- The stars of New York's havoc-wreaking defensive line do things that few teams in the NFL can replicate—or block. Slowly but surely, they're getting paid like it as Gang Green enters a multi-year window of contention.
Sheldon Richardson was heading home after a relaxing resort vacation in the Bahamas on July 15 when his dad texted him the news: Mo got the deal done. Richardson was dubious. And why wouldn’t he be, after so many months seemingly at a standstill and so many reports that negotiations between the Jets and Wilkerson had stalled? His response text to his father: you lying. Then he checked Instagram (welcome to 2016), saw Wilkerson’s celebratory post and immediately made a phone call to congratulate his fellow defensive lineman.
“I was just happy for my dog, man,” Richardson says. “That was a great feeling. There’s plenty of money to go around in the NFL.”
It is true, there is money aplenty in this league. But it is also true that teams try to spread it throughout their roster as evenly as possible, not wanting to allocate a disproportionate amount to any one position. That is why the football cognoscenti were taken by surprise when Wilkerson signed a five-year, $86 million extension with New York, the first step needed in order to keep the NFL’s most dominant defensive line triumvirate intact.
Most pundits had predicted that Wilkerson would play out the 2016 season on the franchise tag and then be forced to test free agency because the Jets had a surplus of similar, cheaper talent up front. Richardson is in the final year of a team-friendly four-year, $10 million deal, and the Jets in May exercised a fifth-year option that will pay him $8 million (guaranteed against injury only) in ’17. Second-year stud Leonard Williams is on his rookie deal through ’19. One is already a veritable star, the other an emerging one.
But the Jets brass had always wanted to keep the trio together long-term, even if the public didn’t know it. They had been working on an extension with Wilkerson for the past two years, beginning negotiations the week after Mike Maccagnan was hired as general manager in January 2015. Maccagnan has made it a priority since he took over as GM to stem the flow of leaked information going in and out of their building, which is why news of the extension seemed abrupt to many.
After the Jets were outbid by the Giants for nose tackle Damon Harrison, it opened up the cap flexibility to not only finalize Wilkerson’s extension but also to add tackle Steve McLendon and Jarvis Jenkins, a rotational pass rusher, into the fold. While the loss of Harrison—the top run stopper in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus—will be felt, McLendon is also stout against the run. Last year the Steelers allowed 2.31 yards per carry on the ground with McLendon on the field, 1.31 yards fewer than the average when he was on the sidelines. That marked the highest differential for any lineman who played at least 300 snaps.
Sitting on a bench at the team’s Florham Park facility shortly after practice ends in August, McLendon wants to make it very clear that he has played alongside great players, Pro Bowl players, even potential Hall of Fame players before. The defensive tackle spent the past seven seasons with Pittsburgh and enumerates many of the freak athletes he has previously lined up next to, rattling off names like James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Stephon Tuitt, Cam Heyward, Casey Hampton.
He does this not to brag, but rather to demonstrate that he knows preternatural talent, that he’s seen it throughout his career. He does this so that when he explains what it has been like to see Wilkerson, Richardson and Williams up close, his appraisal will be understood in the proper context.
“I’m still in awe [watching them], I’m still just trying to take it all in,” McLendon says. “The biggest thing for me was seeing that Sheldon and Leo are extremely fast. Sheldon is so fast, and so explosive, and he knows the game so well. And everybody knows about Mo. Everybody knows about Mo.”
The Jets are hoping that opposing offenses will be familiar with all three for years to come. The team believes that they have actually added flexibility and quickness to their defense this year by swapping Harrison for McLendon. Unlike Harrison—who lined up almost exclusively at nosetackle last season, and as a result was on the field for only 53.86% of the team's total defensive snaps—McLendon has the ability to line up at multiple positions.
“Steve was a nosetackle in a 3–4 for a long time, but he can fluctuate at defensive end as well because he’s a very good athlete,” coach Todd Bowles says. “And so that gives us even more options. It gives us the chance to move people around in different positions and keep people guessing.”
The Jets believe that pressure up the middle is how to win in the NFL, especially in the AFC East, where you still have to get through Tom Brady and the Patriots to win the division. At this point it is no secret that the Jets have chased New England in various ways for most of the past two decades. But it is also no secret that one of the only effective strategies for rattling Brady is to prevent him from stepping up in the pocket, forcing pressure up the middle rather than on the edge. And this Jets group—now with four 290-plus pound, athletic pass rushers—should be able to do that as well as anyone in the league.
The other benefit is that when facing teams that employ a hurry-up offense—yes, again, such as the Patriots—it is often difficult to make defensive substitutions on the fly. And if you end up with the wrong personnel on the field as a result, Brady and any other smart quarterback will exploit mismatches and thrive. This makes it especially crucial to employ a base defense that has innate versatility, and the Jets now possess four such movable pieces.
As one NFL scout, who was granted anonymity so he could speak freely, puts it: “What makes the biggest difference in this league is having big guys up front, and they are the hardest ones to find [in the draft]. It’s just very hard to get big, athletic, talented guys like this in the NFL. And what the Jets have done is compile several of those type of guys and then figure out different ways to use them effectively.”
Last season the trio all saw snaps at both tackle and at end, on both the left and right side, and also occasionally at nose tackle. Richardson even lined up for 182 snaps at outside linebacker. Bowles notes that there are differences between the three, albeit slight ones. He points out that Williams can get off the ball at the snap faster than most guys his size; that Wilkerson can handle the two-gap responsibilities of a premier defensive end but can also attack from a standing position like an outside linebacker; and that Richardson has the unicorn-rare combination of being both exceptionally athletic and possessing high-level football intelligence.
Now that Bowles has the ability to move McLendon around as well, this group—barring injury—should cause even more headaches for offensive lines all season long. Their interchangeability will allow Bowles, who is known as one of the more versatile defensive coaches in the league, to line up in his preferred base 3–4 defense, while being able to switch to 4–3 alignments without having to swap anybody in or out.
“You’ll just never know what we’re going to be doing,” Wilkerson says. “We might all be rushing, we might all be dropping back. You just never know.”
This system was clearly successful in 2015, as the Jets had the fourth-ranked defense in the league in terms of yards allowed. Wilkerson finished the year as the only player in the NFL to rack up at least 30 QB pressures from both tackle and edge alignments, while Williams led the team with 32 hits on the quarterback. When that pressure up front is combined with a Bowles-led scheme that blitzed more than any other team in the NFL, the back end of the defense improves as well—last year the Jets led the league with 10 interceptions after sending an extra rusher.
Yet the defensive line group takes offense to the idea that it will be hard to improve on their performance last season. Richardson lost 12 pounds in the off-season (by going from two large meals a day to three smaller meals) in an effort gain even more speed. He says he also improved his hand speed and studied more film than ever before. Williams went back to USC to work out with his former coaches—strength coach Ivan Lewis and defensive line coach Pete Jenkins—focusing on improving his quickness when disengaging with blockers and closing on the ball. He points out that his ample QB hits in 2015 should have yielded more than the three sacks he totaled.
Wilkerson spent the off-season rehabbing his broken leg but is now back at full strength and rearing to go for Week 1. And when asked how he thinks would be the best way to describe this unit, he wastes no words.
“We’re just a group of dominant guys who cause havoc.”