In the second piece of this two-part series, I’ll be going over my early predictions of who I think will make the Jets’ final 53-man roster. Earlier, I went over my predictions for the offense and special teams. Today, we’ll go over the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive Line: 6 (Leonard Williams, Quinnen Williams, Henry Anderson, Steve McLendon, Bronson Kaufusi, Folorunso Fatukasi)
The Jets defensive line has the potential to be one of the best units in the NFL.
At the forefront of the group is fifth-year man Leonard Williams. In 2018, the USC product tied for sixth among interior defensive linemen in total pressures, with 53. Now getting the chance to play under an attacking defensive coordinator in Gregg Williams, the man affectionately known as “Leo” should have the opportunity to put up even splashier numbers. Whether that actually makes him a better football player is yet to be determined, but Leo will surely be getting more opportunities to get after the quarterback. It’ll be his best opportunity yet to show off the tantalizing tools that made a top-six selection back in 2015.
Gregg and Leonard are not the only men with a last name of Williams who will be having an impact on the Jets defensive line this year. Quinnen Williams is the new face of the group, having been selected third overall by the Jets in the 2019 Draft. His blend of power and technique is tremendous, making him one of the best defensive tackle prospects in recent memory. “Big Q” is poised to make a profound impact right off the bat.
Henry Anderson was re-signed by the Jets after a seven-sack season last year. He came over in a trade from Indianapolis and made a big impact with motor and pass rushing instinct. He also blocked a pair of field goals. So far in the preseason, Anderson has been one of the best defensive players on the team. He even blocked yet another field goal.
Steve McLendon is the vet of the group, entering his 10th season at age 33. He is a stalwart against the run.
I think Bronson Kaufusi and Folorunso Fatukasi will round out the group. Kaufusi, 28 years old, snuck on to the Jets roster late in 2018, appearing in three games. He has played with either the first or second team defense throughout camp and the preseason.
Fatukasi was selected by the Jets in the sixth round of the 2018 Draft. He did not do much as a rookie, but he has looked much improved in training camp and the preseason. In my prediction, I have Fatukasi edging out the man selected three rounds before him in the 2018 draft – Nathan Shepherd. Fatukasi has clearly outplayed Shepherd, who has had a quiet preseason. He has been pushed back all the way to the third team at times in the preseason. It would be a surprise cut given his draft status, but I think Shepherd may be on the way out.
Safety: 4 (Jamal Adams, Marcus Maye, Rontez Miles, Derrick Kindred)
There’s no debate as to who the starters will be at this position. Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, selected by the Jets in the top two rounds of the 2017 Draft, are poised to make their claim as one of the best safety duos in the NFL.
Adams is the versatile, loud, playmaking superstar. He is capable of making a positive impact lined up nearly anywhere, on any down, any distance. Maye is the backbone of the secondary. His fluidity as a deep cover man keeps the back end strung together. When he needs to come down and stop the bleeding, Maye packs a vicious punch.
Maye missed ten games in 2018. His health is going to be vital, as the Jets lack a backup safety that can be relied upon in coverage.
The depth at safety is interesting. Rontez Miles, who is entering his sixth season as a Jet, appears to be a lock. While not proficient in coverage, he is a ball of energy who contributes a lot of playing time on special teams.
The battle here appears to be between Derrick Kindred and Doug Middleton. Kindred played under Gregg Williams with the Browns over the last three years, making some noise against the run but struggling mightily in coverage. Middleton, who has a similar skillset to Kindred, is on the Jets roster bubble for the fourth consecutive year.
As of right now, I believe Kindred will beat out Middleton due to his connection with Williams. However, I can see both players making the team. There have been reports that the Jets want to run a lot of three-safety looks. If that is the case, they will need more than just one backup. Both Kindred and Middleton making the Week 1 roster would not surprise me.
Outside linebacker: 5 (Jordan Jenkins, Frankie Luvu, Tarell Basham, Harvey Langi, Jachai Polite)
Incumbent starter Brandon Copeland surprisingly received a four-game suspension recently, making a huge impact on the outside linebacker group.
Jordan Jenkins is the leader of this unit. Normally known for his grittiness, toughness, and run defense, he had a breakout season as a pass rusher in 2018. Jenkins notched career highs of seven sacks and 15 quarterback hits last year. Throughout the preseason, he has been proving that spike in production was no fluke, looking every bit as good of a rusher as he was last year. Jenkins maintaining his status of solidity as an outside pass rusher will be a key part of whether or not this Jets defensive front can be among the league’s best.
Frankie Luvu, an athletic edge rusher, has always seemed to be a lock. However, with Copeland’s suspension, Luvu is likely going to see an uptick in action.
Tarell Basham may have been on the bubble before, but with the extra spot opened up, he now appears to be locked in. Basham has had a stupendous preseason, leading the Jets with seven quarterback pressures.
Harvey Langi has come out of nowhere to enter the mix at outside linebacker. Sidelined for a while to start the offseason, Langi returned to the practice field a few weeks ago and immediately began working with the first and second team units. He also figures to be a part of the rotation at outside linebacker to start the season.
