Robert Saleh, Hamilcar Rashed Jr., NY Jets Preseason, 2021, Packers
Robert Saleh, Hamilcar Rashed Jr., Getty Images

The 2021 New York Jets defense is historically young

Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich‘s rebuilt New York Jets defense entered the 2021 season loaded with youth in the backend of the depth chart.

Now, as injuries in the starting lineup begin to stockpile, many of the young players who were initially supposed to play minor roles are now being thrust into the limelight.

Here is what the Jets’ starting defensive lineup would likely be if they played a game today:

  • EDGE: Bryce Huff (23 years old)
  • EDGE: John Franklin-Myers (24)
  • DT: Quinnen Williams (24)
  • DT: Sheldon Rankins (27)
  • LB: C.J. Mosley (29)
  • LB: Jamien Sherwood (21) – Rookie
  • LB: Hamsah Nasirildeen (22) – Rookie
  • CB: Bryce Hall (24)
  • CB: Bless Austin (25)
  • S: Marcus Maye (28)
  • S: Lamarcus Joyner (30)

The average age of those 11 players is a paltry 25.4 years old. Seven of the 11 players are 25-and-under. None are older than 30.

Is this the youngest starting defense that the Jets have ever put out?

Well, it’s close, but not quite.

If that lineup holds, it would be the sixth-youngest opening-week starting defense that the Jets have put out since 1970 (the first year in which game-by-game starting lineups are available). It would be their youngest unit since the 1990 season, 31 years ago.

Here are the five youngest opening-week starting defenses in Jets history.

1976: 24.8 years old

  • DE: Billy Newsome (28)
  • DE: Richard Neal (29)
  • DT: Carl Barzilauskas (25)
  • DT: Ed Galigher (25)
  • LB: Greg Buttle (22) – Rookie
  • LB: Steve Poole (24) – Rookie
  • LB: Bob Martin (22) – Rookie
  • CB: Burgess Owens (25)
  • CB: Ed Taylor (23)
  • S: Shafer Suggs (23) – Rookie
  • S: Phil Wise (27)

Get ready for plenty of late-1970s and early-1980s flavor. Four of the five youngest defenses in Jets history were compiled in a five-season span from 1976-1980.

The Jets’ current predicament at linebacker is nothing compared to the inexperience of the 1976 team. That defense started three rookies at linebacker to open the season – none of which were chosen earlier than the third round of the 1976 draft.

As we’ll see throughout this piece, the Jets have typically struggled mightily when throwing out an uber-young defense. The 1976 squad went 3-11 and ranked 26th out of 28 teams in scoring defense, allowing 27.4 points per game.

On the positive side, New York did find a keeper in rookie linebacker Greg Buttle. The third-round pick wound up playing nine seasons for the Jets, starting 107 of his 110 games and recording 15 interceptions.

1978: 24.5 years old

  • DE: Lawrence Pillers (25)
  • DE: Joe Klecko (24)
  • DT: Abdul Salaam (25)
  • OLB: Greg Buttle (24)
  • ILB: John Hennessy (23)
  • ILB: Mike Hennigan (26)
  • OLB: Bob Martin (24)
  • CB: Ed Taylor (25)
  • CB: Bobby Jackson (21) – Rookie
  • S: Shafer Suggs (25)
  • S: Burgess Owens (27)

Two years later, the Jets retain five players from their youthful 1976 unit – Buttle, Bob Martin, Shafer Suggs, Burgess Owens, and Ed Taylor.

While this group only had one rookie, it was highly devoid of veteran leadership. Owens was the unit’s most seasoned player at 27 years old in his sixth NFL season. No other player in the unit had more than three seasons of experience entering the year.

The Jets laid a 33-20 beatdown on the Dolphins at Shea Stadium in their 1978 season opener with this group. They had a solid year, going 8-8, but that was entirely thanks to the offense.

Led by coordinator John Idzik (father of the future Jets general manager) and the quarterback pairing of Matt Robinson (11 starts) and Richard Todd (5 starts), the Jets ranked third in scoring with 22.4 points per game. However, head coach Walt Michaels’ inexperienced defense allowed 22.8 points per game, second-worst in the NFL.

The 1978 season was Joe Klecko’s first as both an opening-week starter and a full-time starter. Klecko started only six of his 13 appearances as a rookie before elevating to a 16-game starter as a second-year player in 1978.

1979: 24.4 years old

  • DE: Lawrence Pillers (26)
  • DT: Joe Klecko (25)
  • DT: Joe Pellegrini (23)
  • DE: Marty Lyons (22) – Rookie
  • LB: Greg Buttle (25)
  • LB: Stan Blinka (22) – Rookie
  • LB: Bob Martin (25)
  • CB: Donald Dykes (24) – Rookie
  • CB: Bobby Jackson (22)
  • S: Shafer Suggs (26)
  • S: Burgess Owens (28)

The Jets maintained seven players from their 1978 unit while adding three rookies to the fray.

It was more of the same in 1979. Michaels’ Jets went 8-8 thanks to a good offense (21.1 points per game, 13th) but their potential was limited by the defense (23.9 points allowed per game, 25th).

