Tuesday afternoon, new Head Coach Adam Gase and the Jets hired former Browns’ Interim HC Gregg Williams to be their new Defensive Coordinator for the next three years. Williams was arguably the best DC left on the market at the time of this hiring, and is a huge get for the Jets. The Jets are clearly ushering in a new brand of hard-nosed intense coaching styles with the hiring of Gase, the retention of Special Teams Coordinator Brant Boyer, and the now hiring of Williams. Although William’s fierce and fiery personality is a perfect fit for the Jets, his 4-3 scheme is quite different than the heavy 3-4 scheme they’ve ran since former Head Coach Todd Bowles was hired. As this scheme assigns different roles and alignments to positions in a 3-4, some players are now considered expendable and others are now even more valuable. Because of this scheme change, the Jets’ defensive side of the roster is incomplete and they will need to make positional changes and new acquisitions over the off-season.
What is Gregg William’s Scheme? Gregg Williams deploys a 4-3 base alignment. What this means is he likes to use four athletic defensive lineman who all excel at pass rushing, and three stand-up coverage linebackers. In the 3-4, what the Jets used to run under Bowles, they used 3 defensive lineman and 4 linebackers, and the outside linebackers had to be pass rushers. The standard 4-3 is best when the two defensive ends, or the outermost defensive lineman, are big, fast and athletic pass rushers that played lined up with the tackles or on their outside shoulders in base alignments (alignments change situation to situation). The interior defensive lineman must be able to effectively play the run and have some pass rush abilities. In most 4-3 alignments (except 4-3 Even, which is not William’s base alignment) one DT usually lines up as a Nose Tackle (directly across from the Center) and eats up double-teams while also stuffing the interior running lanes. The other DT spot usually plays as 3-technique (outside shoulder of a guard) and plays the run as well as pass rushes. Unlike a 3-4, all the linebackers on the field in a 4-3 need to be fast, explosive, and good in coverage. Also unlike the 3-4, the 4-3 only has one Middle Linebacker, who is often referred to as the “Mike” linebacker. He’s usually the defensive playcaller and his main job is to stuff the run, although he will be expected to drop back in coverage. Outside Linebackers in a 4-3 need to be fast and good in coverage, and need to fit a player profile more of a Darron Lee as opposed to a Jordan Jenkins. Gregg Williams also believes in generating heavy pressure off blitzes, especially on 3rd down. He is very aggressive in the way he sends blitzes and the pass rush it generates, which accompanied with his aggressive press-zone scheme makes any Gregg William’s defense a formidable matchup.
Who does the scheme change hurt? The change to a 4-3 is going to hurt a few players, mainly DE Henry Anderson, OLB Jordan Jenkins, OLB Brandon Copeland, and OLB Frankie Luvu. Henry Anderson was one of the Jets breakout players last season, landing on the Jets after a draft-day trade with the Colts (who also were switching to a 4-3, which is why they traded him) for a 7th round pick. Anderson’s production far outweighed his price, and quickly became one of the better defensive players on the team. However, Anderson is far too small to play either DE position or Nose Tackle. If he were to remain on the team as a starter, he would have to play at that 2nd defensive tackle position, however that is also where current Jets DL Leonard Williams would play. Although Henry Anderson out produced Williams, it is hard to see the team benching Williams for Anderson. Barring an early trade of Leonard Williams, Henry Anderson will likely hit free agency and sign elsewhere. Outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Brandon Copeland both had career years last season on the Jets. However, they are both your typical 3-4 stand-up pass rushing OLBs, and are hard to imagine fitting in to a 4-3 scheme. Copeland, who like Anderson is also a free agent, is on the smaller side, and would be hard to justify handing him a full-time starting spot at DE. Jordan Jenkins, who led the team in sacks in 2018 with 7, also doesn’t fit a 4-3 well. He wouldn’t be horrible at DE, especially if he put on some weight, but with 1 year left on his deal and the Jets looking to spend lots of cap this free agency, its hard seeing Jordan Jenkins making the transition quick enough to keep his starting spot. Frankie Luvu also impressed this season for being an undrafted free agent. However, he too fits the mold of your prototypical 3-4 OLB. It will be an uphill battle for him to transition to a 4-3 DE but he stuck to an NFL roster after going undrafted, so don’t count him out.
