New York Jets Training Camp Preview: Linebackers

David Aitken previews the New York Jets linebackers heading into training camp…

David Aitken continues his training camp of the 2017 New York Jets with a look at the linebackers. Here is the earlier piece looking at the defensive line…

When Mike Maccagnan took the Jets GM position in 2015, the linebacker core was one of several position groups in need of a complete overhaul. Now close to two years removed from his first training camp, the only starter remaining from that season and only proven talent is… Demario Davis?

Maccagnan has thrown a good deal of resources to rebuild this area, including a first round pick, two third round picks and several attempts to shop at the high-end of the market for the likes of Donta Hightower, Nick Perry and Olivier Vernon. The actual returns have been at best lukewarm so far.

Davis is all but certain to be a starter, and it’s hard to find a starter generating less enthusiasm on the roster. Davis’ arrival on the other end of the Pryor trade was puzzling. He is a relatively low cost player with starting experience in Todd Bowles’ defense, but he was let go the first time around for a reason. He’s at best a replacement/backup level talent on the inside, certainly not providing an upgrade on even a declining David Harris. Presumably his arrival and Harris’ release are linked, as Davis offers intangibles such as system experience and a “veteran presence” that David Harris would provide at a fraction of the cost. This will probably be just a short-term reunion, unless Davis fancies coming back in 2018 as a backup.

At outside linebacker, this upcoming season is probably the last real chance Lorenzo Mauldin will have to earn a starting position. It should be a relatively short lease as well, with rookie Dylan Donahue in the mix and placing one of the defensive linemen on the edge always tempting for Todd Bowles. Infamously Mauldin was asked to gain weight in preparation for a full-time role in 2016, and it completely destroyed his burst as an outside rusher. Hopefully after a year of failed experimentation and a respected OLB coach in the fold, the Jets get Mauldin back on track to be at least a useful rotational pass rusher.

Ideally the Jets would like fifth round pick Dylan Donahue to challenge as a rookie for a rotational role on passing downs, and he has some interesting traits. He comes from a small school and is on the older side, but is a solid athlete with a great initial burst and excellent motor. Maybe because he looked a little like him and was dominating lesser competition, but Donahue probably reminded Kevin Greene a little of himself.

On the other side, Jordan Jenkins finds himself in a bit more comfortable position than Mauldin. Jenkins brought an injury from training camp into the season excusing a slow start, but he finished strongly at season’s end with all of his sacks coming in the last four games. Pass rushing was never his strong suit coming out of Georgia – he profiles best case as a Calvin Pace type – but it’s an encouraging finish nonetheless and his development in that regard will be an intriguing story throughout camp.

The outside linebackers are expected to be a source of improvement, but the man expected to become the new face of this core is Darron Lee. Last year’s first round pick had a forgettable rookie campaign, and yet the rebuild chugs along as if he’s already well on his way to stardom. It’s one of the more interesting thought exercises scanning the Jets roster – if this wasn’t a clear rebuild year, how many of these young talents penciled to start would have a veteran they’d have to earn it from? This seemed like the idea for all of a few days when Davis was acquired with Harris still on the roster, but now Lee has a path of little resistance.

A mid-season injury did little to help, but Lee’s most memorable moments were mostly courtesy of the likes of Dwayne Allen and Jimmy Graham giving him “welcome to the NFL” moments in coverage. As a prospect Lee’s strengths were his excellent athleticism and a highlight tape that showed he could do a little bit of everything, but the flip side of that is he’ll probably never be the consistent rock on the downs one and two that David Harris was for so long. Indeed he wasn’t necessarily drafted to be that either – the Jets after all crave weapons against the pass. That’s where Lee’s potential is at it’s highest, he in theory should be giving Bowles a lot of options on passing downs. Strength, discipline and finishing in the run game are going to be long-term hurdles for Lee to climb, but for 2017 at least we should be hoping to see more splash plays made defending the pass.

Position Strength: 3

There’s a good deal of variance with this group, but we must also be realistic where they’re currently at. On paper it’s a backup/replacement level veteran, a 2016 first rounder who has proven little, and two third round picks who have proven little all slated to start. There’s a possibility *none* of these players currently in the starting lineup are going to be viewed as starting material after this season. But for the optimist, Darron Lee and Jordan Jenkins are both talented players with versatile skill sets who have a taste of starting from 2016 to build on. It should be no surprise if they end up being much better players in 2017 than we currently view them as. In reserve there’s excitement for Donahue – but it’d be wise to temper this as well. He’s just as likely to be strictly a special teamer or a practice squad body as he is to be earning significant pass rushing snaps in the regular season on merit.

Best Case Scenario: Sweet Maccagnan vindication. Jordan Jenkins arrives as Calvin Pace Mark II. Darron Lee is everywhere – a handful of sacks, tackles for a loss and a few interceptions have him in the Pro Bowl conversation. Mauldin is in the high single digits in sacks, and Donahue chips in with a few of his own as well.

Prediction: Jenkins and Lee give Jets fans a sigh of relief, though Jenkins will be underrated and Lee a little overrated after their 2017 campaigns. Lorenzo Mauldin will contribute on third downs and finish with a sack career high, though not quite trusted enough to take away run down responsibilities from whatever DE Bowles has decided to play on the edge. Donahue will be a 4th quarter preseason hero but will contribute mostly on special teams. Demario Davis remains Demario Davis.

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