Fixing the New York Jets Defense In One Offseason

In a growth year for the franchise, the New York Jets defense has been completely abysmal despite starting strong.

Rebuilding this defense in the offseason is essential for the team to take the next step in their rebuild. General manager Joe Douglas has nine draft picks and around $50 million in cap space. He has his work cut out for him.

Fixing the New York Jets Defense in One Offseason

An Overview of the Jets Defense

Currently, the Jets defense stands at worst in the NFL. That’s hard to believe considering that a “defensive guru” in Robert Saleh is the head coach. Now, he isn’t directly responsible for why the unit has been terrible. Although, the best head coaches collaborate with their assistants to fix the issues on each side of the football.

Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich received praise early on in the season for how the unit was playing. The team was playing without some of their key offseason signings in Carl Lawson, Lamarcus Joyner, and Vinny Curry. Also consider the team was putting out an inexperienced secondary full of rookies and sophomores. That is the recipe for an overachieving Jets defense. While the team’s offense sputtered throughout the first five weeks, the defense kept the team in game with a “bend but don’t break” approach. The Jets defense was ranked in the middle of the pack defensively.

The Fall

Then, the defense started to fall off in Week 7 with a brutal 54-13 loss to the New England Patriots. The Patriots offense carved with the Jets up with their short and intermediate passing attack along with Damien Harris rushing for 106 yards on 7.6 yards per carry with two touchdowns. Ulbrich proclaimed to the press that the defense would never give up 40 or more points again. The Jets defense was then trounced by the Indianapolis Colts in Week 9 and then by the Buffalo Bills the week after.

Six running backs have logged 100+ yards on the ground versus the Jets. The defensive line was supposed to be the strength of the defense but they have disappointed as they haven’t got to the quarterback enough. The team averages 2.2 sacks per game, ranking 18th in the NFL per Team Rankings.

Although Robert Saleh doesn’t call plays, the focus of the defense is getting to the passer and beefing up the defensive line. When his defenses had the most success, they had some ferocious defensive linemen and pass rushers. The peak of the defense came in 2019 with players on the line like Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Dee Ford, and DeForest Buckner.

The two best linemen on the Jets roster are Quinnen Williams and John Franklin-Myers. Franklin-Myers was playing over his head early on in the season, which earned him a four-year/$55 million extension. Since then, he’s cooled off. Add in that Franklin-Myers is better when he plays on the interior.

Williams has quietly played well this season in the trenches as he ranks second among defensive tackles in sacks over the past two seasons, trailing only Aaron Donald. Jets will have to make a decision on his future as he is eligible for a contract extension at season’s end. He was selected as a Pro-Bowl alternate so perhaps that adds something to his resume.

You could make the argument that the Jets are missing Lawson and Curry as to why they aren’t getting to the quarterback. Overall, the defensive line has talent but has been way too inconsistent. Referencing the six 100-yard rushers, the Jets run defense has been atrocious, allowing 141.9 rushing yards per game, ranking 30th in the NFL. Personally, I think the cause of the poor run defense is attributed to the poor linebacker and safety play.

C.J. Mosley started off the season well and then fell off towards the middle of the season because he couldn’t carry any longer. Former Detroit Lions first-round linebacker Jarrad Davis has been a liability and has showed why he was only signed for one year. Quincy Williams is a playmaker but is more deserving of a situational role. Former third-round safety Ashtyn Davis only can show off his speed as he is poor in coverage and a terrible tackler. Marcus Maye played poor down the stretch before tearing his Achilles versus the Colts in Week 9. The other safeties haven’t played well either.

Now, what holes do the Jets need to fill on defense in the offseason? How could they fill them?

Holes To Fill

Going into the offseason, the Jets defense needs:

  • An edge rusher opposite Carl Lawson
  • Outside cornerback opposite Bryce Hall
  • SAM and WILL linebackers opposite C.J. Mosley

The Jets are projected to have $52 million in cap space next season with nine draft picks. To create more cap space, the team can cut some or all these players:

Coming in a trade from the Houston Texans, Shaq Lawson wasn’t supposed to be a game-changer but his job was to stabilize the defensive line. He hasn’t done that and isn’t worth his cap hit. The Jets already have a replacement for Lawson in former undrafted free agent Bryce Huff.

Greg Van Roten has been one of the more disappointing free-agent signings from the Joe Douglas era. Van Roten underwhelmed for most of last season but showed progression towards season’s end. If it isn’t apparent enough that he will be gone after the season, he was benched for Laurent Duvernay-Tardif prior to the team’s Week 11 contest versus the Miami Dolphins. Duvernay-Tardif was acquired that week in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs.

