New York Jets Training Camp Preview: Defensive Line

David Aitken previews the New York Jets defensive line heading into training camp

David Aitken continues his training camp of the 2017 New York Jets with a look at the defensive line position. Here is the earlier piece looking at the offensive line…

Undoubtedly the most talented position group the Jets have had over the last five years, the defensive line has also been one of the largest sources of frustration. For a unit comprised of three first round picks, all of whom have panned out nicely (on the field at least), the group’s output usually combines for a total lesser than the sum of it’s parts. With 2016’s performances leaving the future of this group as uncertain as ever, what can we expect from the defensive line in 2017?

12 and 13. Those two numbers tell most of the story of what went wrong last year, and what the Jets are hoping returns in 2017. 13 is the total number of sacks the trio of Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams mustered in 2016. 12 is the number that Muhammad Wilkerson reached in sacks alone in 2015.

Wilkerson and Todd Bowles peg the lost season on the season-ending injury Wilkerson suffered in 2015. The pair admitted that he was still playing through pain and Wilkerson himself claims to be feeling “way better now” than he did in 2016. A more cynical take would be Wilkerson mailed it in after being made the highest paid 3-4 end in the league, but the type of player he’s been for the duration on his rookie contract means he deserves the benefit of the doubt.  Either way, Wilkerson is in need of a serious rebound. The 12 sacks in 2015 are a career mark and flatter his true ability as a pass rusher, but he’s been one of the few very-good-to-great players the Jets have developed in the last ten years and a cornerstone on defense. Another year of Wilkerson struggling could see the Jets move on in 2018 with the way his extension was structured.

Wilkerson’s struggles were balanced out by a strong second season for Leonard Williams, whose sophomore surge mirrored the career arcs of Richardson and Wilkerson before him. Dominating versus the run and leading the team in sacks with seven, the 23-year-old is one of the few untouchables for the Jets rebuild. The question now with Williams is how much growth potential remains as a pass rusher. While Williams already has tremendous value as an elite run defender and good interior pass rusher, the Jets already possessed two such young players when Maccagnan drafted him. It is fair to say that Maccagnan needs Williams to be more than just a borderline Pro Bowl player to consider this a big victory for his draft record.

Both the immediate and long-term futures of Sheldon Richardson remain a mystery. Since trade discussions occurred during last year’s deadline, Richardson has been a constant source of trade speculation. There was an expectation he would be moved at some point during this spring, and the Jets reportedly are still trying to move him. But time to do so is dwindling as he enters the final year of his rookie deal. The issue is partly resource allocation, but the truth is that the Jets have struggled to effectively utilize their three ends together. It has mostly been Richardson who has gotten the shaft, seeing the most snaps at edge and in unusual linebacker positions. If he remains a member of the Jets in 2017 he’ll ensure the team stays dominant versus the run, but his pass rushing potential is limited by a lack of interior rushing opportunities.

In the middle, penciled in to start is one of the few remaining players over thirty remaining on the roster – Steve McClendon. As far as last year’s mostly poor business goes in free agency, the McClendon deal has been the least offensive. McClendon did a fine enough job plugging the middle in the run game, which particularly in this defense is not a difficult task with the surrounding talent. In training camp he’ll have a real threat for playing time (and possibly a roster spot) in 2015 7th rounder Deon Simon.

Position Group Strength: 9

This is easily the most stacked pool of talent the Jets have, and it should stay that way for the foreseeable future. Even taking the pessimistic position of Richardson on his way out, Leonard Williams leveling off and Muhammad Wilkerson permanently affected by his leg injury, it’s still one of the better starting pairs in the league. The question is whether it’s a group unnecessarily stacked with talent relative to the rest of the roster, where the returns diminish greatly from having two to three high-level defensive interior players. The past two seasons say the answer is yes. This is almost certainly the last season the three will play together, and we ultimately aren’t going to notice the difference.

Best Case Scenario: Another step forward from Leonard Williams and a return to form for Muhammad Wilkerson has the pair combine for 20 sacks and anchor another elite run defense. Rather than force Sheldon Richardson to play in unfamiliar positions, he is used in rotation with Wilkerson and Williams. He starts the season hot and is an attractive name at the deadline, being sent to a contender for a day two pick in 2018. Deon Simon proves a capable starting nose and the Jets do not bring Steve McClendon into the regular season.

Prediction: Williams puts together a double-digit sack year and Wilkerson rebounds to his pre-injury self. An awkward last season for Richardson sees him continue to be used on the edge, and the trade deadline passes without a move. He leaves in free agency in 2018. The Jets release McLendon before the season starts, prioritizing getting the “big three” plus Deon Simon on the field.