After five years with a coach, you can usually get a good grasp of the skills he prioritizes at a given position and which positions he views as most important. In one year, the players available could skew things, but the variables tend to even out over the long haul. Based on his Baltimore days, it was not exactly easy to tell. He had great players everywhere. I think certain trends have emerged in the players the Jets target that tell this story. Below I compiled a list of defensive positions in order of importance and a description of the skills the Jets have seemed to value under Rex. Please note the positions are listed as a 3-4 defense even though the Jets are not a pure 3-4 team. It is just easier this way.
1. Cornerback: I think it is pretty clear Rex Ryan views cornerback as the most important position on defense. He was even cited in Collision Low Crossers saying it was one of the two positions that lose games fastest in the NFL with poor play. Rex has a great defensive mind so he can adapt his defense to the talent he has. I think if all things are equal, however, he wants to run an attacking defense throwing heavy blitzes from all angles. That requires leaving cornerbacks on an island and trusting they can hold up. Rex wants his corners to be strong and physical with supreme athletic ability allowing them to run down the field with the fastest receivers. How important is the position? Look at the resources the Jets have invested in the position. They gave up a high Draft pick for Antonio Cromartie and gave him a big contract. They were in heavy pursuit of Nnamdi Asomugha in 2011 despite already having Darrelle Revis. Even though the picks have yet to prosper the way the team had hoped, the Jets spent a pair of first round picks on Kyle Wilson and Dee Milliner. Rex was also apparently the only key decision-maker on the Jets who wanted the team to make a move for Darrelle Revis a few weeks back. The man loves his corners.
2. Defensive End: The list gets a little bit interesting here because typically in a 3-4 hybrid kind of defense, these guys merely need to be functional and do the dirty work. If you have a difference-maker it is a nice bonus but usually not essential. Rex seems to have a different view. He seems to value playmakers here. A traditional run stuffer like Mike Devito is nice, but he wants these guys to also be able to collapse the pocket and provide pressure. Early in his tenure, he had Shaun Ellis and got the team to sign Trevor Pryce. The Jets have since used first round picks three straight years trying to add impact at the position with Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples, and Sheldon Richardson. Wilkerson has flourished into an All Pro. Richardson is already a top run stuffer, but I am sure Rex wants him to use his supreme athleticism to develop into an impact pass rusher also. I think the fact the Jets used a first round pick on Richardson despite already having Wilkerson and Coples at least partially has to do with the importance he places on the position.
3. Nose Tackle: Rex likes the traditional two down, two gap, run stuffing nose tackle. He used to have Sione Pouha. Now he has Damon Harrison with Kenrick Ellis backing him up. Having a nose tackle who can clog the middle and shut down the run game allows the Jets to dedicate more resources to stopping the pass.
4. Inside Linebacker: The first significant move the Jets made under Rex was to go get Bart Scott from Baltimore to fill this position. The Jets have had three starters here in Rex's tenure, Scott, David Harris, and Demario Davis. This position tends to be about stopping the run, whether that means being a sure tackler, getting off blocks, or throwing your body to wipe out blockers and make a tackle easy for the defense.
5. Outside Linebacker: This is kind of the inverse of defensive end. In most defenses similar to the one the Jets run, the outside linebacker is a game-changer. He is supposed to be an explosive terror off the edge. In the Jets' defense under Rex, this position has been more about having somebody functional who can do the little things like set the edge and redirect route runners. That is why Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas lasted so long. The Jets have had room for situational pass rushers such as Aaron Maybin and Antwan Barnes to add some juice on passing downs, but they were not three down players. I'm putting this above our last position only because former first round pick Quinton Coples is there now. The Jets did not intend to have him there when they drafted him in 2012, but he is a premium resource the team decided to move there at some point. Other than that, the Jets have invested in cheap veterans such as Pace, Thomas, Barnes and Jason Taylor and scrap heap pickups like Maybin, Jammal Westerman, and Garrett McIntyre.
6. Safety: Young Ed Reed was the prototype for Rex's safety position in Baltimore, but old Ed Reed is a good model for Rex's safety position with the Jets. If there is one universal attribute Rex has seemed to value at safety in New York, it is experience. His defense is very complicated and aggressive, and the safety has two important roles. He must make sure everybody is lined up correctly, and he must know where to get as the last line of defense in case anything breaks down. Rex has turned to veterans who have been around the league and have shown an ability to process information quickly. Athletic ability has been secondary. That helps to explain why Antonio Allen's playing time so decreased when the Jets signed Reed in 2013. The only two safeties in the Rex Era with range were Kerry Rhodes and LaRon Landry. Rhodes was traded after a year, and Landry was an inexpensive find. The Jets have tended to not invest big resources at the position. There has never been a pick on the first two days of the Draft, and the veterans have required modest resources such as Reed, Jim Leonhard, LaRon Landry, Dawan Landry, Yeremiah Bell, Brodney Pool, and Eric Smith. In my book, this is probably a position that should have a higher priority. If you are going to be really aggressive and leave less people back, you need a safety who can cover a lot of ground as the last line of defense. This pressure defense also produces errant throws that a rangy ballhawk can turn into a game-changing play.
That's my list. What do you agree or disagree with?