There is no denying the biggest weakness on the Jets’ defense, and their inability to swing a trade for Khalil Mack on Saturday only underscored how dreadful their pass rush has become.
The Jets wisely dropped out of the Mack bidding once it became clear the Bears were willing to give up two first-round picks for the Raiders’ All Pro defensive end. But they are still left with a gaping hole on defense, one that won’t be fully resolved until they bring in a big-time pass rusher via trade, free agency or the draft.
That said, there are still some important pieces on this defense, and there will be ways for Todd Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers to scheme their way to reasonable effectiveness this season. They brought in productive linebacker Avery Williamson from the Titans and signed Rams free-agent cornerback Trumaine Johnson.
But it’s two homegrown players who will be counted on to step up their game to help the defense, and if the Jets don’t get more out of former first-round picks Leonard Williams and Darron Lee, then there is little hope that this unit can be a stabilizing force to further assist rookie quarterback Sam Darnold on the other side of the ball.
Darnold has been the primary focus of attention since his selection as the third overall pick in April, and that’s to be expected when you draft a franchise quarterback. The fact that Darnold played well enough to win the starting job right away was even more reason to spotlight his play. But if Williams and Lee have mostly flown under the radar — with one notable exception — they need to be front and center in helping this defense turn into an effective unit.
That one notable exception was recent criticism of Lee from former Jets linebacker Bart Scott, now a WFAN radio host who called out Lee and delivered the harshest criticism any linebacker could ever receive: not being tough enough.
“This guy, I don’t want to call him soft, but he’s a little plush,” Scott said last month on his show with Chris Carlin and Maggie Gray. “I don’t understand how they keep allowing him to get away with this, because I saw this last year. And I’m saying, ‘Maybe he’s young and maybe he needs to put a little bit of muscle on.’ But when you’re turning [contact] down in an era when you don’t even have any real fullbacks? Man, if I was in that locker room, I would have to tell him, ‘Look, bro, you either [get tougher], or you need to take your bag and go.’”
Lee chose not to fire back, instead telling reporters that “everybody is entitled to their own opinion. He has my number. I don’t really have a problem with it.”
But Scott’s point gets to the heart of Lee’s shortcomings, and unless he shows signs of definitive improvement in Year 3 of his career, then this will continue to be viewed as a poor first-round selection for a team that needs all the defensive playmakers it can get. Lee was considered undersized when he came out of Ohio State in 2016, and he hasn’t done much to overcome that shortcoming with his play. A solid season in 2017, to be sure, with 67 solo tackles, 27 assists and three sacks.
The Jets need better than solid from Lee. They need the sort of impact that Scott supplied in his first year with the team, and in his previous two years with the Ravens. They need a tackler who can change the course of a game with one big hit or one key forced fumble. They don’t need good from him, they need great.
Same with Williams, the fourth-year defensive end who fell to the Jets in the 2015 draft and was considered a steal after the Redskins passed on him with the fifth overall pick. With 7.0 sacks in 2016, Williams looked poised for a breakout season last year and spoke of a sack-a-week production. By season’s end, he had just two sacks, and his tackles went down to just 22 solo and 25 assists.
Like Lee, Williams needs to perform like an impact player is expected, especially now that the Jets have moved on from the Muhammad Wilkerson-Sheldon Richardson era. Williams has been talked about as a potential star, but his numbers simply don’t justify that praise.
It’s Year 4. It’s time.
Time for two important players to heed these two words of advice as they prepare for the season ahead: Be better.