Head coach Robert Saleh is in the building, and that generally means that a top-ranked defense will follow.
In terms of the New York Jets defensive unit, Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas have virtually elected to start from scratch. There are a total of four defensive players on the Jets roster with five or more years of NFL experience. Four.
Of those four (Vinny Curry, Lamarcus Joyner, C.J. Mosley and Sheldon Rankins), three were free-agent signings this spring. In comparison, 12 rookies are currently on the defensive depth chart, half of which were undrafted free agents.
This is a young and hungry group, something Saleh didn’t seem to mind during an interview on The Rich Eisen Show: “It’s going to be baptism by fire. We’re going to throw them out there and hit the road running. It’s going to be fun watching these young men grow together.”
With youth and inexperience comes opportunity and room for maturation. Very few starting spots on this defense are locked up, making this an extremely interesting summer of camp battles for the Jets.
Survival of the Fittest at Cornerback
Many expected the Jets to bring in a veteran at cornerback this offseason, and they still could, but so far Douglas and Saleh are choosing to trust in the youth.
On media day, the Jets head coach gave some insight on why no veteran has entered the scene: “The easy answer is to right now bring in a veteran, but a veteran would probably just eat up reps and not give us an ability to look at all these young guys who are just starving for an opportunity.”
That means at least for the moment, the Jets would prefer to see what they have on the roster before exploring alternative options. First, let’s take a look at the returning corners’ 2020 stats in order of performance grade on Pro Football Focus:
- Javelin Guidry, 73.1 (two starts/11 games, 22 tackles, four fumbles forced).
- Bryce Hall, 59.9 (seven starts, 36 tackles, one interception, three passes defended).
- Blessuan Austin, 51.1 (10 starts, 63 tackles, one fumble forced, four passes defended).
- Lamar Jackson, 50.4 (six starts/13 games, 28 tackles, two passes defended).
- Corey Ballentine, 36.7 (no starts/six games, four tackles).
Guidry plays the slot, and Ballentine will be predominantly used on special teams if he makes the team, just like free agent pick-up Justin Hardee, so that leaves the other three as options on the outside.
Rookies Jason Pinnock and Isaiah Dunn will join that camp battle, as Michael Carter II and Brandin Echols are more likely to compete with Guidry for the starting nickel back job.
Pinnock is an exciting prospect. The fifth-round pick out of Pittsburgh is a perfect fit in Saleh’s scheme and bears similarities to Richard Sherman in his style of play. Dunn on the other hand is an undrafted free agent, but no ordinary one. The Oregon State product was a priority free agent, which means the Jets dished out a good chunk of change to land him.
In the slot, Carter could be the man to beat heading into camp. He was the first defensive back that the Jets selected in 2021, and with a 4.32 forty time and third-team All-ACC honors in 2020, the former Duke Blue Devil is probably the most qualified candidate.
Then again, Guidry and Echols are just as quick, if not more in Guidry’s case. The 2020 undrafted free agent played decently in Brian Poole’s absence, and you can bet that he won’t surrender the job willingly to either of the newcomers.
Will Any Prospect Overtake a Vet at Linebacker?
To me, this camp battle is a little simpler than the cornerback battle royale. You have the three experienced Jets that are likely to start.
- C.J. Mosley, MIKE (guaranteed starter when healthy).
- Jarrad Davis, SAM (cost the Jets $5.5 million this spring, likely starter).
- Blake Cashman, WILL (starting spot that could be up for grabs).
The Jets need Mosley to stay healthy for this linebacker core to have cohesion in 2021. The same can be said for Cashman, who has generally performed when on the field. The third-year pro has missed 21 out of 32 possible games since entering the league.
The Jets accounted for this, drafting two hybrid linebackers that both played safety in college, Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen.
Although Sherwood was the higher pick, Nasirildeen might offer the most upside. The Florida State Seminole tore his ACL in 2019, which dropped his draft status significantly in 2021. He described himself as a “do-it-all guy” and a “clean-up guy” in an interview with Jets’ Eric Allen.
Nasirildeen, or “Ham,” was a tackling machine in college that was also exceptional in coverage. These two skills are paramount for the WILL linebacker in Saleh’s 4-3 scheme.
Sherwood could also overtake Cashman at WILL linebacker. Eric Allen noted that the Auburn sparkplug was rated as one of the most sound tacklers in the draft class, which could be just what Saleh is looking for in that crucial role in his unit.
Also in the mix at linebacker are undrafted rookies Camilo “Milo” Eifler out of Illinois, and Rutgers’ own Brendon White, as well as returnees Noah Dawkins and Sharif Finch.
Projected Starters & Notable Backups
At safety and defensive line, there should be fewer surprises when it comes to the starters. That’s not to say there are no competitions though.
Marcus Maye will have one starting safety role in the bag, but is Joyner a sure thing to start beside him? The free safety was supposedly playing out of position with the Las Vegas Raiders, which would explain his failures since leaving the Los Angeles Rams. Joyner received much higher grades from Pro Football Focus as a safety, however.
The only real threat to surpass Joyner would be 2020 third-rounder Ashtyn Davis, but the athletic safety didn’t really seize the role as a rookie. Hence why Douglas brought in the veteran. Undrafted rookie Jordyn Peters could also have an outside chance if he turns heads in camp.
The D-line is the strength of this unit. The starting four may not be 100% locked in with minor battles like Folorunso Fatukasi versus Rankins and John Franklin-Myers against Curry, but the fact is that all these guys will be used in different situations.
Saleh loves to rotate defensive linemen in and out, and the Jets are bulked up in the trenches to do so. Outside of the continued development of Quinnen Williams and the debut of Carl Lawson, some of the more intriguing names will be the depth pieces.
Bryce Huff, Kyle Phillips, Jabari Zuniga and undrafted prospect Hamilcar Rashed Jr. will all fight for snaps as rotational pass rushers, while Nathan Shepherd and Tanzel Smart will try to hold off prospects like Jonathan Marshall and Michael Dwumfour up the middle.