Free Agent Targets That Make Sense: Defense
Yesterday we took a look at the free agents the Jets should target on offense and while the lack of big names may have been disappointing to fans that don’t understand the concept of limited cap room, we went over some very realistic and affordable names the Jets should target to improve their offense. Not every hole could be filled perfectly through free agency so the Jets will have to get what they can there then turn to the draft to finish improving the roster. Today it’s the defenses turn, but as with the offense money is still just as tight so Mike Tannenbaum will have to spend whatever money he can free up wisely and sorry that still means no Mario Williams.
Safety- The lack of a pass rush has been the most talked about weakness within the Jets defense for the past few years, but last year the safety position was exposed game after game. With the NFL changing into more of a passing league and teams adding these giants, posing as tight ends, who can somehow still run extremely fast and make catches in traffic it became painfully obvious that a combination of Jim Leonhard and Eric Smith just wasn’t going to cut it against any team that can attack the middle of the field.
When healthy Leonhard does this defense a lot of good by being the defensive play caller and using his ability to recognize formations and plays, he has great instincts but lacks size (can’t cover quality tight ends) and will certainly lack (even more) speed after his second straight season ending surgery. Smith is an excellent special teams player and a very good safety when he essentially gets to be an extra linebacker in the box defending the run. It’s true that Smith played through a painful knee injury this season, but it’s also true he lacks the coverage ability to be a starting safety in this league and that’s going to be the reason he has played his last game as a Jet. If Leonhard is physically cleared to play don’t be surprised if the Jets bring him back on the cheap (not sure where else he’d go), but it would likely be in more of a part time/mentoring role. Brodney Pool had his moments, but never felt like he consistently fit in and what all this means is the Jets need to find themselves two starting safeties this offseason.
Needing two safeties they could sign two free agents or draft two safeties, but considering safety is considered the weakest position in the draft the Jets will have to sign at least one free agent safety regardless of what happens with Leonhard. The first person the Jets should call (and I mean the very first person they should call as soon as the clock strikes 12:01 on March 13) is Michael Griffin from the Titans. Griffin has had some consistency issues over the past couple of seasons and isn’t quite the big hitter fans fall in love with, but there isn’t a better coverage safety available and as previously stated the Jets need a safety that can cover people. Reggie Nelson is another name the Jets should consider as a cheap option, but he’s far from a difference maker and should be considered for depth purposes only.
Forget about LaRon Landry, he will cost a nice chunk of change and simply isn’t worth it. He’s the big hitter fans love, but there isn’t much more to his game than that besides getting hurt. Dashon Goldson from the 49ers made a name for himself this year, but like Landry his game doesn’t extend beyond that of a big hitter. Yes he got his hands on six interceptions last year, but that front seven of the 49ers made life hell for opposing quarterbacks and Goldson was simply the beneficiary of their dominance. Yesterday I avoided mentioning the idea of bringing back Braylon Edwards or Jerricho Cotchery because neither will happen, nor should they. Those ships have sailed (albeit for different reasons), but an interesting idea might be to bring Dwight Lowery back if (big if, he might still be mad about being traded) he would be willing. Not as a starter mind you, but as an x-safety/extra corner. Lowery’s versatility and knowledge of the defense could be a big help especially if Leonhard doesn’t return and don’t forget Lowery has a knack for making big time clutch plays to finish games off and he and Drew Coleman were always good for a few corner blitz sacks every now and then, something the Jets shied away from until late in the season last year.
Cornerback- Probably not going to worry about this too much. They could use some more depth of course, but clearly aren’t in the market for any big names.
LB- This where things start to get tricky for Tannenbaum. Just as with the safeties the Jets linebacking core was also exposed as it’s apparent they need to get younger and faster. Bryan Thomas is unlikely to return after his season ending injury while both Calvin Pace and Bart Scott’s contracts have been guaranteed for next season. Pace will return as he still has a lot of value, but Scott’s status remains up in the air, either way the Jets need to add someone to pair next to David Harris in the middle that can play in multiple packages and be more effective than Scott. On the market there are three players that could serve as an immediate upgrade to Scott; Dan Conner (Panthers), Stephen Tulloch (Lions) and David Hawthorne (Seahawks). Tulloch and Conner should be the primary targets here with Hawthorne serving as the backup plan. Tulloch is easily the best choice strictly from a talent/performance standpoint, but he won’t be cheap and it’s possible the Lions do whatever it takes to keep him, which leaves Conner as a more realistic get since he will be cheaper and with the Panthers already well stocked at linebacker they won’t put up a huge fight to keep him. Pairing Conner inside with Harris would be a good start to upgrading the core if they can’t find a way to sign Tulloch.
