With only a matter of months until the 2022 NFL season begins, fans cannot wait to see professional football be played again. Free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft are in the rearview mirror, teams currently employ rosters of around 90 players. Yet, they will eventually carry just 53 into the season. For the New York Jets, the roster saw another revamp as the team continues to rebuild. With General Manager Joe Douglas at the helm, he has done everything in his power to field a talented team for Head Coach Robert Saleh this season. Having already gone over the Jets offensive projections, now let’s look at who the players will be on defense and special teams this year.
New York Jets Roster Projection on Defense and Special Teams in 2022
Carl Lawson, John Franklin-Myers, Jermaine Johnson II, Jacob Martin, Micheal Clemons
Carl Lawson enters as the big question mark along the defensive front. The big addition last off-season, Lawson’s torn Achilles wiped out his first year in New York. Still just 27 years old, Lawson posted pressure numbers amongst the elite rushers in 2020 with the Cincinnati Bengals. Should he return to that form, which many fans saw at training camp last year, the Jets will be thrilled given they rolled out $54 million over three years to the Auburn product.
John Franklin-Myers is one of the original waiver wire pickups by Joe Douglas that certainly paid off. After being acquired in 2019 from the Los Angeles Rams while hurt, the Jets stashed Franklin-Myers for the 2020 season. Since then, the former fourth-round pick in 2018 has started 18 of 31 games played for the Jets. In those games, he has totaled nine sacks, 48 pressures, 54 tackles, and an interception. Considering his ability to play inside or out along the line, he is one of the team’s most valuable players entering 2022.
Jermaine Johnson II is one of three 2022 first-round picks by the Jets. The lengthy Florida State pass rusher has double-digit sack upside, with the ability to set the edge. A player that by many accounts was a steal at 26th overall, Johnson is a well-rounded defensive end prospect that fits the Jets 4-3 defense perfectly. Ironing out inconsistencies as a rusher will be a priority, as he has the upside to be a double-digit sack artist for Gang Green. And with the Jets use of heavy rotations along the defensive line, expect to see Johnson early and often.
Jacob Martin is among the Jets 2022 free agent class, signing from the Houston Texans. A former sixth-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks, Martin has developed into an excellent situational pass rusher. This past season, Martin played on 61% of defensive snaps, notching two forced fumbles, four sacks, 23 tackles, and 19 pressures. An ideal fit in the Jets defense, Martin will be a lock to make the team as one of their primary rotation rushers.
Micheal Clemons gets the final edge defender spot over a handful of others currently on the 90-man roster. The Texas A&M product improved every year in college and brings more versatility to the front standing at 6’5” and 270-pounds. With a relentless motor and NFL-ready frame, Clemons can immediately become a piece of the defensive rotation.
Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins, Solomon Thomas, Nathan Shepherd
Quinnen Williams will be the x-factor along the Jets defensive line. The third overall pick back in 2019 has flashed the elite upside that the Jets hoped to get when they selected him from Alabama. However, injuries and inconsistent play have haunted him here and there over his three-year career. This past season saw Williams plateau a bit, but for the Jets to be successful in 2022, they need him to take that next step. In a critical fourth season, Williams will be 25 years old in December and hoping to prove to the Jets front office why he deserves an extension.
Sheldon Rankins has a lot of pressure on him to bounce back this season. The six-year veteran’s three-year deal last off-season got off to a rough start, as Rankins was a massive liability against the run and did not make up for it against the pass. Then again, the former first-round pick’s 2021 season may be an outlier. New York showed their faith in experienced players after down seasons last year having retained Connor McGovern and George Fant. Both went on to have arguably career years in 2021. Now, that is not saying Rankins will top his career-high eight sacks back in 2018, but if he can be a viable rusher and at least hold his own against the run, it will go a long way to justify not releasing him earlier this off-season for cap relief.
Solomon Thomas signing a one-year deal to reunite with Robert Saleh from his San Francisco 49ers days was one of the more underrated moves by the Jets this off-season. Thomas is a versatile and athletic defensive lineman who can get after the quarterback. The former 2017 third overall pick has struggled mightily against the run, but perhaps the Stanford product can finally piece it together in his sixth season.
Nathan Shepherd is one of the longest-tenured New York Jets players. Let that sink in. One of the few players to last through their rookie contract from the Mike Maccagnan era, Shepherd has carved out a role with the Jets as a backup defensive tackle. Tallying a career-high 28 tackles in 17 games played this past season, Shepherd’s familiarity with the staff and team makes him the final piece to the Jets defensive line.
