How the New York Jets should build their defense in the 2023 offseason
On the offensive side of the football, it’s anybody’s guess as to how the New York Jets will play their cards in the 2023 offseason.
Defensively, though, things are much simpler.
I foresee a very clear path to success for the New York Jets’ defense this offseason.
Here is how the Jets can ensure they not only match their 2022 defensive performance (4th-fewest PPG allowed, 5th in defensive DVOA), but potentially improve upon it – making a push to become the best defense in the NFL.
Extend Quinnen Williams
This is a no-brainer.
The Jets’ defense, as it is currently constructed, cannot function without Quinnen Williams. He anchors both the pass rush and the run defense. An elite interior pass rusher and an elite run stuffer, Williams attracts an immense amount of attention on every play, creating favorable matchups for his teammates. Without Williams, the Jets do not have an attention-grabber in the trenches who makes life easier for everyone else.
Williams is under contract in 2023 on his fifth-year option, which will carry an $11.5 million cap hit, but the Jets need to get an extension done as quickly as possible to avoid any distractions. Williams has already said he will skip voluntary workouts in April if he is not signed by then.
Williams will likely be seeking to beat the top two non-Aaron Donald contracts at the defensive tackle position: Chris Jones (4 years, $80 million with $60 million guaranteed) and DeForest Buckner (4 years, $84 million with $56.4 million guaranteed).
Since both of those contracts were signed way back in 2020, it’s possible Williams could soar significantly past them, as the cap has risen significantly in the past three years. The 2020 salary cap was $198.2 million. In 2023, it is expected to be over $220 million.
If I were to ballpark it, I would expect Williams to sign a deal in the neighborhood of $25 million per year with at least $60 million guaranteed.
And it would be worth every penny for New York.
Joe Douglas must get this done.
Re-sign Sheldon Rankins
Staying at the defensive tackle position, I think the Jets should re-sign unrestricted free agent Sheldon Rankins.
Rankins started alongside Williams over the past two seasons. His 2021 season was disappointing, but he bounced back tremendously in 2022, providing consistent impact in both phases. Rankins is also one of the team’s best leaders in the locker room.
Spotrac estimates Rankins will command $7.3 million per year on the open market. That seems reasonable. Get Rankins back on a two-year, $15 million deal, or something in that range.
Run it back at linebacker: Re-sign Kwon Alexander and Quincy Williams
While some may view the linebacker position as an area the Jets should look to improve this offseason, I think they should run it back with the trio they used in 2022.
I believe re-signing both of them is the correct way to go.
While this is not an elite linebacker unit, it’s still pretty good. If the Jets let Alexander and/or Williams walk, I doubt they are replacing them with an upgrade. The Jets have limited resources (cap space + draft picks) this offseason in comparison to previous years, and they will be allocating most of those resources to the quarterback position and the offensive line. They don’t have the ammunition to make a big splash at linebacker, especially while Mosley’s enormous deal is still lingering around.
With all of that in mind, I contend the Jets should just roll with the continuity for now. Perhaps next year they can start thinking bigger at this position. Right now, though, they are unlikely to improve the unit’s talent level, so continuity should be the priority.
I am usually a tough critic of the Jets’ linebackers, but this unit impressed me in 2022. I think they get a bad rap from some. Overall, it was an above-average unit, in my opinion. Placing them somewhere in the top 10-14 range out of 32 units seems accurate to me.
Mosley remains a solid player. His second-team All-Pro distinction is vastly overrating him, as he is no longer a star, but I would still classify him as an above-average starter.
Alexander is a ball of energy who thrived as the Jets’ sub linebacker. He brings speed, range, a nonstop motor, and an aggressive mindset when he takes on blocks in the run game. Alexander was quietly one of the team’s most impactful run defenders by virtue of his ability to crush blockers in space and close running lanes.
Williams took a substantial leap in 2022. His discipline, patience, and tackling were much-improved after he was a reckless boom-or-bust player in his first season with the Jets. I think his coverage remains subpar, as he is still prone to mental lapses in that phase, but his run defense progressed to an above-average level.
Off-ball linebackers can be had for cheap in the modern NFL. It’s a position that has seen its value dwindle greatly in recent years. Each offseason, there are a plethora of starting linebackers who sign deals on the free agent market with guaranteed-money totals well shy of $10 million.
The Jets should have no issues being able to afford both Alexander and Williams. I do wonder if Alexander would prefer to join another team where he can play every down instead of being a sub player, but he seemed to enjoy his time with the Jets and looked like a great fit in the scheme. Joe Douglas should do his best to bring both linebackers back.
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Two new starting safeties
This is the only defensive position where I see the Jets undergoing a significant overhaul. It’s here where the Jets have the best chance to improve the overall talent level of their defense, and they cannot waste the opportunity. Don’t be complacent because you had one good year. Keep getting better.
We’ve discussed it ad nauseam on Jets X-Factor: Lamarcus Joyner and Jordan Whitehead were the greatest liabilities on the Jets’ defense in 2022. They were the main obstacle separating the Jets from being a top-5 defense and possibly being the league’s best defense.
