On paper, the Jets defense was supposed to be one of the league's best. Armed with a ferocious defensive front and top-flight secondary, New York had a unit capable of rushing the passer, stuffing the run and stopping the pass.
Through four weeks, paper has translated to the field. The Jets have allowed the second-fewest average yards per game, the fewest total points and have forced a league-best 13 turnovers.
Oh, and they've done all of that playing without one of their top players.
And that player is now back.
On Monday, Sheldon Richardson's four-game suspension for smoking marijuana was uplifted, and with no further ban yet handed down following a street racing incident earlier in the year, the Pro Bowl defensive end is eligible to return.
"It gives us an extra weapon, extra depth down there," Jets coach Todd Bowles said via conference call Monday. "I mean, he’s a Pro Bowl player, he’s a heck of a player. (We) have to get him back in football shape and get him in the rotation and keep moving forward."
Richardson, 24, was originally selected by the Jets in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Since then, he's established himself into one of the game's best 3-4 defensive ends. Richardson was the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year his first season, a Pro Football Focus all-pro in 2014, and earned his first Pro Bowl honors a season ago. Last year, Richardson recorded 67 tackles and eight sacks. He has 11.5 sacks and 145 tackles in 32 career games.
With Richardson officially back, the question both Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers now need to answer is how exactly to use him. In Richardson's absence, rookie Leonard Williams, whom the Jets selected with the sixth overall pick in this year's draft, has played admirably. In four games, Williams has recorded 18 tackles and half a sack while putting regularly putting pressure on the quarterback. Against the Dolphins on Sunday, Williams had a team-high six quarterback hurries.
Bowles and Rodgers will have to figure out a way to best use Williams, veteran Muhammad Wilkerson and Richardson. Preferably, all at the same time.
Sounds difficult, right? Wrong. According to Bowles, it's the perfect non-challenging challenge.
"You don't have a challenge finding places for good players to play," Bowles said. "You just play them."
As for Richardson's teammates, it seems as if the defensive end will be welcomed back with open arms in the locker room. Starting linebacker DeMario Davis called Richardson a "huge addition" to the defense, while quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick added he's excited to see him on the field.
"We're happy to have him," Fitzpatrick said. "I've never played with him, obviously, but I've played against him. I know he's a great player. It was tough all offseason going up against our defense. It's nice to see them bullying someone else for a change."
With Richardson presently on the Jets "suspended" list, the team will first have to activate him before he can return to the practice field and play in any games. Because the Jets are on a bye, that move does not have to be made until next Monday.