The Jets are hoping for an immediate impact from top pick LB Jonathan Vilma. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
When the team switched their home field from sloppy grass trays to a quick artificial surface last season, the slowness of the back seven was exposed for the whole league to see. After an abysmal 2003, where the Jets finished 28th in run defense, the organization acted decisively.
Thankfully absent from the current roster are many aging veterans and several under-performing defensive coaches. The 2004 Jets defense is filled with new faces throughout the linebacker and secondary corps, and in this pre-camp preview we will discuss them all in a position-by-position analysis. However, in many ways the key acquisition was not any of the free agents or draft picks, but former Ravens defensive-backs coach Donnie Henderson, the first-time coordinator who has replaced Teddy Cottrell.
During Coach Edwards’ exhaustive search for a new defensive coordinator earlier this calendar year, Henderson was one of the first candidates to be interviewed. As the story is told by Edwards, Henderson came into the interview ultra-prepared, giving a professional presentation chock full of energy and versatile ideas. Much like Herm did several years earlier, Henderson had the interview of a lifetime, and won the job despite lacking traditional qualifications.
Make no mistake; Henderson has worked with some of the best in the business and is adequately qualified for the job of defensive coordinator. He earned a Superbowl ring with the Ravens in 2001, having earned his NFL coaching keep under current Bengals’ head coach Marvin Lewis. After the departure of Lewis, Henderson was central to the continued success of the Ravens being the on-the-field taskmaster, supplementing the booth calls and game planning of new Ravens DC Mike Nolan. Although they still have All-World LB Ray Lewis, it will be interesting to see how the Ravens try to replace Henderson’s persona on the sidelines.
Relevant to the new-look Jets, Henderson has a history of bringing up young players (especially young defensive backs) to their full potential. As a defensive-backs coach he molded S Ed Reed and CB Chris McAllister into Pro-Bowlers, Gary Baxter and Duane Starks into very fine pros, and even took players like unheralded undrafted free agent FS Will Demps and turned him into a solid NFL starter. The Jets are hoping with Henderson’s track record that he can have the same success with youngsters such as CB David Barrett, S Erik Coleman, S Derrick Strait, S Jon McGraw, S Rashaad Washington and UDFA S Jarell Weaver to take their game to the next level.
Even though the task in front of Henderson is a formidable one, early reviews have been positive. Word out of mini-camp was that the defense was moving with a determined pace not seen in years. The playbook is rumored to have increased depth with the addition of a 3-4 set (and others) to supplement the base 4-3 alignment. When asked about where certain players will play, Henderson’s general response is that all jobs are open and competition for a place at the table will be fierce across the board. In short, it appears that accountability is back on the defensive sideline, and this can reap only positive benefits in the season ahead. Tackling is all about heart and desire and if Henderson can get this team to tackle he will be the most important off-season acquisition of the Jets defense.
The following are unit-level aspects of the Jets defense to focus on when fans visit training camp and watch the games:
DEFENSIVE LINE: With defensive linemen John Abraham Shaun Ellis and Jason Ferguson all looking to bust the bank with new contracts at the end of the year, Jets fans should be hoping that the old saying “the love of money is the root of all evil” really turns out to be true. Frankly, a little evil would be nice from a line that spent a great deal of 2003 tackling air instead of ball carriers.
Call me the eternal cynic but John Abraham is far more likely to play through any groin, hamstring or “flu-like” ailments that pop up this year than in seasons past. In light of the 16 million given by the Eagles to oft-injured DE Jevon Kearse this off-season, Abe has too much personally at stake to do otherwise.
Past the three All-Pro caliber defensive linemen mentioned, Josh Evans and Dewayne Robertson are back. DT Evans is the defense’s vocal leader who spent most of last year suspended and D-Rob got paid 10 million dollars in signing bonus as a result of being the fourth player selected in the 2003 draft. These guys both have something serious to prove and they sound ready to prove it. Combined with Ferguson and re-signed RFA James Reed the tackles should provide push from the inside.
