Turn On The Jets Off-Season Roundtable – Defensive Line

The TOJ staff discusses how the New York Jets should handle their defensive line this off-season

Welcome to our off-season review of the New York Jets roster at Turn On The Jets. Each week we are going to attack a different position. We will have a roundtable discussion on it, Steve Bateman will submit a film breakdown examining it and our draft staff will look at potential prospects the Jets could add. So far we have covered quarterbackrunning back, wide receiver, and offensive line This week we move to defensive line – 

How should the New York Jets handle defensive line this off-season?

Joe Caporoso – Defensive line is one of the few spots on the New York Jets roster that the team can feel good about, not just for the upcoming season but for the foreseeable future. Muhammad Wilkerson was one of the league’s top defensive lineman in 2012 and gives the team an elite player against the run who commands a double team, while providing a good push on the pocket during passing downs. Instead of hitting a rookie wall, Quinton Coples actually got stronger down the stretch with 10 tackles and 3.5 sacks over the final quarter of the season. He is a natural freak who showed more polish to his game later in the year and should be ready to become a full time player in 2013. Kenrick Ellis was off a strong start but dealt with injury issues as the season progressed. He has the physical ability to be a full-time nose tackle but is he durable enough?

Outside of the three young guns (all currently 25 or under), Mike DeVito had a strong season as a versatile, run-stuffing tackle/end hybrid. The Jets will push hard to bring him back but he might fall out of their price range. There is undeniable value to having DeVito as a piece of the defensive line rotation and in the locker room but Jets fans should prepare for the reality of him leaving. Second year player Damon Harrison will need to step into a bigger role, particularly if Sione Pou’ha ends up being a salary cap causality, another reality the team may have to face. You can’t hang on to a 30+ year old defensive lineman with back issues at Pou’ha’s price tag.

2013 will be an exciting year for this group. It might not be long until it is the Jets, not the New York Giants, who have the defensive line that is talk of the area.

Chris Gross –  Unlike several positional groups across the New York Jets roster, the defensive line for Gang Green is actually one of the promising spots moving forward. Muhammed Wilkerson emerged as a budding young star last season, and is sure to continue in his growth toward becoming one of the elite defensive ends in the NFL. 2012 first round draft selection, Quinton Coples, got off to a slow start, but ended up finishing the season very strong, leading New York in sacks with 5.5 sacks. Second year nose tackle Kenrick Ellis flashed signs of brilliance when healthy, but questions still remain about his durability over a 16 game schedule.

Outside of the three up and coming youngsters, the Jets still face some difficult decisions moving forward. Defensive Tackle Mike DeVito is entering Unrestricted Free Agency and will be free to sign with any team this offseason. This puts the Jets in a tough spot. Having drafted Coples in the first round last year, New York will likely look to get him into the role of a full time starter next year, particularly considering his late season emergence. This would leave DeVito, a player who has been the blue collared, workhorse on the defensive line during his days as a Jet, having to serve in a backup/situational type role. How much will the Jets, who are somewhat tight on cap space this season, be willing to pay for a non-starter, even if that player has been such a key piece of what New York does up front, defensively?

For the sake of the defense, hopefully a middle ground is met and the Jets can bring DeVito back on a deal that works for both sides. While he may not rack up the numbers and stats that Wilkerson and Coples are capable of, DeVito is a staple to the defensive line, constantly commanding double teams and taking up blockers, freeing the ends and linebackers to make plays. He is also one of the unquestioned leaders in the locker room, and in an offseason where New York may be forced to part ways with the most crucial team leader in Darrelle Revis, it would be a massive hit to the locker room to lose DeVito as well.

If DeVito is not retained, free agent options for a low cost, backup defensive lineman would include Lawrence Jackson, Ricky Jean Francois, Darryl Tapp, Kentwan Balmer, and Andre Carter. Other names to keep an eye on include Richard Seymour and Glen Dorsey, but it is unclear what their market value could be at this point.

At nose tackle, New York faces more difficult decisions. Sione Pouha has been another key piece of the Jets defensive line over the past few seasons, but injuries have slowed his production as of late, and a release could save the Jets some much needed cap space. However, will New York be willing to enter the season with Ellis as the starter, considering his durability concerns, with an unproven player spelling him? Damon Harrison is a big body, who played decent at times last season, but there are still certainly some question marks surrounding him as well.

The most likely scenario will be a release of Pouha and an addition at the position either via free agency or the draft (more coming
Thursday). Possible free agent additions at NT could include Sedrick Ellis, Shaun Cody, and the aging, but big bodied Casey Hampton. Hampton would likely come in on a low cost, veteran deal, but would likely be able to give New York 16 games at a cheaper rater than Pouha, while allowing for Ellis to continue to grow into a full time role.

As promising as the Jets defensive line is at this point, there are still some depth concerns moving forward. Like any other positional group on the current roster, it will be interesting to see how things play out. Be sure to check back Thursday for some draft options at defensive line for Gang Green.

TJ Rosenthal –  The Jets defensive line could be the strength of the defense going forward. Muhammad Wilkerson’s emergence and the glimpses we saw from Kenrick Ellis and Quinton Coples give the team hope that a pass rush and run stopping capability can be had for the next five years up front. It’s important though, that GM John Idzik brings Mike Devito back. He is a reliable tackler and a glue guy. The type of unheralded core guy that Mike Tannenbaum let walk too often during the summer of 2011. When things began to fall apart.

