The New York Jets relied very heavily on their front seven to win football games last season, and their linebacking corps turned in a strong year for the Jets’ 11th ranked defense. However, the linebackers could be heading into a season of change, as age is becoming a question for some veterans while a few young players need to develop. It will be interesting to see how the roster shakes out in camp, and this what the depth chart could look like.
Starters: David Harris, Demario Davis, Quinton Coples, Calvin Pace
Reserves: Nick Bellore, Jeremiah George, Antwan Barnes, Garrett McIntyre
There isn’t much question about who will start, as the Jets re-signed Pace to ensure they would have the same starting four as last season. Harris and Davis form a solid inside linebacker tandem, and they will be expected to continue their strong play. Harris is a leader for the Jets and a tackling machine against the run. However, he is now 30 years old and entering the final year of his contract, so there are a few questions about his future.
Davis is developing quite nicely for the Jets as he heads into his third season, and he brings the sideline to sideline range that Harris lacks. Davis also gives the Jets a linebacker capable of covering tight ends, a must in today’s NFL. While Harris hasn’t showed signs of slipping yet, the Jets need Davis to continue to improve so that there is no drop off.
On the outside, Coples is entering a crucial third season. He has only produced 10 sacks in his two years since being a first round pick, and the Jets desperately need him to become a double digit sack artist on the edge. He was slow to adjust to outside linebacker last season, and an ankle injury hindered his conversion. However, there will be no excuses this season, and it is time for Coples to become a high level pass rusher.
On the other side, Pace turned in a career high 10 sacks at age 33. The Jets were thrilled with his production, but they can’t possibly expect a repeat performance. Most expected the Jets to at least find competition for Pace this offseason, if not an outright replacement, but they did neither. The Jets simply have to hope that Pace can play at a respectable level for one more season.
There is going to be an intense competition for the reserve spots, and the Jets will carry anywhere between 8-10 linebackers. Special teams will be a huge factor, and that is a big reason why Bellore will earn a roster spot. He is a reliable backup at inside linebacker and a special teams ace, and he should be a safe bet for the team. George was this year’s fifth round pick, and he is a smart, hard working player who should find his way onto the roster.
The battle for the outside linebacker positions will be much more interesting. Veterans Barnes, McIntyre and Jermaine Cunningham will be competing with rookies IK Enemkpali and Trevor Reilly for what could be as few as two roster spots. Expect Barnes to safely earn his spot, as he is the only real speed rusher the Jets have, and he should play a big role in nickel packages.
Enemkpali is the least likely to make the team, as he just flat out isn’t ready for the NFL. That leaves McIntyre, a strong run stopper and special teamer, competing with Cunningham and Reilly, who offer more as pass rushers. This competition will come down to the wire, and each will have the opportunity to earn their spot. The guess here is that McIntyre will earn the spot because he because he brings a good contrast to Barnes’ pass rushing.
The Jets’ linebackers will play a key role this season, because they have to continue to be strong against the run while taking a big step forward in terms of the pass rush. Perhaps no player is a bigger x-factor for the the Jets’ defense than Coples, and his development will be crucial to the Jets’ success.