This is a series covering the position battles in training camp and projecting the roster and depth chart for the New York Jets this season. Today’s installment will cover the defensive line.
New York Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan is a defensive minded coach, and he knows that the best way to build his defense is to start in the trenches. The Jets have drafted a defensive lineman in the first round each of the last three seasons, taking Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and Sheldon Richardson. Wilkerson has developed into one of the top young defensive linemen in the NFL, and he will be expected to continue to produce at a high level. If the rest of the young players on the line develop, the Jets will have one of the best young interior lines in football. Here’s a look at the players they will be counting on.
Players in Camp: Junior Aumavae, Lanier Coleman, Leger Douzable, Kenrick Ellis, Tivita Finau, Antonio Garay, Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson
Projected Opening Day Depth Chart: Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Kenrick Ellis, Antonio Garay, Damon Harrison, Leger Douzable
I am only projecting the Jets to carry six defensive linemen, because in their base 3-4 defense Coples will technically be an outside linebacker. However, he will spend a lot of time in a three point stance as well, which is why this projected depth chart includes more tackles than ends. The biggest battle here is for the starting nose tackle position, where Ellis and Garay are competing. However, the other two backup spots are totally up for grabs, and it will be very interesting to see who can separate themselves from the pack.
The two sure things here are that Wilkerson and Richardson will start at the two end spots. Wilkerson is rapidly becoming one of the best 3-4 ends in football, and he recorded 69 tackles and five sacks last season while forcing three fumbles. Wilkerson could and really should be a Pro Bowl level player in his third season, and expect him to become a dominant force on the Jets’ defensive line.
Richardson was the man the Jets drafted with the pick they acquired for Darrelle Revis, and he will be transitioning from the 4-3 tackle he was in college to a 3-4 end in the pros. Richardson was a dominant run defender in college, and will be expected to continue that production while improving as a pass rusher at the professional level. He will move inside quite a bit as well, as the Jets figure to run a lot of 4-3 with Coples at defensive end.
The battle to back up these two is really a toss up, but I believe that Douzable will emerge with a roster spot. Douzable is by far the most experienced of all the backups in camp, and he was a solid contributor for Jacksonville in 2011. The fact that he is a true 3-4 end will help his cause. Damon Harrison appeared in five games for the Jets last season, and he should be the third string nose tackle. He is a massive body at 6-foot-4, 350-pounds and will be insurance if either Ellis or Garay gets injured.
The spotlight of the defensive line will shine on the nose tackle position where third year man Ellis will battle the veteran Garay for the starting job. Ellis was the team’s third round pick in 2010, but due to injuries, inexperience and legal problems, he has yet to make an impact. The team wants him to win the starting job, and he will be given every opportunity to do so. However, he must produce this season. Ellis has the potential to be a dominant run stopper, and the Jets need him to realize that potential.
If Ellis falters, Garay will be the man to take over. Garay dealt with injuries last season, and the San Diego Chargers cut him in the offseason. The Jets are hoping that he will be nothing more than a part time player and mentor to Ellis, but there is certainly a chance he will leave camp with the starting job.
The defensive line has the potential to be one of the best in football if Wilkerson, Richardson and Ellis all play up to their ability. For now, though, Wilkerson is the only player sure to do that, so the development of the other young players will be a key storyline for the Jets throughout camp.