clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Jets’ turnaround starts with improving their defense in 2017

New, comment

The Jets have decided their offense can wait as they try to build a foundation defensively.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NFL: New York Jets-Rookie Minicamp Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret the New York Jets offense was terrible last year. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better, either.

The receiving corps was hit hard this offseason. Brandon Marshall is no longer a Jet, Devin Smith was waived after another torn ACL, Jalin Marshall is suspended for four games, and Robby Anderson was arrested in Miami and charged with resisting arrest. At running back, Matt Forte is a solid contributor, but at 31 years old, he doesn't have the explosiveness he once had. He rushed for a career-low 813 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last season.

New York’s quarterback situation doesn’t leave much room for optimism. Last year, the Jets finished the season with a league-worst 67.6 QB rating, rotating among Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bryce Petty, and Geno Smith. Fitzpatrick and Smith are gone, but Petty and 2016 second-rounder Christian Hackenberg are still with the Jets.

This offseason, the Jets signed quarterback Josh McCown, a 37-year-old journeyman who gets injured every year. Yet right now, he’s probably their best option at quarterback.

The Jets haven't made any big moves to fix the offensive side of the ball. Instead, their focus is on boosting their strength: the defense.

Jets’ first step was to shore up the secondary

The Jets finished last season with the 11th-ranked defense in the NFL. However, the secondary surrendered too many big plays while not making enough of its own. Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Buster Skrine and safeties Marcus Gilchrist and Calvin Pryor combined for just four interceptions all season.

Pro Football Focus ranked the Jets secondary 23rd in the NFL in 2016. Last season, opposing quarterbacks had an eye-popping 104.2 passer rating when throwing in Revis’ direction. Although Gilchrist registered the highest overall grade on the team last season, it was just 77.1, ranking 53rd out of 90 qualified safeties. Out of all the Jets’ defensive backs, Pryor finished with the highest run-defense grade. But in three seasons in New York, the former first-round pick hasn’t ranked higher than 34th among safeties.

The Jets decided they needed to retool their defensive backfield, so they parted ways with Revis and Gilchrist over the offseason. Revis, a seven-time Pro Bowler, is considered one of the best cornerbacks of all time, but his production sharply declined last season. The 31-year-old snagged just one interception — his lowest total since 2012, when he played in just two games — and he didn't look like his old self, as receivers frequently torched him.

In February, Revis was arrested for assault (and later cleared of all charges) and released by the Jets. He’s still a free agent.

Gilchrist, on the other hand, was having a solid year before suffering a torn patellar tendon in Week 14 that ended his season. He registered 55 tackles and two interceptions. After drafting safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye this year, the Jets released Gilchrist.

Both rookies should come in and start right away. Adams, the No. 6 pick in the draft, was widely considered the best safety in his class. He can play close to the line of scrimmage to defend the run and roam the field to make plays in the pass game. He recorded five interactions and two forced fumbles in his last two seasons at LSU.

Maye — a second-round pick out of Florida — is a downhill safety who can deliver bone-crushing blocks and bait the other team into making mistakes. He finished his four-year collegiate career with five interceptions and six forced fumbles.

Now that the Jets have what looks like their starting safeties for the future, Pryor could be on his way out, too. In fact, during Day 2 of the NFL draft, USA Today’s Tom Pelissero reported that the Jets were shopping Pryor, their 2014 first-round pick. Pryor is still with the team, but he may not be there for long. The Jets decided not to pick up his fifth-year option, meaning he’ll be a free agent in 2018.

Skrine is still around, but the Jets also signed Morris Claiborne to a one-year, prove-it deal. Claiborne, a 2012 first-round pick, has had a disappointing career up to this point, snagging only four interceptions in five seasons. He also has durability issues, playing in only 47 out of 80 possible games. But the Jets hope he can revive his career in New York.

For now, the defensive backfield will look like this in 2017: Adams, Maye, Claiborne, Skrine, Marcus Williams, and Darryl Roberts. Overall, the Jets defense is talented enough to become a top-five unit next season, which is important because the offense needs all the help it can get.

