New York Jets Jets Draft Direction – Building An Elite Defense

Daniel Essen on how the New York Jets could take steps towards building an elite defense through the NFL Draft

Now that the New York Jets are rebuilding the roster, its important for them to have a vision for the architecture of the team, starting with the 2017 NFL Draft. It’s tough to know exactly which direction the Jets will take but let’s examine two binary directions: Building an elite defense and building for a young QB. In this piece, we’ll look at building an elite defense. We’ll focus on what draft decisions they can make, based on current trends and successful defenses in the NFL.

Find Speed/Versatility at ILB

As the NFL has evolved, there has become a need for inside linebackers that are able to be strong enough to take on blocks, be good tacklers and have great range in coverage. Being good at all these things can only be expected of a superior athlete. Many of the top defenses in the NFL boast these kind of players. The Panthers’ Luke Kuechly, and Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner are the gold standard. Both are very physical yet incredibly agile and aware in coverage. The Falcons’ Deion Jones is an example of a speed specialist at ILB. He’s undersized but able to slip through cracks in the trenches. He’s also almost like a third safety in coverage because of his athletic ability. The Vikings have the 25-year-old duo of Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks roaming around. Like Kuechly and Wagner, they both are a rare combination of size and athleticism but they’re still putting it all together.

The Jets are hoping they have their version of a speed linebacker with Darron Lee at inside linebacker. He may not have been as effective as Deion Jones became but its hard to judge what kind of player he may become next season. David Harris, on the other hand, is 33 years old and not as dependable in coverage. He’s been a Jets legend but, as they rebuild, the Jets have to be considering how they can replace him with a more modern style ILB. The Jets haven’t made any signings at this position in free agency but they’ll have a chance to address it in the draft.

The Jets are unlikely to go with an inside linebacker with the 6th pick so Rueben Foster (Alabama) and Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt) should be out of the picture. Haason Reddick (Temple), everyone’s favorite hybrid linebacker, is almost certainly on the Jets radar due to Todd Bowles ties to Temple. However, his growing popularity will likely result in him being a first round selection. If the Jets do end up trading back, these top tier inside linebackers could end up being in play, with more early picks at their disposal.

It seems more like that the Jets could look for an inside linebacker in round 2 or later. Should the Jets decide to address inside linebacker in the second round, Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State) would be a good choice. McMillan definitely fits the modern inside linebacker mould. The main concern with him is in coverage, but he has shown he has the athleticism to clean that up with coaching. In the third round or later, the Jets could consider Kendall Beckwith (LSU). Beckwith is like a more agile David Harris in that he’s smart, physical, and a great leader. Despite his good ability to dart through blockers, he is a slower linebacker and could be a liability in coverage at times. The more modern player the Jets should consider is his teammate Duke Riley (LSU), who impressed at the NFL Combine. Riley is a little more like Darron Lee, physically and in terms of where he played in LSU’s defensive scheme. However, his production in his final season at LSU was actually much better than Lee’s.

Super Safety(s)

The importance of the secondary has certainly been made more apparent with the rise of defenses like the Seahawks, who have terrorized offenses with the perfect combination of Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, and Richard Sherman. It also highlighted the importance of the safety position. Having a good set of safeties can hide other shortcomings on defense against the pass and the run. Many of the top defenses in the NFL can boast of a game-changer at the position. We all know how key Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson (now with the Ravens) became to the Cardinals defense.  For the Vikings, the emergence of Harrison Smith elevated their, now top-5, defense. The same can be said about Landon Collins with the Giants’ defense, and Keanu Neal (Pro-Bowler, first team All-Pro, Super Bowl appearance as a rookie) with the Falcons’ defense.

The Jets haven’t ignored the position. They drafted Calvin Pryor in 2015 and signed Marcus Gilchrist a year later. However, the tandem of Gilchrist and Pryor was catastrophic last season. Its not totally out of the question for the Jets to come into the 2017 regular season with two completely new starters at safety. Like inside linebacker, the Jets haven’t addressed safety in free agency, so its safe to say they will likely do so in the draft. The good news is that in this years’ draft class, they can add a potential star on day 1 or 2. Based on how infrequent it is for there to be a safety class as good as this years’ at the top, the Jets should not pass up the opportunity to select at least one of the top four prospects.

The unmissable characteristic that both Earl Thomas, and Tyrann Mathieu possess is range. That’s the first trait you notice when it comes to Malik Hooker (Ohio State). If the Jets can’t move Calvin Pryor it would make more sense for them to draft Hooker at 6 to replace Gilchrist. Where Hooker differs from the likes of Thomas and Mathieu is his tackling. With that said, however, Gilchrist’s tackling really wasn’t a noticeable problem last year. The Jets get enough run stopping from their front seven to negate that.

