Looking Ahead To The 2020 Jets: The Defense

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According to the snap counts on pro-football-reference.com, the broken-down Jets have used 30 different players on defense this season.

That seems like a lot.

They can’t all come back.  The injury plague has at least allowed the organization to get good looks at fringe candidates, some of whom can actually play. 

With two otherwise meaningless contests to go, including the season’s final home game versus Pittsburgh on Sunday, the Jets (5-9) will be able to finalize their evaluations as to who is worthy of a return in 2020.

I analyzed the offense two weeks ago—here’s a look, position-by-position, at the defense:

Defensive Line:

The strength of the team.  The backbone of the NFL’s second-best unit in rushing yards allowed per game and tops in average yards per carry (yes, even after getting gored by Baltimore last Thursday).  Not that it mattered—the Jets are 20th in points allowed per game.

New York Jets defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (95) sacks Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) during the first half on Nov. 3, 2019 at Hard Rock Stadium. Jasen Vinlove/ USA Today Sports

Fortunately, after trading Leonard Williams in October, the dollars committed to this less-impactful position group next season are more reasonable.  Only Henry Anderson ($8.3 million 2020 cap number, with a potential $7 million dead money hit if cut after one sack this season) has looked like a lemon.  Quinnen Williams, Nathan Shepherd, and Folorunso Fatukasi are all on rookie contracts. While Williams has underwhelmed as a No 3 overall pick, he has potential as a disruptor.  Fatukasi and Shepherd have been pleasant surprises, ranking 10th and 30th, respectively, in ProFootballFocus.com’s grades of 130 interior linemen with at least 150 snaps.  Veteran Steve McLendon placed 12th—his locker room presence was even more of a reason why the Jets extended him in October.      

Really, this is the one group where the Jets could bring back everyone and I wouldn’t mind.

Edge Rushers/Outside Linebackers:

In defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ schemes, it’s hard to distinguish between the two.  Not that it has always worked out, like when Kyle Phillips gets caught in pass coverage.

Williams has had to disguise his intentions given the minimal talent in this position group.  Jordan Jenkins has recorded a team-leading 7 sacks, but he has pressured the quarterback on less than 7% of his rushes per PFF, a middling ranking and about the same as Tarrell Basham.  Basham, though, will be cheap ($775,000) in 2020 while Jenkins is a free agent. Some believe that taking care of Jenkins should be an offseason priority for Jets general manager Joe Douglas.  I’d rather the Jets invest heavier for a more productive option (Baltimore’s Matt Judon?) here.

The rest of the bunch—Phillips, Brandon Copeland, Frankie Luvu, Harvey Langi, Jordan Willis and injured reserved John Franklin Myers are all either on expiring contracts or can be cut without major dead money consequences.  Of this uninspiring list, Phillips and Willis might be the only ones who have performed well enough to be worthy of an encore.

Inside Linebackers:

Avery Williamson went down playing a little extra in the first exhibition game and C.J. Mosley pulled up lame in the regular season opener.  Outside of Mosley’s cringe-worthy attempt to return to action in Week 7, the Jets have been playing catchup ever since.

Blake Cashman and Albert McClellan were among the next men up—they too landed on injured reserve after just a few weeks.  Neville Hewitt and James Burgess have valiantly, though not always successfully (especially when tasked with covering the deep middle in the Jets’ zones), held the fort since midseason (with Hewitt missing four games due to neck and knee ailments). 

Mosley, who was signed to an exorbitant free agent contract in March, will definitely return.  The potential $6 million cap savings to the Jets should mean that Williamson will not. Except Cashman, all the other fill-ins are on one-year contracts.  Between Hewitt and Burgess, the Jets really only need to pick one for next season—they should go with Burgess as the less expensive option.

Cornerbacks:

The other area that has been absolutely decimated this season.  The irony, as I wrote previously, is it took injuries for the Jets to unearth some uncut gems.

Rookie sixth-round pick Blessuan Austin has been, well, a blessing.  His physicality in both coverage and run support earned him PFF’s 17th-highest grade among 113 corners with at least 300 snaps this season.  In his short five-game stint before he was injured in Week 13 in Cincinnati, Arthur Maulet was only slightly less solid.

Those two were vastly superior to high-priced starting corners Trumaine Johnson and Daryl Roberts, both of whom will soon reach the point where cutting them makes financial sense.  About $18 million in sense.   

Maulet will need to be re-signed, as will slot corner Brian Poole, who was a bargain at $3.5 million this season.  Poole should be Douglas’ top priority among in-house free agents, in my opinion. 

Of the depth pieces, Nate Hairston and his 2020 nonguaranteed contract should be kicked to the curb alongside Johnson and Roberts.  Kyron Brown also has a nonguaranteed deal for next season—he deserves a shot at training camp. Pending free agents Maurice Canady and Bennett Jackson have graded out well enough by PFF on special teams to warrant cheap extensions if warm bodies are needed. 

No matter who comes back, shutdown corner remains one of this team’s biggest offseason needs.

Safeties:

The discussion here begins and ends with Jamal Adams, who was just named to his second consecutive Pro Bowl.  Adams is under team control for the next two seasons. However, that hasn’t stopped others from creating a stink when they’ve massively outperformed their contracts.  Was Adams miffed enough from leaked reports that the Jets attempted to trade him at the deadline that he will demand action this offseason, either via a new deal or a trade?  Adams is the Jets’ best pass rusher, best tackler, and best cover guy—their best player. Douglas has to make this relationship work.     

Like Adams, free safety Marcus Maye isn’t going anywhere.  Again, there’s not much depth here, with well-liked Rontez Miles unable to stay on the field.  The Jets have so much confidence in guys like Mattias Farley and Blake Countess that they’ve been using Roberts at safety in Adams’ injury absence the last two weeks.

Punter:

Lachlan Edwards is about league-average on a net basis.  As compensation for being the NFL’s most-used punter this season, give him an extension with a modest raise.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.