New-look defense needs to step up for Jets

The big changes this offseason for the Jets came on the defensive side of the ball.

Updated: September 3, 2004, 10:50 AM ET
By Ken Berger | Pro Football Weekly

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

It was an offseason of sweeping change for the Jets, and it had to come after the first losing season in three years under head coach Herman Edwards.

The team dumped defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and several of the slowpokes who assured his demise. In a departure from the 4-3 defensive style that he helped create in Tampa Bay, Edwards chose the unproven Donnie Henderson to be his defensive coordinator.

Blending 3-4 and 4-3 fronts and multiple coverages, the Jets essentially are running the Baltimore defense. Henderson, a fiery disciplinarian and accomplished screamer, seems to be the perfect extension of Edwards' enthusiasm.

It could be a breakthrough year for the Jets' offense, led by QB Chad Pennington, who must stay healthy for the Jets to have a chance.

Amidst the changes, Edwards was given a two-year contract extension, so he appears safe if 2004 ends up being a rebuilding year. General manager Terry Bradway got the words "executive vice president" added to his title, but don't be fooled. Bradway didn't get a contract extension, and most observers believe the team must take a significant step forward to validate his leadership.

Quarterbacks: Pennington will have more leeway to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage this season, which should help an offense that could blossom in the fourth year under Paul Hackett. At Marshall, Pennington ran the Steve Spurrier "Fun 'N Gun" offense in which he basically called every play at the line of scrimmage. He's ready for this new freedom and will thrive under it. It's a pivotal year for Pennington, who is eager to show that he is more like the quarterback who led the Jets to the playoffs with a .689 completion percentage in 2002 than the rusty one who pressed his way to mediocre numbers in 2003. He performed in camp and in preseason as though he is determined to prove he's worthy of an enormous contract. One critical difference for Pennington is that he no longer has 18-year veteran Vinny Testaverde as a friendly face on the sideline. He has inexperienced backups behind him and no QB coach - other than Hackett, who is a world away in the press box on game days. Pennington's maturity will have to take another step, but there's every reason to believe he's up to the challenge. Quincy Carter, a late addition, has to learn the complicated West Coast offense before he can be a trusted No. 2. Brooks Bollinger's bid for the backup job was scuttled by a preseason knee injury, leaving him battling Ricky Ray for the No. 3 job. Grade: B-minus.

Running backs: Everyone thought Curtis Martin was finished when he got off to such a dismal start in 2003. Martin, now 31, had the last laugh again when he finished with 1,308 yards rushing. While Pennington makes things exciting, the offense still runs through Martin. Coming off his first injury-free offseason in years, Martin has vowed to put up at least 1,500 yards and has anointed this the most talented Jets team he's been on. Look for Martin, perhaps the most underrated back in the NFL, to get off to a much better start. Backing him up for at least another season is fourth-year pro LaMont Jordan, who has let it be known for some time now that he'd prefer a starting opportunity. In his contract season, Jordan offers quality relief for Martin. FB Jerald Sowell is as valuable as he is unheralded - as a receiver, blocker, and special-teams force. B.J. Askew needs to take another step. Grade: B-minus.

Receivers: With Curtis Conway serving as the team's latest free-agent receiving bust, Santana Moss endured double and bracket coverage most of the 2003 season. Moss still put up his best year as a pro, so imagine what he will do with Justin McCareins lining up on the other side of the field. McCareins, acquired in a shrewd deal with Tennessee for a second-round pick, is expected to add toughness and a downfield dimension that has been missing from the offense since Laveranues Coles left for the Redskins. Wayne Chrebet, clearly on the downside, had an injury-riddled camp but should settle into the No. 3 role, although he might miss Week One with leg injury. Fourth-round pick Jerricho Cotchery looks poised to contribute. Cotchery, projected as a special-teams star, could make an impact anyway as the No. 4 receiver. Jonathan Carter, who entered camp ahead of Cotchery, looks like no more than a kickoff returner. Grade: B-plus.

Offensive linemen: The signing of Pete Kendall, released by Arizona, should greatly enhance the power-running game and continuity up front. OTs Jason Fabini and Kareem McKenzie are solid, and C Kevin Mawae remains at the top of his game. Kendall replaces the retired Dave Szott at left guard, and big things are expected from Brandon Moore at right guard. The depth at tackle and center looks shaky. Grade: B-minus.

Defensive linemen: With a so-so secondary, any team that plays the aggressive style Henderson espouses must get dominant play up front. DLE Shaun Ellis is by far the best of a heralded group that includes four No. 1 picks (including backup DE Bryan Thomas). John Abraham is now a linebacker in 3-4 sets, which could diminish his effectiveness as a pass rusher. Every team needs a space-eating nose tackle like Jason Ferguson. But unfortunately for Henderson, there have been few signs that 2003 first-round pick Dewayne Robertson can be the dominant player he was drafted to be at the other DT spot. Thomas struggled all summer in the new hybrid position behind Abraham. Overall, it's a good group, but perhaps not good enough to cover up a suspect secondary. Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: First-round pick Jonathan Vilma seems likely to evolve as the leader of the most improved position group on the roster. The coaches will be hard-pressed to get him off the field. Sam Cowart's move to the middle should help him regain his past form. At this point in his career, Cowart needs the guards covered up in order to make plays. SLB Victor Hobson has embraced his starting role, but projected starter Eric Barton was injured for much of camp. With Henderson willing to line up Abraham, Cowart, Vilma, and Hobson at the four LB spots, Barton will have to earn his playing time. Jason Glenn is the most experienced backup. Grade: A-minus.

Defensive backs: While David Barrett will be an upgrade over the departed Aaron Beasley, the team still lacks a legitimate man-to-man cover cornerback. SS Reggie Tongue missed most of training camp with a calf injury and never got a chance to gain chemistry with FS Jon McGraw. Other than nickel CB Ray Mickens, the bench is thin. Third-round pick Derrick Strait will have to contribute in sub packages, and the Jets can't afford any injuries. Grade: C-minus.

Special teams: It's another transition year for Mike Westhoff, who is hoping to find a few speedy rookies (Cotchery is one) to spice up his return and coverage units. Moss, an electrifying punt returner, will be joined at times by McCareins when Westhoff employs a two-man return game. As long as he stays healthy, Jonathan Carter can be an effective kickoff returner. PK Doug Brien is back, and Westhoff hopes Toby Gowin, his fourth punter in four years, is the answer. Grade: B.

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