Jamal Adams (LSU) is another player to consider with the 6th pick, if he makes it that far. He would likely replace Calvin Pryor. He is widely considered the most NFL ready player in the draft. He’s a sure tackler, and he has great instincts. He also is pretty good in coverage and cover a good amount of ground when he needs to. Adams would immediately elevate the Jets secondary. As great a prospect as Marshon Lattimore (Ohio State) is at cornerback, the Jets missed on safety, Tony Jefferson, and signed cornerback, Morris Claiborne. They can allow safety to take precedence here. If Adams or Hooker are available at 6, the Jets should, lock down one of them down as a long term answer at safety and then address corner later on.

Should the Jets not go with Hooker or Adams in the first round they could consider Marcus Williams (Utah), Obi Melifonwu (UCONN), Budda Baker (WASH) in the second round. Williams is a talented, ball-hawking free safety who had four interceptions his final season at Utah and a tested well at the NFL combine. Melifonwu has soared up draft boards after having arguably the best combine out of all the 2017 participants.. Budda Baker was a stand out member in an exceptional secondary at Washington.

If the Jets can address safety somewhere on day 1 or 2, there are some solid corners that might be available on day 3 or later, such as Corn Elder (Miami), Cameron Sutton (Tennessee), Akhello Witherspoon (Colorado), and Sidney Jones (Washington), who might slip to the third round due to injury.

Productive Pass Rush

Of the top 5 defenses in the NFL, 4 of them were in the top 5 of the NFL in sacks. In a pass heavy league, having an effective pass rush is a great way stop explosive offenses. In 2016, the Jets were tied for 29th in total sacks as a team. With how much they’ve invested in their defensive line, that number is unacceptable. Like the Jets, the Vikings’ strength is in their defensive line and that’s the strength of their pass rush. While their interior defensive players are talented, the Vikings play a 4-3 and the majority of their sack totals came from edge players (Danielle Hunter, Brian Robison, and Everson Griffin). For the Jets (who play a 3-4), that translates to the outside linebacker position. If the Jets can make the right additions at outside linebacker with what they have already on the inside. They were fortunate enough to get a solid day one starter in Jordan Jenkins last year but they need to add a dynamic speed rusher to compliment Jenkins’ run stopping strengths.

If the Jets want to get radical and address this in the first round, they would go with Derek Barnett (TENN). He’s the best edge player in the draft after Myles Garrett and he’d be worth the sixth pick. Barnett is the record holder for sacks at Tennessee after 3 years as a starter. The former record holder was NFL Hall-of-Famer Reggie White. Barnett isn’t the type of 3-4 outside linebacker that can be relied on to drop back in coverage. But he’s strong enough to set the edge and can dominate against weaker tight ends.

It’s unlikely the Jets do end up with Barnett, so its likely they address outside linebacker on day 2 or 3. Tarell Basham (OHIO) has been getting a lot of attention lately and has improved his projection to the second round. Basham is a relentless edge defender with exceptional speed and agility. He’s pass rush moves and counters are impressive and can certainly be perfected at the next level. Tyus Bowser (Houston) is another outside linebacker the Jets should consider. Bowser is an explosive player and, like Basham, he’s not one dimensional in pass rush. Despite only playing 8 games this past season, Bowser still managed to put up 8.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. He then was a standout at the NFL combine. Either Basham or Bowser would be an ideal addition for the Jets to put opposite of Jordan Jenkins. If they pass up on outside linebacker in round 2, they should consider Ryan Anderson (Alabama) in round 3, or Vince Beigel (Wisconsin) later on.

Approaching the draft with a defense first mindset might be a safer strategy given Maccagnan’s draft history so far with the Jets and what was left behind in Houston. Also, where the strengths in this years draft class and the weaknesses on the Jets roster meet are mostly positions on defense. What defensive players are you most interested in this upcoming draft?

* Trading back in the first round could be a huge deal for the Jets. It would be ideal for the Jets to end up with two second round picks along with their two third round picks. It could allow them to draft on both sides of the ball in the those rounds. But more importantly they’d be stockpiling early draft picks in a draft that has some serious talent at the top. For examples, for the purposes of this article, that could mean being able to comfortably pass up on Marshon Lattimore (Ohio State) in first round and getting Kevin King (Washington), Chidobe Awuzie (Colorado), Tredavious White (LSU), or Cordrea Tankersley (Clemson) in the second round and then maybe pairing that with an OLB addition like Basham or Bowser later in the round or visa versa.