Though the Jets invested heavily in putting together a strong defensive line, the unit at times has been an unsettled mess.
The franchise traded the talented but perplexing Sheldon Richardson, suspended Muhammad Wilkerson for a game, acquired the Patriots’ Kony Ealy off waivers and mixed and matched its way for 16 weeks.
“We have to be the anchor of this team,” said Ealy, who is one of three linemen with an interception this season. “At the end of the day, DBs do a great job covering and we have to stop the run and we have to do a lot up front and we depend on the back end of it.”
When the Jets face the Chargers on Sunday, it could be one of the last times this group plays together.
The average NFL salary for a defensive lineman is $2.5 million with the Jets at $3.3 million, eighth highest in the league. At least 20 percent of the Jets’ cap space is devoted to the position.
None more than to Wilkerson, the starting defensive end and one of the team’s biggest disappointments. He went six weeks without touching the quarterback — no sacks, no takedowns — before finally getting a hit.
On the year, Wilkerson has 3½ sacks and 46 tackles, small numbers for a player with the highest cap total on the team.
But Wilkerson has dealt with shoulder and toe injuries, starting in Week 2 at Oakland. During the last three weeks, he hasn’t been listed on the injury report but has become a discipline problem for coach Todd Bowles. He was benched for the majority of the first quarter Dec. 3 against the Chiefs for being late to a team meeting. Two weeks later, Wilkerson again was late for a meeting, and Bowles suspended him for last week’s road game at the Saints.
Wilkerson attended practices and meetings with no issues this past week and Bowles was noncommittal about his playing status for Sunday.
Wilkerson has been the biggest disappointment on the defensive line, which has gotten improved play from Leonard Williams after a slow start. Williams has been putting more pressure on the quarterback in recent weeks as he has recovered from a bone bruise that hampered him for the first half of the season.
Despite the injury, Williams has been busy, playing the sixth-highest number of snaps (780) among defensive linemen in the league. Bowles has been satisfied by the effort and the overall play of the defensive line.
“They’re playing hard. Some played nicked up, some hadn’t,” Bowles said. “We had some new guys step in to make some plays. Overall, I’m pleased with them.”
Defensive tackle Steve McLendon noted that the defensive linemen have been able to adapt to different situations, which has increased their playing time.
“You have to be very versatile and I think everybody on our D-line can play multiple positions,” McLendon said. “For me, I have to learn every position and I’m an older guy (31). Most older guys want to play one position, but I think it keeps you in a young mindset because you’re always learning something new.”
Most of the defensive linemen have had their moments. Ealy has nine pass breakups, second among defensive linemen in the NFL. Williams got his first interception of the year last week when he picked off Drew Brees. And Xavier Cooper, whom the Jets used when Wilkerson was suspended, was the only linemen with a quarterback hit against the Saints.
Bowles always has stressed the importance of run defense and in his first two seasons as coach, 2015-16, the Jets allowed an average of 99.3 yards per game on the ground, tied for sixth best in the NFL.
This season, however, the unit has not been as consistent. They have allowed an average of 117.9 yards, ranking them 21st. The unit probably will undergo changes after this season, with the likely release of Wilkerson that will create $11 million in cap space.
That would be a big change, something that isn’t lost on Ealy, who knows how familiarity with teammates helps.
“Just trusting in each other,” Ealy said. “It doesn’t matter what happens throughout the term of a season, anything can change at any minute. We know that coming in and when it’s your turn to be called, be ready to perform a certain task.”