NY Jets: A deeper look at an incredible defensive line


Oct 4, 2015; London, United Kingdom; New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (96) sacks Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) in Game 12 of the NFL International Series at Wembley Stadium.The Jets defeated the Dolphins 27-14. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There is a big reason why the defensive line of the NY Jets is one of the best in the NFL. Taking a deeper look at the Jets’ defensive front shows a ton of leadership, execution and a great cohesiveness as a group.

I’ve been hearing about the defense of the NY Jets for nearly a decade it seems. Rex Ryan came aboard and was supposed to build a front that could be rivaled by no other line in football. Rex proclaimed that the team was building the very best defense it could, going as far as stating that his defense would be as good or even better then anything Jet fans had ever seen before. While Rex consistently produced top notch defenses, sadly he produced little less everywhere else.

Fast forward to the Todd Bowles era, and you will not find the “boasting” that Rex did while he was here. Instead, you’ve been hearing calm quiet proclamations of how good this defensive line is. Every time I read an article lately on this defensive line, it is be credited with being the best in the NFL. While I agree these players up front are young, talented and possess their own unique skill-set, I’m always left wondering how good that actually are.

I’d like to look into the question of whether or not this is the truly dominant line that I keep reading it is. Surely, the number of first-round picks invested in it makes it a very good group. Let me make it clear, I’m not doubting the talent one iota, I do however question the continual claims of some fans that this is the best defensive line in the Jets have ever had.

Now, I won’t go comparing this line with say, the “New York Sack Exchange” but rather, I’d like to break the players down and see how they are performing as a group. Let’s take a look at each member that has been contributing to their early success this season.

Next: The leader

August 11, 2015; Florham Park, NJ, USA; New York Jets defensive Muhammad Wilkerson during practice at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. Mandatory Credit: John Munson/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports

Muhammad Wilkerson

Wilkerson came to the Jets highly touted by the organization. Chosen by the Jets in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, the big defensive end was the first chip to go towards building a defensive line for the ages we were told. Wilkerson for the record measures in at 6’4″ tall and tips the scales at 315 pounds.

Like most Jet fans, I love what Wilkerson brings to the table. He has been an absolute beast in his Jet career, stopping the run and applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks. Nobody in their right mind would doubt the talent that Wilkerson brings with him to the football field. He’s been a class act off the field as well, handling himself well in the media and devoting a considerable amount of his time and money to charitable organizations. Wilkerson has been the ultimate Jet player over his career.

With all that said, Wilkerson has been in a lengthy “contract negotiation” with the Jets. The negotiations have been extremely slow, and more then a few fans have begun to question Wilkerson’s future with the franchise. A departure from the Jets next season remains a possibility, but I’m sure the Jets are looking for ways to keep him in the fold.

Wilkerson began playing immediately for the Jets in his rookie season. Fans weren’t disappointed, as “Big Mo” racked up 49 tackles, 3 sacks, a forced fumble, 2 pass defenses and 9 run stuffs. The Jets had found a star and fans were just getting started in proclaiming his potential. Wilkerson continued to develop into his second year, posting 69 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 4 pass defenses and 4 run stuffs. The hype was building around him and the predictions for his future began to roll in.

Returning for his third year, Wilkerson continued to impress the fan base, and Ryan began his proclamations of how good Wilkerson really was. Wilkerson didn’t disappoint as he put up his best stats as a Jet in 2013. For the year, Wilkerson impressed with 63 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, his first interception, 3 pass defenses and six run stuffs.  With his outstanding year, Wilkerson was chosen to a second string selection to the Pro Bowl.

Last year, Wilkerson continued his steady play, but saw some stats take a dive, as the team around him struggled in every aspect of their game. Wilkerson finished 2014 with 55 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 5 pass defenses and 11 run stuffs. Not a bad season by any means, but a bit disappointing as Jet fans like myself were hoping for better sack numbers.

Oct 2, 2015; Sunbury-on-Thames, United Kingdom; New York Jets defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson (96) participates in blocking drill with a youngster at NFL Play 60 clinic at the Hazelwood in advance of the NFL International Series game against the Miami Dolphins. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This season Wilkerson has shown the same type of consistency that Jet fans have become accustomed to from him. So far this season, he has 24 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 3 pass defenses and 2 run stuffs. Wilkerson is on a nice pace for the Jets this year and one would have to assume he is playing to win a big contract.

Wilkerson without a doubt is the talent the Jets knew they would get when they drafted him. He has my respect and I really enjoy watching him play the game. He is not however the edge type rusher that often brings the big money contracts around the NFL. Wilkerson is an inside pass rusher for the most part who relies on his strength and quickness to get to the QB. For his career, Wilkerson is credited with 260 tackles, 28 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 interception, 17 pass defenses and 32 run stuffs.

Wilkerson is a talent undoubtedly, but I began to wonder how he measures out with some of his 2011 draft classmates. JJ Watt was chosen No. 11 overall and has produced 323 tackles, 61 sacks, 12 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries, 42 pass defenses and 70 run stuffs.