Some fans claim Whitehead will bounce back if the Jets put him next to a better safety than Joyner, but I don’t see how that makes sense at all. Playing next to Joyner had no effect on Whitehead constantly missing tackles in the run game or taking bad angles in coverage. Whitehead was a liability and the Jets should seek to improve over him if they are serious about continuing to field an elite defense.
If anything, Joyner and Whitehead were lucky to have their deficiencies hidden by playing next to two elite cornerbacks in Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed, who made the safeties’ jobs easy as they rarely got beat deep and put pressure on the safeties to help them out.
Joyner is a free agent. Letting him walk should be a no-brainer.
Whitehead can be released to clear $7.25 million in cap space while the Jets would carry a dead money charge of $2.98 million. This is also a no-brainer, in my opinion, but we shall see if the Jets agree.
New York should then proceed to find two new starting safeties: one who can play Joyner’s role and one who can play Whitehead’s role. The Jets need a pure deep safety to fill Joyner’s role, preferably one who provides a massive upgrade in speed and ball skills. To fill Whitehead’s role, they need someone who is capable of playing in the box but can also handle a heavy diet of deep-zone snaps in the Jets’ Cover 4-heavy defense.
The Jets could try to plug these holes in free agency, although I am not sure if they could make a big splash considering they will likely focus their cap space on the offense. Perhaps they target a pair of mid-tier options and have them compete with Tony Adams and Will Parks, who will each return after showing promise in 2022 over their short stints on the field.
The draft is where the Jets will likely have their best shot at improving the safety position. Safety should be near the top of their shopping list in each of the first two rounds.
However they get it done, the Jets need to have two new starting safeties next year.
Two new second-string defensive tackles (Focusing on run defense)
As I discussed in my breakdown of the Jets’ run defense, the Jets’ backup defensive tackles were an enormous problem in 2022. Nathan Shepherd and Solomon Thomas got pushed around in the run game all year. Shepherd occasionally made a play in the passing game, though it wasn’t enough to cancel out his negative impact against the run. Thomas was a non-factor in both phases.
Nobody is expecting a team’s backup defensive tackles to be superstars. But on this Jets defense, where Jeff Ulbrich and Robert Saleh employ a rotation-heavy approach, the backup defensive tackles play more often than they do on most other teams. If you are going to play that style of football, you need to have good players in these backup roles.
Thomas played 33% of the Jets’ defensive snaps in 2022. Shepherd played 37%. That’s a lot of snaps going to two guys who consistently got steamrolled in the run game and combined for 2.0 sacks in the passing game.
Shepherd and Thomas are both free agents. If I were Joe Douglas, I would not think twice about letting them walk.
New York needs to improve its depth at defensive tackle. Two solid backups to Williams and (maybe) Rankins are needed.
I would prefer to see the Jets lean toward run-stopping over pass-rushing with these two additions.
The Jets do a good job of getting their best pass rushers onto the field on third down and in other passing situations. The backups primarily play on early downs when the run is still a legitimate threat. With this in mind, I want the backups to be good run-stuffers. If their run-stopping ability comes at the cost of lackluster pass-rushing, so be it. The Jets can’t afford to only have two defensive tackles on the roster who can stop the run, which was the case in 2022.
There are plenty of intriguing options to fill this role for a cheap cost in free agency. New York should also have a realistic chance of striking gold on a defensive tackle with a later-round draft pick.
Cut Carl Lawson and let the kids take over on the edge
Carl Lawson is a must-cut on his contract, in my opinion. The Jets can clear $15.4 million in cap space by releasing him, while they would owe only $0.3 million in dead money.
Lawson had an average year in both phases of the game. He’s not a bad player, but considering the Jets’ dearth of cap space and their limited number of available routes for easily creating more cap space, they have to take $15.4 million in savings to release an average starter.
I would be on board for restructuring Lawson if the Jets did not have so much intriguing young talent at the edge position, but New York has a pipeline of pieces who are ready to take over for Lawson on the edge. This is the primary reason I feel comfortable about releasing Lawson.
My plan on the edge is fairly simple: Release Lawson and unleash the kids.
The first order of business is bringing back Bryce Huff, who is a restricted free agent. New York can slap a second-round tender on Huff to keep him around for one more year at $4.3 million. The Jets keep Huff around at an affordable price, Huff makes nearly double what he made on his rookie contract, and Huff will have a chance to play his way into a massive free-agent deal in 2024 while the Jets benefit from Huff’s contract-year motivation. Everyone wins.
Once Huff is back, the Jets will be armed with a trio of tantalizing young players on the edge: Huff, Jermaine Johnson, and Micheal Clemons. These three youngsters should join forces with John Franklin-Myers as the top four players in the Jets’ edge rotation.
Franklin-Myers should retain his starting role. He is a stellar run defender on the edge and remains a good pass rusher to boot. On passing downs, the Jets often kick him to the interior for even more pass-rushing juice.
Releasing Lawson opens up plenty of snaps that can be shared among the kids. Huff will be the primary beneficiary.
