Last season, the defensive line was the New York Jets’ greatest strength. The team finished third in the NFL in total run defense, first in yards per carry, and 13th in sacks, thanks in large part to their front three. The Jets hope that they can continue to build on that success, and that their young line will be the foundation for an elite defense. However, there were some concerns that the Jets left themselves a little thin on the line last season, so let’s look at what their potential depth chart could be.
Starters: Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson
Reserves: Leger Douzable, Kenrick Ellis, Tivita Finau
Right now, I am projecting the Jets to carry six defensive linemen, one more than they did last season. While Wilkerson, Richardson and Harrison play the vast majority of the snaps and are an elite unit, the Jets did not have enough injury insurance last year. Additionally, taking an extra lineman will help on special teams and with keeping the starters fresh in the fourth quarter.
Everything starts with Wilkerson, the Jets’ best player and one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL. Wilkerson had 10.5 sacks last season and was outstanding against the run, and you have to think that it was the last year he’ll miss the Pro Bowl for some time. At the other end spot, Richardson won the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award for his contributions. Richardson is rapidly becoming one of the best run defenders in football, and the Jets will be expecting him to raise his pass rush game to match that.
Wilkerson and Richardson were both first round picks, so they were expected to play well. Between them, however, was the stunning emergence of Harrison, an undrafted free agent who in just his second season became one of the better nose tackles in the league. Harrison is a mountain inside at 6’4″, 350 lbs, and perhaps no player contributed more to the Jets’ elite run defense. If all three of these players continue on their current trajectory, the Jets could have the best defensive line in the NFL.
Behind the starters, Douzable and Ellis will easily make the team as reserves once again. Douzable worked his way onto the team in camp last summer and became a reliable fill-in for Wilkerson and Richardson, and the Jets re-signed him this offseason to fill that role again. Ellis is a former third round draft pick who the Jets hoped would become the player Harrison has, but he remains a quality reserve and excellent run stuffer.
Things get interesting after the first five, who were the only linemen the Jets carried last season. If the Jets keep six linemen, it should be Finau who gets the last spot. He is versatile and was one of the last cuts last season, and carrying him for insurance makes a lot of sense. However, it is important to remember that the Jets have Quinton Coples at linebacker, and they will often move him to end when they go to four linemen looks. His presence gives the Jets a little more flexibility on the line.
The Jets will have several other young players in camp, including Anthony Grady, Kerry Hyder, T.J. Barnes and Zach Thompson. All will have to beat out Finau for the sixth spot, but if any of them turn in an impressive preseason they could work their way onto the roster. Harrison came out of nowhere, so the Jets aren’t afraid to give these unknowns a shot.
Right now, whether or not the Jets will actually carry six linemen is completely up in the air. Wilkerson, Richardson, Harrison, Douzable and Ellis are locks for the team, and they could end up being the only full time linemen again. However, carrying only five players on the defensive front is a risky move, so don’t be surprised if the Jets take one more for insurance. Either way, expect the Jets’ defensive line to continue to excel, and this will be the best unit on the team.