Ryan Kerrigan is also a 2011 classmate that has already changed teams as he’s posted 262 tackles, 41.5 sacks, 16 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions, 17 pass defenses and 25 run stuffs. Finally, Cameron Jordan has put up his numbers of 213 tackles, 33 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 8 fumble recoveries, 1 interception, 18 pass defenses and 16 run stuffs.

Wilkerson is an excellent player for the Jets, but he’s not the top defensive end in the NFL and he’s not the best defensive end to come out of his draft class either. Wilkerson is reportedly asking for a huge contract from the Jets this year as the team will need to make a tough decision in the future.

Next: He sure does love to be a tackling machine

August 11, 2015; Florham Park, NJ, USA; New York Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson (91) during practice at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. Mandatory Credit: John Munson/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports

Sheldon Richardson

Sheldon Richardson is another talented defensive lineman for the Jets and another former first-round pick. Richardson joined the Jets in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft as the No. 13 overall pick and the first defensive tackle off the board that year. For the record, Richardson stands 6’4″ and weighs in at 292 pounds of pure fury.

Richardson took the NFL by storm in his rookie campaign, impressing fans with every snap and earning himself the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award from the NFL.  In 2013, he posted 79 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass defense and 12 run stuffs as a rookie. He earned Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for his output in November as well. Richardson quickly became a star in the eyes of Jet fans for his incredible abilities on the gridiron.

2014 was a mixed bag for Richardson upon his return to the Jets. While his play stayed consistent and even saw some development, troubles began to surface for the big defensive tackle. He reportedly failed an NFL drug test for marijuana during OTA’s and was warned by the league of its policies.

Minor controversy avoided, Richardson once again played havoc on opposing offensive lines by repeating his accomplishments of a year before. In 2014, Richardson was selected to the Pro Bowl after posting 66 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 pass defense and 5 run stuffs. Richardson was making noise and no one in the NFL was ignoring his talents.

As we all know, 2015 did not start off well for the rising star. After some controversial comments made in the media as well as on his social media accounts, Sheldon was warned by Bowles to soften his public comments. Then came the revelation that he had failed a second NFL drug test and would be suspended for the first four games of the season.

Much to the horror of fans, just hours after making a public apology to his fans and teammates, it was revealed that Richardson had another issue to worry about. It was revealed that he was pulled over in a car that was traveling 143 miles an hour, with the smell of marijuana being noted by police and a hand gun under the driver’s seat he was sitting in.

Oct 18, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (91) warms up prior to the game against the Washington Redskins at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Nonetheless, last week saw the return of Richardson and he will play the rest of the year out with the team, but may very well see another suspension next season due to his off the field antics. Sunday in his return game, Richardson managed 3 tackles and a half of a sack. Bowles welcomed him back by adding more 4-3 fronts than fans or even Bowles are used to seeing.

Richardson is a force undoubtedly, the question on him remains however, can he show he has learned from his transgressions? Has he matured? The Jets will need to answer that one for themselves going forward. For his young career, Richardson has posted 147 tackles, 12 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 2 pass defenses and 17 run stuffs.

So, exactly how does Richardson measure up to his fellow draft mates? Let’s take a look. Star Lotulelei was taken one spot behind Richardson back in 2013. Drafted by the Carolina Panthers, Lotulelei has put up 71 tackles, 5 sacks, 1 fumble recovery, 2 pass defenses and 12 run stuffs. Sharriff Floyd was taken 23rd overall in the first round, his numbers stack up as 70 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 3 pass defenses and 8 run stiffs.

Richardson has already stood out from his draft class on the football field and his potential has just started to be realized. His off the field issues must be put behind him however if he is to realize his potential. Richardson could become the best defensive tackle in football, the talent is obviously there. He’s not there yet, but great things are in his future, if he can mature.

Next: The undrafted one

Nov 24, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; New York Jets nose tackle Damon Harrison (94) against the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Damon Harrison

Nose Tackle Damon Harrison is one of those good news stories most any Jet fan can get behind. The 6’4″/350 pound Harrison was signed as a undrafted free agent after the 2012 NFL Draft. Initially signed as depth for former Jet Kenrick Ellis, Harrison got his chance for playing time due to injuries to the former third-round draft pick. The rest is history, with Harrison winning the bulk of the playing time, Ellis was let to test free agency as an unrestricted free agent.

Harrison has become a beast in the middle, stuffing the run and pushing opposing offensive linemen backwards to collapse the pocket. Harrison has put up some impressive stats since joining the Jets which has made “Snacks” a fan favorite at MetLife Stadium. Since his first defensive snap to the present, Harrison continues to impress as he has produced 139 tackles, 1 sack, 2 pass defenses, and 13 run stuffs.

Harrison’s development under former defensive line coach Karl Dunbar has been a sight to see. Fans have gotten behind the big nose tackle, and if the Jets can work out a contract with Harrison, he should be anchoring the Jet line for years to come. So how does he stack up with his classmates? Dontari Poe was drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, normally not a fair comparison, but I think it shows how good Harrison’s game has become.

Poe’s stats so far are 148 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 9 pass defenses, and 7 run stuffs. For further comparison, the next two nose tackles drafted behind Poe have already changed teams, due to lack of production. Harrison has been an incredible steal for the Jets.

