is Ford and his 4.28 speed or a draft pick (Odell Beckham Jr.?) the unit should improve.
The Jets decided to keep together a young, ascending defense this offseason. The “Sons of Anarchy” on the defensive line are back and hungrier than ever. The secondary will be much more aggressive with ball hawks like Patterson, Patrick and Dowling coming into the fold. Quinton Coples and Antwan Barnes are back and healthy. There are plenty of questions with the new corners and their injury histories as well as whether Milliner will grow into the number one corner he showed he can be in the season’s final month not to mention whether father time catches up to David Harris, Calvin Pace and Dawan Landry. With a good draft the defensive unit has a chance to be a special group. Special teams will improve with a new coordinator and some better playmakers.