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Biggest questions facing the New York Jets defense in 2021

Bless Austin Jets, Gabriel Davis
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Jeff Kou breaks down the biggest questions facing the New York Jets defense from a schematic and Xs-and-Os perspective.

Since the conclusion of the 2020 season, the New York Jets defense has undergone drastic changes. They’ve gone from a 3-4 with some 4-2 nickel principles and multiple fronts to a true 4-3 defense.

Robert Saleh will play his traditional 4-3 against 21 and 12 personnel, and he’ll go to a 4-2-5 defense against 11 personnel. They may show some dime 3-2 packages on third down but the 4-3 scheme is definitely the base scheme. I don’t anticipate Saleh shifting into many different fronts and being that multiple.

The Jets addressed their pass rush with the major addition of Carl Lawson, also adding Sheldon Rankins and Vinny Curry to boost that unit, but there are still several positions that are concerning on the defensive side.

Before breaking down the biggest questions facing this revamped unit, let’s first look at the Jets’ defensive strengths heading into the 2021 season.

Strengths

Interior defensive line

This unit happens to be one of the best in football. Quinnen Williams is a star and led the interior with 7.0 sacks last year. More importantly, he eats up double teams, which will allow the linebackers – C.J. Mosely and Jarrad Davis – to have field days.

Foley Fatukasi is another excellent run defender who is a force inside. He had 22 stun stops last year and will only get better.

John Franklin-Myers is a solid rotational guy and excellent situational pass rusher who had 51 pressures in 2020. Some think he may move outside but I don’t see it. He may play 5-technique in some third-down situations, but Franklin-Myers is a defensive tackle first and foremost.

The Jets also let Harry Anderson go and replaced him with Sheldon Rankins. Sheldon needs to get back to his 2019 form when he was a disruptive force.

Last year, some injuries caught up with him and his production slipped. He didn’t exactly play up to the level we expect, and as a result, he lost his starting position by the end of the year. Rankins is a former first-round pick (12th overall in 2016) who is loaded with talent.

Safety

I love Marcus Maye in both the pass game and run game. He had an excellent year and really could have been an All-Pro.

The other safety position is held by Lamarcus Joyner, who gives the Jets a veteran presence at safety. He will be moving back to safety after playing nickel for the Raiders over the last two years.

The other player who should be solid is Ashtyn Davis. He will probably end up being that nickel 4-2-5 linebacker against 11 personnel, but he gives them some depth at safety.

I’m not a big fan of him as a deep safety, but Davis is a solid football player whose versatility will be utilized at the nickel position.

Right defensive end

Carl Lawson is a disruptive force in the pass game. He will give the Jets a much-needed edge presence and should give them enough against the run. Although his sack numbers aren’t the greatest, he is still highly productive. Lawson ranked fourth among edge rushers with 64 pressures last year.

Weaknesses

The biggest issue for this defense is that there are several positions where the Jets are going to be relying on players who are unproven. Cornerback, linebacker, nickel, and left end are the biggest question marks.

They have guys that can play at these positions, but are these players going to help the defense achieve dominance? I’m not saying they aren’t good football players, but there are some serious question marks at various defensive positions going into the 2021 season.

Cornerback

In the offseason, many of us (including myself) thought this was the No. 1 position the Jets would address. It was the biggest hole on the football team in a pass-happy league.

Not addressing the spot with a solid veteran is a little risky in my opinion. The Jets had plenty of opportunities to improve the position, and they still have a couple left with Steven Nelson and Richard Sherman lingering on the market.

Right now, the Jets are deciding to go with their younger players from last year. Bryce Hall showed a tremendous amount of upside but it is still unknown whether he has what it takes to be a lockdown cornerback against the high-powered offenses on the Jets’ schedule.

The No. 2 spot belongs currently to Bless Austin, who will receive some competition from Elijah Campbell and rookies Jason Pinnock and Brandin Echols. Saleh will play a tremendous amount of Cover 3 and some Cover 2, which may help the young cornerbacks.

There a couple of top-notch receiver groups in the Jets’ division that could be huge mismatches for their young cornerbacks: the Bills’ trio of Stefan Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley, along with the improved Dolphins trio of DeVante Parker, Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle. Hall struggled against Parker last year and tends to struggle more against weapons with size.

Looking back on last season, the secondary was a major weakness for the Jets. Even the Patriots’ Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers looked like All-Americans in Week 9 against the Jets’ secondary.

With major inexperience at cornerback, it will definitely be an interesting position to watch and the Jets may struggle with some of the top WR units in the league.

Left defensive end

The Jets let Jordan Jenkins and Tarell Basham walk in free agency, as both are more 3-4 OLB types. Vinny Curry, Bryce Huff, Jabari Zuniga, Kyle Phillips and the recently-signed Ronald Blair will likely be fighting for this position.

This will be an interesting position as I don’t see any of the four potential starters as anything more than “lunch pail guys” – tough workers but not dominant starters.

Run defense is a particular issue at this position. Blair is the best run defender of the group and may be paired with Lawson, who isn’t exactly the best run defender himself. The rest of the group isn’t known for its run defense, save for Phillips.

We shall see how the run defense plays out on the edge and who emerges as the left defensive end.

Linebacker

The linebacker room has many new faces. Gone are Avery Williamson (traded during last season), Harvey Langi (signed with Patriots) and leading tackler Neville Hewitt (signed with Texans). If you throw Tarrell Basham and Jordan Jenkins in there—although they are really 3-4 outside linebackers—it’s an entirely new room going into 2021.

The group of newcomers will include C.J. Mosley, who is coming off a year where he sat out for COVID concerns, so who knows what he’s going to bring to the table. He was a four-time All-Pro, so the talent level is there.

Jarrad Davis has been surrounded by the word that gets coaches fired: “potential.” He has scary-good athletic ability but at times has poor run fits and over-pursues the football.

Blake Cashman only played three defensive snaps last year after starting five games as a rookie. He should have a good chance to earn playing time. Rookies Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen are also in the mix to compete for snaps.

The Jets will be playing a 4-3 on base downs against 21 and 12 personnel, which means three LBs have to play in those situations. So, we shall see who emerges from this unit as the third linebacker along with Mosley and Davis. No matter who it is, that player will be an inexperienced one, making this position a question mark.

Nickel cornerback

Last year, the Jets had a very good nickel CB in Brian Poole. He played well in 2020 before getting hurt later in the year. Poole remains a free agent.

Barring the return of Poole or the addition of another player, several players are currently poised to be in the mix at nickel. Javelin Guidry’s name has been thrown in there. Rookie Michael Carter II has been getting first-team reps in the slot throughout OTAs. Ashtyn Davis has been considered as well, as the Jets will likely play a tremendous amount of Cover 3 and play the slot with more of a SS-type player. He could be that answer. Davis played some nickel before he got hurt last season.

A guy to keep an eye on is Jamien Sherwood. The rookie is an interesting prospect who should compete at the SAM LB position and could possibly be a nickel safety.

He was a good football player at Auburn and definitely has the tools to be a 4-2-5 nickel, but he also may be that other 4-3 linebacker. He could earn some playing time in the slot and it wouldn’t surprise me if he wins the job. I’m curious to see how the Jets will use him.

Nickel should be a fluid position for the Jets. It can be addressed by any of those four guys from week to week depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing offense.


All in all, we shall see which players end up winning the many jobs that are up for grabs in this revamped defense and if Joe Douglas’ gamble of relying on a ton of young players pays off.

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