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Jets HC Robert Saleh: Improving the Defense Is At the Front of Our Minds

Expectations Will Be Higher for QB Zach Wilson in Year 2, But Process Can’t Change


Jets head coach Robert Saleh takes the long view on most things football, and this week a component of that long view -- as in miles -- is the NFL Scouting Combine, which kicked off in Indianapolis on Monday. He's "observing" from One Jets Drive this week.

"There's a million different ways of doing things," Saleh told reporters (some of whom were in Indy) during a Tuesday morning conference call. "We feel great about where we are after the Senior Bowl. We feel for us it's just a more efficient use of our time."

The Jets coaching staff worked with the National team at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, AL, in early February. The coaches had a unique opportunity to run practices and get to know some of the top college players who will be available in April's NFL Draft.

"At the Senior Bowl, there was a lot of medical stuff, a lot of testing, poking and prodding," he said. "There's a ton of downtime [at the Combine], I felt it was just a good use of our time to get deep into the draft, to work on free agency and review the Senior Bowl. We've got a lot done. We will still have guys working these guys out, we'll have some position coaches flying there to be on the field. We'll be able to execute 20-minute (Microsoft Teams) calls, which are a great introduction and we're still getting everything we need. By being here [in Florham Park] we're able to get more work done on our schemes, the draft and free agents."

The position coaches soon to head to Indianapolis include tight ends and assistant head coach Ron Middleton, defensive line coach Aaron Whitecotton and defensive assistant Ricky Manning Jr. General manager Joe Douglas heads the traveling contingent from the Jets.

"The reality is, it's a 20-minute interview and going into the Combine is not going to make or break your decision," Saleh said. "If you're going to give a young man millions and millions of dollars based on that, shame on you. We still have pro days, private workouts and private conversations. We'll do those 20-minute intro interviews via (Microsoft Teams). It'll be good to meet them and we'll probably see them 50 more times before the draft.

"Here, we've had two nights of awesome meetings. I'm happy with the decision we've made and the direction we're going."

It's no secret that the Jets have unique flexibility, with nearly $50 million of space under the salary cap and in possession of four draft picks among the first 38 selections (two each in Round 1 and Round 2), nine picks overall, at present. Saleh conceded that the Green & White have multiple position needs, but put an emphasis on adding talent -- either on offense or defense, in free agency or the draft -- that will yield benefits for quarterback Zach Wilson.

"The one thing you can say if you go through the offense and the defense, there's a laundry list," Saleh said. "There's a lot of different things we can do, but anything you do to this team is going to be helping the quarterback improve. Definitely adding a skill guy, improving the offensive line, tight end. It's not a matter of what decisions we make, it directly or indirectly improves the quarterback."

As a defensive guru, Saleh is perpetually on the prowl for edge rushers, cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers. He is committed to the notion that a stout defense will enhance Wilson's ability to command the offense from strength, not from desperation.

"I think the defense got better toward the end of the year," he said. "There was a minute there when we were giving up 30, 40 points. And if you're in a shootout or playing from behind, that's a lot of pressure on your quarterback. I don't care who your quarterback is. It's tough getting up on Sunday knowing you're going to be in a shootout because you can't get enough stops [on defense]. It helps [offensive coordinator Mike] LaFleur. It helps Zach. It helps everybody. You can play a style of ball where you can call plays to set things up. You don't have to be impatient. It's OK to punt, to keep the game to one score, then when the fourth quarter comes its playmaker time, and you go make some plays.

"But if you're asking Zach to play quarterback in a shootout in the second quarter, that's not good for a [Tom] Brady, that's not good for anybody. Absolutely, a better defense and improving the defense is at the front of our minds."

See the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis from all angles.

While Wilson took his rookie lumps early last season, he got his sea legs after missing four games because of a knee injury. He flashed as the Jets finished the season, even though he played with a depleted cast of wide receivers because of injury. Now, during the offseason before Year 2 of Wilson's NFL career, expectations have been ratcheted up.

"The leash on a rookie quarterback is incredibly long, even for a rookie coach, it's long," Saleh said. "We expect to see a jump in Year 2. But we can't let expectations dictate how you operate day to day. You stay within your process. We can talk to players, and talk to Zach. We just want him to focus on his football work, on everything and don't worry about pressures from the outside world with regards to everyone having ideas about how to maximize life and money. Get better and keep studying, that goes for everybody, and I know he's doing that. Expectations will be higher, but that can't change his process."

The latest outbreak of various mock drafts predict that the Jets might be interested in an edge rusher, safety and/or an offensive lineman with their two first-round selections. No surprise that Saleh neither confirmed nor denied what the team might do.

"It depends on how good he is," Saleh said of taking a non-premium position early. "I call them unicorns. People say you never want to take a linebacker in the first round, but Tremaine Edmunds [first round to Buffalo in 2018] is a unicorn in the linebacking world. Same thing with safety. I remember the hard decision [the Chargers made in the 2018 first round] on Derwin James. The guy is phenomenal.

"I never want to say no to any position group. Obviously, there's a premium on the position of quarterback, edge and corner, those are the easy ones to check off. You never say no to a unicorn and somebody who clearly has the talent and is possibly the best player you can take at the time. You never want to be stubborn in your thought process. Taking a safety, if he's worthy of it, he'll definitely have to be that special."

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