It could well be the second coming of the “New York Sack Exchange,” but the Jets defensive line isn't ready to start talking boldly quite yet. It just wants to play that way.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there wasn't a more-feared defensive front in the NFL than Mark Gastineau, Joe Klecko, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam. Now the Jets have another defensive front that is starting to become a feared unit with Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and Sheldon Richardson forming the foundation.
They are young, fast and aggressive— just like the original “Sack Exchange.”
“We hope to be [as good as them]. We're all young. We're all young and talented and I hope we can play some ball for the next couple years together. We haven't even scratched the surface, the sky is the limit for us. We just have to put in the hard work,” Wilkerson told Metro. “We can't even compare ourselves to those guys. Those guys were unbelievable back then and it was different. At the end of the day, I'm aware of what those guys did and how high they set the bar and how we should want to work to be like them. It should make us want to be better.”
The cornerstone of this franchise might well be the defensive line, especially with all the question marks on the offensive side of the ball. Over the past three years, the Jets have invested three first-round picks along the defensive line. All three can get to the quarterback and all three are versatile players who can play inside or outside.
The trademark of the Jets under head coach Rex Ryan has always been the defense, but for much of his time here it has been a secondary that featured All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis in addition to Antonio Cromartie, arguably a Top-5 cornerback himself. Now, the defensive line could be the cornerstone of the Jets for years to come.
“We have some very talented guys we put some high picks into,” Ryan said last week. “Like I said, we have three first-round picks in a row in that defensive line and every one of them are hits. That bodes well for us moving forward.”
It is a young unit. Besides Wilkerson, Coples and Richardson, third-year nose tackle Kenrick Ellis was taken in the third round and Damon Harrison is in his second year as an undrafted rookie free agent who has stepped into a starting role this season.
Unlike the original “Sack Exchange,” this current version runs a three-man front which will generate less of a pass rush than a more traditional four-man front. But through four games, the Jets defense is tied for third in the league with 14 sacks.
Wilkerson already has three sacks while rookie Richardson has 1 1/2 sacks. The production from the end positions is a luxury for the defense as they can drop the linebackers into coverage more effectively instead of having to blitz to create a pass rush. The play of the line is also opening things up for Calvin Pace and Antwan Barnes to make plays behind the line from the linebacker position.
For a franchise very much reshaping its identity, it may have found it along the defensive front.
“I'm a rookie but we most definitely have the potential to be the face of the organization, repaying the faith they put in us. They went out and got us and now they're getting production,” Richardson said. “Rex has told us about them, that the media is saying how we're the 'New Sack Exchange' and this and that but he's encouraged us to be humble and keep working at it. Make our own name.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.