Wednesday's NFL: Confident Jets aim to go from worst to first on defense

Dennis Waszak Jr.
Associated Press

Florham Park, N.J. — Sheldon Rankins is not one to sugarcoat things or mince words. Like, ever.

So when the New York Jets defensive lineman was asked what he expects from the defense, he was straight-up honest.

“I think the expectations, to a man, have to be (to) be the best defense in the league,” Rankins said after practice Wednesday. “If we look at anything else or if we put any other goal out there, we’re selling ourselves short.”

New York Jets' head coach Robert Saleh speaks to reporters after the NFL football team's training camp, Friday, May 6, 2022, in Florham Park, N.J.

Sounds great, of course. But this is also a defense that finished last out of 32 teams in total defense and scoring defense last season. The Jets were also near the bottom of the league in pass defense (30th) and run defense (29th).

So going from worst to first in one season might be some big-time wishful thinking, no?

“What’s the point of showing up to the race if you’re going to say, ‘Third is cool?’” Rankins said. “So for us, we want that target on our back. We want that challenge. We want to put that out there because it gives us something to go out there and chase every day.

“It’s easy to just say you want to be good. You know, that’s relative – what are you comparing it to? What is your barometer of what you’re trying to judge that against? But to say you want to be the best, everybody knows what that means.”

It’s a mindset that has been adopted throughout the defense. The players talk about it regularly, especially those on a defensive line that is perhaps the team’s biggest – and deepest – strength this season.

Along with Rankins, a healthy-again Carl Lawson, Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, Jacob Martin, Vinny Curry, Nathan Shepherd, Solomon Thomas and Tanzel Smart form a veteran core. New York also has rookie first-rounder Jermaine Johnson, fourth-rounder Micheal Clemons and promising youngsters Jonathan Marshall, Tim Ward, Bryce Huff, Jabari Zuniga, Bradlee Anae and Hamilcar Rashed Jr.

That’s 17 players in camp on the defensive line, making for some tough competitions – and decisions for the coaching staff.

“We have a plethora of really good D-linemen,” coach and Dearborn native Robert Saleh said. “The shame of it all is you’re probably going to end up having to release NFL players. That’s a good thing, though, at the same time with regards to the roster.”

It’s an improved bunch, at least on paper, on both sides of the ball.

Lawson, who signed last season to be the Jets’ primary pass rushing force, is back from a ruptured Achilles tendon that sidelined him all season. General manager Joe Douglas also added Martin and Thomas to help up front, along with drafting both Johnson and Clemons.

The Jets seriously upgraded their secondary in the offseason by signing cornerback D.J. Reed and safety Jordan Whitehead, and drafting Detroit native Sauce Gardner with the No. 4 overall pick.

Kwon Alexander was signed last Friday to give the linebacker group another veteran playmaker to go along with C.J. Mosley and Quincy Williams.

“Oh, it’s going to be scary,” Williams said about the athleticism of the group. “For real, for real.”

Confidence is clearly very high for the Jets a week into training camp – and the defense fully intends on carrying that out on the field when the games begin.

Anyway, Rankins says, why shouldn’t they feel this way? And then displaying his broad range of sports knowledge, the 28-year-old D-lineman used an Olympics track and field analogy to send his point to the finish line.

“For the people racing Usain Bolt, it must’ve sucked every time showing up, knowing you were going to come in second,” Rankins said. “But at the end of the day, nobody showed up thinking that. You know, the Tyson Gays, the Yohan Blakes, those guys showed up expecting to beat Usain Bolt. And if they didn’t, hey, listen, we’re going to line up to try it again.

“And that’s how we look at it. We’re going to go out there every day and expect to be the No. 1 defense in this league. And we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

Tagovailoa responds to tampering

In the wake of the NFL’s finding that on two occasions the Dolphins tampered with quarterback Tom Brady, in one case about the possibility of him playing in Miami, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa reaffirmed his belief that he has the backing of the organization.

“I remember I came in 2020 so whatever happened in 2019, I can’t even speak on that,” Tagovailoa said Wednesday after the team’s seventh training camp practice. “I was here in 2020 and I’m still here and I’m blessed to be here. If it has to do with support from the team, I think the team is all in with me and all of the guys that we have now.”

The NFL on Tuesday revealed the findings of a six-month investigation into the Dolphins and potential violations of the league’s antitampering policy. The investigation concluded that the team’s “impermissible communications” with Brady began as early as August 2019 and continued throughout the season and postseason.

