Jets' decimated defense means young core needs to step up -- now

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Jets defense tackle causes fumble vs. Broncos
Jets defense tackle causes fumble vs. Broncos

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – The Jets knew they were going to have a very young team, especially on defense, which is why they made sure to surround their kids with veterans. It’s part of why they brought in Carl Lawson for the defensive line, Jarrad Davis at middle linebacker and Lamarcus Joyner at safety. It’s also why they put the franchise tag on safety Marcus Maye.

Of course, when they take the field on Sunday for their fourth game of the season, none of those four will be on the field. That’s $32.6 million worth of talent on the sidelines in street clothes.

And it’s going to be that way for at least a few more weeks.

This is an enormous problem for the Jets, who were banking on their defense to keep them in games as the young offense and very young rookie quarterback found their footing in the NFL. They knew the development of Zach Wilson was going to take time and that the offense was likely to struggle early. They envisioned an aggressive and stout defense holding its own, turning the Jets into a surprisingly competitive team.

Then Lawson, their best pass rusher and really their best player all summer, tore his Achilles, ending his season. Then Davis, who was supposed to be the leader of a dangerously young linebacking corps, suffered an ankle injury that is expected to keep him out at least until Week 6.

After that, it was Joyner, whom the Jets thought was an under-the-radar steal in free agency, who tore a tendon in his elbow that required surgery, ending his season too. And now Maye, the last anchor in an extremely green secondary, who is out 3-4 weeks with an ankle injury, too.

With the offense still struggling and the rest of the defense barely old enough to drink, how are the Baby Jets supposed to survive four losses like that?

“We’ve got a group of guys that got to step up,” said Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. “It’s frustrating, obviously, when guys get hurt. You never want it to happen.”

It’s worse, though, when it happens to a team’s best players, and even worse when they leave an inexperienced group in their wake. After all, adding experience is a big reason why the Jets spent so much on those four players. Lawson was the jewel of their free-agent class, getting a three-year, $45 million contract with $30 million guaranteed. Joyner and Davis were bargains, with each getting one-year deals -- $3 million for Joyner, $5.5 million for Davis. And the franchise tag for Maye cost $10.6 million.

The Jets gladly spent all that – including $54.6 million guaranteed and $32.6 million this season alone – because they knew how much they need them. They are a defense that is starting three rookies and now seven players age 25 or under.

It’s basically 27-year-old C.J. Mosley and a bunch of kids.

So far, they’ve held their own. Unbelievably, the Jets have the NFL’s 10th-ranked defense, giving up only 328.3 yards per game. That’s almost miraculous considering how bad their offense has been, averaging just 250 yards per game and turning the ball over eight times. And some of them have performed really well. Ulbrich glowed about rookie corner Michael Carter on Thursday. The Jets like what they’ve seen from rookie linebacker Jamien Sherwood at times, too.

They obviously have some good young players who aren’t rookies, like Quinnen Williams and John Franklin-Myers on the line and Bryce Hall at cornerback. But they are all still growing and learning on the job. Now, unfortunately, they need to do more than grow and learn. They need to step up and play like veterans and give the offense the support that it will so desperately need.

So far, so good, but the challenge only grew with the injury to Maye. That leaves the Jets wondering how long the defense can keep holding on without all that veteran leadership?

That will depend on how quickly all their kids can grow up.