Gang Green Must Go Defense Early And Often; Forget Sanchez For Now

By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/

NEW YORK (WFAN) — When in doubt go defense.

That will remain my NFL draft mantra until the day I either die or forget what football is, which will be basically the same day.

This much is certain: In a little more than two weeks someone entrusted by the Jets will walk up to the podium at Radio City Music Hall and make the team’s first selection in the 2012 draft.

After that, all bets are off.

And believe it or not, the boos or the cheers will tell the story. They almost always do.

If you are sitting here reading this column and know unequivocally what the Jets will do with their first-round pick, a selection — even as far down as it currently is, at No. 16 — that could very well chart the course for their immediate future, you would be lying to yourself.

No one knows. And that, unfortunately, probably includes the Jets themselves. But in a little bit, I’ll explain why South Carolina outside linebacker Melvin Ingram should be the clear-cut choice, regardless of the Jets’ apparent needs at other positions.

Say what you want about fans of this enigmatic franchise — many of them are often arrogant, clueless, unrealistic, militant, highly emotional and fair weather, usually all at the same time — but some of them really have a plan for how this draft should shake out.

In a lot of ways, mostly considering the lack of faith many of the faithful have in the decision making arm of the franchise, the fans could probably do a better job than General Manager Mike Tannenbaum has of late. You can make a very good case that the Jets haven’t homered in the draft since 2007, when, despite having just four picks in seven rounds, they came away with Darrelle Revis, David Harris and Chansi Stuckey. That came on the heels of a stellar draft the year before when the Jets selected Nick Mangold, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Brad Smith and Leon Washington.

Since those two years, with the exception of 2009 when the Jets had just three picks and managed to take Mark Sanchez and Shonn Greene in rounds 1 and 2, and offensive lineman Matt Slauson four rounds later, this team has done very little to really get excited about.

The only player still on the team from the 2008 draft is Dustin Keller, a guy who has had his moments, but has yet to really turn into that upper echelon tight end his abilities suggest he could be.

The 2010 draft featured just four picks and at this point, despite the slow and steady maturation of defensive back Kyle Wilson, hasn’t really yielded much in the form of impact. Joe McKnight seems to be in a sort of no-man’s land in the backfield. John Conner, despite coach Rex Ryan’s “Hard Knocks” lust, has yet to morph into anything remotely close to resembling a Terminator as a lead blocker and offensive tackle Vladimir Ducasse is, well, still one of the most controversial second-round selections, maybe in NFL history.

Then there was 2011, the year the Jets were finally going to address their pass rushing needs. They had six selections and did come away with slot receiver Jeremy Kerley, a player who brings his fair share of excitement and playmaking ability, but the jury is still out on defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis. Wilkerson had a representative rookie season, recording 49 total tackles and three sacks while appearing in every game, but Ellis played in just five games and is clearly the bigger work in progress.

What those two picks did was probably set the stage for what the Jets won’t do come April 26-28 — draft another traditional pass rusher. In fairness, the Jets’ defensive line isn’t all that bad as currently constituted. It plays a big role in a run-stopping unit that is among the NFL’s best and certainly supplies its fair share of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The problem is the sacks just haven’t materialized anywhere near enough. But, as I stated earlier, both Wilkerson and Ellis certainly deserve more time to come into their own.

What a lot of people fail to realize is the Ryan defensive scheme generates true pressure on the quarterback from the outside linebacker position, which is why the Jets absolutely must address this position in the first round of the upcoming draft. I understand they already have Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas, but even collectively they haven’t provided the type of impact the Jets sorely need. I also realize Aaron Maybin will be back, he of the six sacks in 2011, but he’s just a situational player and not someone who can effectively stop the run.

Countless mock drafts by the so-called experts have the Jets doing everything from drafting an outside linebacker to a wide receiver to a safety (more on that in a bit) to an offensive lineman in the first round. The opinions among the fans on the Internet have run the gamut as well. The Jets, as is their custom, have said nothing to tip their hand. They have made numerous visits to college pro days across the country and seem to be scheduling visits here and there.

My question is: do you trust the Jets to do the right thing here? In all, they have 10 picks in the seven rounds, but currently do not have a selection in the fourth round. Its name is Tim Tebow. Maybe you’ve heard of him. But all that aside, the Jets absolutely need to make some hay in the first three rounds and they need to do it defensively.