C.J. Mosley, Quincy Williams, Hamsah Nasirildeen, Marcell Harris, Jamien Sherwood
C.J. Mosley is simply just fun to watch. Not only is he the leader of the Jets defense, but Mosley is the most valuable player. Remember when he was hurt in 2019 and missed 2020? Well, this season, the Jets need him more than ever. Far and away the most decorated of the Jets linebackers, Mosley will need to be that four-time Pro Bowl type player he has been in the past this year. Luckily, Mosley shook off the rust from his near two-year hiatus this past season. The veteran finished 2021 with a career-high 168 tackles, as well as two forced fumbles and two sacks.
Quincy Williams will be Mosley’s primary running mate, considering how often the Jets utilize two linebacker defensive formations. The older brother of Quinnen, Quincy is another one of those Joe Douglas waiver pickups. Added on September 1st of last season, Quincy went on to start 13 of 16 games for the Jets. Despite some ups and downs, Williams certainly impressed the Jets decision-makers with his 110 tackles, three forced fumbles, five pass deflections, and two sacks. Certainly, the 25-year-old’s emergence played a role in the Jets electing to not add another starting-caliber linebacker thus far this off-season.
Hamsah Nasirildeen is among the safety/linebacker hybrids that defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich loves. A one-time stud at Florida State, Nasirildeen was derailed by injuries before falling to the Jets in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Moving to linebacker out of the gate in the pros, Nasirildeen has a ways to go before being effective in a larger role. He played in just 60 defensive snaps as a rookie, with 49 of them coming in the first two games. Upon being removed from the role, he didn’t see defensive action again until Week 16. In other words, the verdict is still up in the air on Nasirildeen, but again, without any major linebacker additions, he is in line for a bigger role in the rotation in his second season.
Marcell Harris falls into the same hybrid safety/linebacker category, though, with four years of NFL experience already under his belt. Another player with 49ers ties to Saleh, Harris has been a solid player for San Francisco over the past few seasons. In 52 career games, he has made 20 starts, having posted career-highs in tackles (44), interceptions (1), and sacks (1.0) in 2021. As a depth signing, Harris was a strong one. Then again, the Jets will be asking more of Harris, as he has the second-most experience behind Mosley.
Jamien Sherwood is the wild card of the linebacker position. Like Nasirildeen, Sherwood was a day three pick last year who immediately switched from safety to linebacker by training camp. The Auburn product flashed his versatility, taking snaps not only at linebacker, but at corner, along the defensive line, and on special teams. The Jets had high hopes for Sherwood as a rookie, but things were thrown off track by his torn Achilles suffered in October. A healthy Sherwood would give the Jets another young linebacker with speed that is desperately needed.
D.J. Reed, Ahmad Gardner, Bryce Hall, Michael Carter II, Brandin Echols, Justin Hardee
D.J. Reed is not a household name in the NFL. Come September, he absolutely will be amongst Jets fans. The team’s big defensive addition of free agency, Reed got his big break as a starter in 2021 with the Seahawks. In 14 games played (all starts), Reed had career-high marks of 10 pass deflections and 78 tackles while allowing just a 67.8 passer rating when targeted. Moreover, Reed is an elite-run defender and finished the year eighth among 116 qualified cornerbacks according to Pro Football Focus. He will be 26 years old this season and will be the Jets top cornerback option. Reed also has ties to Saleh, having been a fifth-round pick by the 49ers back in 2018.
Ahmad Gardner will be the Jets number one cornerback by the end of his rookie season though. A 6’3” and 200-pound lengthy corner who not only is a fantastic athlete but a true shutdown corner. The fourth overall pick in this year’s draft, Gardner enters a Jets cornerback room that will allow him to grow through experience. There’s no true veteran holding him back from earning a starting job, and rightfully so. After all, Gardner has not allowed a touchdown during his three years at Cincinnati.
Bryce Hall cannot be forgotten even with the additions of Reed and Gardner. The 158th overall pick showed he is more than just a depth piece – Hall is a legitimate starter. He deflected 16 passes across his 17 starts, which ranked sixth in the league. Additionally, Hall had 79 tackles to his name, all while being the team’s most consistent defensive back. While there may be corners with more upside, it is hard to deny that Hall’s floor offers the Jets another strong starting option.
