The New York Jets’ core defensive players are shining, but injuries are limiting the unit’s potential
Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich‘s New York Jets defense has been strong through two games. Despite playing with the worst average starting field position in the NFL (own 38.6-yard line), the unit ranks 12th-best in fewest points allowed per drive (2.0).
New York currently ranks 10th in fewest points allowed per game (22.0) and 11th in defensive EPA (estimated points added). The unit has gotten the job done while dealing with little help from the offense, a bevy of injuries, and the growing pains of numerous young players.
Here’s the most promising iota behind those rankings – from a long-term perspective, the Jets are doing even better than their top 10-12 rankings suggest.
Once you dig into the team’s individual defensive numbers, it becomes clear that the unit’s key long-term pieces and first-string players are collectively performing at an elite level. The backups who were thrown into the mix due to injuries are holding the unit back from top-5 status.
How do we know this? Well, simply put, this is a borderline top-10 defense whose backups are responsible for an enormous chunk of the unit’s mistakes relative to the amount of time they have spent on the field. Take out what the backups have done and you have the makings of a top-5 defense.
Williams, Colbert, and Phillips are responsible for 29% of the team’s missed tackles despite playing only 15% of the team’s defensive snaps.
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By simply inserting Jarrad Davis and Lamarcus Joyner in place of those struggling second-stringers, it’s easy to picture the Jets defense climbing from the fringe top-10 level it is currently at up to a top-5 level. Joyner will not return this season while Davis will not be back until after the bye week at the earliest.
The New York Jets’ key defensive players are playing superbly
The pieces on the Jets defense that truly matter long-term are thriving.
Consider that Redwine, Williams, Colbert, and Phillips have combined to allow 198 yards on 14 targets (14.1 per target) while the rest of the Jets defense has allowed 267 yards on 47 targets – just 5.7 yards per target. That’s a league-leading caliber number (the Rams led the NFL with 6.2 yards per attempt allowed in 2020).
New York’s homegrown young cornerback trio of Bryce Hall, Brandin Echols, and Michael Carter II has been outstanding. All three players are going to be around on extremely affordable contracts for the next few years, so it would be a massive win for the Jets if even just one or two of them could establish themselves as a quality starter over the duration of their rookie deal. Hitting on all three would be a grand slam for Joe Douglas.
The talented C.J. Mosley had a phenomenal game against New England where he looked to be in peak form. He is under contract through the 2024 season and cannot be released without a significant cap charge until after the 2022 season, so the Jets certainly need him to prove himself as a valuable piece.
With better play at safety and linebacker, the Jets would likely have one of the absolute best pass defenses in the NFL right now. But the subpar play of their backups is what has them ranked ninth-best in passing defense EPA at the moment instead of the top 3-5 level that their core players are performing at.
On the edges, the Jets have stayed in the upper echelon despite the losses of Lawson and Curry.
John Franklin-Myers has moved over to the edge full-time while Bryce Huff has snagged a key role due to the losses of the veterans, and both players are doing well. Through two weeks, Franklin-Myers ranks 10th out of 86 qualified edge rushers in Pro Football Focus’ overall grade (81.4) while Huff ranks 23rd (74.0).
Now imagine if you replaced Tim Ward and Shaq Lawson (who would most likely not be acquired if Carl remained healthy) with Vinny Curry and Carl Lawson. That would give the Jets a starting duo of John Franklin-Myers and Carl Lawson ahead of Vinny Curry and Bryce Huff, which beats a starting duo of Franklin-Myers and Huff ahead of Tim Ward and Shaq Lawson.
Ward and Shaq Lawson have combined for only two pressures on 52 pass-rush snaps this season (3.8% pressure rate). Curry (12.9% career pressure rate) and Huff (9.8% pressure rate in 2021) would make for a much better second-string duo, and it goes without saying that Carl Lawson (14.3% career pressure rate) would be a massive upgrade over Huff in the starting lineup.
It is important that Shaq Lawson plays better, though. The Jets traded a sixth-round pick for him and he is under contract for the 2022 season. Lawson has been a great run defender so far (86.0 PFF run-defense grade, 4th among 86 qualified EDGE) but has been silent as a pass rusher (53.9 PFF pass-rush grade, 74th among 86 qualified EDGE).
The present ceiling is limited, but the future ceiling can continue rising
Until it gets back Jarrad Davis and Ashtyn Davis from injured reserve, the New York Jets defense may not be able to climb much higher than the level it is currently at due to the limitations placed upon it by the many injuries it has suffered.
However, that does not hinder the Jets from continuing to push their long-term defensive ceiling to increasingly higher levels. Plenty of players that will likely be in New York for the foreseeable future are playing key roles on a weekly basis. So far, those players have been largely fantastic.
With plenty of assets looming in 2022 – Carl Lawson, gobs of cap space, numerous Day 1-2 draft picks, and anticipated progression from the team’s many young players – the Jets defense is set to take a big leap next year.
The better their core players perform in 2021, the higher they can climb once the reinforcements arrive in 2022.
Overall defensive rankings in 2021 be damned – all that really matters for this team’s eventual Super Bowl aspirations is whether the players who will be around in 2022 and beyond are performing well, and two games in, those players can hardly be performing much better as a collective group.