We've saved the best for last in this series of articles. The Jets defensive line is one of the best units in the NFL. But will they be better, worse or about the same as last year?
The 2015 Jets defensive line featured a fearsome foursome of Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison and prized rookie Leonard Williams. The primary backups were Leger Douzable and Stephen Bowen. The defensive line played well last year and was one of the best units in the NFL. Wilkerson had the best year of his career and went to the Pro Bowl for the first time, registering career highs in sacks, tackles, and deflected passes. Damon Harrison also registered a career high in tackles and was arguably the league's best 34 nose tackle. Leonard Williams was outstanding for a rookie. But Sheldon Richardson had perhaps the worst season of his young career. Richardson started the season serving a four game suspension. When he came back he was not as effective as in the past, registering by far the worst tackles per game numbers of his career. To make matters worse, Richardson spent much of the last half of the season playing out of position trying to replace the released Quinton Coples at outside linebacker. It was, for the most part, a season to forget for Richardson. Douzable and Bowen were good backups who played minor roles behind the star studded starting unit.
The 2016 Jets defensive line will have its work cut out for it trying to replace star nose tackle Damon Harrison. The Jets signed veteran free agent Steve McLendon to fill the hole left by Harrison's departure, but it is fairly clear that just about any replacement would represent a downgrade from Snacks.
Sheldon Richardson begins the 2016 season serving only a one game suspension (progress!). In the 15 remaining games we should probably expect a big bounce back year from Richardson. He is playing for a potentially giant new contract this year, which should not be discounted as a motivational factor. In addition he will likely not be asked to reprise the ill fated experiment at outside linebacker in 2016. Back in his comfort zone on the line Sheldon may be primed for the best year of his career.
Leonard Williams has looked dominant in preseason and may be primed for a second year leap in the already high level of play he exhibited in 2015. Double digit sacks and a trip to the Pro Bowl are not unreasonable aspirations for Williams in 2016.
Muhammad Wilkerson will have a difficult time playing much better than his standout 2015 season. He probably is not the type of player who will rest on his laurels after he finally got the big contract he's been searching for. However, topping the outstanding level of play he exhibited in 2015 is simply a very difficult thing to pull off.
The backups this year will be Jarvis Jenkins, Deon Simon and Lawrence Thomas. Thomas is likely only on the roster for week one and will probably be cut as soon as Richardson returns from his suspension. Barring major injuries to one or more of the top four defensive linemen Jenkins and Simon are unlikely to get significant playing time. When and if they do play they will probably not be significantly better or worse than last year's backups Douzable and Bowen.
Overall I would expect a downgrade from the nose tackle position. Wilkerson is likely to be about the same, possibly slightly worse coming off a career year. Williams looks primed for a big jump in the level of his play. Richardson should play more games and return to playing on the line as opposed to being miscast as an outside linebacker. Look for Richardson to make major improvements over the worst year of his career. This line is so talented it is not completely out of the question that the 2016 Jets wind up with three defensive linemen with double digit sacks and invitations to the Pro Bowl. That isn't necessarily the way to bet, but it is not an outlandish scenario. I'm going with the 2016 Jets defensive line not only being better than it was in 2015, but it being the best unit in the NFL.
How about you? What do you think? Will the 2016 Jets defensive line be better, worse, or about the same as the 2015 Jets defensive line?