At backup defensive end, Matt Walters showed potential last season, displaying an uncanny ability for being at the right place at the right time. DE Bryan Thomas is in his third year and is another serious ‘break-out’ candidate. Jets fans like to pan the former first round pick, but much like Shaun Ellis in 2002, last year Bryan Thomas showed heart and desire on the line, even though his effort did not reflect in final sack totals. 2004 seventh round pick DE Trevor Johnson from Nebraska could have a shot based purely on all the uncertainty of the position. This year the front office will be watching all three of these players very closely, especially with the other notable defensive end free agents. I’m no salary-cap wizard but it’s clear some decisions have to be made and paying everyone 20 million probably isn’t the most realistic option.
The unit will get an early test Week 1 against a top-flight Bengals offensive line. Should they get the better of that match up, Jets fans will know that these guys are for real, as there are few offensive lines in the league this year with the equally outspread talent of the Bengals. They have no real superstars but every line position is manned capably.
With Defensive Line coach Rubin Carter (best known for his nationally broadcast celebration of his son Andre’s plastering Vinny Testeverde in 2001 against San Francisco) hitting the bricks, hopefully what ailed this unit is far behind them. Rather than reading, reacting, and regressing, new defensive line coach Denny Marcin will be teaching aggressive attack moves to a group that could end up being among the deepest and most talented in the entire league.
LINEBACKERS: With the departure of long time veterans Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones (one-way to Jurassic Park), the good news is that this unit is younger, quicker and hungrier. Through free agency, positional changes and the draft, what once was an embarrassingly poor aspect of the Jets could actually turn out to be team strength in 2004. Henderson has stated that all linebackers will learn both inside and outside positions, to give the team maximum versatility throughout the year. Keep this in mind when looking at the group. Barring injury, many different names will see the field, and that will not be a bad thing. Jets fans should expect the unexpected when it comes to the exact depth charts. In a perfect world these assignments wouldn’t mean as much with all the rotating this defense will be able to do. This writer’s advice is to sit back and enjoy the fireworks, it should be something to watch if it all comes together like it can.
Speaking of different looks, there has been talk of Abraham (and Thomas, depending on weight) standing up in the Peter Boulware/Terrell Suggs fashion of pass rush specialist. This role would take some pass coverage work this preseason. Something to watch as you peer at the drills this summer: how much is Abe standing up? Financially the franchise would rather franchise tag him at LB rather than DL.
Although the Jets used their 2004 first round draft pick on his eventual replacement, Sam Cowart remains the leader of this linebacking unit, and should again be the Jets tackling leader. This past off-season, Sam approached the staff about a move back to middle (from outside) and the team agreed to try it out. It was the manning the middle of Buffalo’s 3-4 defense when Cowart was last considered an elite NFL backer. Put in a similar role by Henderson, Cowart could experience a renaissance to his earlier days in the NFL. In another departure from 2003, Sam will have assistance tracking down the opposition during this Jets campaign.
Judging by the piteous cries of Oakland Raider fans when it was announced, the signing of LB Eric Barton by GM Terry Bradway was a smart move. Jets fans will remember #50 as Curtis Martin’s shadow in the 2002 playoff loss at Oakland. Barton is a fierce tackler and fiery leader, a great addition to the unit. In addition to Barton, Victor Hobson and Jason Glenn return to build upon their first season of regular defensive snaps. Hobson was granted a starting job outright and Glenn also will factor into the linebacker rotation. Both players should improve with additional experience.
As most fans know by now, Miami LB Jonathan Vilma was the Jets first round selection and 12th overall pick in the draft. One early good sign was Mel Kiper calling him a “hot” property on the morning of the draft, as many teams, including division rival New England tried to move up and claim Vilma. As of press time, Vilma has newly inked a 5-year deal, assuring his place at the start of camp. But, let’s be honest, a Vilma holdout was ever an issue.