Next: The rookie

Apr 30, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Leonard Williams (Southern California) poses for a photo with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected as the number sixth overall pick to the New York Jets in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Leonard Williams

The final piece to the Jets’ defensive line came this season in the form of first-round pick Leonard Williams. The 6’5″/305 pound Williams played his college ball at USC before joining the Jets. While some may have questioned the Jets going defensive line again this year, Williams was just too good to pass up in the eyes of general manager Mike Maccagnan. Pegged pre-draft as the best overall talent in the 2015 draft by many pundits, fans were shocked to see him sitting there when the Jets stepped to the podium.

Williams wasted no time impressing the coaching staff upon arriving to the team facility this spring. He picked up things quickly during OTA’s and continued to hone his skills throughout summer camp. With the suspension of Richardson, Williams became an immediate starter and through his play has earned that role even with Richardson’s return.

So far this year, Williams has appeared in every game as a starter. His stats while still very few for any comparison are as follows for the first 5 games of the 2015 season, 20 tackles, a half sack, 1 pass defense and 4 run stuffs. Those aren’t shabby figures through five games, the talent is undoubted, and the potential is sky high. Good things are in Williams’ future and with them the Jets will benefit tremendously in the years ahead.

Next: Final thoughts

Dec 14, 2014; Nashville, TN, USA; New York Jets logo prior to the game against the Tennessee Titans at LP Field. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Final thoughts

This defensive line has the potential to be the elite in the NFL if the Jets can manage to keep it intact over the next couple of years. With three number one picks manning this line, that will take some major financial investment by the Jets. Wilkerson and Harrison will both become unrestricted free agents next year if the Jets can’t work out contracts for the two big men. Richardson will be due a contract the following year of 2017 and Williams will be eligible for a new deal in 2019. The management team will have it’s hands full trying to make all the dollars and cents work.

For 2015, through the first 5 games of the season, the Jets’ defense is ranked #1 overall in yardage per game, followed closely behind by the Denver Broncos. Against the rush they rank #2 behind the league leading Atlanta Falcons. They stand at #2 against the pass as well, following the Tennessee Titans. This defense is becoming a force.

The Jets’ defensive line has brought plenty of pressure to bare on opposing quarterbacks, the pressure has been felt across the board and the Jets’ defensive secondary has made the most out of the mistakes made by those quarterbacks as a result. They have penetrated the line of scrimmage on a regular basis, stuffing runners for loss or redirecting them into the arms of their swarming teammates.

The entire defense has reaped the benefits of all the hard work in the trenches. Overall, the Jets have amassed 8 sacks and 7 interceptions, but the number of sacks from the front line is a bit surprising. To date, the Jets’ defensive line owns just 5 of those, four of those come solely from Wilkerson’s talent while Richardson and Williams have a half of a sack a piece on the year.

This defensive front ranks near the top in the NFL today, but it has failed to reach it’s potential just yet. As they develop as individual players and work as a cohesive unit longer, this unit has the potential to rival some of the best defensive lines the NFL has ever seen. I really think that kind of potential is possible for this group, but it is not there yet. They will continue to make noise as they develop and the NFL would be wise to take note.

Bowles has shown us he is willing to play some four man fronts and with the return of Richardson to the ranks I believe we’ll see more and more of these packages as the season progresses. We may even see some of Bowles 4-1-6 schemes this weekend in an attempt to defense Tom Brady and the Patriots passing attack.

That is the beauty of this line, and having Bowles in charge of this defensive front, the players are as versatile as Bowles is imaginative. If the Jets manage to keep the defensive front intact for the next couple of years, it is scary to think how good they could be as a unit. They’re looking for that outside edge rusher to create even more nightmares for opposing offenses, and when they find that guy this line will take huge strides forward.

Aug 21, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets defensive tackle Leonard Williams (62) reacts with teammates New York Jets nose tackle Damon Harrison (94) and New York Jets outside linebacker Calvin Pace (97) after sacking Atlanta Falcons quarterback T.J. Yates (13) during first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

To say the Jets’ defensive line is young is an understatement. Harrison is the old man of the group at 26, followed by Wilkerson at 25, Richardson 24, and Williams at 21. They have all, for the most part, just begun their respective NFL careers. Things are looking good across the line this year, luckily for Jet fans everywhere, it is only going to get better with time.

To answer my own query “Are they the best in the NFL?” my answer clearly is not there yet. Defensively, the Jets rank at or near the top of the NFL. They are building one of the most formidable lines that Jet fans have seen in a long time. It’s young, it’s talented and it is only going to get better with time. Time being the key here, these guys are young and just getting started.

The line will improve as the season progresses and next season promises to be even more exciting up front. If they continue to develop together, I think in another year they will be able to proclaim themselves to be the best in the league and get little argument. Until then Jet fans, sit back and enjoy the development!

Well, I guess I’ve probably gone on way too long about this group. I hope you didn’t fall asleep mid read! If you made it through, please leave us a comment and as always, Let’s Talk Jet Football!!

Next: NY Jets: Top 5 ways to upset the Patriots

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