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The upcoming 2021 NFL Draft is of huge significance to the future prospects of the NY Jets.
With a rebuild in full force under new head coach Robert Saleh, many improvements are now needed on both sides of the field.
By having two picks inside the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, general manager Joe Douglas has a real chance to add some instant-impact starters.
Who the Jets should take second overall is obviously dominating the draft headlines, but the second first-round pick is also a very intriguing selection.
It is no secret that the Jets need help on defense. In 2020, they finished in the bottom-10 of teams in most defensive categories, including points and passing yards allowed.
There is certainly a lot of potential going forward for the Jets. Following Quinnen Williams’ breakout year and rookies getting experience in the secondary, finding some essential reinforcements will be crucial to further aid their development.
So, given their ranging requirements, the Jets could use the No. 23 pick to make an improvement on defense.
Here are four top defensive prospects that the Jets should target with the No. 23 overall pick.
Next: 1. Upgrading the secondary
1. NY Jets draft target: Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
The Jets need to drastically make improvements in their secondary this offseason and specifically at the cornerback position.
Under Gregg Williams, the Jets had one of the worst defensive back units in the entire NFL last year. No team had a worse outside coverage grade, per PFF, than what the Jets achieved in 2020.
That isn’t to say the Jets don’t have potential in the secondary. Ashtyn Davis had a difficult 2020 but got plenty of experience and Bryce Hall has a lot to build on following a competent rookie year.
But with Brian Poole likely departing in free agency, the Jets’ defensive weapons are running thin and in need of being bolstered, urgently.
With that in mind, it’s time to address the cornerback position early in this year’s draft. Patrick Surtain II is the most highly-touted cornerback in the draft and likely to be picked somewhere inside the top 10 selected. Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley probably won’t be far behind him either.
Given those two will likely be unavailable at No. 23, South Carolina’s Jaycee Horn is widely recognized as a prime option for the Jets, if he’s still available.
Son of Joe Horn, a four-time Pro Bowler as a wide receiver, and a four-star recruit in high school, Jaycee Horn is a seriously impressive athlete.
Tough and very physical with his outstanding size, Horn became the first true freshman to start at cornerback for South Carolina since a certain Stephen Gilmore did in 2009 — not a bad player to follow.
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And despite having opted out of the remainder of the 2020 season in November to focus on the draft, Horn was well on his way to recording another incredibly productive year, with two interceptions, 16 tackles, and six pass breakups in just seven games.
Horn isn’t as quick as other corners in the class, but that certainly doesn’t mean he is at all slow. With great physicality complementing his elite positional play and speed, he would be an ideal fit in Saleh’s defense opposite Bryce Hall at cornerback.
It’s vital the Jets address the position early in the draft this year. The last time they selected a cornerback in the first three rounds of an NFL Draft was when they selected Dexter McDougle in the third back in 2014.
Changing that statistic in 2021 must be a priority, so Horn at No. 23 would be a solid selection.
Next: 2. A potential future All-Pro
2. NY Jets draft target: Gregory Rousseau
The 2021 edge class has the potential to become one of the all-time great groups in the future, so there could be a great chance for the Jets to finally address their needs at the position.
Kwity Paye, one of the most explosive athletes up for selection this year, will almost certainly have been taken by the time Gang Green select with their second first-round pick.
Elsewhere, many see Jayson Oweh as a close second edge talent, so he’s likely to be unavailable at the time of the 23rd selection.
Miami’s Gregory Rousseau is another great prospect and odds are that he, or at least one of the three mentioned, will be available by the time of the Jets’ second selection.
Having a well-built frame with a special physical process, Rousseau was probably the number one edge in the class a year ago, with many even projecting him as a top-10 overall pick.
His stock has fallen as a result of him opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 but he showed his serious ability in 2019 when he recorded 16 sacks, a total beaten only across college football by last year’s second overall selection Chase Young.
Make no mistake, the Jets will need to be patient with his development. Rousseau struggled when lined up outside of offensive tackles during college and will need to work on refining his technical skillset.
But with the right coaching, Rousseau can become an impact defender who could play across the defensive line on many fronts.
If he can work on his run-defense ability too, Rousseau can go all the way in the NFL. The sky’s the limit for him.
The Jets have needed to address the long-term future of their pass-rush for some time. Selecting someone like Rousseau, a player with exceptional potential, could very well be an ideal solution if he’s available.
Next: 3. Another way to upgrade the defensive line
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3. NY Jets draft target: Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami
The Miami Hurricanes possess three of the strongest defensive end talents going into this year’s NFL Draft, with Quincy Roche and Jaelan Phillips available for selection alongside Gregory Rousseau.
If Rousseau has gone by the time the Jets select again at No. 23, the latter of those players would be another quality alternative.
Phillips was one of the most improved players over the past year and going into the 2021 NFL Draft, he’ll likely have a lot of admirers.
At 6-foot-5 and around 260 pounds, he is an exceptionally well-balanced pass-rusher with tremendous size and speed and can create a real pass rush problem off the edge.
A brutal defensive end in high school, Phillips registered an outrageous 142 tackles and 21 sacks as a senior, double his production in both categories from his junior year, leading to many five-star grades from college recruiters.
Injury issues restricted his time at UCLA with a series of almost career-ending concussions, but a move to the Hurricanes in 2019 reignited his college days and he recorded eight sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last year.
The talent is absolutely there for Phillips to become an instant hit in the pass-rush department for the Jets. On top of that, his all-around ability means he’s a capable run-defender too and could even become an outside linebacker in a base 3-4 formation.
We know the Jets will be moving to a 4-3 defensive scheme under Robert Saleh, but Phillips’ versatility would make him a valuable commodity going forward.
His medical history would be a concern for many teams, but the Jets shouldn’t be put off. We even selected Phillips in a recent mock draft.
Jaelan Phillips is without a doubt one of the best defensive prospects in the draft and the Jets should consider selecting him with their second pick in the first round.
Next: 4. An old-school linebacker
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4. NY Jets draft target: Nick Bolton, LB, Missouri
The linebacker room might not seem like the most essential need for the Jets, with the addition of Jarrad Davis and C.J. Mosley returning for the 2021 season.
But given that Neville Hewitt is almost certainly leaving, the Jets have just six players currently contracted at the position right now. They are in desperate need of an upgrade.
While there are a few options that the Jets could still target in free agency, it would be appealing to develop young talent as part of their whole-team rebuild through the draft.
Given Robert Saleh’s role in helping turn Fred Warner into one of the best young linebackers in the league over the past few years with the 49ers, it must be very intriguing for Joe Douglas to select a top linebacker, someone like Nick Bolton, in the first round of the upcoming draft.
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Bolton hasn’t been linked in mock drafts with a move to New York, but his ability would certainly make him an attractive proposition.
The Missouri star should become an impact starter in the NFL thanks to his pro-ready build and having the explosiveness to attack between the tackles, having hit 8.5 and 8.0 tackles for loss respectively in the past two seasons.
Bolton’s role in the passing game also shined through last year in zone coverage as he would cover every blade of grass on the field for his team.
He’s also branded as being a natural leader with a strong personality on the field, of whom many sides would love to have around on their roster.
Bolton is the type of player the Jets have longed for, and someone Robert Saleh must be keen to bring into the locker room as soon as possible.