One month into the new NFL league year, no team has taken larger steps toward improvement than the New York Jets and they’ve done it by quickly turning one of the team’s biggest weaknesses into an overwhelming strength.
New York completely overhauled the organization following a fourth straight disappointing season in 2014 and the Jets new front office and coaching staff have made serious changes to the roster on both sides of the ball. New general manager Mike Maccagnan made significant additions to the New York offense, highlighted by the bold move to trade for Brandon Marshall and the recent addition to Steven Ridley to aid the ground attack.
But while those offensive upgrades were critical and should prove fruitful, if the Jets are going to return to prominence and make a run at dethroning the Super Bowl Champion Patriots — which is the goal of all of this — they’re going to do it as they’ve done before, with defense.
New York has a middle road defense last season under Rex Ryan in his sixth and final season with the team. But they were held back by their backend, a secondary that by all accounts was among the worst if not the very worst in the league.
Enter new head coach Todd Bowles an aggressive and excellent choice at the helm. It should come as no surprise that with a former defensive back and later long-time secondary coach in Bowles leading the way, the Jets prioritized upgrading their DBs this offseason.
“You can’t go into the year wondering what you’re trying to do, so we tried to fix one area of things we needed to fix in free agency, and that’s the area we tried to attack,” he said.
“Corners are big for me,” Bowles said when he was introduced, perhaps telegraphing his plan. “The corners in this league are at a premium, especially with the wide outs and tight ends getting bigger. For what we do, it is going to be a premium for us to have decent corners.”
Bowles played eight NFL seasons as a defensive back, then got into coaching as a secondary coach. He occupied that position with the Jets in 2000, then bounced from Cleveland to Dallas to Miami to Philly, leaving each team better on the backend than when he arrived.
But it was when Bowles was given the reins of the Arizona Cardinals defense in 2013 that he showed what he is truly capable of. Bowles quickly took the Cardinals from the middle of the pack to among the top units in the league. The Arizona defense fell back a bit in ranking last season due to a litany of injuries, but the group was still strong enough to help the Cardinals reach the postseason for the first time in five years.
Like his predecessor in New York, Bowles favors an aggressive 3-4 defense, and the Cardinals blitzed more than any other team in football over his two seasons as defensive coordinator in Arizona. So Jets observers will likely recognize what they’re seeing on the defensive side of the ball when New York takes the field. But the mindset that goes into cultivating that style is going to be quite different, as Bowles made clear at his introductory press conference.
“I think anytime you take over a team, or go to a different place there has to be a culture change,” he said. “Obviously, or there wouldn’t be change. We have to get to some of the players and we have to teach them our culture. Not that the other culture was bad, but it didn’t win, so our culture is going to be try to instill different things in them from a winning organization, from a different point of view to make us go forward and get to the playoffs.”
In order to foster that type of environment, Bowles and Maccagnan decided to make some major changes to the personnel, and in the process they brought some old faces back to the Jets and complemented them with some key new pieces.
The corners New York brought in are far better than “decent.” The headliner, of course was the return of cornerback Darrelle Revis, not only a fan favorite but one of the best defensive players in the league, after a two-year stint away from the team he began his career with.
After a spending a year in NFL purgatory with Tampa Bay in 2013, Revis signed a one-year contract with the New England Patriots last offseason and helped catapult the Patriots on a Super Bowl Championship run. After ranking atop the league at cornerback according to Pro Football Focus during his comeback year with Buccaneers, Revis checked in at fourth last year for New England. Bowles pointed to Revis’ versatility and his complete play of the position, not just his coverage as reasons why he’s such a difference-maker on the field.
“He has an impact everywhere he goes,” the coach said. “He can play in any scheme. He’s a zone or man guy. I think he doesn’t get enough credit for his zone, and his tackling, and his awareness on the field. So whatever we decide to play back there, he’s very capable of doing.”
But Revis’ impact on what the Jets are trying to do goes beyond the field. Signing Revis to a five-year, $70 million deal with cap hits of $16 million, $17 million and $15 million over the next three seasons spoke volumes about how quickly Maccagnan and Bowles are trying to accomplish a turnaround. It would be absurd to extend such a contract if they weren’t serious about making this an instant rebuild.
“We have a lot of work to do. We’ve got a new coaching staff. We’ve got a lot of new faces and pieces, so we’re very excited to get to work,” Revis said. “I think that’s the best way to sum it up. I understand they struggled last year, but this is a new year and that’s all we’re trying to focus on is trying to make our pass defense better in 2015.”
To do so, Revis was hopeful the Jets would reunite the dynamic duo he and Antonio Cromartie created during his first stint in New York and days after signing Revis, the Jets did just that by signing Cromartie to a four-year, $32 million deal. It was a natural fit as not only had Cromartie played with Revis for three seasons with the Jets, the lengthy corner also spent last season playing under Bowles in Arizona.
“This is great. We get to play for a coach that’s very aggressive in his style of defense,” Revis told ESPN’s Mike and Mike after the Cromartie signing. “I know I’m up for it, I’m sure that’s why he made the decision because he’s played with him already.”