The Jets need their best defenders to be playmakers

Don't expect the Jets to showcase much offensive firepower in 2017. Last season, they had the 26th-best offense and averaged 17.2 points per game, and it’s hard to see where they got better.

The Jets’ most notable releases this offseason were No. 1 receiver Brandon Marshall and longtime center Nick Mangold. They didn’t add any difference-makers to replace them, either. They signed offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum to a three-year deal in free agency, but he’s coming off a sluggish season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, allowing 49 quarterback pressures.

New York went on to acquire former San Francisco 49ers receiver Quinton Patton. During his four-year stint in the Bay Area, Patton tallied only 73 receptions for 880 yards and one touchdown.

In this year’s draft, New York didn't address the offense until the third round, selecting Alabama’s ArDarius Stewart with the 79th pick. The Jets followed that up by drafting California receiver Chad Hansen and Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett. All three players possess different skill sets and have the potential to become productive starters, but it may take them some time to get acclimated to the NFL.

That leaves it up to the defense to create big plays.

Defensive end Leonard Williams is arguably the Jets’ best player. He already accumulated 131 tackles, 10 sacks, and two forced fumbles in two seasons. Williams has yet to miss a game in his young career and can wreck games no matter where he is on the field.

Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson are talent pass rushers as well, but their production declined in 2016. They combined for six sacks and two forced fumbles in 2016. To make matters worse, Richardson has been the subject of trade rumors over the past year. Still, he and Wilkerson have a track record of making plays, and there’s a chance they could return to their old selves in 2017.

Linebacker David Harris is a productive linebacker who has only missed seven games in his career. But at 33, his age is a concern. Darron Lee flashed his potential as a rookie last season and can blossom into an NFL-caliber linebacker.

Harris believes Lee will improve in 2017.

“I expect Darron to have a huge leap this year,” Harris said via the Jets official team site. “I know the game is going to slow down for him; he’s going to start recognizing certain things out there on the field which he may not have seen last year. It was his first time seeing a lot of things.”

Turnovers are key for Todd Bowles

One way the Jets can improve is through the defense forcing more turnovers. The Jets had only 14 takeaways last season, down from their 30 in 2015 when they went 10-6. That number will likely rebound with the additions of Adams and Maye. New York also has players in its front seven who can force turnovers.

Jets head coach Todd Bowles has deep roots on the defensive side of the ball. Before New York hired him in 2015, Bowles was the Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator for two seasons. During his two-year stint in Arizona, the Cardinals defense recorded an astounding 55 takeaways.

When the Jets hired Bowles in 2015, he made it clear that creating turnovers was a huge part of his defensive philosophy.

"Stopping somebody is great, but if we can emphasize turnovers and get the ball back as much as possible, that's more damaging to an offensive team than anything else,” Bowles said.

"There are a lot of teams that finish in the top five in defense and still aren't very good in turnovers. Turnovers are the key to winning ballgames."

The defense will have to play lights out if New York has a shot at increasing its win total in 2017. But the players are optimistic about the upcoming season. According to ESPN’s Rich Cimini, Wilkerson believes the Jets will improve on their 5-11 record last season.

"The team will definitely be positive and do more things better than we did last year. I can guarantee that," Wilkerson told Cimini. "We'll have more wins than we did last year and that's a fact."

There’s one word Harris will not use to describe his team. The veteran linebacker told reporters on a conference call that he won't say the word “rebuild.”

"Every team makes transactions in the offseason to try and better the team, and we still have the same goal as we do every year and that’s to win the Super Bowl," Harris said, via Cimini.

No matter what Harris says, it’s clear the Jets are rebuilding. This season will be an uphill battle for Gang Green. Normally, teams focus on both sides of the ball during a rebuilding phase, but the Jets decided to make their defense a top priority. Only time will tell if that strategy will translate into more wins.