New York did find another eventual keeper in defensive end Marty Lyons. The 14th overall pick in the first round of the 1979 draft, Lyons would play 11 seasons with the Jets, starting 135 of his 147 appearances and collecting 43 sacks.

1980: 24.5 years old

  • DE: Mark Gastineau (23)
  • DT: Abdul Salaam (27)
  • DT: Marty Lyons (23)
  • DE: Joe Klecko (26)
  • LB: Greg Buttle (26)
  • LB: Stan Blinka (23)
  • LB: Ron Crosby (25)
  • CB: Donald Dykes (25)
  • CB: Bobby Jackson (23)
  • S: Shafer Suggs (27)
  • S: Darrol Ray (22) – Rookie

Seven starters retained their spots from the 1979 opener as the Jets continued to nurture their homegrown young prospects while filling the vacant spots with more young talent.

The most experienced players on this unit were defensive tackle Abdul Salaam and safety Shafer Suggs, who each entered the year at 27 years old with four seasons of experience.

Yet again, the Jets failed to get results out of their unseasoned defense. They ranked 24th out of 28 teams in scoring defense with 24.7 points allowed per game. With New York’s offense dropping down to 18th with 18.9 points per game, the Jets went 4-12.

Despite the lack of short-term results, the Jets’ youth movement resulted in the development of another long-term icon to join Buttle, Lyons, and Klecko – Mark Gastineau. The 1979 second-round pick started only one of his 16 appearances as a rookie before elevating to a 16-game starter in 1980. He posted 11.5 sacks, his first of five double-digit sack campaigns as a Jet.

After five years of dealing with the growing pains of historically inexperienced rosters, the Jets finally started to reap the benefits of their youth movement in 1981.

From 1981-86, the Jets went 51-37-1 with playoff appearances in four of six seasons. Fruits of their process like Buttle, Gastineau, Klecko, and Lyons helped them field four top-10 scoring defenses over that span.

1990: 24.7 years old

  • DE: Ron Stallworth (24)
  • DT: Scott Mersereau (25)
  • DT: Dennis Byrd (24)
  • DE: Jeff Lageman (23)
  • LB: Joe Mott (24)
  • LB: Kyle Clifton (28)
  • LB: Joe Kelly (25)
  • CB: Tony Stargell (24) – Rookie
  • CB: James Hasty (25)
  • S: Brian Washington (25)
  • S: Erik McMillan (25)

Following the conclusion of the Joe Walton era, the Jets went young going into the first year of the Bruce Coslet era.

This defense is loaded with second and third-year players. Ron Stallworth, Dennis Byrd, Jeff Lageman, and Joe Mott were drafted by the Jets in 1989, while James Hasty, Brian Washington, and Erik McMillan were drafted in 1988 (Washington was selected by the Browns).

Of those seven young players, only Stallworth, Hasty, and McMillan started the Jets’ season opener in 1989, although Lageman would start the ensuing 15 games.

The Jets went 6-10 in 1990, but this young defense was not as bad as the franchise’s previous ones. New York ranked 17th in scoring defense with 21.6 points allowed per game.

A few solid pieces came out of this unit. Defensive tackle Dennis Byrd recorded 13 sacks, showcasing future superstar potential. His career came to an unfortunate early end after he was paralyzed in 1992 following a collision with a teammate.

Safety Brian Washington would be the Jets’ starting strong safety for five years, starting 75 games from 1990-94 while racking up 460 tackles and 18 interceptions.

Cornerback James Hasty recorded his third season as a full-time starter in what would become a seven-year run with the team, featuring 111 starts and 24 interceptions.

Safety Erik McMillan followed up his Pro Bowl 8-interception rookie season with a 6-interception campaign. He would start another season at free safety for the Jets in 1990, although he would be demoted to a backup role from 1991-92.

The 2021 New York Jets defense is different

The 2021 iteration of the Jets’ defense is certainly a bit different than the inexperienced units that have preceded it in franchise history.

For the most part, the aforementioned units do not feature many proven veteran talents around their young players.

This Jets defense does have a lot of high-end talent and experience to supplement its youth.

Quinnen Williams and C.J. Mosley are legitimate top-10 players at their respective positions. Marcus Maye has an argument to be in that range.

Lamarcus Joyner put up top-10 numbers as a free safety when he last played the position with the Rams from 2017-18.

John Franklin-Myers was an elite pass-rushing defensive tackle from an efficiency perspective last season. Sheldon Rankins reached borderline star status when healthy back in 2018, and over the past two seasons, he has remained a well-above-average pass rusher.

It’s anybody’s guess as to what the Jets will get out of Bryce Hall, Bless Austin, Jamien Sherwood, Hamsah Nasirildeen, and the winner of their slot cornerback battle (Javelin Guidry versus Michael Carter II), but there are a lot of proven high-quality players on this unit.

The Jets are not relying on their youngsters to carry the load. They have plenty of good-to-great players they can lean on.

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Michael Nania is one of the best analytical New York Jets minds in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania[at] - Twitter: @Michael_Nania
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