Jets defensive lineman Leonard Williams (92) and safety Jamal Adams

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Lichtenstein: Looking Ahead To The 2019 Jets -- The Defense

Who Should Stay? Who Should Go?

Steve Lichtenstein
December 03, 2018 - 9:38 am
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Four weeks to go.

Had the Jets held on in Tennessee on Sunday, it would have changed little except for the team names at the top of the 2019 draft board.

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That Gang Green fell, 26-22, and the way in which they fell, blowing a nine-point fourth-quarter lead, similarly changed no one’s opinion as to what this team needs in the future.

Head coach Todd Bowles and his abominable staff, save for special teams coordinator Brant Boyer, should be gone the day after this miserable season ends -- at the latest.

As I noted last week, the Jets may have approximately $106 million in salary-cap space this offseason, per OverTheCap.com, but they have holes galore. Only 29 of the current 53 members of this roster are under contract for next season. And how many of these stiffs do you want to see come back anyway?

I took a look at the offense last week, so here’s a position-by-position look at the possible 2019 returnees on the Jets’ defense:

Defensive line: Gang Green’s biggest decision here won’t come for another year.  That’s when Leonard Williams, Mike Maccagnan’s first selection (sixth overall) as Jets general manager back in 2015, will be due for a big-money extension. Whether you believe his minimal stats make him a bust or that his talents force double teams that his lesser teammates haven’t taken advantage of, Williams has earned the right to be here at least one more season. So has Nathan Shepherd, the Jets’ third-rounder in 2018 whose uplifting story will have a few more years to attempt to pen a feel-good ending. The Jets' best playmaker on the line this season has been Henry Anderson, who is a pending free agent.  Anderson, 27, should be an extension priority along with wide receivers Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson for Maccagnan this offseason. As a 2018 sixth-round pick, Folorunso Fatukasi will surely be invited to training camp even though he was rarely active this season. On the nose, the Jets gave Mike Pennel a three-year, $10.5 million contract last offseason to back up Steve McLendon, who will be a free agent. Both have earned decent grades against the run from ProFootballFocus.com, but neither has been able to generate much of a push into the pocket in the pass rush.  Pennel’s approximately $1.7 million dead-money cap hit will save him for another season; McLendon should be replaced.     

Linebackers: The Jets are set on the inside, with Avery Williamson and Darron Lee both under contract with prohibitive dead-money consequences even if the team wanted to go in other directions. Maybe a new coach can get more consistency out of Lee. Kevin Pierre-Louis will continue to get paid for his special teams skills alone. Neville Hewitt’s contract is expiring -- there is no urgency to bring him back. The real issues are on the edges. Strong side linebacker Jordan Jenkins, a 2016 third-round pick, will still be on a team-friendly rookie deal, but his production -- even with six sacks this season -- screams backup.  The weak side has been even more of a disaster in the Bowles era. None of the incumbents should be retained except for maybe undrafted rookie Frankie Luvu as a development project. Brandon Copeland and Jeremiah Attaochu are on expiring contracts anyway, while the two years remaining on Tarell Basham’s deal are not guaranteed.      

Cornerbacks: Between his time off the field with a quad injury and the plays he took off while on the field, Trumaine Johnson has not lived up to anything close to the five-year, $72.5 million megadeal he signed last offseason as a free agent, his pick-six Sunday notwithstanding. He will get another opportunity in 2019, as there's no way the Jets will eat a $24 million dead-money cap hit. Nos. 2 through 4 corners Morris Claiborne, Buster Skrine and Daryl Roberts are all on expiring contracts.  I thought Claiborne was outstanding through the first six games or so of the season. He's been less consistent since and outright awful Sunday, but many of his coverage stats (pass breakups, opponents' passer rating, etc.) going into Tennessee still rank among the league's best. More important, he's on pace to play in all 16 games for the first time in his seven-year career. With those numbers, he will likely do better than the one-year, $7 million contract he is currently under when he hits the market. I'd like to see the Jets bring him back, since there aren't too many good replacement options. The Jets also seem to like Roberts' versatility (he is now playing safety in place of the injured Marcus Maye). Assuming his 2019 asking price isn't too much of a raise over his $705,000 salary this season, he'd again make for a fine depth piece in 2019. Skrine has the team's fourth-highest cap hit this season at $8.5 million. Bid him adieu. Not only has the slot corner's play slipped after a solid 2017, his re-signing would come with a worrisome concussion risk. The Jets will either find an upgrade in free agency (my preference) or give more time to sixth-round pick Parry Nickerson. Derrick Jones and Jeremy Clark, two corners taken seven picks apart in 2017's sixth round who were inactive Sunday, should both be brought back to compete for spots in training camp. The Jets could do the same with veteran Rashard Robinson, who has one more nonguaranteed year on his deal. In an unusual display of praise, Bowles singled out Robinson after he returned from his four-game suspension for substance abuse earlier in the season. Then Bowles rarely played him.

Safeties: In just his second pro season, Jamal Adams has become this team's heartbeat. Sometimes his freelancing causes palpitations for the defense, but he's certainly been a net plus, ranking as the league's fifth-best graded safety going into Sunday, per ProFootballFocus.com. Maye is also a high achiever in the rankings, but he's had trouble staying on the field this season, finally landing on injured reserve last week. The intent is for Adams and Maye, Maccagnan's first two picks in the 2017 draft, to play here for a decade. In reserve, only Terrence Brooks is under contract for next season, and he could be cut with minimal cap consequences. In fact, based on his play this season, he should be cut. Doug Middleton was lost for the season in October with a torn pectoral muscle -- he could be brought back fairly cheap. The same goes for special teams stalwart Rontez Miles.

Punter: Lachlan Edwards has a contract for next season. Though he's eighth in the league in gross punting average, too many kicks have been returnable, making him 14th in net.  Still, other than the Jets bringing in the normal training camp competition, punter is one of the few positions on this team where I don't expect any changes in 2019.

 For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.