Jachai Polite is the most interesting name of the group. He was taken by the Jets in the third round of this past April’s draft. Polite was considered by most to be a first round talent, but he slipped due to a poor pre-draft process. His workouts and interviews sunk him all the way to the Jets.
Polite has all of the tools that scouts look for in a pass rusher, possessing speed, length, bend, burst, and a high motor. However, the questions are abounding for the Florida product. Can he consistently use his tools to their fullest? Can he read and react effectively? Can he defend the run? Is he committed to the game?
It’s been a rough offseason for Polite. He has looked unimpressive throughout camp and the preseason. His draft status makes him a roster lock, but he will have a hard time finding playing time early on, even while Copeland is out.
Inside Linebacker: 5 (C.J. Mosley, Blake Cashman, Neville Hewitt, Albert McClellan, James Burgess Jr.)
The inside linebacker position is another one that has been shaken up by an injury to a starter. Avery Williamson is done for the year with an ACL injury, so the door has been opened for others to step up.
Rookie fifth-round pick Blake Cashman, out of Minnesota, projects to start off the season playing the second-most snaps at the position behind C.J. Mosley. Cashman had a productive college career, but slipped due to perceived athletic deficiencies. He has the potential to be an upgrade over Williamson in pass coverage, but his run defense, blitzing, and overall awareness all have the potential to be issues at the start of his career.
Neville Hewitt is right there with Cashman at the top of the list of players who will take over Williamson’s snaps. Hewitt is not too comfortable in coverage, but he is a sure-tackling downhill defender. He took over for Darron Lee following his suspension at the end of 2018, playing well for the most part.
James Burgess Jr. came to the Jets with experience playing under both Adam Gase and Gregg Williams. He played 17 games for the Browns from 2017-18, and was a member of Miami’s practice squad late in 2018. Burgess flashed coverage ability against the Falcons when he snagged an interception and took it back for a touchdown. He seems like a good bet to the final backup at inside linebacker.
Albert McClellan is a seasoned eighth-year veteran who brings a ton of value on special teams. A two-time Super Bowl champion, he has played under special teams geniuses John Harbaugh and Bill Belichick throughout his career, earning a reputation as one of the league’s best all-around special teams players. He made his impact felt right away in his Jets debut, forcing a fumble in kickoff coverage. McClellan will be battling Stephone Anthony, a former Dolphin under Gase, for a spot on the special teams unit. Anthony’s connection to Gase could get him in, but I leaned towards the much more accomplished McClellan.
C.J. Mosley will lead the unit, projecting to play every down on defense. The Jets made him the highest paid off-ball linebacker in the NFL in order to snag him away from the Ravens. Over his five years with Baltimore, Mosley proved why he was worthy of such a deal. He is capable of doing just about anything a team needs their middle-of-the-field defensive leader to do. Mosley brings tremendous zone coverage, stout run defense, and great leadership, as he does an impressive job of getting his teammates positioned correctly. His elite-quality IQ will have a positive ripple effect on the rest of the defense.
Cornerback: 6 (Trumaine Johnson, Darryl Roberts, Brian Poole, Alex Brown, two new additions)
The starting trio for the Jets has a lot of question marks, but they have had impressive offseasons.
Johnson just returned to practice after missing a couple of weeks. Reuniting with his old defensive coordinator from St. Louis in Williams, Johnson has performed well in practice. The former Ram struggled mightily in his first season with the Jets after receiving a gargantuan deal. Whether or not he can return to his previous top-20 form will be a huge X-factor for the Jets defense this year. Johnson had his best seasons under Williams, so the hope is that the veteran coordinator will know the best way to get the most out of his big-money cornerback.
Roberts has been playing CB1 with Johnson out, holding up well in the preseason. A boom-or-bust, physical corner, Roberts has looked extremely good in comparison to the issues with the players behind him on the depth chart. The fourth-year Jet is capable of being one of the better #2 corners in the league, but it remains to be seen which version of Roberts will show up.
Poole, a free agent signing from Atlanta, has the starting slot role nailed down. He is a hard-hitting and physical player who is inconsistent in coverage (like most slot corners). So far, he has been good in the preseason. If that can hold up, he has the potential to be an upgrade over Buster Skrine. But we will see. On any given day, Poole can either win or lose you the game on his own.
Alex Brown, an undrafted free agent from South Carolina State, may have locked down a roster spot. A pickup by Joe Douglas, he has played well in his two preseason games, appearing to be the only reserve cornerback capable of bringing competent coverage to the field.
On that note, we get to the reserve cornerbacks. I believe that two of the cornerbacks who will be on the Jets’ Week 1 roster have yet to join the team. Simply put, nobody in the reserve group (other than Brown) has showed they are worth keeping around. That includes Parry Nickerson, a fourth-round pick by the Jets just a season ago.
It remains to be seen exactly who those additions will be, but I feel confident saying that the Jets’ backup cornerback group is going to look a lot different when the team takes the field in Week 1.