Can the Jets have the highest-scoring defense in fantasy this year?
On first blush, this question seems a bit absurd to even ask. The Jets' having the best defense in fantasy football? Aren't we talking about a unit that finished last -- in the AFC East -- in terms of yards allowed last season? In fact, the 2008 Jets allowed 3,752 passing yards on the year, which was better than only three other teams: the Bears, Chargers and Seahawks. This season, in addition to the expected two games against a once again healthy Tom Brady, their schedule also has road games against quarterbacks Drew Brees and Peyton Manning, as well as two meetings against new Buffalo Bills' wide receiver Terrell Owens. Logic would seem to indicate that 4,000-plus combined passing yards allowed is well within reach for the opponents of Gang Green this season.
Of course, this unit is not the same one that took the field last season. New coach Rex Ryan has brought Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard and Marques Douglas with him from the Baltimore Ravens. Pro Bowler Lito Sheppard now roams the secondary. Run-stuffer Kris Jenkins appears to be ready to return to a full slate of games after last season's injury woes. But even without all these upgrades, we'd still have to seriously consider the question. After all, from a fantasy standpoint, last season's Jets were actually pretty close to the top of the heap.
How is this possible? Well, in ESPN standard scoring, yards allowed do not matter one bit. So, even if the Jets let opposing offenses move freely between the 20s, if they keep them off the scoreboard, it has no negative impact on their fantasy value. That's why, despite the Jets being very generous to the quarterbacks they faced last season, they still finished seventh overall in the fantasy defense rankings. They finished seventh in the league in sacks -- each worth one fantasy point -- with 41, seven more than the much-glorified Ravens team. In addition, the defense forced 22 turnovers and scored three touchdowns -- good enough for a total of 129 fantasy points, or more points than players such as Wes Welker, Reggie Bush and Jamal Lewis.
Enter Rex Ryan, who won't be changing the 3-4 system the Jets instituted last season; rather, he'll add an extra layer of aggression to it, with more blitzes expected to result in even more sacks and turnovers. Last season's Jets came out of the gate strong with 29 sacks in their first eight games, and then seemed to fall into predictable patterns that offensive coordinators were able to pick apart through study of game film, a large reason the team fell from 8-3 to 9-7, and out of the playoffs. That's unlikely to occur with Ryan's ability to change the look of his defensive attack from week to week, which in turn should keep the sacks, turnovers -- and hence, the fantasy points -- coming all season long.
Plus, with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm, most likely in the form of Mark Sanchez, the Jets are sure to be a touch more conservative this season. Certainly Sanchez won't be forbidden from throwing the ball downfield, and he's bound to have his share of turnovers in 2009, but gone are the gunslinging days of Brett Favre and his 22 interceptions, a few of which resulted in seven points being charged against the Jets' defense without the unit even being on the field. In fact, the Jets' defense/special teams could have had in the neighborhood of 20-25 more fantasy points if not for complete collapses in four games in which they allowed 31 points or more, along with four Favre picks returned for scores.
In addition, you're not just drafting the Jets defense. You also get the special teams, meaning the return ability of Leon Washington adds some value to this unit. The Ravens, Steelers, Titans and Giants -- all potential top-five defenses for 2009 -- each failed to return any kicks for scores last season. If the Jets get close enough to the top, Washington could well tip the scales in their favor.
So let's ask the question again. Can a defense that finished seventh overall in fantasy scoring last season; that hired an aggressive, defensive-minded head coach; that added several Pro Bowl caliber players to a unit that has two returning Pro Bowlers of its own; that should stay fresher during games, as well as over the course of the season as a result of fewer turnovers from a more conservative offense … can this defense be the No. 1 D in fantasy this season?
In fact, if not for the suspension of linebacker Calvin Pace for the first four games of the season, it would be close to a mortal lock. As it stands now, even if Vernon Gholston is merely adequate in holding down the fort until Pace's return, this Jets defense should still be in the running for the top fantasy defense as the season winds to a close. And with the likelihood that Week 16's scheduled showdown with the Colts will become one of those late-season "rest-Peyton-play-Jim-Sorgi showcases, and Week 17 at home against the possibly putrid Bengals, if the Jets are close to No. 1, these two games could well push them to the top of the mountain.