Chris Celletti – Despite lacking a dynamic, dominant pass rusher, the Jets’ defensive line might be the team’s greatest strength. If the local media actually covered football and not manufactured controversies, the country would have a better idea of how good Muhammad Wilkerson has become. He should be a rock on this defensive line for years to come, a la Shaun Ellis. Additionally, Quinton Coples had more sacks last season than Justin Tuck and a sack less than Jason Pierre-Paul in way less snaps.

11492906-largeWhile he’s still learning, there’s no reason Coples shouldn’t see a heavy increase in snaps in 2013, and a double-digit sack season is not out of the question. Kenrick Ellis is another young talent that comes on the cheap, and will have 2013 to develop further into a replacement for Sione Pouha. Pouha is under contract in 2013 but has over a $6 million cap hit. It might make sense to move on from the aging, quickly breaking down Pouha and use some of that money to keep Mike DeVito, who is an unrestricted free agent. The Jets shouldn’t go nuts financially to keep DeVito, but I agree with T.J. in that DeVito is the exact type of character guy that the former regime let go of way too easily. He can’t be THAT expensive to keep, right? If so, the Jets defensive line shouldn’t look much different than last year’s, and that’s a good thing. That can’t be said about almost any other unit on the team.

Mike Donnelly – It’s nice to be able to write about an area of this Jets roster that is clearly a strength, for a change. The Jets defensive line as a group was very good in 2012 and it looks to get even stronger in 2013, as young budding stars like Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples improve. We here at TOJ were extremely high on Wilkerson during mini-camp last year and expected a breakout season from him. Well, we were clearly not disappointed, as Wilkerson turned in a dominant season and was perhaps the best 3-4 defensive end in the NFL not named JJ Watt. The fact he didn’t make the Pro Bowl or land on the All-Pro team just shows how all that voting is meaningless. Quinton Coples also showed tremendous flashes, especially during the second half of the season when his snap count increased. He led the team in sacks, and it isn’t unrealistic to think he could be in double digits next year.

As for how to handle the line heading into 2013, I think there are a few key decisions that need to be made. I touched on this in my most recent Stock Watch, but I think Mike DeVito will be able to get more money on the open market than the Jets can afford to give him and is a goner. I’m as big of a DeVito fan as anybody, but we have to be realistic here. Quinton Coples was drafted in the first round last year to be a full-time player, not split time with a run stuffing role-player like DeVito. With Coples and Wilkerson manning the DE spots, there simply is no room to pay a part-time player like DeVito upwards of the $2.5 million or so he will be able to get elsewhere. Yes, he’s versatile, and that’s all great, but that money is best spent elsewhere. Cheap, solid linemen who can handle 20 snaps or so per game and help stuff the run are out there, and I think that’s the route the team will go to backup our two studs at DE.

As for nose tackle, 2013 is make or break time for third-year player Kenrick Ellis. He was brought along slowly behind Sione Po’uha, but there’s a 50-50 chance that Sione won’t return in 2013. He will certainly be cut to avoid paying him his large salary, but I’d love to see him back on a cheap 1 year, incentive-laden contract after his injury plagued 2012 to further mentor Ellis, who has a ton of potential. If Ellis plays up to his ability and stuffs the run inside while providing some push up the middle, this defensive line will be extremely dangerous not just in 2013, but also for the next few years.

Steve Bateman – Most Jets fans have no idea of how good Mo Wilkerson and Quinton Coples are. If they can be anchored by a nose tackle who is capable of commanding a double team, they could easily comprise the best front three in football. At nose tackle last season Sione Pouha was immensely disappointing, and the image of him being manhandled one-on-one by Dolphins center Mike Pouncey is indelibly etched into my memory. If he is to be brought back next year it’s essential that he’s fit and ready to go, as the presence of a dominating nose tackle will make it a certainty that either Coples or Wilkerson is left with a single blocker on the outside. Mike DeVito (if he doesn’t go to the Patriots as we all expect) or Kenrick Ellis could be options as starters at nose tackle, although Ellis’s fitness, stamina, and endurance all seem to raise questions.

Damon Harrison can also be effective if he learns to complement his size with some technique, but on balance it looks as if the wisest option would be to make a full assessment of where Pouha is, and then look at whether or not it’s best to retain him or bring in a replacement via free agency. Coples by no means deserved any of the criticism that he regularly drew from frustrated Jets fans, and it seems there’s every reason to believe that he can go on and make a major impression on the league during his sophomore year. His speed and strength are already beyond doubt, and if he can perfect a move that allows him to convert an inside power bull-rush into an outside speed dash (a two-way go) he will, in my opinion, comfortably become one of the best defensive ends in the business.

A final point that I’d like to stress when considering defensive line play is that it’s often a huge mistake to judge a 3-4 lineman’s performance based upon statistics alone. If the front three can comfortably tie up five offensive linemen, then their job is done irrespective of whether or not they get to the quarterback or make the tackle. At the beginning of last season fans were in uproar about the defensive line’s “lack of productivity” when in fact they were performing their role perfectly well only to be let down by a linebacking corps that had all the menace of a blind three-legged kitten.

In fact it’s testimony to Wilkerson and Coples’s ability that they managed to record such great stats in the light of practically non-existent assistance from their peers.

Author: Joe Caporoso

Joe Caporoso is the Owner and EIC of Turn On The Jets. His writing has been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, MMQB and AdWeek. Caporoso played football his entire life, including four years at Muhlenberg as a wide receiver, where he was arguably the slowest receiver to ever start in school history. He is the EVP of Content at Whistle Sports