Talented D-line remains big bright spot for rebuilt Jets
By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
The Associated Press
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Demario Davis looks out in front of him on the football field and the middle linebacker can’t help but get fired up by the big guys on the New York Jets’ defensive line.
With Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson leading the way, Davis knows the rebuilt Jets still boast one of the most-imposing D-lines in the NFL.
“Oh, man, as a [middle] linebacker, there’s no front in the league that you’d rather play behind than those guys up front,” Davis said. “You’ve got about four guys who can’t be blocked one-on-one, so the offensive line’s got to make a decision. Are they going to double team or leave a guy one-on-one?
“Those guys are explosive, and for a [middle] linebacker, they make your job real easy.”
And, for opposing offense, it’s the exact opposite.
“We know we can be great,” Wilkerson said, “as long as all of us put in the work each and every day, push each other like we’re supposed to, which we’re doing.”
While the Jets have lots of new faces up and down the roster and many fans and media are predicting doom and gloom for the season, the defensive line remains a big bright spot.
The position group had perhaps the least amount of personnel turnover during an offseason in which many high-priced veterans were shown the door.
Defensive tackle Steve McLendon is back after missing the final five games with a hamstring injury, and backups Deon Simon, Lawrence Thomas and Anthony Johnson also return. Mike Pennell and the newly signed Devon Still could also see playing time.
“The sky’s the limit for the D-line,” Williams said. “I feel like we’ve definitely just scratched the surface of what we can do.”
Things started off promising last season with Williams (2 1/2 sacks), McLendon (2) and Wilkerson (1 1/2) combining for six of the Jets’ seven sacks in a 23-22 loss to Cincinnati. But injuries, inconsistency and mistakes prevented the defensive line from matching that type of performance the rest of the season.
“We’ve seen what it looks like when we’re all on the same page,” Williams said, “and we’re all going full speed and picking each other up.”
Williams did his fair share while making the Pro Bowl in his second season and finishing with a team-leading seven sacks. But Wilkerson dealt with an ankle injury all season that sapped some of his playmaking ability as he had just 4 1/2 sacks, his lowest total since his rookie year in 2011.
That came after Wilkerson signed a massive five-year contract in the offseason worth $86 million, including $53 million guaranteed and a $15 million signing bonus. Some speculated that perhaps Wilkerson became a bit complacent, and it didn’t help silence the critics when he and Richardson were benched for a quarter by Todd Bowles for being late to team meetings.
“All I can say about a man like him is he gave all he had last year, knowing about his injury,” McLendon said. “He knew about it, we knew about it, but he didn’t make any excuses. He showed up, he worked, he practiced, he played. It probably wasn’t up to the standards that he’d want it to be, but he knew he gave what he had. … Just to see a guy like continue to fight, regardless of the situation, it’s amazing. It’s awesome.”
The Jets are banking on a bounce-back season for Wilkerson, as well as Richardson, who had a career-low 1 1/2 sacks last year while being shifted at times from the line to outside linebacker.
Richardson, who dealt with suspensions at the start of the last two seasons, has been mentioned in potential trade talks since last summer. He’s entering a contract year and knows a big payday — from the Jets or another team — could be on the horizon if he can return to his 2014 Pro Bowl form.
“I’m motivated every year, so it’s not just because it’s my last year,” Richardson said. “We’ll see when the time gets here.”
Williams is looking to step up as a leader in his third season. The No. 6 overall pick in 2015 has made steady improvement in his first two years, and his teammates already see greatness in him.
“He’s a young guy, a lot of talent,” McLendon said. “People say the sky’s the limit? Man, the only limit is him. He don’t have a limit. He can grow as much as he wants to grow. It’s not the sky.”
Williams said the line is “definitely motivated” to show it is, in fact, one of the league’s top units. He, Wilkerson and Richardson have been together for three years and know each other’s tendencies well and how to push each other.
Now, they can’t wait to start pushing offensive linemen and quarterbacks around again together.
“They’ll be all right,” Davis said. “Those guys have all proved to be dominant players in this league. Not average players, but dominant players. They’ve had dominant years, multiple dominant years.
“When they’re all on the same page and they’re clicking like they’re clicking, that’s a scary front.”