When Rex Ryan was hired as the Jets head coach, one of the first things he promised fans was an elite defense. While the Jets haven't been elite on the level of the Ravens or Steelers, they have been ranked near the top of the AFC in each of his three seasons.
The Jets defense took a clear step backwards in 2011 and while they were still productive, they need major upgrades if they are going to ultimately win a Super Bowl. We are living in a time where the NFL is dominated by the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and yes, even Eli Manning.
Using the model of the 49ers, if a team wants to be successful with a "game manager" at quarterback, they better have a defense that strikes fear into opposing offenses.
While the Jets may have underachieved and could use an injection of speed and ferocity into their defense, they do have some players that they can build around.
There is no question that Darelle Revis is the best player on the Jets defense, but what other players stack up to make a list of the top seven defensive players currently on the Jets roster?
It's tough to call a player who had just 12 tackles on the season one of the Jets best defenders, but who else left off this slideshow had as big an impact in 2011 as Aaron Maybin?
With starters who underachieved (Calvin Pace, Eric Smith), missed time due to injuries (Mike DeVito, Bryan Thomas), or are overrated to begin with (Bart Scott), there really is no reason to leave Maybin out.
Despite playing in just 13 games as a situational pass-rusher, Maybin was able to maximize the impact he made during his time. Of Maybin's 12 tackles, six of them went for sacks and he forced fumbles on four of them. While it is a small sample, those percentages are off the charts.
Maybin especially made his presence felt in a Week 11 win against the Bills when he sacked Ryan Fitzpatrick twice and also sealed a blowout win against the Redskins with a vicious sack and forced fumble on Rex Grossman late in the fourth quarter.
On a front seven that looked old and slow during the 2011 season, Maybin's speed popped off the field.
His story as a bust with the Bills was so bad it conjured up comparisons to Vernon Gholston. Yes, it was that ugly for him in Buffalo.
After failing to register a single sack in his two seasons in Buffalo, Maybin landed in New York with Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine; the perfect spot for him to develop and the ideal coaches to maximize his ability.
Teams started to account for Maybin more often as the season went on and it showed in poor production over the final four weeks of the season. He failed to register a sack and had just two tackles over the last four games as the Jets sputtered to the finish line.
However, if the Jets upgraded personnel at other pass rushing positions, Maybin could benefit greatly and become a huge factor in 2012.
For now, we'll call him a pleasant surprise in 2011 with still something to prove going forward.
And one of the top seven defensive players on the Jets.
Jim Leonhard is a player who gets a bad rap from fans in New York. At just 5'8", 190 pounds, Leonhard's physical limitations are exposed by bigger tight ends and receivers, but his value goes way beyond the plays he makes on the field.
As the "quarterback" of the Jets defense, Leonhard impacts a game in ways that are tough to understand even for the most observant Jets fans. To put into perspective how much Leonhard means to the defense, take a look at the first games Leonhard missed each of the past two seasons when he was injured.
In those two games (losses to the Patriots in 2010 and Eagles in 2011) the Jets defense surrendered 90 combined points and looked totally clueless in the two ugliest losses of the Rex Ryan era. The Jets are just 2-6 in regular season games that Leonhard missed.
Leonhard has registered 90 tackles over the past two seasons while playing in 24 games and has played a key role in the Jets success stopping the run.
His future with the Jets remains uncertain though as he is still recovering from his second season-ending injury and will be an unrestricted free agent going into this offseason.
By all accounts, Muhammad Wilkerson enjoyed a solid rookie season and provided consistency along the Jets defensive line.
Wilkerson was just one of five players who started all 16 games on defense and played 606 snaps on the season, second to just Sione Pouha's 627 among defensive linemen.
Wilkerson topped all Jets defensive linemen with three sacks and was second again to Pouha among defensive linemen with 35 solo tackles.
By comparison, Shaun Ellis had 26 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2010 in his final year as a Jet.
There were concerns about Wilkerson making the jump from Temple to the NFL, but his athleticism and strong technique allowed him to play effectively.
His 2011 season may not have been flashy, but Wilkerson did what was asked of him for the most part. He still needs to get off blocks better and develop more of a repertoire as a pass rusher, but he is a hard worker with good fundamentals, so there is promise for continued development.
The Jets are committed to Wilkerson at defensive end, so his development as a pass-rusher is going to be essential in elevating the Jets defense to elite status.
Antonio Cromartie's sublime athletic ability is both a blessing and a curse.
He has the physical ability to make plays on the field that nobody except Darelle Revis can even dream of making. He also has admitted that he relies on his athleticism so much that he doesn't study his opponents as thoroughly as he should during the week.
His lack of preparation manifests itself with inconsistent play and he maddens Jets fans as much as anyone not named Eric Smith. However, when Cromartie's 2011 season is analyzed closer, you can see that he held up extremely well.
