Lopresti: 2013 Jets Primer — Defense, Special Teams Edition
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By Chris Lopresti
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At the beginning of training camp, we dissected the offense under new coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
Now, we take a look at defense and special teams. Can those units cover up the anticipated short-comings of an offense lacking play-makers?
Week No. 2 of camp is underway and we’re just nine days away from the preseason opener in Detroit.
Departed: Mike DeVito (Chiefs), Sione Po’uha (FA)
Welcome Aboard: Sheldon Richardson (1st Round-Missouri), Antonio Garay (UFA-Chargers)
In-flight: Quinton Coples, Muhammad Wilkerson, Kenrick Ellis, Damon Harrison
Storyline: Can this young unit establish themselves as an up-and-coming force in the NFL?
Competition: Before you call me out for listing Quinton Coples in this section, yes, I’m aware that he’s making the transition to outside linebacker (at least for now). However, if the early portion of training camp is any indication, you can still expect to see plenty of Coples at defensive end. In fact, the most updated version of the roster still lists him as a DE.
Mo Wilkerson was one of the few bright spots from last year’s team. He’s arguably a top five 3-4 DE and should continue to progress in season three of his career. With the departures of Mike DeVito and Sione Po’uha, Wilkerson takes over as the leader of this unit.
You get the sense that this is a make-or-break season for Kenrick Ellis. Thanks to injuries and legal issues, he’s basically been invisible for two years but now gets an opportunity to start at nose tackle. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 346 pounds, in theory, he should be an immovable force in the trenches. Whether or not he’s able to play with any sort of consistency remains to be seen. The Jets struggled mightily against the run last season so they’ll be counting on Ellis to help them in that area. Rex Ryan has been impressed with his performance through the early stages of training camp.
Richardson is a bit of a wild card. The Jets fell in love with the athleticism and agility that he displayed at Missouri. However, unlike Ellis, he’s slightly under-sized for a 3-4 defensive lineman (6-foot-2, 294 pounds) and that’s why some were confused when the Jets took him with the No. 13 overall pick. Where does he fit in Ryan’s defensive scheme?
Garay provides a veteran presence that the Jets lost when they parted ways with DeVito and Po’uha. He should fit in nicely with this very young locker room. He’s a journeyman who could step in and be ready for increased playing time if Ellis is ineffective or suffers an injury.
Damon “Big Snacks” Harrison is an interesting guy to watch. The size (6-foot-4, 350 pounds) and motivation are there. Can that translate to success on the field? He’s very popular in the locker room and Rex always seems to smile anytime he mentions the 24-year-old. He could be a dark horse to earn more snaps at NT.
Prediction: One of the things I didn’t mention above is that Ryan is no longer tied to the 3-4 scheme. In today’s NFL, you have to adapt to the ever-changing nature of your roster and it seems that Ryan is prepared to do that. He spent most of the off-season talking about being more “multiple” on defense and I think the depth chart supports that. Look for Coples to spend plenty of time along the defensive line, especially in passing situations where the linebackers will drop into coverage. He’s a gifted athlete with good speed and agility for his size, but you can’t expect him to stay with shifty running backs and quick tight ends in space.
Wilkerson is the cornerstone of the defensive line. You know what to expect from him so he is not a concern.
Richardson is said to have a very high motor so effort shouldn’t be an issue. We haven’t gotten an indication of Ryan’s plan just yet, but I’d expect him to be eased in on a situational basis. The big question will be how he performs against the run when he’s giving up 20-30 pounds to opposing offensive linemen. That was one of the few knocks on him leading into the draft. His pursuit of ball-carriers is what stood out on tape rather than his ability to shed blocks along the line. Look for Ryan to pick his spots with Richardson and give him the opportunity to use his explosiveness.
It’s hard to say how things will play out with Ellis because he’s been such an enigma thus far. However, the Jets have a solid backup in Garay and another player with potential in Harrison. Depth at NT isn’t really the issue; it’s whether or not one of those guys can make an impact.
