What does the New York Jets’ best defensive lineup look like?
“How can I get the absolute most out of the players at my disposal?”
This is the number one question that coaches in any sport must ask themselves.
One of the prime factors in answering that question is understanding where on the field each player is at his best. Some players do better on one side of the field than the other. Some players have played multiple positions throughout their careers and have consistently done better in one role than the other.
This brings us to the 2022 New York Jets defense.
The Jets have a lot of versatile defensive players who have shown they are capable of playing different roles. This gives Jeff Ulbrich and Robert Saleh a plethora of unique lineup combinations to toy around with.
Today, I wanted to try and put together the best possible starting lineup for the Jets’ 4-3 defense. My goal is to find a combination of players that allows everyone to play in their most ideal role.
Which positions need to be filled?
Before we get into the lineup, let’s lay out which positions we’re looking to fill.
A common misconception about 4-3 defenses in the modern NFL is that they truly do operate in the classic 4-3 look (4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB) for most of the game. That’s no longer the case.
In a league where 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) is by far the most common offensive package, as it was run on 61% of offensive plays in 2021, defenses are forced to throw out their nickel package (5 DBs) on well over half of their plays.
When teams go to their nickel package, they remove a front-seven player (either a defensive lineman or a linebacker) and replace him with a defensive back, which allows them to match the speed that the offense added by bringing on a third wide receiver.
Teams that run a 4-3 base will typically take a linebacker off the field in nickel situations, meaning that their most common package is actually a 4-2-5 (4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB), not a 4-3-4.
Here is an example of a common 4-2-5 look from the Jets defense, being employed against an 11 personnel look from the Panthers offense in Week 1 of the 2021 season.
The 4-2-5 lineup will be the Jets’ most common package in 2022, just as it was in 2021, so that is what we will focus on filling out today. Here are the positions we’ll be looking at:
- Left defensive end
- Left defensive tackle
- Right defensive tackle
- Right defensive end
- MIKE linebacker
- WILL linebacker
- Left cornerback
- Right cornerback
- Slot cornerback
- Strong safety
- Free safety
Without further ado, here is the Jets’ idealistic starting defense as we enter the 2022 season.
Left defensive end: Jermaine Johnson
Jermaine Johnson played on both sides of the defensive line at Florida State, although he did slightly lean toward the left side, playing 56.1% of his snaps on the left in 2021.
Johnson was also significantly more productive on that left side. He racked up 32 pressures over 228 pass-rush snaps from the left side (14.0% pressure rate) compared to only 14 pressures over 167 pass-rush snaps from the right side (8.4%).
When you think about it, having Johnson primarily match up against right tackles (which is who left defensive ends primarily face) makes a lot of sense.
Compared to left tackles, right tackles tend to be better slightly better run-blockers but slightly worse pass-blockers. Here are the average numbers of the top-32 qualified left tackles and right tackles in the 2021 NFL season:
- Top 32 left tackles: 5.1% pressure rate allowed, 68.8 PFF run-blocking grade
- Top 32 right tackles: 6.0% pressure rate allowed, 69.7 PFF run-blocking grade
I like how Johnson matches up against right tackles. Johnson is an NFL-ready run defender but could use work as a pass-rusher. Facing off against right tackles, he has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with some of the burly run-blockers he will see, while his pass-rushing progression will be assisted by facing weaker pass-blocking talent.
Left defensive tackle: John Franklin-Myers
With the Jets adding a huge influx of talent to their EDGE unit while doing little to improve their DT unit, it seems clear that John Franklin-Myers is headed back to his old home on the interior. Well, primarily, at least – we should certainly see him on the edge in some situations. But the inside is where he will probably get the bulk of his reps this year.
When Franklin-Myers had his breakout season at defensive tackle in 2020, he leaned heavily toward the left side of the line, playing 89.4% of his defensive snaps over there.