With Carl Lawson coming back next season and John-Franklin Myers likely moving back inside, Sheldon Rankins is the odd man out. The Jets need to re-sign the team’s best run-stopper in Folorunso Fatukasi and they need to find an edge rusher opposite Carl Lawson. His performance also makes him very replaceable.

Linebacker Blake Cashman has real durability issues as he’s spent all of his three pro seasons with some time on the injured reserve. La’Mical Perine has been shut out from the running back rotation and has only carried the ball eight times this season. Trevon Wesco is dead weight and is not the “Baby Gronk” that he was nicknamed while playing for West Virginia.

Making the Additions:

Before making the picks and signings, I am assuming the Jets will be cutting all the possible cap cuts mentioned above. This leaves the team with $72.6 million in cap space.

Playing It Safe

The first hole on the Jets defense I’ll be looking to fill is both the free safety and strong safety position. Marcus Maye has played his final games as a Jet and Ashtyn Davis is not a starting safety in the NFL.

Filling the free safety position, I have the Jets signing Marcus Williams to a four-year/$54 million contract. Williams is an upgrade over Marcus Maye in terms of performance but he’s also two years younger and less injury-prone. Plus, the New Orleans Saints are projected to be $61 million over the cap. On the year, Williams has recorded 69 tackles, two interceptions, eight pass defenses, and one forced fumble.

Williams is excellent in unique types of coverage and best fits a scheme with two high safety looks. The Jets have run Cover 2 quite a bit this year which is out of the norm for a Robert Saleh/Jeff Ulbrich defense. As I previously mentioned, the Jets aren’t getting to the quarterback enough where they can trust the young defensive backs in tight man-to-man coverage. So, they opt to play back and keep everything in front of them.

Williams is also a very good tackler which will do wonders for the Jets run defense. Another plus side to signing a guy like Williams is he has only been penalized nine times through his five-year career. He’s also racked up 15 interceptions, proving that he’s a true ball-hawk. The Jets lack a defensive player that has the ball skills Williams has since the team has only racked up four interceptions this season, ranking last in the NFL.

The question is: Will the Jets pay top dollar for the safety position? The team franchise-tagged Marcus Maye for $10 million in March rather than paying him another contract. Also add in that the Jets never gave Jamal Adams the big time extension and money that he wanted. I think this is the splash to make for the Jets in free agency.

In the draft, I am projecting the Jets to take Alabama safety Jordan Battle at 35th overall. Battle stands at 6’1″ and 210 pounds.

His overall size makes him threatening in coverage with excellent burst. Battle’s ball skills will make the Jets safety tandem a duo to fear. An attribute to his ball skills is the ability to use his hands to get to the ball without drawing penalties.

Battle also has good eyes reading the quarterback and reacting with good awareness and footwork. He could be a better tackler with the need to take better angles though.

He’s also known as a great leader and stands proficient as a communicator pre-snap. Even better, Battle is a very versatile piece on defense. He can line up in two-high, single-high, in the slot, or playing on the outside. Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich will have a field day mixing and matching different looks that suit Battle’s skillset while also confusing quarterbacks.

Sealing The Outside

The Jets can go a few ways solving the number two cornerback spot. The team can select LSU product Derek Stingley Jr. with one of their first-round picks. They can also stick with sixth-round cornerback Brandin Echols who has shown flashes but has been a tad inconsistent. Here, I have the Jets taking the veteran route to help out Bryce Hall.

Therefore, I have the Jets signing former Carolina Panther Donte Jackson to a two-year/$18 million contract. Jackson is coming on a short because a groin injury cut his season short and you could get cheaper value. Plus, the Panthers have some young cornerbacks like Jaycee Horn and C.J. Henderson waiting in the wings.

Donte Jackson has experience playing at the second cornerback position as he played alongside Stephon Gilmore. Jackson was having a strong year before his season was cut short. While being a good playmaker and creating turnovers, he is a good athlete and one of the more underrated man coverage corners in the game today. His ball skills would increase the amount of turnovers the Jets defense can create. Jackson’s coverage skills would aid the defensive line by giving them time to get to the quarterback.

He also provides great leadership for the locker room as he was selected to be a team captain for Carolina prior to the season.

If Donte Jackson is still on the board on Day Two of free agency with the market cleared out, the Jets should absolutely pounce on this opportunity.

