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Ask Rex Ryan if he wants to draft a pass rusher, and this is what you get: stats.
The New York Jets' coach will say his team finished third in total defense and eighth in sacks. Next he will look at you kind of funny and say, "If we need pass rushers, how about all these other teams?"
It seems like a valid point, but this is one of those situations where the numbers don't tell the whole truth. For all their defensive accomplishments, the Jets do need a pass rusher. They also need a safety, a nose tackle and maybe another cornerback.
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If the Jets don't wake up and smell the Ben Gay, they're going to be in trouble. Their defense is getting old -- it is old -- and it's time to start turning over the personnel. Beneath his bravado, Ryan knows it, too, and that's why the Jets would stun the entire NFL draft if they don't pick a defensive player with the 30th pick in the first round.
It could be Baylor nose tackle Phil Taylor or an outside linebacker, UCLA's Akeem Ayers or Arizona's Brooks Reed, a rising prospect who has grabbed the Jets' attention in a big way, according to sources. Or maybe they grab someone from one of the deepest defensive-end pools in recent history, perhaps Ohio State's Cameron Heyward.
The Jets have two blue-chip talents on defense, cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebacker David Harris. They have a few others in the red-chip category, but mostly they have a unit of smart, tough, well-coached players who fit wonderfully into Ryan's system -- guys like tackle Mike DeVito and safety Jim Leonhard.
The front office is so confident in Ryan's ability to plug players into his system, and coach 'em up, that it virtually ignored the defense in the last two drafts. Of the Jets' seven picks in 2009 and 2010, only one played defense -- first-round cornerback Kyle Wilson, a non-contributor as a rookie.
ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer said recently on the air that the Jets do it with "smoke and mirrors," his way of tweaking the talent level and complimenting the clever game plans of Ryan and his right-hand man, Mike Pettine. Dilfer's comment didn't sit well with at least one player -- DeVito fired back in a tweet -- but it was dead on.
Well, not completely dead on. Dilfer should've said, "Smoke, mirrors and Revis" -- but you get the drift.
Smoke and mirrors can work for a while, but the Jets have reached the stage where they need an infusion of young blood. Three of the four starting linebackers are over 30, as are two starters on the line. That includes elder statesman Shaun Ellis, 33, a free agent who probably will test the market -- when there's a market to test.
The front seven needs to upgrade its speed, especially on the edges. That's why prospects like Ayers and Reed are attractive. Nose tackle Sione Pouha is a solid player, but he's 32 -- which makes the 334-pound Taylor a consideration.
"I don't see a linebacker at 30 that would be worth the pick," said an opposing personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I see some defensive linemen that might be worth it. If Jimmy Smith slides down, they could go cornerback."
Smith is a talented but oft-troubled corner from Colorado -- a first-round talent with a ton of baggage. It would be hard to pick a corner two years in a row, but we all know how much Ryan values cornerbacks. Plus, Antonio Cromartie and Drew Coleman are free agents.
In their first two seasons under Ryan, the Jets finished first and third in total defense, respectively -- and they did it without an elite pass rusher. They confused opponents with an array of blitzes, but some of the magic wore off last season and there were times when the Jets looked helpless. How many times did they surrender a first down on third-and-12 or third-and-15? Too many.
To his credit, Ryan adapted, switching to coverage-based schemes during the stretch run and playoffs. In back-to-back weeks, the Jets befuddled two of the greatest quarterbacks in history, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. A Sports Illustrated cover, with a shell-shocked Brady getting sacked by Calvin Pace, hangs in the Jets' offices.
"That was a great picture. His eyes were this big!" Ryan said of Brady, still savoring that epic playoff upset over the New England Patriots. "That one's up on the wall. Nobody can take that win away from us, and it was a great feeling, but man, oh man, just once -- I'm not asking for much -- just once I want that to be a Super Bowl picture."
It can, but it's going to take a mini-makeover. Whether they remain a coverage defense or go back to their mad-pressure ways, the Jets need a boost. No matter what the 2010 numbers say.