Who does the scheme change benefit? Although the scheme change does affect some players negatively, others will get a positive effect out of the scheme change. The main players who would benefit are DT Leonard Williams, LB Darron Lee, and the secondary as a complete unit. In Bowles’ 3-4, Lee was constantly deployed in the box and being as small as he is (6’1 218), he would often get overpowered and taken out of the play completely. His size, speed, and strengths perfectly fit into the mold of a weak-side outside linebacker, or a “WILL” linebacker. He would play away from traffic and would be depended on in the pass game more than he would to stop the run, much like he did in college at Ohio State. Leonard Williams would also benefit from consistently playing in the 3-technique role, instead of moving all over the defensive line like he did under Bowles. Much like Lee, he also flourished in a 4-3 scheme in college at USC. Because Gregg Williams likes to blitz heavy and often, his defensive backs will benefit greatly. A big reason the Cleveland Browns were Top 5 in interceptions last year was because of the pass rush generated from the blitzes. Opposing QBs were pressured often, especially on late downs, which led to less-than-ideal throwing situations and easy defensive turnovers. His press-zone scheme also plays directly to the strengths of CB Trumaine Johnson, who could definitely use an improvement in on-field performance. Another interesting note is that Trumaine Johnson’s best season came in 2015, under then St. Louis Rams’ Defensive Coordinator — Gregg Williams.
What scheme specific players should the Jets target this off-season? Due to the transition, the Jets now have lots of holes on the defense. Thankfully, they have the Cap Room and Draft Capital to fill such holes. The Jets first order of business on the defensive side of the ball should be to find two 4-3 DEs than could come in and start right away. There are the big-ticket names such as Cowboys’ DeMarcus Lawrence and Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, however the chance of the Jets landing either are slim, let alone both. The realistic names at DE the Jets should target in free agency should be: Patriots DE Trey Flowers, and Chiefs DE/OLB Dee Ford. In the draft, if they decide to go this route, the Jets should look to acquire Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, Kentucky’s Josh Allen, or Florida State’s Brian Burns. They all have the size and ability to dominate as a 4-3 DE. Another position they should address is their first DT spot. They need to decide if they want to bring back Steve McLendon, or go younger in free agency and target Falcons’ Grady Jarrett or Vikings’ Sheldon Richardson. They could also target two of the best players in the NFL Draft: Alabama’s Quinnen Williams or Houston’s Ed Oliver. Any one of these players would solidify the defensive interior.
After the Jets get the defensive line settled, they must figure out who they want to be playing in the intermediate field and where. They must decide if they want Avery Williamson to play the SAM or MIKE linebacker, and adjust accordingly. This year’s Free Agent class is very weak with starting caliber 4-3 OLB talent, with the only name worth mentioning being Anthony Barr. The Jets will have to fix this position in the draft if they don’t land Barr. Luckily there are quite a few names they should be interested in, such as: LSU’s Devin White, Alabama’s Mack Wilson, Michigan’s Devin Bush, Notre Dame’s Te’von Coney, and Wisconsin’s TJ Edwards. This draft is loaded with LB talent, so they should be able to at least find an average starter in the mid-rounds.
Lastly, the Jets must decide whether they want to bring back Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine. Skrine is likely gone, after struggling with penalties and injuries during his time with the Jets. Claiborne had a good start to last season but struggled down the stretch. With not many options in free agency that would be deemed a major upgrade, the Jets will have to look to the draft if they do indeed want to move on from Claiborne. There are many good corners in the upcoming draft, but the two best seem to be tailor-made for an aggressive press zone scheme. They would be LSU’s Greedy Williams and Washington’s Byron Murphy. The Jets must also decide if they want to roll with 2nd-year corner Parry Nickerson manning down the starting slot corner job, or would like to go elsewhere. If they do not feel comfortable with that, Houston’s Tyrann Mathieu would fit nicely into their press scheme, and has history playing (and succeeding) in the slot.
The Jets have many options with how they build the rest of their defense. Their main priority this off-season should still be to surround Darnold with as much offensive talent as possible, but they cannot neglect the other side of the ball. They have the cap room to address both sides, and most likely will. Expect the Jets to be one of, if not the most, active teams in free agency this year.