Vice chairman Bruce Beal, who has been banned from all league meetings for the remainder of the season and fined $500,000, was found to have led communications with Brady in 2019.

Beal and team owner and Detroit native Stephen Ross, who has been suspended through Oct. 17 and fined $1.5 million, also had prohibited discussions with Brady and his agent during and after the 2021 season about Brady being a limited partner or executive and “the possibility of his playing for the Dolphins,” the investigation concluded.

Tagovailoa said the team learned about the league’s investigation and discipline, which also included the loss of a 2023 first-rounder and 2024 third-rounder, after practice ended and players saw the news on TV upon returning to the locker room. Otherwise, he didn’t know too many details about the investigation.

A day after the discipline was handed down, multiple players and assistant coaches – coach Mike McDaniel was not scheduled to speak to reporters Wednesday but offensive coaches did – said the tampering probe hasn’t been addressed or distracted from training camp.

“Nothing to be said,” tight ends coach and assistant coach Jon Embree said. “Control what you can control.”

The league’s findings that high-ranking members of the organization had multiple talks with Brady was another reminder of the questions and uncertainty that have followed Tagovailoa’s tenure in Miami since he was selected with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

After the firing of Brian Flores in January, the team halted its pursuit of Deshaun Watson and hired first-time head coach Mike McDaniel in part to work with Tagovailoa, who is 13-8 as a starter.

From McDaniel to general manager Chris Grier to new wide receiver Tyreek Hill, there has been public support for Tagovailoa as the team’s starting quarterback and a leader.

The early returns from Tagovailoa at training camp have been positive. On Wednesday, he once again donned the orange jersey as the previous practice’s top performer. And Tagovailoa’s often-discussed deep ball has been anything but that.

It has been routine, as the third-year player has connected with favorites such as receivers Hill and Jaylen Waddle. With Hill sitting out of practice Wednesday because of load management, it gave Tagovailoa an opportunity to build his rapport with other pass-catchers, such as rookie wideout Erik Ezukanma and River Cracraft, who both were on the receiving end of deep passes.

“I think people don’t think I can throw the ball far,” Tagovailoa said after practice of the constant discourse about his arm strength. “I would say that’s the fascination. Like, ‘Wow! He can throw the ball!’ It’s hard to be in the NFL if you can’t throw the ball, right?”

One video, of Tagovailoa connecting with Hill on a pass that traveled about 50 yards in the air Saturday, generated more than two million views on Twitter. After Tagovailoa’s infamous underthrow to Hill during organized team activities, the polarizing quarterback was on the end of a much more flattering viral video.

“That’s not the first time and it won’t be the last that they’ll connect like that,” McDaniel said Tuesday. “I was pumped because the exciting part to me was that Tua did it at the appropriate time. He wasn’t just throwing a long ball. He read the defense and that’s what he felt and he did it with conviction.

"If you guys watch it, he did it in one-hitch timing which is kind of how we want the quarterback to do it, but the reaction was what’s the next play because I think everyone would be disappointed if we were satisfied with that. That’s what we’re supposed to do when it’s there and let’s go execute the next play.”

For all the talk of Tagovailoa’s improvement with his arm strength – a point of emphasis during his offseason training – one teammate has seen growth in another area.

“I think physically, since he got here two years ago, three years ago, whenever it was, obviously he’s made a lot of strides,” tight end Durham Smythe said. “Everyone can see that. I say this every time this question is asked, and I’ve been kind of saying it over the last two years, because it keeps growing on a pretty linear path.

"It’s just his grasp of the offense, his grasp of professional football in general. There’s always a transition period, specifically for that position, so I think he just stays on this linear path of growth, and I think really the sky is the limit.”

The Dolphins are still a week away from the start of a pair of joint practices with the Buccaneers in Tampa and 10 days from their first preseason game with Tampa Bay. The practice sessions and game should give a better idea of whether the early optimism in training camp will carry over to games that really matter.

“Tua’s doing a really nice job of taking the information, processing it and then carrying it over to the field,” quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell said. “For the most part, he’s made really good decisions.”

Cardinals receiver charged

Cardinals receiver Marquise Brown was arrested and charged with criminal speeding on Wednesday morning.

Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Bart Graves confirmed that Brown was arrested at 7:05 a.m. in Phoenix and booked in the Maricopa County Jail.

In Arizona, criminal speeding is defined as anything 20 mph over the posted speed limit. It is a misdemeanor.

Brown was acquired in a draft-day deal with the Ravens and is expected to play a big role in Arizona’s offense, especially during the first six weeks when three-time All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins is out because of a suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancers.