An NFL team has no more valuable commodity than a first round Draft pick. It is the best way to add game-changing talent that will cost relative pennies against the salary cap for years. Since 2011 the Jets have used three first round picks on interior lineman types, Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples, and Sheldon Richardson. Their games are all relatively similar. This has presented the Jets with a challenge getting all three to play together at a high level.
The Jets tried to move Quinton Coples to outside linebacker this year. In some ways this is kind of a misnomer. People say the Jets are a 3-4 defense, but they are really a defense that mixes its fronts. I do not yet have the numbers for 2013, but in 2012 the Jets did play a 3-4 front more than any other. That, however, was only on one quarter of the plays. Coples was an outside linebacker, but the big change was the Jets lined him up extensively on the outside. Sometimes he was standing up at linebacker. Sometimes he had his hand on the ground at defensive end. Mainly, though, he was outside, lined up far away from the ball.
While Wilkerson and Richardson played really well, Coples was less of an impact guy. There is some debate about how well he played, but the rate at which he produced a disruption (sack, hit, or hurry) was a tad lower in 2013 than in 2012, and his run defense was spotty. Mind you he was not a game-changing force in 2012. He showed flashes. 2013 was the year he was supposed to make a big leap. You can point to his preseason injury and the new role. Maybe he will get better with more experience under his belt. Just from watching his attributes, I think it is difficult to argue he is best suited to line up on the outside. He doesn't have a ton of finesse to get around people coming off the edge. He doesn't have great closing speed. What he can be is explosive off the ball and get a push as a straight ahead player. Put him closer to the quarterback, and you have a guy who can get to the ball quicker.
I do see a way to get Coples closer to the quarterback without sacrificing Wilkerson or Richardson. The Jets could use Richardson in a nose tackle role on more of their three man lines. Entering this year we really did not know what Richardson was going to be. Now we can see he has a good burst and is stout.
This would not be a traditional look. Forgive me because there is a risk I will oversimplify in my explanation below. This picture is along the lines of what you see in a traditional 3-4 defensive line. The linemen are responsible for two gaps. The gaps between the center and guards are called A gaps. Between the guards and tackles are B gaps, and just outside the tackles are C gaps. The nose tackles is responsible for covering the A gaps. The ends are responsible for the B and C gaps. The job of the linemen isn't to penetrate. It is to cover the gaps and keep the blockers occupied.
Now this look is largely obsolete as an every down defense. Teams these days mix where they line their guys up and mix gap assignments. You might have one guy lined up responsible for two gaps and others responsible for one. At the nose tackle position, Rex Ryan does seem to favor the traditional space eating, gap filling nose tackle like Kelly Gregg, Sione Pouha, or Damon Harrison.
This isn't the only role the nose tackle can have, though. If you have a guy who can do that, the nose tackle can play one gap. One such example is below. You can have the tackle line up in one of the gaps, and just have him shoot up the field. The idea here is more one of penetration. You want your guy making plays. If they are so much to handle, you draw the double teams anyway. The playmaking talent on this defense is in the interior line. You want to put all three guys in a position to make plays. It also makes the nose tackle more dynamic. Nothing destroys an offense like defensive penetration up the middle. Richardson would be a handful to deal with.
Now that Richardson has a feel for the NFL, the Jets can get a little more creative with their uses for him. Based on what the Jets have, sticking him there would make an excellent defensive line dangerous. You would have 900 pounds of strong and explosiveness attacking on every snap, three big guys getting a push to create matchups on the outside. Add an athletic edge rusher in the Draft, and you have four guys attacking who can wreck your passing play.
Keep in mind the Jets are not going to be an exclusively 3-4 team. Rex Ryan's philosophy is to throw so many different fronts and blitzers from different angles at an offense that the protection will get confused and blow assignments. Making use of all three first rounders at close quarters could have a big effect when the team does use a three man line. There is nothing particularly revolutionary or outside the box with this idea. Plenty of teams have utilized this same concept. It would be a bit of a departure for Rex, however, one that could help the Jets.