Part I Of 2-Part Series: Drafting, Signing Defense Should Be Only Priority

By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/

NEW YORK (WFAN) — Randy Moss? Brandon Jacobs? Who’s next, Tony Mandarich?

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The Jets have fast become the Yankees in the world of rumored free agency. If someone who was once great, or even good, perhaps decent or even highly touted suddenly becomes available, why of course … the Jets are “interested.”

Well, I’m here to tell you to turn off your laptops and radios after reading this piece because the last week or so has been rather ridiculous. Now while it’s true nobody has the first clue what could possibly be going on inside the Jets’ headquarters in Florham Park, N.J., including, possibly, the people think-tanking a game plan for the upcoming free agency period and entry draft, you just can’t buy into media and social network spoon-fed logic as to why the Jets may or may not have this sudden lust for certain players.

In Part I of my two-part series on the Jets’ offseason wish list I’m focusing on defense, because, to me, this is where this team is already built to succeed. The Jets have holes, but they are not nearly as pronounced as they are on the offensive side of the football.

So, without further adieu …

Let’s look first at the facts. The Jets are going to have a very difficult time bringing in big-name guys to fill their many needs, be them along the defensive line at safety or anywhere else you care to mention, due to a salary cap situation that doesn’t figure to change all the much unless General Manager Mike Tannenbaum gets highly creative. As it stands now the 2012 NFL cap figures to be anywhere from $121 million to $128 million, depending on reports. And, as it stands right now, the Jets are looking at carrying more than $8 million over from 2011.

But the Jets have so many guys currently under contract, so many they have to re-sign and, eventually, rookies to worry about locking up they will have a hard time getting far enough under the new cap figure to warrant the demands of their fan base to solve the team’s problems through spending. You have to figure the Jets will need approximately $10 million to re-sign their own players they covet and rookies. Anything after that, Tannenbaum is going to have to cut several guys, while absorbing several hits, or make hard-to-pull-off trades to free up the space.

So, barring the completely unforeseen, worry less about unrestricted free agency and turn your attention to the draft, one that must be a success if the Jets are to continue to be a team in playoff discussions for the next several years.

I think you have to draw lines through the top free agents available at just about every position and think more economically and more low-risk, which will create an even greater need for Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan to homer a few times in the draft, both in terms of  short-term and long-term impact.

I have advocated the Jets go hard after speedy and skilled defensive players, though I have read suggestions they will pounce should certain offensive skill guys slip to them at No. 16, assuming they don’t move up to grab the likes of a Trent Richardson, the dynamic running back out of Alabama, or Justin Blackmon, the highly explosive wide receiver out of Oklahoma State. But contrary to the desires of an unrealistic fan base, at this point I don’t see how the Jets are moving up to get either and really don’t expect either to be around should the Jets stay put.

The Jets can get more immediate impact if they go defense, defense, defense. They have to solidify their unit from back to front, front to back, or, as I believe, from the middle and then in either direction. They currently need probably two safeties, an impact outside linebacker who can do everything and, obviously, a pass rusher, but the outside linebacker they target will likely be done so precisely for his prowess at getting to the quarterback, so forget traditional approaches.

As far as linebacker goes, this position to me is the one that must be upgraded immediately. It’s readily apparent that Bart Scott is no longer what he once was, as he’s become basically a situational player now that just has moments of brilliance instead of what he showed in 2009 and 2010, his first two years of his six-year contract. And while David Harris is on the short list of the best linebackers in the game, the Jets have little else to compliment him. Calvin Pace is a hybrid who’s been good but not as advertised, considering his salary, restricted free agents Aaron Maybin and Jamaal Westerman have both proven to be highly one-dimensional, and Josh Mauga really has yet to show he’s anything that would instill this sense of relief going forward. Add to that the fact that underrated Bryan Thomas is coming off an injury and is likely done with this team and you can see the immediate need for action.

