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10 Thoughts on the 2018 New York Jets, Who Have a Playoff-Caliber Defense

We don't know when Sam Darnold will make his first start, but we know that Todd Bowles oversees a good defense in his fourth year as Jets coach

With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the New York Jets, who finished 5–11 in 2017.

1. Last season was really the first time New York had what looked like a Todd Bowles defense. In his third year as head coach, he was finally comfortable uncorking the disguised pressure packages that shot him to the top of head coaching search lists as Arizona’s defensive coordinator. Bowles’s pressures, like most, require man-to-man coverage. They aim to surprise with a disguised blitz—often inside, to obscure the QB’s vision, and preferably with defensive backs, who are faster. The idea is to force an early throw. Aggressive man coverage puts corners right up on the receiver, crowding those early throws.

Ex-Cowboy Morris Claiborne was surprisingly serviceable as a No. 1 traveling corner last year, but the men behind Claiborne were suspect. Not anymore. The arrival of $45 million (guaranteed) ex-Ram Trumaine Johnson gives the Jets a bona fide No. 1 stopper, relegating Claiborne to No. 2, where he can flourish. If capable slot corner Buster Skrine becomes more consistent, Bowles could have carte blanche over how to use touted second-year safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. That alone could earn the Jets a few extra wins. 

2. Familiarize yourself with Jamal Adams—he can be First-Team All-Pro by season’s end. The 2017 sixth overall pick has a dynamic, springy playing speed that puts him near the ball in unconventional ways. He can do everything you’d ask of a safety. 

3. Adams isn’t the only source of electricity in the middle of this D. In terms of pure physical playing speed, third-year pro Darron Lee has assumed the great Ryan Shazier’s title of Football’s Fastest Linebacker. Yes Lee, like Jamal Adams, must become more disciplined. That’s not atypical of fast young players. More important is that, also like Adams, Lee can cover backs and tight ends man-to-man and provide explosive second-level pass rushing.

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4. With this defensive line, the Jets should be better against the run than last season, when they finished 15th in yards per attempt and 24th overall. Leonard Williams has rare nimbleness for a 302-pounder. Nose tackle Steve McLendon is a true interior plugger. Newcomer Henry Anderson was quietly stout for the Colts last year. And Xavier Cooper, who came on strong last December, offers three-down ability off the bench. Look for Bowles to align these men tight to one another, jamming inside running lanes to keep linebackers Lee and Avery Williamson clean from blockers. 

5. The only gripe with this defense is the lack of a true edge rusher. Jordan Jenkins, Lorenzo Mauldin, David Bass and Josh Martin are pedestrian. This is all the more reason for Bowles—and defensive play-caller Kacy Rodgers—to blitz. 

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6. It’s impossible to predict when first-round rookie QB Sam Darnold will start, but know this: Josh McCown is a very professional quarterback. He runs an offense how it’s designed to be run. That’s what most coaches want more than anything. With Jeremy Bates replacing John Morton as coordinator, we don’t know exactly what type of offense this will be. Bates comes from the Mike Shanahan tree, but he was out of football (by choice) from 2013-16 and hasn’t called plays since his one-year stint with the Seahawks in 2010. When Darnold’s time does come, it’s important the system put him on the move and outside the pocket, where he was at his best in college. 

7. New York’s biggest problem early last season was its offense had no receiver to build around. That can be different in 2018. Not because Jermaine Kearse has now been with the club for an entire offseason; not because Quincy Enunwa is back healthy; and not because Terrelle Pryor is aboard, with management having spent $4.5 million on the off-chance that he rediscovers the aptitude he cultivated with the Browns in 2016 but lost with the Redskins in 2017. The Jets passing game can be different because of Robby Anderson. The undrafted third-year pro is not in the top echelons of NFL wideouts and his offseason was marred by outlandish traffic violations that blossomed into temporary legal messes. BUT, all that said, on the field, Anderson has developed into one of the NFL’s premier vertical threats—especially from the red zone outskirts. He has the requisite speed and contested-catch ability to be a quality X-receiver.

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8. It’s been six years since the Jets have had a tight end with 500+ yards receiving (Dustin Keller), and it’s all but a lock the streak will extend to seven. This limits an offense’s schematic flexibility. 

9. Kelvin Beachum (left side) and Brandon Shell (right side) are subtly respectable bookend tackles. The concern is in between them. Free agent pickup Spencer Long injects valuable mobility at center, but it may not matter given that left guard James Carpenter is relegated almost strictly to north-and-south movement and right guard Brian Winters is mistake prone (especially in pass protection). 

10. The Jets last year seemed to either line up in spread formations with light personnel or super condensed formations with heavy personnel. Most likely Bates will feature formations that are somewhere in between, since those best propagate a marriage between your run game and pass game—something Shanahan disciples value. But for what it’s worth, if Bates feels obliged to choose between spread sets and heavy, expect spread. The Jets have been markedly more successful in those.

BOTTOM LINE: A disconcerting number of questions remain on offense. But this defense, with dynamic strengths in the right places, is playoff-caliber.

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