Few players gave right guards more trouble than Franklin-Myers that year. Franklin-Myers collected 49 pressures from the left side of the line, tied with Akiem Hicks for second-most among interior defensive linemen behind only Stephon Tuitt. Franklin-Myers also led the position with a 16.3% pressure rate from the left side.
Right defensive tackle: Quinnen Williams
Quinnen Williams has leaned toward the right side ever since his rookie year. In 2021, the Jets’ new staff dialed up Williams’s right-side exclusivity to a whole new level, as he played 89.2% of his snaps on the right side.
Williams ranked sixth among IDL with 30 pressures from the right side in 2021. It was his second consecutive season ranking sixth-best in the category after earning the same ranking with 38 right-side pressures in 2020.
Right defensive end: Carl Lawson
Carl Lawson has been an extremely right-side-heavy player throughout his entire career. In his most recent season, 2020, Lawson played a whopping 96.0% of his snaps on the right side.
Lawson led all edge rushers with 63 pressures off the right side of the line in 2020, which was 15 more than any other player. He’s an expert at demolishing left tackles.
MIKE linebacker: C.J. Mosley
This one is a no-brainer. C.J. Mosley is the veteran captain of the Jets’ defense. Not only that, he is by far their sturdiest and most physically imposing linebacker, making him a fit for the downhill responsibilities of the MIKE role.
WILL linebacker: Quincy Williams
On paper, Quincy Williams is the perfect fit for the Jets’ WILL linebacker role. He’s a smaller linebacker who offers top-end speed and movement skills for the position, giving him the range and coverage upside that 4-3 teams covet for this position.
With that being said, Williams needs to sharpen his fundamentals to become the best version of himself. Missed tackles, poor angles, and overpursued plays were common sights on his 2021 tape. Williams’s potential is sky-high but his floor is low.
The Jets have a number of players who can push Williams for this spot, particularly 2021 draft picks Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen. Both are smaller linebackers who converted from safety, giving them unique coverage instincts for the position. Nasirildeen is the better athlete while Sherwood was the more impressive player in training camp last season.
For now, Williams takes the cake. But the Jets need somebody to take a big leap for this position to be a strength, whether it’s Williams, Sherwood, Nasirildeen, or another wild-card.
Left cornerback: Sauce Gardner
Saleh and Ulbrich’s defense typically asks its starting outside cornerbacks to stay on one side of the field throughout the entire game. Late in the 2021 season, the Jets did show an increased willingness to allow their cornerbacks to occasionally follow players around the field, but for the most part, we should expect the Jets to continue following the one-side philosophy for their starting corners.
Sauce Gardner offers a balanced blend of left/right experience, which allows the Jets to place him in whichever role is best to accommodate the other players on the team. Gardner had a 49.4%/50.6% split between the left and right sides of the field in 2021.
With D.J. Reed being a far better fit for the right side (more on that next), Gardner should be expected to man the left side of the field.
Right cornerback: D.J. Reed
As I broke down in a recent article, D.J. Reed has proven that he is at his best at the right cornerback position. Reed has logged plenty of snaps throughout his career at RCB, LCB, and the slot, and he has consistently produced the best results at RCB.
Reed has given up a passer rating of 45.0 on throws in his direction over 16 career starts at RCB. In five starts at LCB, he has given up a 124.2 rating, and in four starts as a slot corner, he has given up a 110.1 rating.
Slot cornerback: Michael Carter II
Michael Carter II manned the slot for New York in his rookie season and played well enough to maintain the role going into 2022. Carter II was one of the best cornerbacks in the league at avoiding catastrophic mistakes, finishing the season with just 2 penalties and 1 touchdown allowed over 472 snaps in coverage.
Carter II lined up in the slot on 79.0% of his rookie-year snaps. He also lined up in the box on 18.0% of his snaps. Carter II only played four snaps as an outside corner.
Strong safety: Jordan Whitehead
Jordan Whitehead is the prototype NFL strong safety. An aggressive, downhill attacker who is hellbent on laying hard hits, Whitehead brings the intimidating middle-of-the-field presence that the Jets lacked in 2021.