Michael Carter II earned the job of starting slot cornerback last year and never looked back. The Duke product started seven of 15 games as a rookie, displaying why Douglas took him in round five of the 2021 NFL Draft. Carter finished with 72 tackles, a sack of Tom Brady, five pass deflections, and two fumble recoveries. He may not be the largest of cornerbacks, but Carter is a capable defender in coverage or flying into the backfield. Improving his run defense will be the next step for Carter, as it was often an issue.
Brandin Echols was the big surprise in the Jets cornerbacks room in 2021. The Kentucky product and 200th overall pick in 2021 entered the year as the starter opposite Bryce Hall and faced many ups and downs before settling in by the year’s end. Despite being a liability against the run, Echols held his own against the pass, managing a 79.8 passer rating when targeted. In 14 games played, all being starts, Echols had nine pass deflections, 63 tackles, and two interceptions, with one of them being a pick-six. Now, these numbers are not jaw-dropping. Yet, for the Jets, to have a fourth cornerback with extensive starting experience from 2021 around Gardner will be huge. It gives Saleh and Ulbrich an interchangeable unit with depth capable of stepping up in case of injury.
Justin Hardee is not going to be one of the five who fans see against opposing receivers on defense. Rather, Hardee returns to the roster as one of the leaders of the Jets special teams unit. Signed to do just very that last off-season, Hardee was used on 84% of special teams snaps in 2021. He has not been used on defense or in coverage since 2019, and that may not change this year. Odds are if Javelin Guidry or Isaiah Dunn impress at camp, the Jets could elect to move on from Hardee due to his special teams niche. At the same time, special teams coordinator Brant Boyer needs to maintain what has been a strong unit in recent years.
Jordan Whitehead, Lamarcus Joyner, Ashtyn Davis, Jason Pinnock
Jordan Whitehead could be one of the steals of the off-season. For starters, he comes from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bringing a winning mentality to a team that is trying to build a winning culture. He is only 25 years old, following Douglas’ track record of betting on young, rising stars on the market. Capable of playing either safety spot, as well as corner, Whitehead is likely to play strong safety for the Jets, meaning he will play a significant amount of time in the box. Whitehead is one of the league’s best-run defenders and is a quality man in coverage. Without a doubt, Whitehead can quickly become a fan favorite for his physical play in the secondary.
Lamarcus Joyner’s season-ending elbow injury in Week 1 last season was unfortunate. Joyner, who is now 31 years old, is a versatile safety/linebacker hybrid who brings years of experience the Jets otherwise lack. Even at 5’8” and 185-pounds, Joyner is a good run defender and while his best years in coverage may be behind him, he remains suitable for free safety. Nevertheless, having not played in over a year, there is the possibility wear and tear may catch up to him.
Ashtyn Davis has all the potential to be a good starting safety and always has. From the athleticism to his range, Davis has the necessary traits to earn the free safety job over Joyner. Yet, Davis has developed a track record of taking poor angles, whether in coverage or against the run, that severely hindered his ability to make a tackle or play on the ball. At times in 2021 he had a handful of games where everything was clicking, and other where his mistakes cost the team greatly. Ironing out these instinctual issues is a must for Davis to earn his roster spot.
Jason Pinnock gets the final safety spot over the likes of Will Parks, Elijah Riley, and more. The Pittsburgh product saw play time at safety down the stretch of his rookie year due to various safety injuries. In those games at safety, Pinnock was a stud against the run, even forcing two fumbles. For the Pittsburgh product, his ability to play corner and further learn safety is a major plus. Should he improve in coverage, he can quickly become a regular in the secondary.
Greg Zuerlein, Braden Mann, Thomas Hennessy
Greg Zuerlein over Eddy Piniero is debatable. Piniero eased the Jets kicker woes that have lingered ever since Maccagnan let Jason Myers walk after 2018. Except, with Zuerlein, the Jets get a proven NFL veteran who’s consistent. The kicker battle will be noteworthy during training camp. Based on experience and results alone, Zuerlein could walk away the winner.
Braden Mann has had his good moments and his bad since being a sixth-round pick in 2020. Battling injuries last year certainly did not help, but the Jets certainly have faith in the Texas A&M product given he has no competition entering training camp.
Thomas Hennessy joins Nathan Shepherd among the longest-tenured New York Jets players. With New York since 2017, Hennessy should be a lock to make the team. The long snapper has been as reliable as they come as he enters year three of his four-year deal.
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