Grading the New York Jets 2014 Lineup Changes (Defense)

Mike Donnelly of TurnOnTheJets breaks down the New York Jets lineup changes on defense heading into 2014.

It’s no secret that the New York Jets defense has been the backbone of the team since the day Rex Ryan arrived. In 2013, the unit was able to rebuild on the fly as they had seven new starters, including two rookies, and still managed to field a very good defense. The stats are somewhat skewed thanks to an offense that constantly turned the ball over and put them in bad situations, but they still finished 11th overall with 334.9 yards a game. With a more experienced unit heading into 2014, how are they shaping up compared to last year’s squad? Let’s take a look.

(For Part 1 on the Offense, click here)

Defensive Line – This is unquestionably the strongest unit on the team and at times last year they were downright dominant, particularly against the run as they allowed a minuscule 3.4 yards per attempt. Nose tackles Snacks Harrison and Kenrick Ellis both had tremendous seasons in the middle, especially Harrison who was arguably the top run stuffer in the entire league. Sheldon Richardson was also awesome in his first season on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. 

The defensive line also provided more of a pass rush than we had seen the past few seasons. Mo Wilkerson racked up 10.5 sacks, Richardson 3.5, and key reserve Leger Douzable 1.5. That’s terrific production in Rex Ryan’s defense where the defensive line is relied upon to crash the pock and have others pick up sacks from around the edge. This five man unit returns in tact heading into 2014 and as awesome as they were a year ago, there is definitely potential for them to be even better, especially Sheldon Richardson, who is an absolute stud. GRADE: +0.5 Tebows.

Outside Linebackers – For the most part, the OLB’s in Rex Ryan’s system can be considered defensive linemen, but they do have some extra responsibilities when it comes to setting the edge against the run and in certain pass coverages. Last year Calvin Pace racked up 10 sacks, which is a very impressive number on the surface, but to be honest it had more to do with the opposing offenses focusing on the linemen in front of him than because of his own great play. That being said, Pace had a career resurgence in 2013, removed the giant fork that had been sticking out of his back, and played pretty well. Antwan Barnes provided a bit of a pass rushing spark but had his season ended early due to injury, and Garrett McIntyre was steady if unspectacular in reserve. Despite much fanfare for some reason, Ricky Sapp did absolutely nothing and was cut midway through the season.

The key man in this group, however, is 2012 1st Round pick Quinton Coples. Coples switched positions to OLB in 2013 and had an extremely promising preseason as he was consistently in the opposing backfield, until he suffered a foot injury and missed the first two games of the season. When he returned, it was clear he was not 100% healthy, he lost all of the momentum he had in the preseason, and he seemed unsure of himself.  It was not until midway through the season that he started to show flashes again of the dominant player he can be. He closed out the season with 3.5 sacks in the final 5 games and he has the potential to be the leading sacker on this team in 2014. I’m expecting huge things from Coples this year, and for that reason alone I would give this unit a + grade, but there are other reasons to be optimistic as well. The return of a healthy Barnes will help, and with rookies IK Enemkpali and Trevor Reilly in the fold, there is some depth for the first time in a while. Lots to like here. GRADE: +1 Tebow. 

Inside Linebackers – David Harris and Demario Davis handled pretty much all the snaps at this position in 2013 and there’s really no reason to expect that to change in 2014. Harris, who is the de facto captain of the defense, was his usual steady self, as he led the team in tackles, had 2 sacks, and improved his coverage a great deal over 2012. Davis had an up-and-down first year as a starter, but he clearly showed enough to make fans understand why Rex Ryan was so high on him. Nick Bellore was the only backup here and was mainly used on special teams, where he is terrific.

Heading into 2014, those three are all returning and 5th round draft pick Jeremiah George is expected to join them. George is likely to be used mostly on special teams, but there is a chance he can be used on defense in certain packages. This group was very solid in 2013, and I expect them to play well again in 2014. Harris is entering a contract year, so he has a bit of extra motivation, and Davis should continue his development. For now though, I’m giving this… GRADE: 0 Tebows.

Cornerbacks – Cornerback was unquestionably the most controversial position on the team throughout the offseason. Antonio Cromartie was released and the team chose not to bring him back. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was pursued but signed with the Giants instead, and fans and media-types freaked out, saying John Idzik blew it. I don’t agree with that line of thinking for a few reasons. First of all, the cornerback play last year was AWFUL, particularly #31. Does nobody remember an injured Cromartie getting beat repeatedly down the field? The team clearly had legitimate concerns with his health and his ability to return to the player he was in 2012, so it was time to move on. As for the free agents Idzik didn’t sign, there’s a very simple reason for that: those guys weren’t worth the money they got. Rodgers-Cromartie was openly talking about retiring before the Super Bowl this year, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving him a ton of guaranteed money either. He quite simply wasn’t worth it.

What Idzik did decide to do for 2014 was sign Dimitri Patterson, use a 3rd round pick on Dex McDougle, and a 6th rounder on Brandon Dixon and have them battle it out with Kyle Wilson, Darrin Walls, Ras-I Dowling, and Johnny Patrick for playing time. Patterson was very impressive with Miami when he was healthy, McDougle has a ton of ability, and I’ve long been a fan of Darrin Walls. Quite honestly, whoever wins the #2 CB job can’t be worse than Cromartie was last year. This is a group of young, hungry, and talented players and I’m excited to see who steps up.

Last year’s #9 overall pick Dee Milliner is stepping into the top spot, and after being mostly awful as a rookie, he was absolutely awesome down the stretch of the season and showed why he was a top-10 pick. There’s no reason to think he won’t be majorly improved this year and play like that guy we saw in those final few games. People joke about John Idzik preaching “competition” so much with his roster, but when it comes to cornerback, it truly will be a competition for playing time and the best players will play. For now, I’m going to give this position a “0 Tebows”, but I truly believe there’s potential for it to be majorly improved over last year. I’m going to revisit this during the preseason when we see who wins the job opposite Milliner and how McDougle is looking as a rookie, but for now… Grade: 0 Tebows.

Safeties – Much like cornerback, the safety position was mostly bad last year. Dawan Landry was average, Josh Bush and Jaiquawn Jarrett were not particularly impressive when given a chance, and while Ed Reed had a few interceptions after his midseason signing, he proved to be a shell of his former self. The only bright spot was Antonio Allen, the 2012 7th round pick, who stepped up and showed a lot of promise. 

The Jets brass clearly agreed that the safety position needed some work, because they spent the 18th overall pick on Calvin Pryor, who brings the speed and athleticism to the position that we haven’t had on the team in quite some time. He is also a heavy hitter and will be the enforcer over the middle of the field that Rex Ryan loves. Antonio Allen will likely start next to him with Dawan Landry splitting time and also playing in three safety sets. Bush and Jarrett will be competing for roster spots with players such as Brandon Hardin and Rontez Miles. The addition of Pryor alone, however, makes this unit much more dangerous than it was a year ago. GRADE: +1 Tebow.

Defensive Grade: +2.5 

Offensive Grade: +4 

Total Team Grade: +6.5 Tebows

Overall, it’s nearly impossible to say that the Jets aren’t greatly improved over the 2013 version. Unlike a year ago, Idzik had money to spend in free agency, and he brought in offensive help in the form of Eric Decker and Chris Johnson. He had 12 draft picks and used them to build depth across the roster and get faster and more aggressive. With Rex Ryan running the defense, Geno Smith entering his second season as a starter, and the new weapons to work with on offense, the Jets should absolutely be a playoff contender in 2014.