Vilma was a great selection and should be an asset to the franchise for years to come. True to the model of Ray Lewis, Derrick Brooks and other great undersized South Florida ‘backers, Vilma wouldn’t hold out, he point blank loves to play, loves to tackle. Vilma will contribute, he will get used to the ferocity of the pro game, he will make his presence known, and he will get significant playing time. In Henderson’s 3-4 there would be a spot for Vilma at 3-4 ILB working in tandem with Cowart, Hobson, and Barton, or on the outside disrupting.
Further LB depth includes rookie Darrell McClover, promising seventh round pick also out of Miami, and Mike Westoff’s special teams tackle specialist Kenyatta Wright. The rest will probably get caught in the numbers game, which is shame because there is talent there. My personal darkhorse this year is Wes Bautovich as no one did more to make the team last preseason than he did. However with all the uncertainty at DE, and other offensive skill positions the best case for Wes (or others) would probably be in a practice squad situation.
Overall this Jets unit has the depth to throw all of the ingredients together and see what happens, a luxury that Ted Cotrell did not have last year.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: This unit was decimated down the stretch last year by injuries to starters S Jon McGraw and CB Donnie Abraham and general poor play otherwise. In the off-season the Jets were very aggressive in executing change in this unit, first by showing CB Aaron Beasley, S Tyrone Carter and S Sam Garnes the door. After missing out on CB Champ Bailey (to Denver) and CB Antoine Winfield (to Minnesota), the Jets signed CB David Barrett from the Arizona Cardinals. After failing to recruit S John Lynch (also to Denver), the Jets signed former Seahawks S Reggie Tongue. Although fans were disappointed with missing the big names, both signings were wise in the Scott Paoli/Bill Bellichick tradition of building the roster without paying extravagant bonuses. At worst, these players represent a legitimate upgrade over last year’s personnel.
Barrett was a sought-after commodity, due to his physicality, athleticism and toughness. Barrett served his time in NFL’s purgatory and will be a welcome addition to a Jets squad that does not have much bump-and-run experience. Twice a year he matched up man-to-man with the likes of WR’s Terrell Owens, Issac Bruce, Torry Holt, Koren Robinson and Darrell Jackson. A tough assignments for any player lacking a pass rush in front of him. In light of this crash course, it is likely that Barrett finds the transition from the run-and-gun NFL West to the dink-and-dunk AFC East a smooth one. As he is only 26 and still has his best football in front of him, this is an addition with potential to payoff well in the long run for the franchise; definitely one to keep an eye on this preseason.
Holding the fort on the other cornerback position is Donnie Abraham, who was on his way to a very nice year in 2003 before Jay Fielder broke his shoulder in Week 4. After coming back from injury he wasn’t really the same player and split time with solid but not spectacular nickel back Ray Mickens down the stretch. Another aspect to watch this preseason is if Abraham really is back from his injury, or if he looks tentative.
Providing cornerback depth (and hope for the future) is rookie Derek Strait a third round draft pick out of Oklahoma. Slowed by a groin strain in the pre-draft workout season, Strait dropped from a possible late first round all the way to the third round. He is a fantastic prospect, similar to Vilma in the sense that his best qualities are not the ones captured with measuring tape or a stopwatch. He is a gamer in the truest sense of the word, and was a fine pick by Bradway during the first day of the draft. Praise aside, Jets fans should realistically expect Strait to see the field only in dime situations, while he makes the sizable speed adjustment from the Big 12 to the NFL.
S Jon McGraw was a big key to last year’s squad, however did not show up physically ready to take the brutal pounding that the free safety position can dole out week-to-week. While this year the team is expecting him to start, the whole story for this fan will be where he weighs in at the start of camp. Since McGraw is lengthy, measuring height at well over 6 feet, a weight of 205 just isn’t enough, as it could be for a shorter player. If McGraw looks skinny in preseason, Herm may allow other candidates to push him for the starting job, and maybe even a position change to cornerback would be in order in this situation. On the other hand he shows up with more than just his head looking like Dolph Lungren, having bulked up this off season, he might just be able to survive out there and live up to expectations.
