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Where Do the Jets Stand on Defense Entering the Offseason?

The New York Jets showed potential on defense under head coach Robert Saleh in 2021, but additions must be made in free agency and the NFL draft this offseason.

Just a week removed from the end of the regular season, the Jets got some vindication. 

The Buffalo Bills scored on every offensive possession against the New England Patriots, putting up 47 points en route to a playoff victory. It put the 27-point performance from Buffalo’s offense a week before against New York into perspective. After all, the Jets’ defense held its own toward the close of the season, especially given the drastic time of possession gaps that kept it on the field.

Still, New York has a whole lot of work to do in order to reach Robert Saleh’s aspiration for this unit. His defensive coordinator, Jeff Ulbrich, struggled mightily throughout the year. Injuries and inexperience hampered the unit as well, so perhaps a turn of the calendar alone will make a legitimately tangible impact.

Here’s a position-by-position breakdown heading into the offseason:

Defensive Line

This was supposed to be the strength of the New York Jets heading into the season. The Jets finally had their pass rusher in Carl Lawson, and he was lighting up training camp. Then he tore his Achilles and missed the entire season. The Jets did their best to compensate for the loss.

John Franklin-Myers broke out early in the year and earned himself a contract extension. Bryce Huff looked promising as a situational rusher before sustaining an injury. Saleh, who places an emphasis on rotating his pass rushers to keep them fresh, tried to replace Lawson in the aggregate, which was impossible. If the plan moving forward is to rotate guys in and out so that nobody is playing more than 70% of the snaps, he’ll need better rotation guys than Tim Ward and Ronnie Blair.

The interior defensive line continues to be strong. Foley Fatukasi, who is a free agent this offseason, continues to be a stout run-stopper. Quinnen Williams, on the few snaps this year where he wasn’t doubled or suffering a shoulder injury, showed he can reset the line of scrimmage and create problems in the backfield. Curiously, the Jets were 29th against the run, a metric that had been a strong point in recent years despite the team’s overall futility. That needs to change.

READ: Joe Douglas Provides Update on Extension Talks With Quinnen Williams

Linebacker

C.J. Mosley reverted back to his Pro Bowl form, anchoring the defense and finishing fourth in the league in tackles (168). Of course, part of that was because the Jets defense was on the field so often that they had to make more tackles than almost any other team. Still, Mosley was a complete bright spot. He also acted as the unquestioned leader of the defense and the de facto salesman for the future of the franchise to impending free agents. 

Jets LB C.J. Mosley celebrates win

Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley

The other gem in this corps is Quincy Williams, Quinnen’s brother, who was a waiver wire add in the preseason. He finished second on the team in tackles with 110, and showcased his closing speed with a few splash plays in the backfield. He’s still awfully raw with ample room to grow alongside Mosley. Outside those two, the Jets didn’t really get any production at linebacker. Hamsah Nasirildeen and Jamien Sherwood were both drafted as converted safeties, but missed time with injuries. Jarrad Davis missed even more time and likely won’t be re-signed. The Jets could give guys like Nakobe Dean and Devin Lloyd a long look at pick No. 10. They fit the culture Saleh is building.

SCOUTING REPORT: Is Devin Lloyd the Jets’ Linebacker of the Future?

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Cornerback

The Jets punted on cornerback last offseason and basically threw a bunch of young corners at the wall to see what would stick. To their surprise, a couple of them did. Bryce Hall was a revelation. He routinely lined up across from the league’s best receivers and held his own, forcing more incompletions than any corner in the NFL outside Marshon Lattimore. 

Jets cornerback Bryce Hall warming up

Jets cornerback Bryce Hall

Michael Carter II looked every bit the part of a starting nickel in the NFL. The fifth-round rookie should only get better as he gets healthier and adjusts to the system. Brandin Echols, who had no business starting games this year, really improved down the stretch and had a couple key interceptions against the Dolphins and Buccaneers. The experience these young guys got this year will be invaluable over the course of the next few.

Still, the Jets need a legitimate shutdown corner opposite Hall. If they don’t want to open the checkbook for JC Jackson in the offseason, Derek Stingley at 4 is looking more and more likely. He has a history of creating turnovers at LSU, something this unit struggled with in 2021.

Click here to read our position-by-position breakdown of the New York Jets offense entering this offseason.

Safety

Another position completely ravaged by injuries — notice the injury theme yet? — the Jets’ safeties never had a chance. What opened the season as a promising tandem of Marcus Maye and Lamarcus Joyner ended up being a revolving door of new faces, as both of New York’s starters suffered season-ending injuries. Ashtyn Davis was underwhelming as a replacement in his second season with the team. Jason Pinnock showed promise late as a converted corner, but it’s hard to bank on him as a starter next year. The rest of the group — Elijah Riley, Will Parks, Sharrod Neasman, etc. — clearly isn't the answer. 

The Jets need at least one, maybe two new safeties in 2022. If Stingley isn’t the pick at 4, Kyle Hamilton likely will be. At 6-foot-4 and 220 lbs, he’s a ball-hawking safety mixed with a playmaking linebacker in the mold of Isaiah Simmons.

Special Teams

From Justin Miller to Leon Washington to Brad Smith to Andre Roberts, kick returner has always been a strength for the Jets. This year was no different, as New York rostered one of the league’s best return men in Braxton Berrios.

READ: Robert Saleh, Jets Want Braxton Berrios Back Next Season

Braden Mann struggled at punter after returning from a knee injury, but the Jets will likely run it back with him next year regardless. Kicker was a nightmare for the bulk of the year, but the Jets may have found something down the stretch with Eddy Piñeiro, who made all eight of his field goal attempts with the team. 

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