Here’s why:

People will tell you the Jets need to draft a big wide receiver to help still-developing quarterback Sanchez. The problem with that line of thinking is the Jets are built to run the football 40 times per game. They sound like an operation that is resigned to the fact that Sanchez will remain a game manager for the time being, or until he either falls flat on his face once and for all or becomes a consistent 100-plus rating guy. It’s impossible to predict which will happen, but this much is abundantly clear: Sanchez will be given every opportunity to succeed, mostly because the Jets have said time and again they want him to succeed and because they can’t possibly want Tebow starting by midseason, regardless of the facts this elevation would create the greatest PR coup since Jesus allegedly walked on water and would sell 10 million jerseys.

But new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is likely not going to change his offense in any way to accommodate Sanchez’s desire to live up to the hype, even if it could mean his job if he doesn’t. Sanchez is perfectly fine managing a game and seems to play better the closer the game is and the later it gets. Why waste a pivotal first-round pick on a multi-faceted receiver like Michael Floyd, should he be there at 16, when the odds are high he won’t see the ball that much by design?

Forget the offense. I know that sounds ridiculous considering the Jets’ problems between the 20s throughout the 2011 season, but this was one of the NFL’s best red zone offenses last season. I know. You wouldn’t think so, but it was. Have faith Sparano will do what needs to be done to transform the Jets back into what they are bred to be — a ball-control, smash-mouth team, with a bunch of Tebow mixed in as the great unknown to keep opposing defenses honest.

The Jets are clearly much more close to being elite defensively than they are offensively. And because they didn’t have a hell of a lot of money to play with during free agency, the draft is the answer, mostly because they have 10 selections, with compensatory picks. They can select impact players in the first three rounds if they play their cards right.

Rather than naming every single possible combination of outside linebacker and safety they can select, I’ll just give you three big names and a few honorable mentions, and if they can somehow get any combination of two of them they’ll be well on their way to being one of the league’s top rated defenses once again.

At outside linebacker the choices are clear — South Carolina’s Ingram or Courtney Upshaw of Alabama in the first round. Also keep an eye on Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus, USC’s Nick Perry and Clemson’s Andre Branch as first-round back-up plans and then Marshall’s Vin Curry and Oklahoma’s Ronnell Lewis later.

On Tuesday came reports the Jets are all-in for Ingram and that means they will almost certainly have to trade into the top 10 to get him. To be honest, this is the only player I would trade up to grab. He’s that good, a wrecking machine. If the Jets have to fork over their first-round pick and at least their third to get him, so be it. He should be the answer to the age-old sack dilemma and still be a responsible guy against the run.

Imagine a 6-foot-2, 265-pound cat-like behemoth who can do just about anything. Well, that’s Ingram. He had 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss during his 2011 All-America campaign. Then, during the combine, he wowed with his athleticism, including running a very solid 4.66 40-yard dash. Some experts believe this kid can play both inside and outside and throw in some defensive tackle for good measure. He has no problem against the run and is very good for a kid so big in pass coverage. Regardless of where he lines up he’d fill the Jets’ most pressing need as an every-down threat to get to the quarterback.

At safety, should their Ingram plans fall short and the remaining outside linebacker options not warrant the pick, the Jets could go after Mark Barron of Alabama, a player clearly at the head of his positional class. It’s been reported the Cowboys are high on him at 14, so it would take work to get him. Should the Jets get their OLB early, they could turn their attention in a later round to Harrison Smith of Notre Dame, Trumaine Johnson of Montana, a corner who is expected to patrol center field with the big boys, Markelle Martin of Oklahoma State or George Iloka of Boise State, among others. Any of these guys can be plugged in with free agent LaRon Landry and give the Jets both big hitters and guys who are much better in coverage than the alternative, Eric Smith.

For those of you screaming at me right now about wide receiver and right tackle, not to mention running back, the Jets will have a minimum of six picks to work with at those positions. Granted, all of them right now will come starting in the fifth round, but this is a very deep draft at receiver and often linemen have been found late and have blossomed, like the aforementioned Slauson.

The goal here is to fight the urge to want to pick a skill position player early. The Jets are built to run the football and play defense. With the right tweaks this defense can be even better than it was in 2009 and ’10. It’s not time to think about Sanchez’s development. It’s time to do everything in your power to succeed regardless of how much or little Sanchez improves. Deal with the offense in full next year when we actually know for certain who the long-term quarterback will be.

In the interim, it’s time to further the identity Ryan has wanted to foster since the beginning of his tenure — making this Jets defense as close to what the Ravens are physically and psychologically. It won’t be done overnight, but it can sure continue with the right moves during the last week of April.

Starting with Ingram.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini

Do you think the Jets should go defense or offense in the first round? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below. …

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