The New York Jets received some very strong performances from their linebackers this season, particularly from inside linebacker duo David Harris and Demario Davis. Both players were key cogs in the Jets’ defense, and they form one of the better linebacking tandems in the NFL. On the outside, Calvin Pace turned in the best season of his career at 33 years old, while second year man Quinton Coples came on strong at the end of the season.
Despite the positives, linebacker is still one of the Jets’ higher priorities this offseason. They have been lacking a star pass rusher on the outside for some time now, and they must address that concern. Pace is a free agent, and while I expect him to return, it is entirely unrealistic to expect him to play at the level he did this season. The Jets likely won’t make any moves at inside linebacker other than re-signing Nick Bellore, but they could be looking to add as many as three new outside linebackers depending on what they decide about Pace, Garrett McIntyre and Antwan Barnes.
In free agency, the obvious name is Brian Orakpo. The Washington Redskins star has 39.5 sacks in 64 career games, and he will receive attention from every team that needs a 3-4 outside linebacker. However, he will likely command a contract that pays him between $8-$10 million annually, which could be too pricey for the Jets. Assuming they don’t get a good deal on Orakpo, the next best option in free agency will be Jason Worilds. However, Worilds will also receive a big contract, and frankly I don’t expect the Pittsburgh Steelers to allow him to leave.
Unfortunately for the Jets, the free agent market thins after the two stars. Shaun Phillips turns 33 in May, and the Jets should be looking for a younger option. Mike Neal, Parys Haralson and Rob Jackson will be players the Jets do their homework on, but they don’t give the Jets the true pass rushing specialist they need. Don’t be surprised to see the Jets take a chance on Anthony Spencer (knee surgery) or Larry English (1st round pick who hasn’t developed) in the hopes that they can get a big return from a small investment.
The Jets will also be studying outside linebackers in the draft in an attempt to improve their pass rush. Anthony Barr and Khalil Mack should be long gone by the time the Jets pick in the first round, but there are some interesting options later in the draft. Clemson linebacker Vic Beasley could make for a very good second round pick, and he would be the pure pass rusher the Jets need. However, the Jets may not want to invest a second round pick in a pass rusher given their other needs, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them pass on Beasley even if he’s available.
In that scenario, Alabama’s Adrian Hubbard could make for a great pick in the third round. There are some injury concerns, but Hubbard could step in as an immediate starter and be good value in the third round. The Jets could also look at a player such as James Gayle from Virginia Tech there, though he would be a bit of a 4-3 to 3-4 conversion project. Derrell Johnson, Dee Ford, Jackson Jeffcoat and Chris Smith are all potential options in the third or fourth round range as well.
The Jets have to address their pass rush, but in all likelihood it will be slightly lower on the to do list than some other positions. Expect the Jets to use a mid-round pick or make a solid free agent signing, but this most likely will not be the area that makes the biggest splash for the Jets this offseason.