By Russ H.
When Rex Ryan was hired to replace the departed Eric Mangini he immediately brought a breath of fresh air in the form of not being afraid to speak his mind along with him. Recently Ryan said he felt that the current Jet defense was "one player away from being great". Was this hyperbole or fact? If that is true, where, or more to the point who, is that player? Could that player already be here?
The one thing this Jets defense is still missing, the one constant found in every great defense, is the game breaker. The guy who in the final moments of a tight contest has the ability to take the game over by making the big play. The QB killer. The Jets were 7th in the NFL with 41 sacks, a big improvement from 2007 when they were ranked 25th with only 29 sacks. However, the Jets pass rush all but disappeared down the stretch last season when the Jets recorded just six sacks over the final five games.
Ryan has added ex-Ravens Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard and ex-Eagles CB Lito Sheppard as starters to the already existing talent on the Jets defense, giving the Jets, at least on paper, a formidable defense with one noteable exception. Where is the guy who will get to the QB? Ryan's aggressive style of defense will bring the blitz on any play from any where. That alone will cause havoc and make the Jets defense difficult for most teams to contend with but where is the guy who can get to the QB when the blitz gets picked up, or when there is no blitz at all? Hopefully, he's already here.
He'll be wearing #50 this season. It's not Eric Barton, he wore number #50 last season but is now playing for ex-Jets HC Eric Mangini after being given his release this offseason. Wearing number #50 for the Jets in 2009 is last seasons Lamont Cranston (the Shadow for you younger readers). That's right Jet fans, it's none other than Vernon Gholston, last years disappointment hoping to become this seasons Phoenix (the mythical bird that roses from the ashes for you younger readers).
Gholson looked positively lost last season. He wasn't being outplayed or out muscled he simply looked like the NFL game was too fast for him. Was it that he lacked the ability to play at the NFL level or was it more a case of paralysis by analysis. No one knows for sure, just as no one knows what kind of player Gholston will be in the NFL but one thing is certain. He has to get into the game and onto the field to find out.
You could literally watch Gholston, on the rare occasions when he was actually in a game, thinking his way across the field. On one occasion last year he had ex-Broncos now Bears QB Jay Cutler clearly in his sights for a sack deep in Denver territory. Cutler pumped, and Gholston froze, he literally froze for a split second, and you could see him thinking "OK, where do I go, do I cover the RB in case he releases into the pattern in the flat or do I keep going after Cutler"?
I can further imagine Mangini slicing the sort spoken Gholston to pieces during the review of the game film, furthering the paralysis by analysis the soft spoken Gholston was no doubt going through in his transformation from DE to LB in a complicated 3-4 NFL defense.
Ryan and his fresh air attitude are exactly the right approach for someone like Gholston. Not to make him become the great player the Jets envisioned him being when they selected last season, but to allow him to become whatever kind of player he can become. Maybe Gholston will be a star, maybe he will be a bust or maybe he'll just be an average NFL player but one thing is certain, he'll fall in there somewhere. As long as Gholston is willing to work hard Ryan and his staff will help Gholston become whatever kind of player he can be.
Early on hard work doesn't seem to be a problem for Gholston. Ryan has praised him (Gholston) for being there almost every day during the off season, getting in his weight lifting and conditioning exercises in as well as a copious amount of film work.
Ryan has had experience in this kind of situation before. The Ravens drafted a DE out of Arizona 10th in the 2003 NFL draft. That player was having a great deal of difficulty in camp understanding the position of OLB in a 3-4 defense in the NFL. Now, he's a Pro Bowl OLB and one of the leaders on a dominant Ravens defense.
I'm not suggesting that Ryan will turn Vernon Gholston into Terrell Suggs, I'm saying whatever kind of player Gholston has the ability to be, be it stud, dud or whatever, Ryan and his staff will yank it out of him.
If Gholston is the player that the Jets hoped he was when they drafted him Ryan will have the player he said the Jets defense needed to be great. If that happens we'll find out whether Ryan is an acorn that doesn't fall far from the family tree or that he was just the latest nut in a Jets coaching tree that rarely produces fruit.