The race to the quarterback

Dec 27, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) is sacked by New York Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson (91) during the second half at MetLife Stadium. The Jets defeated the Patriots 26-20 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 27, 2015; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) is sacked by New York Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson (91) during the second half at MetLife Stadium. The Jets defeated the Patriots 26-20 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports /

On defense for the New York Jets, who will win the race to the quarterback in 2016? We did a recent Twitter poll to gauge how the fans feel.

The New York Jets have had three different head coaches since 2008 and coincidentally enough also have had three different general managers. But beyond all the front office change, one thing has remained constant, their success on the defensive side of the ball.

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Especially when it comes to chasing the opposing quarterbacks around the NFL. Since 2010, the Jets have sacked the quarterback 230 times, which ranks near the upper echelon of the NFL.

While the cumulative sack totals haven’t been bad for the Jets over the years, they’ve lacked a pure pass rusher that can command constant attention. Subsequently since 2010, the Jets have had a variety of different players lead the team in getting after the quarterback:

2015: Muhammad Wilkerson (12 sacks)

2014: Sheldon Richardson (8 sacks)

2013: Muhammad Wilkerson (10.5 sacks)

2012: Quinton Coples (5.5 sacks)

2011: Aaron Maybin (6 sacks)

2010: Bryan Thomas (6 sacks)

The Jets have haven’t had a player lead the team in sacks in back-to-back seasons since the 2007-2008 seasons, when Shaun Ellis led the team in sacks or was tied for the lead. Can the narrative change in 2016?

Right before training camp commenced unofficially on July 27th when the players reported, a Jets source shared his thoughts on that narrative change. Team reporter for Eric Allen, joined ESPN morning show Bud and the Manchild to answer the proverbial question, who will win the race to the quarterback in 2016?

Well, let’s take a look at the leading sack man for the Jets from last season in Wilkerson. Since being selected in the 2011 NFL Draft, Wilkerson has steadily improved his numbers year in and year out.

Wilkerson should be the unquestioned favorite heading into the 2016 season. Wilkerson had a career year and set a personal best with 12 sacks on the season.

Fresh off his record breaking contract extension, Wilkerson now has his focus set on the season. Currently, the prognosis is that Wilkerson will be ready for the Jets Week 1 contest against the Cincinnati Bengals.

So if Wilkerson is the favorite, who is the next likely candidate? Well, the Jets would like you to believe that it’s going to be second-year man out of Louisville, Lorenzo Mauldin.

“We expect him to make a big jump as far as being a full-time player at outside linebacker,” Bowles said at the owners’ meetings via the Media Relations Department of the Jets. “I expect him to be a major player this year.”

Mauldin is projected to be the starter at the Will linebacker position and in limited action last year, he accumulated four sacks. Now he’s expected to become a three down player and perhaps with more opportunities, he could come out of nowhere to claim the sack crown for the Jets in 2016.

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The other second-year player on the roster, who really has a chance to shine is Leonard Williams.

Sometimes stats don’t always tell the story and that was very much the case in 2015 for Williams.

While the final stat line said Williams only had three sacks on the season, his impact was far greater than the bottom line.

While he may not have gotten recognized by the NFL for his efforts, Mel Kiper Jr. had him penned in as his DROY (defensive rookie of the year).

Pro Football Focus rated Williams seventh among 3-4 defensive ends, including 13th as a pass rusher and fourth against the run. Even though he didn’t play as many snaps as many other top 3-4 ends, Williams ranked third at his position with 19 quarterback hits. He also had the 13th-most hurries (27).

November 1, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; New York Jets defensive end Leonard Williams (92) stretches before the game against the Oakland Raiders at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Considering how close he was on a bunch of the sacks last year, it’s feasible to think he could be in the conversation by the end of this season. Although it would be quite the leap of faith for Williams to go from three sacks to leading the team, he’s got that kind of superstar potential.

While the dark horse of this entire competition is Sheldon Richardson, despite the one game suspension. Richardson has flirted with super stardom since being the 13th overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.

While he has led the team in sacks once, he has the prowess to do it again, but this time in spectacular fashion in 2016. Richardson’s ceiling is 13-17 sacks, now that the Jets own his rights for this season and the following (thanks to the fifth-year option clause) he has plenty of motivation.

On top of that, Richardson won’t have to play out of position according to head coach Todd Bowles. Bowles said in his organized team activity press conference that the outside linebacker experiment is over for Richardson.

Which means that he can focus solely on getting to the quarterback on every down. The only thing holding him back is himself, he was suspended for the first quarter of last season.

For an incident last summer, Richardson was suspended for the first game of this upcoming season. So if Richardson can keep a clean slate and stay healthy, he could very well blow up and show why the Jets have so much faith in his abilities.

To gauge the Jets faithful, I posted a recent Jets Twitter poll to see what you guys thought about who would lead the Jets in sacks this upcoming season. Here’s what the fans had to say about who will win the coveted sack award in 2016:

#TheRaceToTheQuarterback Who is going to lead the #Jets in sacks in 2016?#JetLife #JetsNation #JetUp #JetsCamp

— Paul Andrew Esden Jr (@BoyGreen25) July 25, 2016

Over 200 votes were placed when this article was written and the overwhelming results was the obvious answer in Wilkerson. Which is understandable from multiple angles because he’s fresh off a contract extension and he’s been the most productive defensive lineman for the Jets in his career.

The other candidates all stole votes away from each other, creating a mosh posh between Richardson, Williams, and Mauldin. In our interview earlier with EA, even he said “wouldn’t it be special if the Jets had multiple guys in that double digit sack category”.

In 2013, Wilkerson notched 10.5 sacks and Calvin Pace held his own with 10 sacks, so it has happened, but barely. Outside of 2013, the Jets haven’t accomplished that feat in the 21st century.

must read: Todd Bowles can make history in 2016

With the talent the Jets have on their defensive line, it’s anybodies guess on who will walk away with the coveted sack crown. What can be mutually agreed on is that it’s going to be a phenomenal race to the very end.