Coples had 4.5 sacks last season, a slight decrease from the 5.5 he managed in his rookie season. Focus on him increased even further when former Jets great Joe Klecko questioned his work ethic. However, there are plenty of overlooked factors which need to be explored in more depth.
After the jump, we consider some of these things and discuss what the Jets can expect from Coples in 2014.
The "move" to "linebacker"
There were plenty of misconceptions flying around last year after the Jets shocked everyone by drafting another interior lineman and then went on to announce that Coples would be "moving to outside linebacker". Much was written about how Coples would struggle in coverage and lack the agility to play the position. However, that was rooted in the fact that the Rush Linebacker role within Ryan's defense is something the media struggles to fully understand.
That Rush role, as occupied by the likes of Terrell Suggs in Baltimore, has far more in common with a defensive end position that a linebacker position. That player will still rush the passer the majority of the time and even when they do drop into coverage, it's usually just dropping off into a passing lane or a shallow zone, not tracking a receiver down the field. Since the Rush plays on the weakside, there is no tight end on that side and therefore any concern that tight ends would be able to exploit Coples in coverage was overplayed.
Moreover, this was a role which Coples had already been playing in 2012, and with increasing regularity as the season wound to a close. While he only played 27 snaps from a standing position (some of which were merely amoeba formations with multiple linemen standing) he played as a 4-3 end on 26% of his snaps as a rookie, a not-insignificant number. Therefore, Coples seeing more time coming off the edge was something I was already predicting and, once they announced it, my research indicated that Coples was just as productive going against tackles as he was against interior linemen.
There was one major change to his role though, although it didn't involve putting more on his plate. That key change was that he stopped playing on the interior altogether. Having played there approximately 25% of the time in preseason, he saw less than 30 snaps as a defensive tackle all season, nearly all of them before week six. Maybe this was a reaction to how well the defensive line was playing without him or maybe it was an effort to get him to focus on the edge rusher role. Either way, he certainly responded over the second half of the season.
Heading into 2014, Coples has reportedly lost 15 pounds in an effort to make himself faster. This essentially cements the fact that he won't be used on the inside this season. However, while he's talking about doing more "linebackery" things like dropping into coverage, he's still going to be primarily an edge rusher and an edge setter in the running game.
At times, I'm left wondering if there are people out there who expected to see Coples going sideline to sideline like a conventional linebacker in the Derrick Brooks mold. He has even lined up in such a fashion once or twice as you can see in the image and it doesn't even look right! By the way, that play resulted in Coples mowing through the line to make a tackle in the backfield.
Who are we to question Rex Ryan?
It is surprising that the architect of one of the league's top defenses finds it so hard to earn the benefit of the doubt from the media. I've seen plenty of comments questioning the logic behind this move, including this one from ESPN New York's Rich Cimini:
To me, this move is a reach. A 280-pound linebacker? Why do I have the feeling we'll be reporting late in training camp that Coples is returning to the defensive line?
While I'm surprised Cimini hasn't - to my knowledge - attempted to play the "he's basically being used as a defensive end anyway" card, he continues to pour cold water on the move. Earlier this week he did, at least, pay Coples a compliment, saying:
There aren’t many 6-foot-6, 280-pound athletes like him walking the face of the Earth, someone who can play in a three-point stance and stand up as a linebacker.
However, even while doing this he also suggested that Coples had "underachieved" and that there might be a change if he has "another non-descript season".
Leaving aside the fact that guys like Julius Peppers and Mario Williams have both played the position at an equivalent size - and that Coples must weigh less than that now if reports of his weight loss are accurate - why would any writer know better than a head coach of a football team how to make the best use of his players?
But wait...have I not been guilty of something similar? In the past, I was outspoken about being unable to understand why the Eric Mangini Jets in 2006 and 2007 had opted to employ Eric Barton as an inside linebacker and Victor Hobson as an outside linebacker. It seemed like Barton would lack the size to take on blockers inside and Hobson would lack the speed to generate pressure off the edge.
Now that I've gone back over the 2007 season, I can see the wisdom behind Mangini making that move. It was true that Hobson would lack the speed to generate any pressure coming off the edge. However, Mangini (perhaps in concert with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton) knew that the Jets were unlikely to generate any pressure off the edge with their outside personnel, often resorting to sending them on delayed blitzes in the hope that they could avoid being picked up. Barton getting there half a step quicker wasn't going to make any significant positive influence on the Jets pass rush, but replacing him with the slightly slower Hobson inside might have more of a negative effect. So, leaving Hobson, who at least had the strength to hold up reasonably well against the run, on the outside, was an exercise in damage limitation.
This highlights one of the biggest differences between Ryan and Mangini. As I wrote yesterday, Ryan seeks to put his players in a position whereby they can play to their strengths. Mangini was allowing how he used his players to be dictated by what they could not do. In Mangini's defense, the Jets had been cap-strapped at the time and he didn't have ideal personnel to work with, so building a conservative, bend-but-not-break defense was the best chance they had of remaining competitive.