Departed: Bart Scott (UFA), Bryan Thomas (UFA)
Welcome Aboard: Antwan Barnes (UFA-Chargers)
In-Flight: Quinton Coples, David Harris, Nick Bellore, Demario Davis, Josh Mauga, Garrett McIntyre, Calvin Pace, Ricky Sapp
Storyline(s): Can Coples help generate a more consistent pass rush coming off the edge? Will the transition from Scott to Demario Davis be a seamless one?
Competition: Here we go with Coples again. As stated above, I still expect him to spend most of his time along the defensive line. It never hurts for a player to offer more versatility and I think that’s what the coaching staff is trying to accomplish with Coples in his second season. He took reps at both positions during the off-season program and has continued with that approach so far in training camp. His weight is down to 278 (from 290) and we watched him run step-for-step with Geno Smith on day one of camp.
This is a big year for David Harris. There aren’t many people who would have argued with the $29.5 million that the Jets guaranteed him (over four years) in August of 2011. However, he hasn’t been the same player since then and suffered through his worst season as a pro in 2012. Like Coples, he dropped weight to get ready for camp but needs a bounce-back performance or he could be another salary cap casualty ($5 million in savings) next off-season.
I’m very anxious to see the transition from Scott to Davis alongside Harris at inside linebacker. I know Davis got plenty of playing time last season in place of an injured Scott but it’s a different story when you know the starting job is yours from get-go. Here’s a guy who made a major impact in the locker room as a rookie. In fact, Mike DeVito told me late last year that Davis quickly established himself as one of the team leaders. That’s high praise coming from a respected veteran like DeVito. He figures to play a big role in whether or not the Jets can improve a run defense which yielded 133.6 yards per game and 17 touchdowns in 2012.
On the edge, Coples will likely split time with new arrival Antwan Barnes as well as Calvin Pace.
Barnes, a pass-rushing specialist, comes over from the Chargers. He had 11 sacks in 2011 but only managed three last season which is why the Jets were able to sign him to a very affordable 3-year contract. He played for Ryan with the Ravens in 2007 and 2008.
Pace is back after he was cut by the team in February. Instead of an $11.6 million salary cap hit, he’ll only cost the Jets $620,000 against the cap. That speaks volumes about the impact of the collective bargaining agreement on veteran players and just how desperate Pace was for a roster spot. He’s not the pass-rusher the Jets thought they landed when signing him to a 6-year deal back in 2008 but he played almost every defensive snap last season and is certainly comfortable with Ryan’s system.
Due to injuries, Ricky Sapp and Garrett McIntyre both saw increased playing time last season but they’ll likely remain backups. Same goes for Josh Mauga, who landed on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle.
Prediction: This unit will take strides towards establishing a more consistent pass rush but it still won’t keep any opposing offensive coordinators up at night.
Barnes knows the system so he should be ready to hit the ground running. Look for Rex to devise schemes where the majority of his snaps come in situations where he can pin his ears back and get after the quarterback.
I think we all know what Pace is at this point in his career. He’s a guy you can throw out there in any situation and he won’t hurt you. However, don’t expect too many game-changing plays out of him either.
Davis adds a speed element on the inside that Scott couldn’t provide, especially on a bad toe. He should perform well in coverage and out on the perimeter. If the interior of the defensive line fails to hold the point of attack, Davis will be in trouble when offensive linemen get to the second level.
Look for Harris to have a bounce back year. He’s always been the kind of player to let his actions speak louder than words. With his job status potentially on the line, that should be more than enough motivation to get him back on track.
As for Coples, I’m sticking with my gut instinct which says we won’t see THAT much of him standing up. He’ll spend plenty of time with his hand in the ground but look for Rex to unleash him off the edge in obvious passing situations and when he wants to “bring the house”.
