This is a series covering the position battle in training camp and projecting the roster and depth chart for the New York Jets this season. Today’s installment will cover the linebackers.
The New York Jets had one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL last season, totaling just 30 sacks. Much of that blame falls squarely on the shoulders of the outside linebackers. The team tried to revamp the position this offseason, moving Quinton Coples there and signing Antwan Barnes. Inside, David Harris badly needs to return to form after a down year in 2012. The Jets linebackers are the weak link of the defense, and these are the players who will try to fix that.
Players in Camp: Antwan Barnes, Nick Bellore, Quinton Coples, DeMario Davis, Troy Davis, JoJo Dickson, David Harris, Danny Lansanah, Josh Mauga, Garrett McIntyre, Calvin Pace, Sean Progar, Ricky Sapp, Jacquies Smith
Projected ILB Opening Day Depth Chart: David Harris, DaMario Davis, Nick Bellore, Josh Mauga
Projected OLB Opening Day Depth Chart: Quinton Coples, Calvin Pace, Antwan Barnes, Garrett McIntyre, Ricky Sapp
I am projecting the Jets to carry nine linebackers, mostly due to the importance of linebackers on special teams. Bellore, Mauga, McIntyre and Sapp will all make their biggest impact on various kicking units. There is basically no competition for starting spots, so the backups must contribute on special teams.
On the inside, DeMario Davis will start as the inside linebacker next to David Harris. Davis was the team’s third round pick last season, but he didn’t play much his rookie season. Davis brings the type of sideline to sideline speed that can change a game. Davis will be asked to cover tight ends and running backs very frequently and his success in this role will be vital to the Jets’ defense.
Harris had a rough season that was well below his normally very high standards. His stats show the drop in sacks and interceptions from previous seasons, though his overall tackle numbers remained high. However, he was not the same dominant player in the run game, and he was exposed often in pass coverage by opposing running backs. Harris is one of the highest paid players on the team, and the Jets need him to return to form this season.
On the outside, the Jets are desperate to find a pass rush. Though Pace was brought back, he will likely see a reduced role. The team signed rush linebacker Antwan Barnes to compete with Pace, and the two will likely split time. Pace was the starter last season, but his sack total has declined each of the last four seasons. Pace is still solid against the run and is respectable in zone coverage, but he is ineffective as a rusher.
Barnes had 11 sacks in 2011, and the Jets will be very happy if he can get anywhere near that level of success this year. He will be used as a situational and third down rusher, which the Jets hope will maximize his pass rushing abilities. Barnes could be a very important player for the Jets this season, but if he can’t find his form the team will be left searching for pass rush options yet again.
The lack of a quality pass rusher is the reason the Jets have decided to move Quinton Coples to outside linebacker. Coples played with his hand in the ground in his rookie season, and he will still spend a large chunk of time in a three point stance. However, in the base defense Coples will be a stand up linebacker, which is a whole new world to him. He is an excellent athlete, which will help in the times he is asked to drop into coverage. What the Jets need from Coples is a consistent and effective pass rush. Every 3-4 defense needs a dominant pass rusher, and the Jets believe Coples can become that player.
The Jets’ linebacker play needs to improve this season if the team wants to get back to being an elite defense. The defense will have to carry the Jets this season, and the team has to hope their linebackers are ready for that responsibility.