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An early July ranking of the 12 most important players on the New York Jets defense heading into the 2018 season. Please note this is not a ranking of their “best” players but rather how critical these individuals will be to the unit’s overall success this year…
1 – Trumaine Johnson – In the absence of a top tier pass rusher, a prospective lockdown corner takes the top spot. Johnson playing up to his contract would greatly aid in the development of both Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, big investments from the 2017 NFL Draft and make life easier on the Jets less than stellar pass rush.
2 – Leonard Williams – The Jets best front seven player with the most physical talent to potentially flirt with double digit sacks, if he receives the necessary support from the rest of the defensive line (and secondary). Williams was a mild disappointment in 2017 but is only 24 years old and has flashed as an elite defensive end for multiple stretches throughout his short career.
3 – Jamal Adams – Adams plays all over the Jets defense. You can make a fair case he is currently both their best safety and best outside linebacker. The Jets need him to “make the leap” in his sophomore season and demonstrate why he was worth the 6th overall pick despite not playing a “premium” position.
4 – Morris Claiborne – He should be better suited in a complementary role next to Johnson at corner, rather than the lead cover guy. After a fast start in 2017, Claiborne faded down the stretch as he began to get banged up. The Jets need him to stay healthy as the outside corner depth behind behind him is shaky and unproven at best. Without a pass rush, having an above average pair of starting cornerbacks is a must.
5 – Marcus Maye – Maye plays more of a traditional safety role than Adams and is usually the team’s last line of defense on preventing a disastrous big play over the top. The more steady he is, the more Adams can bounce all over the formation as a movable chess piece. Maye is recovering from an injury but is expected to be 100% for training camp.
6 – Buster Skrine – The Jets base defense has three corners on the field, making Skrine a starter in the slot. He has been up and down since joining the team in 2015. If the Jets do not have him healthy and productive, they will be relying on a rookie like Parry Nickerson in the slot role or need to slide over somebody with limited NFL experience. Skrine is far from consistent and is likely to be picked on between Johnson and Claiborne but the Jets depth behind him remains concerning.
7 – Darron Lee – This could be a make or break year for Lee, the team’s 2016 first round pick. Todd Bowles has indicated Lee will be the defensive play caller at inside linebacker, while Lee improved last season, he still has a ways to go to show he is a competent three down starter. The Jets were not shy about adding veteran depth at his position, including Avery Williamson, Kevin Minter, Kevin Pierre-Louis and Neville Hewitt. If Lee makes some type of jump, it will go a long way to alleviating concerns about the team’s front seven.
8 – Jordan Jenkins – The team’s most proven outside linebacker, Jenkins has a relentless motor which helps compensate for his athletic limitations. He is best suited to be an edge setter against the run and a complementary pass rusher. The Jets need Jenkins to keep improving so there is more stability at one of their most up in the air positional groups.
9 – Avery Williamson – A newly acquired free agent, Williamson will largely fill the role occupied by Demario Davis last season. The reason he isn’t higher on the list is that he wasn’t an every down player for the Titans last year and it remains to be seen if the Jets anticipate him playing 95-100% of the defensive snaps or just 70-75% of them, with Lee or Pierre-Louis or somebody else subbing in for him on third downs or passing situations.
10 – Steve McLendon – The team’s nose tackle, who is coming off an unheralded but very productive season. McLendon has been decent value on his contract and is the quintessential two run down run stuffer, who can occasionally provide a little push to the pocket.
11 – Henry Anderson – Acquired from the Colts for a 7th round pick in this year’s NFL Draft. Anderson is tentatively expected to start opposite Leonard Williams at defensive end and has shown flashes of being a more than capable starting option. If Anderson can stay healthy and play to his potential, it will make life much easier on Leonard Williams.
12 – Mike Pennel – We are reaching now! The Jets are internally high on Pennel as a long term piece on the defensive line. He should feature prominently in their rotation this year and hopefully be part of the contingent that takes heat off of Williams.