There are plenty of teams that would have loved to trade defenses with the Jets last year, but Rex Ryan has much higher standards for his unit that finished 10th in total defense last season (Ryan had never coached a defense that ranked lower than eighth prior to 2013).
After using six draft picks on defensive players, including a first-rounder on Calvin Pryor, the Jets are poised to make improvements on the defensive side of the ball. That is, of course, dependent on whether or not they can find a way to arrange their players in a way that makes their defense greater than the sum of its parts, particularly on all-important third downs.
Outside of a few tweaks at the safety position, the Jets' base defense is all but set. Third downs and obvious passing situations are where Ryan and his defenses have historically set themselves apart with their exotic blitz packages and bold coverage schemes.
While the Jets did not add any proven, bona-fide free agents on defense that can change the game on their own, they did quietly add a handful of valuable pieces that can be just as effective if they are used properly in sub-package roles.
The "nickel" is becoming more and more of the modern "base" defense in the NFL. This formation replaces a linebacker with a defensive back to help against three-wide receiver sets, which is becoming more of a normality than a special situation in the modern game.
Here is the most optimal personnel deployment for this package:
The key to this personnel deployment is on the defensive line. Not only do the Jets replace Calvin Pace with cornerback Kyle Wilson to play the slot, but they get a faster and more efficient pass rush by sliding Quinton Coples over to a more natural defensive end position and bringing in third-down specialist Antwan Barnes.
The Jets get some new blood in the secondary with Dimitri Patterson and rookie Calvin Pryor. Patterson will assume normal duties at outside cornerback, while Pryor moves into the strong safety spot to be ready to make tackles short of the sticks.
It may be tempting to stick Pryor in a center field role, but his physical skill set is much-better suited to plays that are right in front of him, especially while he is still inexperienced in the NFL realm.
For now, David Harris will be on the field as often as possible, but don't rule out the possibility of rookie Jeremiah George getting involved in these situations. George has great range and instincts, making him a perfect fit in these types of passing situations.
As offenses continue to spread out, this basic nickel package will be used almost as often as their base 3-4 package.
The only personnel grouping that is rising in popularity as quickly as the nickel package is the "big nickel" package, which simply replaces the slot cornerback with a safety. This package is particularly useful against opponents who feature tight ends as glorified wide receivers.
Cornerbacks are usually a bit too small to keep up with these physical freaks. While a bit slower than cornerbacks, safeties are usually bigger and more physical, making them better suited to match up against the Rob Gronkowskis and Jimmy Grahams of the world.
With three starting-caliber safeties on the roster, this personnel package should be one of the most oft-used third-down packages by the Jets this season, especially when going up against Gronkowski and the New England Patriots.
Antonio Allen is the perfect player to assume the role of the tight end antidote. After all, he had a lot of success against both Gronkowski and Graham last season, minimizing their effectiveness on his own while making big plays in the process:
Other than a safety-for-cornerback switch, not much should change in terms of personnel between the big nickel and "regular" nickel. Of course, the Jets have the option to make some adjustments along the defense line depending on the snap count of each player—such as swapping out Antwan Barnes or Garrett McIntyre—but the principles of the package remain the same.
The key to making the "big nickel" work is letting a safety act as a second linebacker, which is a role Calvin Pryor would fill in perfectly. At Louisville, Pryor spent a ton of time up in the box lined up as a linebacker, giving him plenty of experience in this unique-but-necessary role.
Having a safety who can be a part-time linebacker gives a team the flexibility to use this personnel grouping on early downs without being afraid of getting gashed in the run game.
This is when Rex has a chance to get really creative. Known for his tendency to have an overwhelming number of active defensive backs on the 45-man roster on any given Sunday, the dime package gives the Jets more room to be as creative and outward-thinking as they desire.
The first alignment adds rookie Dexter McDougle and Kyle Wilson in place of David Harris and Calvin Pace. Demario Davis is the last linebacker standing because of his sideline-to-sideline ability and ability to play in space.
The Jets have a slew of backup cornerbacks to choose from to use as the fourth cornerback, but McDougle makes the most sense because of his specific skill set as a fourth cornerback. McDougle's best asset is his speed and quickness, making him extremely versatile as both a slot cover man and a blitzer.
Ryan is a master at getting cornerbacks free runs on exposed quarterbacks with exotic blitz designs. If the speedy McDougle can get an open lane to the quarterback, opposing offenses won't have a chance to get a quality pass off.
The Jets could potentially elect to go with Darrin Walls over McDougle, but Walls is much better suited to be played on the perimeter. He is a more experienced cover man, but McDougle's speed and athleticism makes him a better fit for this depth role, especially when blitzing.
The other alternative to the dime the Jets can use is inserting Antonio Allen in place of McDougle. The Jets lose out on McDougle's speed, but they make up for it with Allen's man-coverage ability against tight ends.
This formation is especially useful against teams that use detached "joker" tight ends as wide receivers in four-wide sets.
The additions of players like Calvin Pryor and Dexter McDougle will not have the same immediate, proven impact that a big-time free agent like Jairus Byrd would have. However, the Jets have added as much versatility on defense as anyone in the division.
Even players like Dimitri Patterson, who is pegged to start at outside cornerback, is more than capable of playing in the slot. Listed as an outside linebacker, Coples will see plenty of time lined up at defensive tackle, while Sheldon Richardson will get a lot of opportunity to rush from the outside.
The Jets may not be the single most talented team in the league, but their flexibility on the defensive side of the ball will make gaining chunks of yards on them a taxing process to say the least.