There's something much more interesting we can learn from the 2007 season that's relevant to this topic, though.
Whoever heard of a 280-pound linebacker?
Oh how they scoffed when the Jets announced they were going to be moving a defensive tackle to linebacker. Nobody ever tried that before. It's unheard of. Except...
Die-hard Jets fans may remember a game from that 2007 season when the Jets silenced the partisan Steelers faithful at the Meadowlands (no, that's not a misprint) with a stunning overtime win. The Jets threw a strategic wrinkle that the Steelers weren't expecting, by employing Shaun Ellis - a 6'5" 285-pound defensive lineman - as an outside linebacker. The result was that the Jets - who entered the game with a league-low nine sacks in nine games - sacked Ben Roethlisberger seven times, with Ellis recording one sack and two half-sacks. That was just a one-off, a novelty though. Except...
Over the last six games of the season, the Jets persisted with the Ellis-at-outside-linebacker experiment. He played 93 snaps as an outside linebacker in those six games. Contrast that with Coples, who only played 173 snaps as an outside linebacker in 14 games. That's fewer snaps-per-game standing up.
In addition, unlike the situation with Coples, Ellis wasn't simply playing a defensive end role without putting his hand in the dirt or just standing up in some pass packages, he was actually playing an outside linebacker role in the base defense. Mangini and Sutton's defense doesn't operate like a hybrid, so they were actually bringing in another interior lineman (often CJ Mosley) and taking an outside linebacker out of the game for Ellis to replace.
Any concerns about Coples' speed, agility or hip fluidity and the effect they could have on his ability to carry out such a role would apply equally to Ellis. In fact, I'd clearly peg Coples as better than him in these categories, although we can't make a measurables comparison because Ellis opted not to work out at the combine. Did it effect Ellis, though? Not really, because he dropped into coverage just three times in those six games, no more or less than he would in any typical season. By contrast, Coples dropped into coverage 25 times last year, although it is interesting to note that nine of these plays were when he had his hand in the dirt. Opposing teams were unable to exploit Ellis being out of position, as he was one of the Jets' better defensive performers throughout the season. The Jets were out of the race by midseason, but pretty competitive down the stretch.
Assessing Coples' progress
Some have suggested, perhaps based on the sack totals, that Coples was less productive once he moved full-time into the edge rusher role. However, that's not true at all. In his rookie year, Coples never had more than four total pressures (sacks plus hits plus hurries) in a game. However, in the second half of last year, he averaged 4.5 per game.
That's not entirely as cut-and-dried as it would seem. You would typically expect a higher rate of pressure coming off the edge than you would for an interior player. However, at the same time, we shouldn't forget that those rookie pass rush numbers do include some plays where he was coming off the edge.
What about the first half of the year, though? Just one sack, four hits and four pressures? That was definitely a slow start for him in terms of production. Of course this was partly attributable to the change in role, but also let's not forget that he broke his foot in August, so the fact it took him until October to get firing on all cylinders could also be attributable to that.
We'll have to wait and see whether that second half output was indicative of what he's capable of producing all the time or whether those numbers will even off. If he can generate pressure at that rate, those numbers would be comparable to the elite edge rushers around the NFL. Even when he wasn't producing statistically, there were signs throughout the season that he was giving opposing tackles more and more problems and there were plenty of examples of him beating his man but not generating a pressure because the opposing quarterback got rid of the ball almost immediately. He could perhaps benefit indirectly from a better performance from the secondary this year too.
It's not all about pass rushing though. How did Coples fare against the run? Again, he showed improvements in this area. As a unit, the Jets run defense was the best in the NFL for the majority of the season, with Coples playing over 80% of the snaps. That in and of itself indicates that he was making positive contributions. He graded out positively (+4.5) according to PFF, having had a negative grade (-1.5) as a rookie. Once again, he showed improvements in this area over the second half of the year. Overall, he had eight tackles for a loss in 14 games, as opposed to five in 16 as a rookie.
Maybe the change to his role accelerated his growth, maybe it set him back. Either way, it seems clear he did improve from year one to year two and that progress is something the Jets will be keen to continue fostering.
While much has been written and speculated about Coples' role and likely performance in 2014 and beyond, the proof is in the pudding and it will be exciting to see what he can achieve this season.
It remains to be seen whether the weight loss will work in his favor, but if he can get to the quarterback a half-step sooner, that could make a huge difference. Coples had a team leading 15 quarterback hits in 2013; Turning just half of these into sacks would take him comfortably into double-digits.
As long as he remains healthy, the sky's the limit for Coples and Ryan has set up the defense in such a way as he could make a real name for himself this year if he lives up to his promise. Things are moving in the right direction, so perhaps we should trust Rex Ryan. He knows what he's doing.
This series continues next weekend with an article focusing on Kenrick Ellis.