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After coming off of a disastrous season 8-8 season, the Jets, Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum have a lot of work to do if they plan on making it back into the playoffs and dethroning the rival Patriots from their seat atop the AFC.
We can argue over what exactly caused the season to end in such a downward spiral – problems within the locker room, a coach that lost the “pulse of the team” – and there is little doubt that an overall attitude adjustment is needed prior to the start of the 2012 season.
But as far as improvements that must be made to the actual roster, the simple fact remains that both the offense and defense need a fundamental overhaul, and that any off-season “makeover” must include a total infusion of youth and speed.
Sources close to the team have indicated that the Jets defensive players are being told to slim down this off-season as part of their conditioning plan, which is a good indication that the team understands what has to be done.
So with that, let’s focus on the defense, the bread and butter of any Rex Ryan team, and examine where they need help and how they can get it.
Oh, but wait– we cannot go on without first talking about the salary cap.
In terms of dollar amounts, it had been previously speculated that the Jets were nearly dead-even with the cap. However, after restructuring left tackle D’Brickshaw Ferguson’s contract, the Jets gained approximately $7.5 mill in cap space and more restructures/cuts are expected in the next few weeks. Some people are suggesting that after Tannenbaum is done, the Jets will be left with somewhere between $18-30 million under the cap (quite a discrepancy, I realize). While this might seem like a pile of money, let’s go ahead and air on the conservative with the fake money the team will spend in free agency. Agreed?
Alright. On to the defense.
In today’s NFL, rushing the passer is an essential part of any stout defensive unit. Unfortunately, the Jets have been seriously longing for a decent rusher since John Abraham left town and have somehow failed to address the need in the years since.
True, Aaron Maybin did provide some semblance of a pass rush last season, but Maybin is best used as a situational rusher and is not an every down player. Additionally, veteran LB Bryan Thomas is a free agent and recovering from an Achilles injury he suffered last season.
The Jets could try to acquire a premier free agent to fill the position and, obviously, DE/OLB Mario Williams is at the top of any such list. However, the Jets have indicated that they will not go after Williams, likely because he will command a very hefty salary and Houston may franchise him. Other key free agents at the position include the aforementioned John Abraham (ATL), Robert Mathis (IND), Jarret Johnson (BAL) and Manny Lawson (CIN).
All that said, I still firmly believe that the best way for the team to try to address this need is through the draft, not only because it will be more cost-effective, but because there are several pro-ready DE/OLB prospects in this year’s draft class that could become franchise players.
The 2012 draft class boasts several talented pass rushers, including Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw, and South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram. Though Upshaw is currently considered the “top” prospect, many believe he would actually be better suited as a 4-3 DE. Ingram is slightly smaller, but has much more versatility and can improve the pass rush no matter where he is lined up.
Other excellent options outside of the two top prospects include Nick Perry, Whitney Mercilus and Bruce Irvin.
The Jets need a safety or two this off-season with both Jim Leonhard and Brodney Pool hitting free agency and Eric Smith being, well, Eric Smith. With this trio in place last year, the Jets had a lot of problems with pass-catching tight ends and they MUST upgrade the position in order to compete in the current NFL.
Basically what I mean is that the Jets need a guy that suits their style and has the kind of physical talents needed to defend the Rob Gronkowski’s of the world.
Many people believe that Jim Leonhard will be offered another contract at veteran minimum, and Eric Smith will be cut and resigned to a small contract to free up cap space. This will allow this team to have veteran leadership and experience at the position, but it still won’t solve the main problem (Faster, bigger and better).
Top free agents at the position include Tyvon Branch, Michael Griffin and LaRon Landry, to name a few, but I believe the Jets would be best suited to go after a mid-level free agent (given the cap situation and the FA talent) in addition to grabbing a guy in the draft.
Mark Barron is the hot name right now, though his draft stock is expected to fall a bit due to a double sports hernia (he is #1 safety prospect in the draft). That said, he would still be a great add for the team and with first round picks base salaries going down, it also makes financial sense.
Other options in the draft include Harrison Smith from Notre Dame, who has a really good chance of moving up on the board if he performs well at the combine/Pro Day. Antonio Allen, Janzen Jackson, George Iloka and Brandon Taylor are also solid prospects at the position.
This need is not as pressing, but Bart Scott is getting older and it’s time to start thinking about younger talent to bring up at the position. It’s possible the Jets try to find their next man up in a later round of April’s draft.
This “need” will be entirely contingent upon what becomes of the veteran NT Sione Pouha prior to the start of free agency. The team has made it known that they are placing a priority on retaining Pouha, and will likely offer him a short term deal rather than slapping hin with the franchise tag (tag for NT’s is $7.9 mill).
Considering Pouha is one of the league’s most reliable (yet underrated) nose tackles, should Pouha enter the free agency market he could garner a hefty salary that the Jets may be unable to match. Losing Pouha would create yet another need for the Jets, as Kenrick Ellis is not quite ready to assume the job.
Many have suggested Dolphins NT Paul Soliai as an option should it come to it.
Kristine Reese is a regular contributor to Sports of New York. You can follow her on Twitter @KristineReese.