Departed: Darrelle Revis (Trade-Bucs), LaRon Landry (Colts), Yeremiah Bell (Cardinals), Eric Smith (UFA)
Welcome Aboard: Dee Milliner (1st Round-Alabama), Dawan Landry (UFA-Jaguars), Jaiquawn Jarrett (UFA)
In-Flight: Antonio Cromartie, Kyle Wilson, Antonio Allen, Josh Bush, Ellis Lankster, Isaiah Trufant, Aaron Berry, Darrin Walls
Competition: This unit gets a major face lift for 2013. Gone are three out of four starters from the beginning of last season. In comes a talented first round rookie, an experienced veteran and an unproven 23-year old that was a second round pick by the Eagles only two years ago.
Let’s deal with the cornerbacks first. You don’t need me to tell you that the departure of Darrelle Revis stings. Maybe it was for the best considering the ACL injury, the likelihood of another contract dispute and, most of all, the fractured relationship between Revis and Woody Johnson. That being said, there isn’t a single player on this roster with the kind of resume that Revis has put together through six years in the NFL.
After Revis went down with the injury early last season, Antonio Cromartie was asked to elevate his game and he did just that. He played the most consistent and effective football of his pro career and was rewarded with a second Pro Bowl selection. In addition, he emerged as a leader and a mentor for the other young CB’s. At age 29, it seems Cromartie has finally grown up and is now starting to capitalize on all of that natural ability. He enters 2013 as the unquestioned leader of the secondary.
As if shipping Revis out of town wasn’t enough, the Jets went ahead and used their first draft pick on Alabama’s Dee Milliner (No. 9 overall). Arguably the top defensive back in the entire draft, Milliner enjoyed an excellent senior year and then performed well at the scouting combine, solidifying his top 10 status. He’s not Revis and he has some catching up to do after missing rookie camp, OTA’s and mini-camp due to shoulder surgery. However, he played in a pro-style system under Nick Saban at ‘Bama, excels in press/man-to-man coverage and is a gifted athlete so his transition to the NFL shouldn’t be as overwhelming as it is for most rookies.
The addition of Milliner should allow Kyle Wilson to slide inside where he is more effective covering slot receivers. He hasn’t really lived up to expectations since the Jets took him in the first round out of Boise State back in 2010. Rex Ryan likes to put his CB’s on an island (sound familiar?) and requires them to play a ton of man-to-man coverage. Wilson hasn’t displayed that ability on a consistent basis which is why he’s had much more success as a nickel corner.
With Milliner holding out for the first few days of camp, Ellis Lankster has had the opportunity to play opposite Cromartie. He’s a versatile corner who also excels on special teams. Same goes for Isaiah Trufant except you’ll almost always see him lined up in the slot due to his diminutive frame. He’s generously listed at 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds but Ryan recently referred to him as a “tough, little hombre”.
Aaron Berry has already been lost for the season. He suffered a torn ACL during one of the first drills in camp.
Darrin Walls is competing for a roster spot with a handful of undrafted free agents and second year players.
Meanwhile, there’s no question that the loss of both starting safeties (LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell) hurts. They each enjoyed excellent bounce-back seasons in 2012 and were rewarded with raises in free agency.
Oddly enough, Dawan Landry (LaRon’s brother), will take over his younger bro’s starting job. It didn’t really work out for him in Jacksonville where he only made it through two seasons of a 5-year contract but he’s an experienced veteran who played for Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman with the Ravens from 2006-2008.
The competition opposite Landry is one of the more interesting battles of training camp. Many thought it would come down to Antonio Allen or Josh Bush. Allen is better in run support while Bush possesses the better coverage skills. However, Ryan has already stated that Bush will back up Landry which means Allen is now battling Jaiquawn Jarrett for a starting job.