Whitehead tied for fourth among safeties in run stops in each of the past two seasons, collecting 18 of them in 2021 and 19 in 2020.
You will see Whitehead all over the field. Whitehead played 36.5% of his snaps in the box last season, which ranked 24th-highest out of 105 qualified safeties. Whitehead also ranked 22nd among safeties with 21.3% of his snaps in the slot and 20th with 8.3% of his snaps on the edge.
Free safety: Lamarcus Joyner
Like the WILL linebacker position, the Jets do not have a clear-cut answer at free safety right now, and there are multiple players who could compete for the role.
For now, veteran defensive back Lamarcus Joyner is the best fit to play free safety in the Jets’ scheme. Joyner played slot cornerback for the Raiders from 2019-20, but his best days in the NFL came as a free safety for the Rams from 2017-18. He was set to be the Jets’ free safety in 2021 until an elbow injury ended his season after a handful of plays in Week 1.
In his heyday with the Rams, Joyner played the majority of his snaps as a deep safety. Joyner played 73.9% of his snaps at free safety between the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Over that span, he had four interceptions and 12 passes defended while allowing only two touchdown receptions.
Jason Pinnock and Ashtyn Davis will attempt to beat out Joyner for this role. Both players are on the younger side and offer more intriguing physical traits than Joyner, but at a position like free safety where mistakes are often back-breaking, I think the Jets would prefer to go with their most reliable and fundamentally-sound option.
Saleh and Ulbrich had to watch their young safeties cough up countless explosive plays in 2021. While Joyner probably will not produce many splashy plays, he can stabilize the chemistry of the back-end to help limit big plays by the opponent, which is exactly what the Jets need from their free safety in a defensive scheme that will play high-risk, high-reward football in the front-seven.
The ideal 4-2-5 Jets defense
Let’s say the opponent is lining up in 11 personnel for 1st-and-10 on their own 25-yard line to begin the first drive of the game. As things stand, I believe this is the best lineup the Jets can throw on the field in that situation:
- LDE: Jermaine Johnson
- LDT: John Franklin-Myers
- RDT: Quinnen Williams
- RDE: Carl Lawson
- MIKE: C.J. Mosley
- WILL: Quincy Williams
- LCB: Sauce Gardner
- RCB: D.J. Reed
- SCB: Michael Carter II
- SS: Jordan Whitehead
- FS: Lamarcus Joyner
Let’s project this lineup over the snapshot from the Panthers game that we observed at the start of this article.
This is a lineup with some real potential. It has holes, so there is some downside as well, but the upside at defensive line and cornerback lifts this unit’s ceiling to a tantalizing level. That front four is talented enough to be one of the league’s best, and behind it is a cornerback trio that could do a lot of damage by capitalizing on the pressure created up front.
The linebacker and safety positions are question marks. But in today’s passing-based NFL, pass-rushers and cornerbacks are widely considered to be the most “premium” commodities on defense. Those are the two spots where the Jets appear to be the strongest on paper. New York will need excellence from those two units to make up for the possible deficiencies in other areas.
It is also interesting to think about the other lineup combinations that the Jets can concoct for particular situations.
For instance, if the Jets are facing third-and-long and want to go all-in on pass-rushing talent, they could sub out Jermaine Johnson for either Bryce Huff or Jacob Martin. When the Jets face heavier personnel packages, they could slide John Franklin-Myers out to Lawson’s spot at right defensive end and replace him inside with Sheldon Rankins or Nathan Shepherd.
I am also curious to see how the Jets utilize Bryce Hall as a rotational piece. At 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds with 32¼” arms, he’s a bigger cornerback with enticing matchup potentiaL. Perhaps the Jets use him in a quasi-linebacker role to cover tight ends in certain situations.
New York has a lot of options to wade through. It’s up to Ulbrich and Saleh to figure out the most efficient ways to utilize the players at their disposal.