In this post, I’m going to review the Jets defense, analyze how they performed in 2012, and examine the outlook for 2013. Let’s start with one of the strengths of the team:
I thought the defensive line would be very good in 2013, and they largely met expectations. Muhammad Wilkerson was the best 3-4 defensive end in the league outside of J.J. Watt, and Wilkerson looks to be a perennial Pro Bowler. At the other end spot, the Jets rotated first round pick Quinton Coples with incumbent Mike DeVito. Coples delivered as a pass rusher while DeVito was stout as usual against the run. And while DeVito is an unrestricted free agent and could follow Mike Pettine to Buffalo (although rumor is he wants to stay), Coples has the ability to develop into an every-down player as early as next year. The Jets don’t have anything behind Wilkerson and Coples, but depth can be addressed.
As will become even more clear in a minute, I think the best move for the Jets is to move to a 4-3 defense. They don’t have a nose tackle, and finding a defensive tackle to play alongside Ellis is preferable to praying that Ellis or Pouha can excel at nose in 2013. In addition, Coples is probably a better fit as a 4-3 end, in my opinion, while Wilkerson is capable of playing anywhere on the line. The Jets could try to play Wilkerson as a three-technique tackle, Coples at left defensive end, Ellis as the NT/DT, and draft a pass-rushing defensive end (a rich position in this year’s draft). That may not fit Rex Ryan’s goals, however, so look for the Jets to bring back DeVito (who can play as nose tackle) and/or Pouha and run the 3-4 defense again in 2013. Which may be a problem, because…
The linebackers failed to meet even the low expectations I had for this group for 2012. The one star, David Harris, had perhaps the worst season of his career. It is now clear that he’s drastically overpaid — he has the highest cap value of any Jet in 2013 — but he’s also not going anywhere, either. The media focuses on Sanchez’ big contract, but Harris’ contract is nearly as costly: Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 31st best inside linebacker among the 35 ILBs that played in at least half of their team’s defensive snaps in 2012. The other inside linebacker, Bart Scott, had a solid but nondescript season, and he will be cut to save over $7M in cap space. It’s possible he’s brought back on a cheap deal, as there won’t be much of a market for Scott, but it may be best for the Jets to simply cut ties with him. As Jason Fitzgerald of nyjetscap.com points out, the Jets have wildly miscalculated at inside linebacker, spending entirely too much money and receiving mediocre (at best) results.
Meanwhile, Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas, and Garrett McIntyre provided next to nothing as 3-4 edge rushers, giving the Jets some of the weakest outside linebackers in the league. If not for Harris, the biggest disappointment would have been Aaron Maybin, who was supposed to be the Jets designated pass rusher but provided no value and was released in the middle of the year. Pace will be cut to save $8.6M on the cap, while Bryan Thomas will not be brought back (he’s a UFA).
What does that mean? The Jets need a complete overhaul at linebacker, the primary reason the team should consider moving to a 4-3. While one could argue that Harris doesn’t have the athleticism to play at middle linebacker, the Jets have nothing resembling a competent 3-4 outside linebacker on the roster right now. New York has limited cap room, so they may be forced to start McIntyre and 2012 draft pick Demario Davis (or sign a cheap veteran or two). As bad as this unit was in 2012, the outlook is pretty bleak in 2013. The best case scenario is to go to a 4-3, hope one of Davis/McIntyre can play as a 4-3 OLB, and sign/draft another starter. If Pace generates little interest as a free agent, the Jets may welcome him back, but that won’t be anything more than a band aid.
The secondary proved to be one of the bright spots of the team, although not necessarily in the way I envisioned. Losing Darrelle Revis was an enormous blow, but Antonio Cromartie rebounded with a Pro Bowl season. Kyle Wilson alternated between being adequate and being incompetent, and it’s now clear that he’s best served as a #3 corner (which he will be once Revis returns). LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell provided key upgrades as safety, and the Jets didn’t allow a 100-yard receiver until the final game of the year.
Unfortunately, the outlook here is muddy for 2013. Both Bell and Landry joined the Jets on one-year deals, so both are now free agents; safety Eric Smith will be released, as the Jets incur no penalty by cutting him and he is due to earn $3M in 2013. That leaves New York with just 2012 late round draft picks Josh Bush and Antonio Allen as the only safeties on the roster, and neither played much last season. The team will want to resign both Bell and Landry, but it’s tough to know what sort of deal either player will get on the open market. If the Jets have to get into a bidding war, they will likely lose; my guess is one of the two return, and the Jets pray that they can fix the other safety spot (or else Rob Gronkowski will make the Patriots games even more lopsided).
Meanwhile, Revis and Cromartie will be making about $20M next year, but that’s money well spent. The bigger question marks surround Revis. Will he be able to play effectively in 2013 following his ACL injury? Will he even be on the roster? Revis’ contract is voidable (by him) after 2013, so New York will either extend him with (another) megadeal or trade him. As the Jets enter a rebuilding period (wait till we get to Part 2 and analyze the offense), it’s possible that trading Revis is the better option, although presumably finding a market for a cornerback coming off a torn ACL and wanting to receive a historic contract will be challenging.
Of the Jets three starters on the defensive line — Wilkerson, Pouha, and DeVito — only Wilkerson is a lock to return. Pouha will be cut or restructured and DeVito is a free agent. Given the Jets need to spend money elsewhere, it is unlikely both will be back. Quinton Coples was drafted to be a starter, and he should get that opportunity in 2013. The bigger issue is at defensive tackle, and without a true nose, the Jets may be better off going to a 4-3.
At linebacker, Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas, and Bart Scott have been entrenched since Rex Ryan came to New York (Thomas is actually the longest-tenured Jet). Thomas is a free agent and Pace and Scott will be cap cuts, leaving the Jets scrambling at linebacker. None of the three will receive much interest on the open market, though, so it’s possible one or two of them will return on cheap deals. If not, only two of the starters in the front seven from 2012 — Wilkerson and David Harris — would be on the team in 2013.
In the secondary, Bell and Landry are free agents, meaning the Jets could lose as many as 7 starters on defense in the off-season. Throw in a potential Revis trade, and the entire defense could be undergoing an overhaul in 2013.
All this turnover would normally be a bad thing, but, ideally, this is where Ryan would earn his money as a great defensive mind. Building around Wilkerson, Coples, Revis, and Cromartie should be easier than you think, and the Jets aren’t going to miss any of their departed veteran linebackers. The defense ranked 9th according to Football Outsiders, and ranked 8th in yards/drive, 13th in points/drive, and 7th in drive success rate. Advanced NFL Stats slotted the Jets defense at #12 while PFR placed them 9th in EPA, matching their rank in net yards per attempt allowed.
This was a good defense but not a great one; the addition of a healthy Revis would provide a boost, but the bigger question for the Jets is how they replace Pouha, Scott, Pace, Thomas, Bell, and Landry. Given how much work is needed on the other side of the ball, the Jets may not be able to devote key resources to fixing those holes. There’s also a potential big picture problem: If Rex Ryan is going to become more than a head coach in name only, he’ll need to devote less time to the defense. But with former DC Mike Pettine now in Buffalo (not to mention that Ass. HC/LB coach Bob Sutton, Ass. DB coach Jim O’Neil, OLB coach Mike Smith, and Ass. DL coach Anthony Weaver are also gone) and the majority of the defensive roster turning over, the Jets will need Ryan’s defensive wizardry more than ever in 2013. How can Rex delegate if he has a team full of new players and new coaches?