According to an article on profootballfocus.com, Cromartie allowed just 39 receptions on 84 targets for a 46.4 completion against percentage, good for sixth in the NFL. He also allowed just four more receptions than Revis did in 2011 on a similar amount of targets.
As good as his overall statistics were, the thing that keeps Cromartie from winning over the fickle Jets fan base is a lack of consistency.
After the Jets failed at landing Nnamdi Asomugha, all eyes were on Cromartie on opening night against the Cowboys. He was beat for two touchdowns in the prime time game and Jets fans were up in arms. A two-interception game against the Jaguars in Week 2 gave Cromartie redemption and the AFC Defensive Player of the Week award. The next week he was flagged for four penalties and fumbled a kickoff against the Raiders.
Such is the life of Antonio Cromartie.
No player on the Jets roster has prospered from the arrival of Rex Ryan as much as Sione Pouha.
After failing to crack the starting lineup for three years under Eric Mangini, Pouha was finally thrust into a starting role in Ryan's first year after Kris Jenkins' devastating knee injury. Pouha showed promise in the first extended action of his career, but took a back seat to Jenkins in 2010 as the former Pro Bowler returned to claim his spot.
That lasted six plays.
After Jenkins tore his ACL again on opening night, Pouha stepped right in and has been a force on the defensive line ever since.
An incredibly strong player, Pouha holds his ground and fills gaps better than anyone on the line and if a ball carrier comes his way, he won't be getting far.
Pouha has registered 41 tackles in each of the past two seasons and has also showed a surprising nose for the football as he recovered five fumbles during that time.
If there is one knock on Pouha, it is that he does not generate regular pressure on the quarterback and has just 3.5 sacks in 94 career games.
Pouha is a late bloomer as he embarked on a two-year Mormon mission after graduating high school in 1998. By the time he was drafted in the third round of the 2005 NFL Draft, Pouha was 26 years old. He didn't gain his first starting job until he was 31 and finally played his best season last year at age 33.
After going largely unnoticed in the early part of his career, Pouha was named a team captain by Ryan prior to the 2011 season and was named to Sports Illustrated's Peter King's All-Pro Team.
To put it simply, David Harris has been an outright tackling machine from the minute he stepped on the field for the Jets.
When the Jets spent a second round pick on Harris in 2007, fans were skeptical about adding another inside linebacker to a roster that already had Eric Barton and Jonathan Vilma.
The pick paid dividends when Vilma was lost for the year with an early season knee injury. Harris stepped into the starting lineup and recorded 10 tackles and a sack against the Bills. He followed that up with an incredible 20 tackle performance against the Redskins the following week.
Harris has been stuffing ball carriers at a tremendous rate ever since.
Aside from an injury-shortened 2008 season, Harris has led the Jets in tackles every season of his career. He has started 48 straight games since returning healthy at the start of the 2009 season and has shown a knack for the big play during that time.
Over the past three seasons, Harris has registered 13.5 sacks and intercepted six passes.
Perhaps the biggest play Harris has made during his Jets tenure was a momentum-swinging interception of a Tom Brady pass in Gang Green's stunning 28-21 upset of the Patriots in the 2010 playoffs.
In a locker room full of turmoil and controversy, Harris has gone about his job with class and professionalism. Even though he does garner criticism for average-at-best pass coverage skills, there might not be a harder worker than Harris on the team.
The Jets need more players in the mold of David Harris on their roster.
Was there really ever any question?
Right now the only debate about Darrelle Revis is where he will land in the pecking order of the game's immortals once his NFL career is done.
What makes Revis so great is the consistency at which he plays on an elite level. In 2011 when the Bills Stevie Johnson caught eight passes for 75 yards on Revis, it was national news. That's an average of two catches and 19 yards per quarter and Jets haters rejoiced as if Revis was torched for 200 yards and three touchdowns.
While Revis was targeted more in 2011 than he had been in recent years, he still performed up to the task. According to stats tracked by profootballfocus.com, Revis was targeted 85 times in 2011 and gave up just 35 completions, the best rate in the NFL. When quarterbacks threw at Revis in 2011, they had a rating of just 45.6 percent, also tops in the league.
In addition to his well-documented pass coverage skills, Revis is an underrated tackler and is not afraid to get physical with anybody in the league.
Brandon Marshall and the Dolphins learned that hard lesson in a week six loss at MetLife Stadium. Marshall tried his usual physical game against Revis and although he caught some short passes early, Revis eventually muscled his way into an interception and took it 100 yards for an absolute killer pick six.
After the 2011 season, the accolades poured in for Revis once again. He was named to the Pro Bowl for the fourth time and was named an All-Pro for the third straight year.
Jets fans should take in and enjoy every second that Revis is wearing the green and white. He is a once in a generation type of player.