The Jets are young everywhere and that’s certainly the case on defense.
Every player on the defensive side of the ball is 28 or younger sans DL Steve McLendon (31) and ILB David Harris (33). After leading the club in tackles in nine of his 10 pro seasons, Harris will be back for an 11th season at the Mike ‘backer spot. His 35 career sacks are the most by any NFL player who’s played exclusively inside linebacker since 2007.
“He’s our leader out there on the field,” said head coach Todd Bowles at the NFL Owners Meetings in Phoenix, AZ.
But the Jets have some other players on the unit who may help set the tone. DL Leonard Williams surged in Year 2 and earned a Pro Bowl invite while ILB Darron Lee, who was selected No. 20 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, could be poised for a similar jump.
“You can’t force a leader. You can train them, and some of them are naturally gifted. They were all leaders in college,” Bowles said. “Then you take a back seat to some guys when you come into the league. But those guys I expect to see step up. We have about 15 of them that I’m pretty sure can lead.”
With the draft around the corner, we examine the position groups as they stand today. We continue our series with the defense.
Bowles said DL Muhammad Wilkerson “gutted it out” last year as he worked his way back from a broken leg. In 15 games, Wilkerson racked up 4.5 sacks along with 10 QB hits. The hope is Wilkerson returns with a vengeance. In his second pro season, the 6’5”, 302-pound Williams was voted Team MVP after recording 7.0 sacks along with 86 tackles. Sheldon Richardson possesses rare athletic qualities and his versatility has been showcased throughout his first three seasons. Richardson has posted 18.0 sacks and six forced fumbles in his career. Slowed down the stretch by a hamstring injury, former Steelers DT Steve McLendon registered career highs with 3.5 sacks and 35 tackles last season. There is intriguing depth here as well with the likes of Deon Simon and Lawrence Thomas and the Jets recently added Mike Pennel to the mix. The Green & White have options to play various fronts and don’t have glaring needs on the interior. It would be fascinating if Alabama’s Jonathan Allen was there at No. 6 and teams were interested in moving up for a 6’3”, 291-pounder who racked up 28.5 sacks for the Crimson Tide.
Alongside Harris, is Lee ready to break out? He got his feet wet as a rookie, registering 76 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 13 games. The 6’1”, 232-pounder is blessed with tremendous speed and explosiveness and he’ll benefit from his early experience. Understanding how and why teams attack in this league is more than half of the battle and Lee is determined to become a playmaker. On the outside, Jordan Jenkins, Lorenzo Mauldin, Corey Lemonier and Josh Martin will be tutored by one of the greatest pass rushers in the history of the sport in Kevin Greene. Jenkins flashed late, tallying 2.5 sacks over the final four contests while doing a decent job setting the edge. Mauldin has racked up 6.5 sacks in two seasons, but he was limited to 11 games in 2016 as an ankle injury kept him out of the lineup the last five games. This is considered an outstanding pass-rushing class as some pundits are predicting as many as six edge rushers could go in Round 1 and 10-12 could be taken off the board before the end of Round 2. Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) may go No. 1 overall to Cleveland, but there is plenty of depth beyond him in the form of Charles Harris (Missouri), Hasson Reddick (Temple), Tim Williams (Alabama), Takkarist McKinley (UCLA) and Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt).
After parting ways with CB Darrelle Revis, the Green & White signed former Cowboy Morris Claiborne in free agency. A first-round pick of Dallas in the 2012 NFL Draft, the 5’11”, 192-pound Claiborne played some of the best football of his career last season. Bowles thinks he got a good one if Claiborne can stay healthy. Juston Burris, a fourth-round pick out of NC State in 2016, flashed down the stretch and he should compete for playing time on the outside early in 2017. After being claimed off of waivers from the Patriots, the speedy Darryl Roberts finished tied for first on the team with eight passes defended. Buster Skrine can play inside at nickel or outside the numbers, having registered 116 tackles and 16 PDs the past two seasons. Marcus Williams has a knack for finding the football, hauling in nine interceptions over his first 34 games, and Dexter McDougle will look to make his mark in the spring. This is a loaded draft class, starting at the top with Marshon Lattimore (Ohio State), but the list of big-time talents is long and includes Tre’Davious White (LSU), Jourdan Lewis (Michigan), Teez Tabor (Florida), Gareon Conley (Ohio State), Adoree’ Jackson (USC), Chidobe Awuzie (Colorado), Quincy Wilson (Florida) and Kevin King (Washington).
At free safety, veteran Marcus Gilchrist is recovering from knee surgery. Strong safety Calvin Pryor, a first-round pick out of Louisville in 2014, has collected 217 tackles in three seasons. Valuable backup Rontez Miles has paced the club with 19 special teams stops the past two years and Doug Middleton worked his way up to the active roster in 2016. There is a star-studded trio of prospects who look to be first-round talents in Jamal Adams (LSU), Malik Hooker (Ohio State) and Budda Baker (Washington). Adams and Hooker both could be top ten selections. Michigan product Jabrill Peppers is one of the more fascinating stories of the draft.