In a perfect world the Jets will target outside linebackers Courtney Upshaw out of Alabama and Melvin Ingram of South Carolina, players that appear to be the real deal in all facets, including speed rushing the quarterback from the end, which is how the Ryan defense generates its pressure. Obviously, there are 31 other teams looking to fill needs and both of these guys could be long gone before the Jets pick, leaving project Nick Perry out of USC as another viable possibility, but if either Upshaw or Ingram are still around when the Jets select you can get out your dancing shoes.

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If none of those three are available, the Jets could hold off on outside linebacker/defensive end in the first round and look to players like Bruce Irvin of West Virginia, Ronnell Lewis of Oklahoma, Marshall’s Vin Curry or Virginia’s Cam Johnson in the later rounds.

If you’re thinking free agency, stop right now. Any notion that the Jets could somehow sign the Texans’ Mario Williams is a pipe dream if there ever was one, though it is possible they could target cheaper alternatives in the Lions’ hybrid Cliff Avril and the Cowboys’ Anthony Spencer.

Other logic suggests the Jets could cut Scott outright and go after inside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, a 6-foot-3, 250-pound wrecking ball out of Arizona State who, alongside Harris, could provide impact and consistency for years. The downside is Burfict, despite being an All-American in 2010, was touted as “The Meanest Man in College Football” by the Sporting News, mostly due to his temper and penchant for getting flagged for something sinister seemingly every game. Plus, Scott’s contract is guaranteed, so the Jets would get zero cap relief if he’s cut. But in the event that the Jets are willing to go that route, Burfict is believed to have the goods to be every bit the stud regardless of his warts.

As of right now at safety the Jets have Brodney Pool, a fairly reliable if undersized player, and Eric Smith, a guy who is known for big hits, but has struggled in coverage. I’m assuming Jim Leonhard’s days in green are done due to his serious leg injury, his second in two years.

Realistically, the Jets could target Alabama’s Mark Barron in the first round to replace one of them. However, Barron’s stock has fallen since it was announced he needed double hernia surgery, a procedure that will force him to miss both the combine and Alabama’s pro day. Prior to this revelation, Barron was penciled in as a mid-first round selection, right where the Jets currently are.

If the Jets pass on Barron they could go lower impact at the position later in the draft with Markelle Martin out of Oklahoma State or Boise State’s George Iloka, and then turn to free agency, but, again, don’t expect a big splash here because the money simply won’t be there. Possibilities include Michael Griffin of the Titans and LaRon Landry of the Redskins, but both will be fairly expensive. A more realistic alternative could be old friend Dwight Lowery, a player that should come cheap by comparison and already knows the Jets’ defense.

Pass rushers are a highly sought-after commodity in the NFL, and, as evidenced by the Giants’ run to this season’s Super Bowl title, an absolute necessity. The Jets have quietly been trying to build up their defensive line and will likely ride out 2012 with the hope that last year’s draft picks, Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis, mature. I really do not see the Jets signing anyone of note nor using yet another early pick to fix their issues.

Though the Jets’ problems getting to the quarterback are well known, please keep in mind they are very good at stopping the run and arguably their best run-stuffer, 33-year-old Sione Pouha, is an unrestricted free agent and will take a lot more money to re-sign than one would assume. He should be a priority regardless of his age because if the Jets can continue to bookend him and unheralded Mike DeVito and get anything out of their kids and depth players, whomever they draft or sign to play outside linebacker with Pace, Maybin or Westerman, assuming the latter two are re-signed, will become the new focal point of the Ryan defense when it comes to generating pressure in the pocket — and the younger, faster and more athletic the better.

So there you have it, the Jets defense that is and possibly will be. It seems like they have a lot of work to do, but the reality is the first-round pick will go a long way toward telling the tale. They absolutely must go impact defense unless some miracle falls into their lap.

Anything else would be considered a major failure for a front office that simply cannot afford to make many, if any, this offseason.

Coming next week: Part II — Fixing an offense that’s downright offensive

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini

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Who would you have the Jets target in the draft? Please offer your suggestions and the reasons for them in the comments section below. …