In 2022, Huff exclusively played in obvious passing situations – only 8% of his snaps came on run plays, and those were mostly give-up runs on third-and-forever. This role kept Huff fresh but it severely limited the number of pass-rush opportunities he received. Since he never played in situations where there was a legitimate run threat, Huff only played 12.4 pass-rush snaps per game, which is criminally low for a player who had the best pressure rate of any edge rusher in the NFL. Huff ranked 108th among edge rushers with 173 total pass-rush snaps.
Huff’s pass-rushing potential needs to be maximized. He is too good to not get 20-25 pass rush snaps per game. In 2023, the Jets have to bite the bullet and live with him playing a few snaps against the run. New York must play Huff on early downs more often to get his pass-rush snap count up to a starter’s level, even if that means he plays 8-10 snaps per game against the run.
Johnson and Clemons can see upticks in snaps with Lawson gone. Johnson only played 34% of the Jets’ defensive snaps in his 14 appearances while Clemons played 29% of the snaps in his 16 appearances. Perhaps the Jets can get both of them up to around 50-50.
Let’s map this out. To exemplify how the Jets typically distributed their snaps on the edge, here is a look at the snap percentages of their edge rushers across the six post-bye games in which all of their top-six edge rushers were active:
- John Franklin-Myers (58%)
- Carl Lawson (53%)
- Jermaine Johnson (35%)
- Micheal Clemons (32%)
- Vinny Curry (21%)
- Bryce Huff (19%)
First off, my ideal plan would involve ditching the six-man rotation. Curry struggled in 2022. You do not need your sixth-best edge rusher playing over 20% of the snaps. Let’s cut it down to a five-man rotation.
Once we vacate Lawson’s reps and remove the sixth spot from the picture, it gives us plenty of available reps to distribute among the young trio.
Here’s a ballpark estimate of how I would prefer to see things look in 2022:
- John Franklin-Myers (65%)
- Jermaine Johnson (50%)
- Micheal Clemons (50%)
- Bryce Huff (45%)
- TBD (10%)
I love this distribution. Each of the three kids gets a chance to be unleashed without being thrown into a role where they are being asked to do too much. These snap boosts are sizable, but nothing that cannot be handled by talented youngsters who are progressing in their careers.
At 45% of the snaps, Huff would be playing around 30 snaps per game, which should allow him to achieve a split somewhere around 22 pass-rush snaps and 8 snaps against the run. That makes a lot of sense for him. He would get enough pass-rush reps to have a great chance at posting 8-to-10 sacks and 50+ pressures, and it would only cost a small handful of run-game snaps. The Jets should make this trade-off in a heartbeat.
Clemons and Johnson have already proven themselves to be excellent run defenders. They can handle most of the early-down duties, each rotating between both sides of the line. New York rarely asked its defensive linemen to switch sides in 2022 – I would like to see more side-switching in 2023. In college, Clemons and Johnson each played both left-end and right-end on a route basis. Huff played both sides over his first two years with the Jets.
Clemons and Johnson can each take on occasional third-down reps, too, especially in short-to-medium third-down situations where a run play is still an option.
The Jets would be relying on Clemons and Johnson to take leaps forward as pass rushers in their second seasons, which is certainly somewhat of a gamble. However, both players showed enough potential as rookies for New York’s coaching staff to feel confident about them taking leaps in the passing game this year.
It often gets forgotten because he was overshadowed by two of his fellow rookies, but Johnson is a first-round pick whom the Jets traded up to get. He is a premium investment. After a promising rookie year in which he got the chance to ease his way into the league, year two is the right time to let him loose and see what he’s got.
Johnson’s floor as a run defender is already sky-high. If he can spend the offseason focusing on adding moves to his pass-rushing arsenal, he will be prepped for an explosion in 2023. Johnson’s physical upside as a pass rusher is special – he just needs to master the finesse part of it. If he ever does, he will become a star sack artist thanks to his combination of length, pursuit speed, motor, and finishing ability.
Clemons is already a dominant run defender who devours tight ends and chases down plays with reckless abandon. We shall see if he ever develops as a pass rusher, but even if he doesn’t, the elite quality of his run defense makes him worthy of playing a significant role. And I think Clemons truly does have a solid chance of becoming a good pass rusher. He’s got some slick moves in his bag and possesses better finesse and technique than you would expect from a man with his size and aggressive mindset.
Franklin-Myers deserves a slight boost in snaps after playing only 57% over the course of the season last year.
Finally, I would decrease the usage of the final man in the rotation. Huff was a unique case last year. He was so good that he demanded snaps as the sixth guy, but it’s rare for an NFL team to go that deep into the rotation. I would like to see the Jets cut the rotation down to primarily feature four players with the fifth guy only rarely appearing.
Maintain continuity, improve the few gaping holes, and let the youngsters thrive
To sum it all up, here are my three main goals for the Jets’ defense this offseason:
- Maintain continuity in the right spots (Extend Quinnen, re-sign Rankins, Quincy, Alexander)
- Improve the two gaping holes (Starting safety duo, backup defensive tackles)
- Let the youngsters take over on the edge (Release Lawson, boost the snap counts of Johnson, Clemons, Huff)
The Jets were a top-5 defense last year. Their goals should be to maintain the things that made them so good and to fix the issues that created the gap between their top-5 status and the No. 1 spot.
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