The New York Jets went into July with two Pro Bowl players on defense. Now, just like that, they don't have any. Safety Jamal Adams was traded, and linebacker C.J. Mosley opted out for the 2020 NFL season because of coronavirus pandemic concerns, a double jolt that could wreck the Jets' season before it starts.
That is unless defensive coordinator Gregg Williams can manufacture enough smoke, mirrors and fire to elevate a unit sorely lacking in playmakers. And the Jets are counting on that.
In Gregg They Trust.
"I hate to see Jamal go and C.J. opt out, but at the end of the day we've still got some talented guys that play those positions," Jets linebacker Avery Williamson said Wednesday in a videoconference call with reporters. "I feel like Gregg Williams is going to put guys in good positions. He's just going to coach the hell out of them."
This could be one of the biggest challenges of Williams' 30-year coaching career. This was a flawed unit before the recent departures -- no proven edge rusher and no lockdown cornerback -- and it will be harder to camouflage those shortcomings without Adams and Mosley.
"Obviously, we'll miss him [Mosley] this season, but like always, we'll have the next-man-up mentality," Jets coach Adam Gase said. "I feel like we have a lot of depth at that position. Guys will do everything they can to step up and fill the void, and we'll develop great defensive team chemistry."
While they might be shy on elite talent, the Jets have a few positives to build on. They have a proven system in place, a coach they believe in and a culture that was established last season. The defense was shredded by injuries in 2019 (Mosley missed 14 games), yet it still managed to finish seventh in total yards allowed and second in rushing yards.
Mostly out of necessity, Williams used a committee to replace Mosley, employing Neville Hewitt and James Burgess Jr. at the middle linebacker spot. Both players are back. (Burgess is on the reserve/COVID-19 list.) Williamson is back after missing 2019 because of major knee surgery. He played middle linebacker under the previous coaching staff but was slated to play the weak-inside slot last season before getting hurt in the preseason. Patrick Onwuasor, acquired from the Baltimore Ravens, also can play both spots.
In other words, Williams has options.
"Maybe our best option is have two starters and two backups ... or maybe we'll go with multiple guys and say, 'Hey, we’re going to rotate it around and everybody is going to have a certain role,'" Gase said. "The beauty part about what Gregg does on defense is, with the amount of personnel groupings he has, he has a ton of flexibility to give a lot of guys playing time. I think that will be beneficial to us."
Getting closer...🛫 pic.twitter.com/oem6bp24pQ— New York Jets (@nyjets) August 4, 2020
Ultimately, the Jets could take a best-11 approach, depending on the package.
The silver lining is they have experienced choices among the potential replacements. Williamson has 75 starts, followed by Onwuasor (32), Hewitt (23) and Burgess (21). Second-year linebacker Blake Cashman (five) also could be an option.
Bradley McDougald (75 starts), acquired from the Seattle Seahawks in the Adams trade, is expected to replace the All-Pro safety. He's not as good as Adams, but he has plenty of versatility. A year ago, he played 484 snaps at free safety and 121 in the slot in addition to a heavy workload in the "box." You can bet Williams will create a niche for his new strong safety.
Williamson, like a lot of players, never expected Adams to get traded. He figured the sides would work out their contract dispute. Mosley's opt-out also came as a surprise. A year ago, the Jets' brass envisioned a Mosley-Williamson tandem at inside linebacker. They haven't played a single snap together.
"I was definitely upset about it, but I support my guy," Williamson said. "It's just the next-man-up mentality. We've got guys in the room that can play linebacker, and they showed it last year, when me and him went down."