Cromartie has consistently been on the of the league’s best playmakers at corners over the last half dozen years, hauling in at least three interceptions per year every season since 2009. He also recorded double-digit passes defensed in 2014 with Arizona, his sixth consecutive season doing so.
Because of that consistency and his experience with Cromartie, Bowles said he and the Jets didn’t pay much mind to the fact that the cornerback is about to turn 31 years old this offseason.
“Cro’s long and he can run. We have this perception in the NFL that when you become 31, 32 years old you can’t play anymore. Perception versus reality, in this case, was a little different,” Bowles said at the NFL owners meetings. “You can run sprints in the offseason, Cromartie’s ahead of everybody by 10 yards. He keeps himself in excellent shape. He came in there, and he kept his head down and he worked. He doesn’t get enough credit for his mental intelligence, as far as seeing the game and watching film, and that part I did not know about. You get to a certain point in the league where you understand your body, you become a professional, you train, and you just have to trust that guy. I saw a lot of that in him in Arizona.”
The signings of Revis and Cromartie pushed to the backburner New York’s first secondary signing of the offseason, former Cleveland Browns cornerback Buster Skrine. On its own, the signing of Skrine, who graded out poorly in coverage in 2014, was a head scratcher for a Jets team that also ranked poorly in coverage last season. But combined with the additions of Revis and Cromartie, the signing of Skrine makes a lot more sense.
Skrine, like Cromartie, is a playmaker. He finished last season with four interceptions, tied for second most in the league. The difference is Skrine doesn’t have the size or length to play the outside. Pushing him inside to the slot should play more to his strengths while also allowing him to take more risk in the aggressive defense Bowles and his defensive coaches will deploy. In Revis, Cromartie and Skrine, the Jets also now have at least three starting caliber corners for the nickel defense, which is likely to serve as their base scheme in 2015.
“Our nickels play over 75 percent of the time,” Bowles said. “You see more three wideouts now than you do old-school, two-back, one tight end, two receivers. They spread you out more than they bring you in.”
They’ll have a fourth starting caliber corner if they choose to retain 2013 first round pick Dee Milliner, who is recovering from an Achilles injury. Milliner is a strong traded candidate for the Jets, but if they don’t get the offers they’re looking for before the draft, they’re likely to keep him and play from a position of strength next season, as Maccagnan posited last month.
“You can never have enough good corners,” he said. “We’re very excited about Dee coming back off his injury, and making that position exceptionally deep, talented, and helping our team win. There’s so much time that has to go by here. I’m just focused on getting Dee back on the field and making that position extremely competitive and very talented.”
A strong secondary wouldn’t be complete without a pair of capable safeties and New York addressed that position in free agency as well, signing free safety Marcus Gilchrist to pair with 2014 first round pick Calvin Pryor. The move shifts Pryor back to the strong safety position from which he earned the nickname of “Louisville Slugger” during his college career.
“That was music to my ears,” Pryor said as the Jets began their voluntary offseason program this week. “I’m going to be strong safety. So I’m going to be back to my old self, doing what I do, being down in the box.”
Pryor spent most of his time last season at free safety alongside strong safety Dewan Landry. But after evaluating their roster, the new Jets coaching staff prioritized getting Pryor back to his natural position. The signing of Gilchrist, who is more experienced in coverage after playing corner at the outset of his NFL career, facilitated the move. Bowles spoke at the NFL owners meetings about the need for versatility in the secondary and Gilchrist provides that.
“The way the game is trending, you see more receiving tight ends that are keeping you in base defense,” the Jets coach said. “So you need an extra cover guy, and it can’t be a corner, so it’s got to be a quasi-safety guy that used to play corner and kind of be a jack of all trades to do those type of things.”
The revamping of the secondary adds strength to a Jets defensive unit that was already among the league’s best in the front seven. Maccagnan and Bowles prioritized keeping that group in place by re-signing David Harris to a three-year deal that came as a surprise to many, especially at the salary numbers he received. But there’s something to be said for continuity on the front end when there is so much upheaval elsewhere.
New York’s linebacking corps of Harris, Demario Davis, Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples started 15 of 16 games together last season and were recognized as one of the team’s strongest unit. The Jets also kept things intact on the defensive line where they employ two of the game’s most talented pass rushers.
Defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson were already considered one of the top tandems in the game when they were rushing from a defense that was poor on the backend. Now with their secondary more than capable in coverage, expect the duo to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks all year long.
“We strongly feel like we’re going to be the top defense in the league — and top team in the league, not just defense,” Richardson said this week. “Offensively and defensively, we made moves that I feel like that progressed this team forward.”
The AFC East might be the most competitive division in the NFL this season, but led by their defense that is suddenly strong once again on the backend, the Jets have a chance to rise back to the top before too long.
“Going forward, we’re going to be a tough team. We’re going to be an intelligent team. We’re going to do things the right way,” Bowles said when he was introduced as Jets coach. “It’s not about just playing great defense, for me being a defensive coordinator, it’s scoring one more point than the other team. So, going forward we’re going to do everything we can and use all our resources. We’re going to try to build a championship team here. That’s my only job.”
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