Challenge for Jets: Unlock potential on talented defensive line

Muhammad Wilkerson expects to be "dominant" this season after a down year in 2016. Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Breaking down the New York Jets' roster unit by unit in preparation for training camp, which begins July 29:

Position: Defensive line

Projected starters: Leonard Williams, Steve McLendon, Muhammad Wilkerson.

Projected reserves: Sheldon Richardson, Deon Simon, Lawrence Thomas.

Notables on the bubble: Mike Pennel, Anthony Johnson.

Top storyline: This is the strongest position group on the team, yet it always leaves you expecting more. Except for a few games in 2015, the Williams-Wilkerson-Richardson troika hasn't dominated the way it should. This season will probably be its last chance to make a definitive statement. The goal in camp is to find the right position for each of the big three. It sounds easy, but it's not, because you're talking about three defensive tackles in a 3-4 base front.

Player to watch: Wilkerson followed his best season (a Pro Bowl year in 2015) with his worst to date, raising questions about his desire, ability to play hurt, conditioning, you name it. He sounds like he's ready to rebound, telling anyone with a notepad, "I plan on being dominant." He's 18 months removed from surgery to repair a fractured leg, so there's no excuse. This is a big year for Wilkerson because that five-year, $86 million contract he signed last July runs out of fully guaranteed money this season, providing the Jets with an easy escape next March if they so choose.

Wild card: For the first time in three years, Richardson can go to camp without a suspension hanging over his head. However, that doesn't mean he has found stability. Chances are he will remain on the trading block, where he has resided since last fall. He has been there so long he might have to start paying taxes. This is the final year of his contract, so motivation shouldn't be a problem. He's coming off his worst statistical season (1.5 sacks), but one opposing scout said, "I don't think his stats represent how disruptive he was. I thought he played well." The coaches hope to increase his production by using him more often in his natural position: the 3-technique tackle.

Training camp will be a success if ...: The Jets find a taker for Richardson, who doesn't fit into their long-term plans. It's a long shot, but maybe another team will suffer a key injury and get desperate. If the Jets are offered a third-round pick or better, they should take it. The Jets are also eager to see if Simon can push McLendon at nose tackle. If that happens, it could make McLendon, 31, expendable.

By the numbers: Oddly, the defense didn't play well when Williams, Wilkerson and Richardson -- arguably the unit's three most talented players -- were on the field at the same time. That occurred 51 percent of the time (513 snaps). On those plays, the Jets allowed 5.7 yards per play, higher than the team's season average (5.48), per ESPN Stats & Information. The touchdown pass-interception ratio was 19-2, compared to 11-6 on all other plays. Go figure.