Training camp preview: Defensive line

July, 19, 2014
Jul 19
8:00
AM ET
Breaking down the New York Jets' roster, unit by unit, in preparation for training camp, July 23:

Position: Defensive line

Projected starters: Muhammad Wilkerson (DE), Damon Harrison (NT), Sheldon Richardson (DT)

Projected reserves: Leger Douzable, Kenrick Ellis

[+] EnlargeSheldon Richardson
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesSheldon Richardson, the 2013 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, still sees plenty of room for improvement.
Player to watch: Richardson. What can he do for an encore? After winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Richardson doesn't have to prove last year was an aberration -- it wasn't -- but he must become a more complete player in 2014. That means producing more as a pass rusher. He managed only 3.5 sacks in 509 pass-rushing opportunities last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Ordinarily, defensive tackle isn't a high-sack position, but Richardson isn't your ordinary defensive tackle. He's explosive and versatile, lining up in multiple spots. He should be able to do more damage now that a shoulder injury, which hampered him most of last season, is healed. Rex Ryan: "This guy wants to be great. He was probably disappointed in the fact that he was only rookie of the year."

Top storyline: Wilkerson's contract situation. He won't become a Darrelle Revis-type distraction -- Wilkerson vowed not to stage a holdout -- but the topic is bound to come up in his dealings with the media. He has two years remaining on his deal, making a ridiculously low $1.2 million in 2014. The Jets have time (and leverage) on their side, so they won't do a deal unless it makes sense for them. With more than $20 million in cap room, why not do it now? It would send a positive message, showing the organization is committed to keeping its own. That hasn't always been the case. See: Revis.

Training camp will be a success if: The top five avoid injuries. Obviously, this could apply to any position, but it's particularly important for the defensive line, which doesn't have much depth beyond the returning five. (It's six, if you count "rush" linebacker Quinton Coples.) The Jets were extraordinarily lucky last season with injuries, with the same five linemen playing in every game. What are the odds of it happening two years in a row? Keep an eye on rookie Kerry Hyder, an undrafted free agent. The coaches like his upside.

Wild card: Ellis. He was "Wally Pipped" last summer by Harrison, and now it's time for Ellis to step to the forefront. It's his last chance, as he will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. The big fella has the size and the raw talent, but he has been slow to develop. If he does, the defensive line will strengthen its hold as the best position group on the team.

By the numbers: Wilkerson had 10 sacks after 11 games, but only a half-sack in the final five. The coaches need to do a better job of preserving him early in the season, perhaps scaling back some of his reps.

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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