C.J. Mosley’s Cry For Help

Currently, one of the most glaring weaknesses on the Jets defense is the linebacking core. C.J. Mosley played well during the beginning of the season but has gotten tired from all the heavy lifting. Jarrad Davis has been a liability. Quincy Williams is a good playmaker but is more fitting for a rotational role.

The Jets can return Hamsah Nasirildeen to the WILL starting linebacker spot next season. Nasirildeen started next to Mosley at the beginning of the season but then was relegated to a special teams role before going on injured reserve. The highly-praised Jamien Sherwood struggled when slotted into a starting role before having his season cut by injuries. So there are question marks regarding the linebacking core. It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Nasirildeen and Sherwood were relegated to rotational roles.

To fill in the SAM linebacker spot, I have the Jets signing former Denver Bronco Josey Jewell to a one-year/$6.5 million contract. Jewell is coming off of a torn pectoral which might scare some teams away. Nevertheless, I like Jewell because he’s a jack of all trades. He’s not very athletic but is very good defending the run. Because of athleticism, he is not great in coverage.

Dating back to his last full season in 2020, Josey Jewell recorded the second-best missed tackle rate among linebackers at 3.4 percent. In that same season, he recorded a career-high 113 tackles, five tackles, and four pass defenses. He also showed some flashes rushing the passer that weren’t seen prior to that season.

Despite his weakness in coverage, Jewell would bring his superb tackling ability and flashy pass-rushing skills to New York.

Brandon Smith

To fill the WILL linebacker spot, I have the Jets drafting Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith with the 38th overall pick in the second round.

When I think of Brandon Smith, I think of a linebacker with a fierce, dog mentality with overpowering strength. When blitzing, he displays destructive speed. Smith would ideally fit the Jets 4-3 defense as an outside linebacker but he is quick enough where he can drop into zone and cover enough ground. He is great in coverage and can cover tight ends, which the Jets have struggled with. His versatility allows him to play all linebacker positions when need be.

Former Penn State linebacker Matt Millen was quoted saying that Smith was more of a pure linebacker than Micah Parsons. Parsons just earned Defensive Rookie of the Month and is on the way to achieve more honors in the NFL.

More importantly, a Robert Saleh 4-3 defense calls for two linebackers that could hold their own in coverage and against the run. When you think of the best 4-3 linebacker duos, you think of Telvin Smith and Myles Jack from the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars, K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner from the Legion of Boom-era Seattle Seahawks, and Fred Warner with Dre Greenlaw from the San Francisco 49ers two years ago. Despite slowing down towards the middle of the season, fans know what to expect from C.J. Mosley.

Defending the run is a work in progress for Brandon Smith. He sometimes gets overaggressive and still misses too many tackles. He’s also overaggressive in which he’s called for silly unnecessary roughness penalties.

More importantly, Brandon Smith has a great work ethic and shows good leadership skills. The Jets defense needs another leader and fighter. Smith is that guy.

Setting The Edge

A healthy Jets defense lacks an edge presence opposite big free agent signing Carl Lawson. Quinnen Williams and John Franklin-Myers make up the interior of the defensive line. The opposite defensive end position is a question mark. Bryce Huff showed flashes of brilliance in his rookie season in 2020 but his realistic role should remain as a situational pass rusher.

The Jets can surf free agency to fill that specific hole. Players like Chandler Jones, Von Miller, and Emmanuel Ogbah outline the free agents that the team can pursue. In this instance, I have the Jets going a different route in terms of solidifying the pass rush.

George Karlaftis

With the sixth overall pick, I have the Jets selecting Purdue defensive end George Karlaftis. This season, Karlaftis played in 12 games and recorded 4.5 sacks, 28 tackles, and two forced fumbles.

George Karlaftis projects as an every-down 4-3 defensive end in the NFL. Although his statistics don’t jump off the page, Karlaftis considered the strongest power rusher in this draft by Pro Football Network. His motor is constantly praised and excels against bigger and slower linemen with his active hands. He can play from either a two or three-point stance and is incredibly athletic.

Karlaftis does need to improve his run defense and shedding blockers on a consistent basis. He’s also not the quickest athlete, primarily using his power and strength to beat his matchups. Karlaftis also needs to extend his arms more and work on leverage.

The duo of Karlaftis-Lawson on the edge for the Jets defense with John Franklin-Myers and Quinnen Williams on the interior makes this defensive line one of the best in the NFL. With tons of money and cap space heading into the offseason and these potential additions leading the way, the New York Jets can effectively take the next step in their rebuild and compete for a playoff spot next season.

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