Entering year three of his career, Allen has yet to earn consistent playing time but the Jets remain high on his potential. Ryan likes his length and has complimented Allen’s effort to improve in pass coverage. He has spent the early portion of camp taking part in one-on-one drills against WR’s to master his coverage skills. He’s still a work in progress but, at this point, it’s his job to lose.
A second round pick of the Eagles in 2011, it didn’t work out for Jarrett under Andy Reid’s watch and he was cut by Philadelphia last September. He gets a fresh start with the Jets and will be looking to prove that he wasn’t a total draft bust. Coming out of Arizona, the scouting report on Jarrett painted him as a ferocious, hard-hitting safety that excelled against the run. That’s certainly an element the Jets could use considering their poor run defense from a season ago.
Prediction: Even with Revis, Landry and Bell moving on, there’s still plenty of depth here. Mix in a variety of looks from Ryan and Thurman and you could have the makings of a very strong unit.
There’s no reason to believe Cromartie will take a step back after dominating in 2012. Assuming Milliner’s shoulder is healthy and that he can hold his own opposite Cromartie, Ryan should be able to get creative with his schemes.
There are question marks about the safeties but Rex has mentioned the possibility of using Wilson in sub packages at the safety position. He has always relied on his starting CB’s to take care of their own business. If Cromartie and Milliner can handle that, the versatility of the rest of the secondary should present match-up problems for opposing offenses.
Welcome Aboard: Mike Goodson (KR), Billy Cundiff (K-UFA), Ryan Quigley (P-UFA)
In-Flight: Joe McKnight (KR), Antonio Cromartie (KR), Jeremy Kerley (PR), Nick Folk (K), Robert Malone (P), Tanner Purdum (LS)
Storyline: Mike Westhoff has finally retired to Florida. How different will this unit look under Westhoff Disciple Ben Kotwica?
Competition: Not a whole lot going on here. There’s been some questions surrounding Joe McKnight’s health during the early part of camp but there isn’t really anyone on the roster to jeopardize his job as the kick returner. The Jets had hoped for Mike Goodson to give them another option, but he’s nowhere to be found and may never actually join the team.
Cromartie’s athleticism always makes for intrigue but I’m sure the Jets are petrified of him suffering an injury on special teams.
Jeremy Kerley is the incumbent punt returner. He flashed at times last season but, for the most part, wasn’t all that effective or aggressive (led NFL with 36 fair catches).
Billy Cundiff and Ryan Quigley were brought in to compete with Nick Folk and Robert Malone during camp. There’s no reason to believe Folk and Malone are in danger of losing their jobs.
Prediction: McKnight says his conditioning issues are brought on by the fact that his body fat percentage is TOO LOW (3.3 percent)! He has suffered from cramping and migraines through the early part of camp. That’s unfortunate for him because without Goodson and Chris Ivory (hamstring) on the field, there was an opportunity for McKnight to impact the RB depth chart. Still, with last year’s ankle injury in the rear view mirror, he should re-establish himself as one of the league’s more productive return men.
An immediate improvement that Ben Kotwica can make; get Kerley to stop waiving for so many fair catches! That’s not entirely his fault as the coverage team needs to do a better job of blocking, but there’s no question Kerley could be more aggressive. Field position was an issue all of last season and with an offense that will likely struggle to move the ball on a consistent basis, the return game could be a valuable weapon.
As already noted, Folk and Malone should win the kicking and punting jobs, respectively.
This is a big opportunity for Kotwica. He had the opportunity to learn under Mike Westhoff but should bring his own flair to special teams. He’ll be faced with the challenge of putting together solid units despite a young roster that features a ton of inexperienced players. One advantage to that; motivation and effort shouldn’t be a problem when dealing with guys who are trying to establish themselves in the league.
After a few days off in New Jersey, I’m headed back to Cortland early Thursday morning. The Jets have two practices remaining before the annual Green-White scrimmage on Saturday evening.
Follow me on Twitter (@CLoprestiWFAN) for updates and analysis.
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