Riding the line as far as it will take them
Sheldon Richardson was coming back from vacation in the Bahamas on July 15 when his dad texted him the news, and at first the Jets' Pro Bowl defensive lineman thought it was a joke. Linemate Muhammad Wilkerson, who was widely expected to play under the franchise tag this season, had signed a five-year, $86 million extension. Then Richardson saw Wilkerson's Instagram post and immediately called to congratulate him. The contract means that the NFL's best defensive line trio—Richardson (signed through 2017), Leonard Williams (2018) and Wilkerson (2020)—will be together for at least two more years. New York is betting $76 million in guaranteed money that pressure up the middle is the way to bring down the NFL, and especially division rival New England.
We will not give the D-line trio typical position designations, because they are not typical defensive linemen. They are all 290-plus-pound ends who also play tackle—and look as if they could play linebacker. Richardson actually did line up for 182 snaps at outside 'backer in 2015, as coach Todd Bowles (who runs a base 3--4 defense) searched for ways to get his best players on the field. Last year Wilkerson had 30 or more quarterback pressures at both tackle and end, while Williams led the team with 32 quarterback hits as a rookie. "We're a group that can create a lot of mismatches, because you never know where we'll be or what we're doing," Wilkerson says.
The Jets did lose nosetackle Damon Harrison, the league's best run-stopper in 2015 according to Pro Football Focus, to the Giants in free agency. But they found a replacement in former Steeler Steve McLendon, who actually makes the line more versatile. Unlike Harrison, who lined up exclusively at nosetackle, the 310-pound McLendon (a dilettante in ballet) can play multiple positions.
Williams, the sixth pick of the 2015 draft, believes his pressures last year should have led to more than three sacks, which is why he spent his off-season training with his former USC coaches, working to improve at disengaging from blockers and closing on the quarterback. "It's just a half-second difference between you reaching for the quarterback right as he throws it, and you getting a sack," Williams says.
Wilkerson spent the summer rehabbing the broken right leg that he sustained in the final game of 2015, but he expects to be ready for Week 1. Backed by a more than capable secondary, the Jets' defense, ranked fourth in '15 in yards allowed, should again be among the league's best.
On offense the big question is how quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will perform after an off-season contract holdout that limited his work with teammates. While he did set a franchise record with 31 passing touchdowns in 2015, his six interceptions in the fourth quarter of seven-point games (tied for the most in the NFL) often proved to be the undoing of an offense that ranked 10th in yards gained. The personnel will be largely the same, except at running back. Chris Ivory left for the Jaguars and will be replaced by former Bear Matt Forte, still a productive rusher and a pass-catching threat at age 30.
One challenge not to be underestimated: The Jets will go from playing the easiest schedule in the NFL in 2015 to the seventh toughest in '16. Which means that Wilkerson, Richardson and Williams will need to dominate more than ever if the team is to make its first postseason berth since 2010.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis(left) hit some rough spots in 2015, with struggles against Raiders rookie Amari Cooper in Week 8, the Bills' Sammy Watkins two weeks later and the Texans' DeAndre Hopkins the following game. But Revis won plenty of battles too, taking on top receivers ranging from true slot Julian Edelman in New England to Jaguars perimeter weapon Allen Robinson. At 31, Revis might be a half-step slower, but his game has always been predicated on smarts and technique anyway. Which is why coach Todd Bowles builds his blitzes and coverages around Revis's lockdown skills. He won't be relied on this way every down; Bowles, while partial to man coverage, still calls plenty of zone. But on money downs—third-and-long or hurry-up situations—Bowles becomes aggressive with his pressures, and that's where having a true No. 1 corner is crucial.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 8--8
2015 Record: 10--6
SEPT. 11 vs.CIN [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 15 atBUF
SEPT. 25 atKC
OCT. 2 vs.SEA [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 9 atPIT
OCT. 17 atARI
OCT. 23 vs.BAL [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 30 atCLE [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 atMIA
NOV. 13 vs.LA [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 27 vs.NE
DEC. 5 vs.IND [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 11 atSF
DEC. 17 vs.MIA [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 24 atNE
JAN. 1 vs.BUF [PREDICTED WINNER]
= PREDICTED WINNER