On Monday, I ranked the offensive training camp battles. Today we’ll take a look at the defense and special teams. The Jets defense and special teams battles are going to be more exciting than the offense simply because of how many variables there are to this Jets defense. Dan Essien wrote a great piece on potential looks the Jets front seven could have this season. Let’s get into it.
1. Defensive Line
For the first time in years, the Jets only have one big name guy on the d-line in Leonard Williams. They also have considerable depth at this position. This is going to open the door for great competition for playing time.
Let’s work under the assumption that the Jets are in their base 3-4 defense. The starters are going to be Williams, Steve McLendon and Henry Anderson come Week One. The luxury that the Jets have is they have a plethora of guys who can play really anywhere along the line.
Now comes the part of who earns reps. Returning guys like Xavier Cooper and Mike Pennel will have the leg up on rookies Nathan Shepherd and Foley Fatukasi but that doesn’t mean they’ll be gifted snaps. Shepherd is a beast in every sense of the word but he’s going to have to adjust to NFL competition. Fatukasi will also have to work playing up to the competition level as he left many of us Jets fans scrambling to Google to figure out who he was when drafted (and also on how to spell his name).
A guy to watch this camp is Courtney Upshaw. The seven year vet out of Alabama was fairly productive with the Ravens before having a relative drop off the last two years with the Falcons. He’s not a lock to make the roster but I like his potential upside as a plug in guy and added depth piece for this defense.
The two outside corners are set as of now in Morris Claiborne and the big free agent signing Trumaine Johnson. Buster Skrine moves back inside to play his normal nickel corner position and hopefully will cut down the penalties not having to deal with bigger, taller receivers.
After that it’s a toss up. The only guy I would say is a lock besides those three is sixth round draft pick Parry Nickerson. He’s in line to be Skrines replacement and could end up taking snaps depending on the health of Claiborne. If Claiborne gets hurt, I would assume Skrine gets moved back outside which we’ve all seen is not the best for this defense.
When you look at this cornerback roster, you want to see guys who can play outside. Claiborne hasn’t been able to stay healthy his entire career and you’d much rather have Skrine play as the nickel corner. Juston Burris was supposedly in line to be that guy but after he was toasted by Michael Crabtree in Week 2 last season, the Jets had had enough of that experiment. Darryl Roberts has shown he can be a somewhat stable guy on the outside for limited stretches. I’m fairly high on Jeremy Clark and think he can be somewhat effective in limited snaps this season.
The Jets don’t have a ton of depth at corner and they are very young at the position. This is going to open the door for a guy to hopefully step up and be able to play meaningful snaps. Otherwise it’s going to be a mixture of the top three guys and either Marcus Maye or Jamal Adams picking up guys in coverage.
3. Special Teams Returner
Is this the year the Jets finally find their returner? It’s been a while, since Leon Washington really, since the Jets have had a stable guy at the return spot. This year it looks like the Jets finally addressed the position.
They brought in Andre Roberts who is a veteran kick returner from Atlanta. Lucky Whitehead is coming back off of injury and they drafted the speedy Trenton Cannon. It finally looks like they have a competition with guys who have had some level of success as a returner.
I put this three because I, like many other Jets fans, are sick of watching fair catch after fair catch and 20 yard starts after 20 yard starts. This isn’t just a rag tag group of guys who you’re hoping get the ball to the 26 in a revolving door of a position.
It’s a make or break year for Darron Lee. With Demario Davis on to New Orleans, Lee is now the guy who will be making all the calls on defense. The Jets brought in Avery Williamson as a cheaper, younger replacement for Davis but he’s really only a two down backer. Jordan Jenkins will most likely be the “edge” in this defense even though the Jets seem to have punted on finding a true edge rusher.
With Williamson only really being able to play on two downs effectively, Kevin Pierre-Louis should see a good number of snaps on third down passing situations.
Then there are a group of guys fighting for spots. Dylan Donohue has his off field issues. Lorenzo Mauldin has his last chance to show if he can be the pass rusher the Jets drafted him to be. David Bass has a Jordan Jenkins type role and I expect him to be the front runner of this group. Josh Martin will most likely stick on as a special teams guy. Guys like Neville Hewitt, Brandon Copeland and Obum Gwacham are on the outside looking in and are most likely going to have to catch on as special teams guys.
The most exciting part of the Jets defense is set. Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye are going to be the starting safeties. Their skill sets allow the Jets to drop either guy into the box or into the slot to cover tight ends and slot receivers. The Jets will most likely use Adams as the third linebacker and put another safety in back.
The backup safety spots are wide open with Rontez Miles being injured. JJ Wilcox, who really wanted to be a Jet and Terrence Brooks are the leaders to me. Doug Middleton and Kacy Rodgers II are on the outside looking with Middleton potentially having a spot on special teams.
Not to beat a dead horse but safety is a position the Jets hopefully won’t have to worry about for the next six or seven years.