Based on his college production, 5th round pick Erik Coleman poses a legitimate threat to McGraw’s free safety spot. Coleman is another prospect heavy with “intangibles” and does whatever it takes to get his team the victory. Those that never heard of him would do well to pop in a tape of the most recent Holiday Bowl in which his Cougars upset #5 Texas. This man was literally all over the field. Coleman has skills and he could actually be ready to contribute “out of the box.” Another candidate for the spot is last year’s 4th round “Chad Morton supplementary” draft pick Derek Pagel. While he has shown acumen on special teams, in light of all the different safety sleepers on the squad it could be put-up or shut-up time for the former Iowa walk-on.
At the strong safety position, although he doesn’t have the upside of Barrett, Reggie Tongue is a speedster with experience who can cover a lot of ground. Stop-gap is a fair description of his signing, and it would not be surprising to see him pushed by a litany of youth into raising his game or riding the pine. Foremost among this youth is seventh round draft pick Rashad Washington, a very successful player out of Kansas State, and UDFA Jarrell Weaver, the fastest University of Miami 40-yard dash time this spring. Another darkhorse candidate to keep an eye on is UDFA Virginia cornerback Art Thomas. While the roster spots will be tight he could have the talent to make the coaches think twice before cutting him. Returning kicks or otherwise endearing himself to Mike Westoff would be the best way onto the 53-man roster for Thomas.
As a whole this unit is far quicker than last years and less likely to be taken advantage of by speedier teams in the league. While the mysterious loss of capable defensive backs coach Doug Graber hurts the corps (who is reported to be suffering from Lyme disease), the guidance of Donnie Henderson should leave the unit better coached as a whole.
SPECIAL TEAMS After a bad year last season with Dallas, veteran Toby Gowin takes over the punting and kickoff duties, and his performance both will be another aspect to carefully watch. The Jets are hoping they will get a rebound year from Gowin in the same way they did with K Doug Brien last season. Last year’s punting and kickoffs were abysmal and should Gowin not improve the unit, the Jets will look at waiver-wire castoffs after the final rosters are set. Optimally, the Jets want a situation similar to the Titans where the punter has the kickoff leg and the place kicker handles field goal duties inside the 50-yard line. After a pleasant surprisingly solid 2003 Brien was re-signed for 2004 and hopefully will provide stress-free duty in situations not of extreme length. As long as the coaching staff recognizes the limitations of its players there should not be a problem with this setup, and it is formidable situation until someone who can do it all comes along.
As for punt returns, the most notable off-season revelation was the intriguing idea of Westoff using both Justin McCareins and Santana Moss as a duel punt return threat. The thinking was that with both on the field, the other team could not simply punt to the corners and would either have to cover a return or kick the ball directly out of bounds. It is something to watch, as it would certainly be novel to risk both the #1 and #2 wideouts on special teams. In the kickoff return spot, a battle is shaping up between incumbent Jonathan Carter who ended the 2004 season injured and Ken-Yon Rambo, with the winner likely claiming the 4th WR spot as well.
DEFENSE OVERALL These position-by-position breakdowns are handy for keeping the players organized, but on the field there is only one unit that is worth talking about: the defensive team as a whole. Each position must do their job well for the entire system to succeed. The coaches have to call the appropriate schemes at the right times, and each position has to fulfill it’s responsiblities within that scheme or the entire unit risks a let down. On paper, the Jets defense is much faster, younger and improved; That being said, the greatest variable in this equation is injuries. If the Jets can avoid the bad luck of 2003, the defensive side of the ball will improve considerably from last year’s version.