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Projected starters: Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson, Steve McLendon
Projected backups: Sheldon Richardson, Lawrence Thomas, Deon Simon
On the bubble: Mike Pennel, Claude Pelon, Brandin Bryant, Patrick Gamble, Anthony Johnson
Departures: Jarvis Jenkins, Julien Obioha
Key stat: The Jets led the league in the lowest amount of yards allowed per carry before first contact, according to Pro Football Focus.
The defensive line remains by far the most star-studded unit on the current team, but 2016 was a down year for Wilkerson and Richardson. Wilkerson struggled worse than expected to recover from a broken leg at the end of the 2015 season, and Richardson continued to make headlines off the field, as his production was again disappointing with him playing more on the edge rather than inside.
Conversely, Williams had a banner year, earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl and being voted team MVP. Williams was dominant against the run but also ramped up his production as a pass rusher, increasing his sack output from three as a rookie to seven last year.
Having just signed a big-money deal, Wilkerson's struggles caused concern, especially after the team benched him and Richardson for missing a meeting. However, it was apparent all year that he didn't have the same mobility and explosiveness since his injury, so the Jets hope this was the primary reason for his drop-off in production, as there were some encouraging flashes down the stretch. In 2015, he recorded almost three times as much pressure, so if he can return to that level, it will have a huge effect on his teammates and the defense as a whole.
Richardson is entering a contract year, so he should be motivated to play hard, and the team is intent on letting him play inside more to hopefully boost his influence. That said, the challenge of getting Williams, Wilkerson and Richardson to maximize their individual potential has proved too much for Todd Bowles and his staff so far.
In theory, all three could play together on the line, but that would require one of them to play nose tackle, which the team has shied away from in the past. The concern would be that the nose tackle would primarily just draw double teams, which could wear them down and eat into their statistical production. Sticking Richardson out on the edge just to get all three of them in the game hasn't worked, so perhaps it's worth a try. NFL.com actually already lists Williams as a nose tackle, and he did play there at times last season.
Ironically, if that's the approach they opt to take, then it will mean there would be hardly any reps available for what looks like a solid group of nose tackles. The Jets added the veteran Pennel, who has been a solid performer for the Packers in recent seasons despite a couple of suspensions during the offseason. McLendon, another veteran, was the starter last year, but when he was injured late in the season, Simon filled in for him and there was no apparent drop-off.
McLendon, being the most expensive of the three, might see his spot under threat if his snap count becomes too low to warrant his salary. Then again, he's the oldest defensive player on the roster, so the team might value his locker room presence.
The Jets were also able to work Thomas into the mix last year. Thomas eventually spent most of the year on injured reserve, but the team rotated him in regularly on defense at the start of last year and liked his special teams work, so it may still have plans for him.
There are some other interesting youngsters that will battle for a roster spot. While this looks like an uphill climb, Thomas was in the same situation 12 months ago, so the coaching staff will be willing to give them a shot if they show enough in camp and preseason. Johnson, a midseason acquisition, saw some rotational playing time down the stretch, so he might be one to watch.
Outlook: It's not entirely out of the question that the Jets could still trade Richardson -- or even Wilkerson -- either before the season or at the trade deadline. That will perhaps bring more balance to the group and simplify the rotations. For now, the Jets have a talented group with plenty of depth, and if the likes of Wilkerson and Richardson return to form in 2017, this year's defense could end up being far better than most expect.