Most of the chatter this New York Jets preseason has been around the quarterback position for understandable reasons. It is an ingrained assumption that every Jets team will have a better defense than offense. How many years have we read countless practice reports on the defense pacing ahead of the offense or season previews saying the Jets hopes are built around their defense carrying them, while their offense avoids mistakes?
This perception comes from the Jets repeatedly hiring Head Coaches with a defensive background and utilizing high picks on the defense. Every HC from Bill Parcells on came from the defensive side of the football and every first round pick from 2010-2017 was on the defensive side of the football.
Heading into 2018, expectations for the defense are arguably higher than they should be. There is excitement after the high profile additions of Trumaine Johnson and Avery Williamson, coupled with the promising debut seasons of safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. But, how good is this defense actually going to be in 2018 and could they be the weak link compared to the offense?
The Jets are coming off a season where they were ranked 18th in defensive DVOA, 25th in total defense, tied for 20th in takeaways and went another season without scoring a defensive touchdown. (IT HAS BEEN SINCE 2013, PEOPLE). Many seem to be expecting a major leap forward on the backs of three recent first round picks. The conventional wisdom from Jets fans is as follows:
1 – Leonard Williams is an All-Pro caliber player and will make a major leap this year.
2 – Jamal Adams is an All-Pro caliber player and will make a major leap this year.
3 – Darron Lee is a foundational player on defense and will be a breakout player this year.
If these three things occur, the Jets are going to have a very good defense but these three things are assumptions, which are a bit clouded by the green shades of fandom.
The reality is that Leonard Williams has been a good to very good player for three seasons. He has not shown he can be consistently dominant without other above average defensive linemen taking pressure off him. He has not sniffed an All-Pro selection yet and is not one of the best defensive lineman in the NFL at this moment. The good news is that Williams is only 24 years old and his prime is just beginning. There is still an opportunity for him to elevate his game to a previously unseen level from 2015-2017 but there is also the possibility that Williams will be plateau as a very good starter. The jury remains out but his historical NFL evidence so far does not point to a multi year All-Pro.
Jamal Adams is even younger in his NFL career, with only one season under his belt. The scouting report before the Jets took him 6th overall registered him as a generational talent, a sure fire All-Pro caliber player and somebody who should be a favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Adams had an encouraging rookie season, highlighted by his versatility and ability against the run. Yet, he was not a serious contender for DROY and showed he still has to improve substantially before coming near All-Pro discussions. The talent is there but the question is open on what his NFL ceiling is, particularly with the evolving rules in the NFL that will impact a player with his type of game. Similar to Williams, does he plateau as a very good starter or does he leap forward into becoming the next Earl Thomas or Eric Weddle?
The assumptions around Lee are a substantially further stretch than Williams or Adams. Lee has been a below average player through two NFL seasons. It is an open debate whether he is even the team’s second best inside linebacker right now (the top spot currently belongs to Williamson), with Neville Hewitt and Kevin Minter both having better summers than Lee. It is not clear yet if Lee is even a capable NFL starter, never mind a breakthrough player or foundational piece of this defense.
Away from these three, the Jets have a few problems. First, they have arguably the worst group of outside linebackers/pass rushers in the NFL. Jordan Jenkins has shown promise as a competent edge setter but beyond him, the Jets have a collection of special teams players who will regularly be schemed off the field because they can’t handle major defensive reps. Second, Adams running mate Marcus Maye struggled down the stretch last year after a terrific start to his rookie season. Maye has now missed most of the offseason and all of the preseason so far as he recovers from a week 17 injury. There is a reasonable chance he could get off to a slow start as he reacclimatizes to the game. Third, the Jets are counting heavily on two cornerbacks: Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine, who have had recent injury issues to stay healthy this season. When your base defense has three corners on the field and the 4th-6th corner are extremely unproven (Derrick Jones’ strong camp aside), it is a cause for concern.
Everything is not going to break against the Jets. Out of Williams, Adams and Lee, one or two of them could very well make a major leap. Maybe Marcus Maye will have a fast start to the year for the second season in a row. The Jets could stay healthy at corner or a player like Jones could prove himself as a capable outside corner if Claiborne goes down. In the front seven, maybe the combination of Henry Anderson and Nathan Shepherd is enough to overcome the lack of talent at outside linebacker. Of all the variables facing the Jets defense, there will be a mix of some breaking positively and negatively. The question is without every single thing breaking positively, can they manage to be a top 12-15 unit?
It feels more likely they settle in the 16-20 range, which may end up being comparable to their offensive ranking, despite the lack of league wide respect for the team’s skill position group. As it stands now, it feels like the conventional wisdom is underrating the Jets offense but overrating the Jets defense.