The linebacker position is a tale of two halves for the New York Jets. They have an excellent pair of inside linebackers in David Harris and Demario Davis, but they have struggled to find a long term solution on the outside for the last several years. Outside linebacker is a priority for the Jets, but it remains to be seen how a high pick they will invest in the position at the draft.
Let’s start with the good first, where Harris and Davis each recorded over 100 tackles and finished first and second on the team in that category. Harris is a classic run stopping inside backer who knows how to get into gaps and blow up plays. Davis is more of a hybrid, with outstanding sideline to sideline speed and some solid coverage skills. The two complement each other very well, and they were a huge part of the Jets’ defensive success this season.
If there is any criticism of Harris and Davis, it is that they don’t make enough impact plays, recording a combined 3 sacks, 1 interception and 1 forced fumble. Improvement in that area would help the Jets tremendously, as they ranked just 31st in the NFL with 15 takeaways last season. Restricted free agent and special teams ace Nick Bellore should return to back these two up, assuming no one makes him an unreasonable offer. The Jets will probably also target the undrafted free agent market to get another body or two in camp.
Now for the not so good part of the Jets’ linebacking corps. Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace return as the starters, but there are concerns about their ability to provide a pass rush, as both are better against the run. Coples is a former first round pick who dealt with some injuries and produced 4.5 sacks in his second season. The Jets will be expecting him to take a massive leap forward in his third year. Other than upgrading the secondary, Coples’ development is the most important issue facing the Jets’ defense.
Pace actually recorded a career high 10 sacks in his age 33 season, but the Jets cannot possibly expect anything even close to that production next season. Pace is a reliable vet, but he is not an impact player. The Jets already have three backups on the roster in Antwan Barnes, Garrett McIntyre and Jermaine Cunningham. Barnes was signed last season to be a pass rush specialist, but he tore his ACL. McIntyre is a solid run stopper, while Cunningham is a developmental player. Frankly, it is unlikely that all three of these players will be on the roster in Week 1.
Clearly the Jets could use some help on the edge, especially in the form of a pure pass rusher. There isn’t much available on the free agent market, but I’m surprised the Jets haven’t shown any significant interest in Anthony Spencer. He is coming off a knee injury, but he has a history of production and could be worth a one year flier. More likely, however, is the Jets looking to upgrade the position via the draft.
The Jets have been rumored to be interested in Anthony Barr and Dee Ford, who are top pass rushers projected to go in the first two rounds. However, it is hard to see the Jets investing that high a pick in the position given their other needs. The Jets are probably going to have to wait until the fourth round range to start targeting outside linebackers. Some prospects that could be under consideration in that range include Trent Murphy, Adrian Hubbard and James Gayle. Any of those players would bring a much needed infusion of youth at the position and give the Jets a young pass rusher to groom opposite Coples.
No matter how they go about, the Jets need to add some punch to their pass rush and some youth to the outside linebacker spot. It is the one weakness in their front seven, and expect them to invest at least a mid round pick to upgrade it. Most important, however, is the development of Coples, who is the X-factor for the Jets’ defense next season.