As for the outside linebackers, this is where the Jets need to improve in multiple areas. Aaron Maybin was a nice surprise last season and the Jets will certainly bring him back to build on last year, but as good as he was he’s still mostly a one trick pony. Luckily for him it’s the one trick the Jets need the most. Still even with Maybin’s pass rushing ability they need to get another OLB who can get to the quarterback (look for them to target Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw or South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram in the draft), as well as one that can also play coverage and could help set the edge in the rushing game. As dominant as Sione Pouha was inside against the run game, opponents challenged the Jets on the outside and although some of the problem was the inexperience of then rookie Muhammad Wilkerson the OLBs need to be of more help.
Enter the Ravens Jarret Johnson. If you’ve ever listened to a Rex Ryan press conference you know just how fond Ryan is of Johnson. Ryan has mentioned him as the most underrated player he’s been around and just below Ed Reed as his favorite player to ever coach and there’s a good reason for that. As you know Ryan is a smash mouth football kind of guy and very few outside linebackers can set containment on the edge like Johnson. He won’t solve the pass rushing problems, but he would do wonders for the rush defense and you know Ryan is going to give him the hard sell to try and bring him on board. Mario Haggan (Broncos) is another option at OLB to help the rush defense if Johnson doesn’t sign, but if it’s pass rushing you want Ahmad Brooks (49ers) is the best available, unless you want to count Mario Williams as on OLB but I don’t because he will almost surely want to go to a 4-3 team so he can play end. Brooks won’t take over games himself, but he could definitely be a solid contributor to an improved pass rush if he joined the Jets. Still the most likely way the Jets upgrade the pass rush at this spot will be through the draft.
DL- This is the position that has Jets fans salivating, but it’s also the position likely to see the least change. No one is going to say that the Jets need DT help, or any help inside, it’s those edge pass rushers the fans are clamoring for. Thing is acquiring those guys is much easier said than done and realistically in a 3-4 defense DEs aren’t typically where you generate a pass rush, the OLB position is. Which is why Upshaw and Ingram make such obvious choices for the Jets first round draft pick if available. So while the names Cliff Avril, Robert Mathis, Michael Bennett or even John Abraham might make some fans drool, they are all 4-3 ends and even if they are capable of playing in Ryan’s defensive scheme they are more likely to choose a team that suits their strengths and runs a 4-3.
There will likely be a few under the radar guys picked up to compete to fill out the bottom of the depth chart, but it is unlikely the Jets can do much to upgrade this position this season. If somehow the Cardinals let Calais Campbell escape from Arizona that would be the one big money target the Jets should bend over backwards to get as he could be plugged right into this defense and have a big time impact (and he won’t be anywhere near as expensive as a Mario Williams would be), but the word on the curb is the Cardinals will either re-sign him or slap him with the franchise tag.
Fans are quick to complain about the Jets continually failing to get a big-time pass rusher, but it’s a much harder task than they realize. As with o-linemen the best way to get an elite pass rusher (see the Giants for example) is through the draft and also like o-linemen once teams get an elite pass rusher they rarely let them go. It’s not as if the Jets front office doesn’t think they need to upgrade the pass rush, it’s that they simply haven’t liked the options they’ve had to work with.
As with the offense there aren’t any superstar, headline grabbers on this list, but everyone mentioned as a target will be in the Jets price range and could become solid contributors on this team and shore up the weaknesses on this team. Adding Michael Griffin, Jarret Johnson, Dan Conner or Stephen Tulloch and a Dwight Lowery or Reggie Nelson (while also drafting a safety like Barron from Alabama or Iloka from Boise State), with a few other pieces and drafting a stud pass rushers would give this defense the weapons to return to their elite status of two years ago.