Turn On The Jets Off-Season Roundtable – Linebacker

The TOJ staff discusses how the New York Jets should handle the linebacker position this off-season

Welcome to our off-season review of the New York Jets roster at Turn On The Jets. Each week we are going to attack a different position. We will have a roundtable discussion on it, Steve Bateman will submit a film breakdown examining it and our draft staff will look at potential prospects the Jets could add. So far we have covered quarterbackrunning backwide receiveroffensive line, and defensive line This week we move to linebacker – 

How should the New York Jets handle linebacker this off-season?

Joe Caporoso – The New York Jets were an unmitigated disaster at the linebacker position in 2012. David Harris is the most overpaid player at his position in the NFL, Calvin Pace, Bart Scott and Bryan Thomas are ready for the retirement home. So now what?

At inside linebacker, David Harris will be approached to restructure his contract. Hopefully something is worked out that gives the team some type of short term cap relief but it is hard be optimistic about too much being accomplished. It is an awful contract and the Jets are going to pay the price on it. Hopefully, Harris can return to his pre-2012 form this season or at least revert to being a capable, run-stuffing two down linebacker. 2012 third round pick Demario Davis will get the first crack to start alongside him. Davis has the physical attributes to be a strong two-way backer and a tackling machine but it remains to be seen if he is comfortable enough in Rex Ryan’s defense to make that kind of impact. Josh Mauga and Nick Bellore will likely be the top backups and are one-dimensional. plodders who would be overextended as starters.

Outside linebacker is basically a clean slate outside out Garret McIntyre, who can be a serviceable backup but nothing more because of his lack of athleticism. The Jets have to think long and hard about adding a pass rusher with the #9 overall pick in the Draft, particularly if Dion Jordan or Jarvis Jones is available. They will also likely add another player in later rounds to start the process of building some long term depth. In free agency, forget about Paul Kruger, Connor Barwin or Anthony Spencer. The Jets would be wise to consider second tier options like Victor Butler or Antwan Barnes who will come relatively cheap and have the potential to be capable starters in this defense.

Overall, it would be shocking if the Jets didn’t add at least three new players to this position group via draft picks and free agency. They really have no choice.

Mike Donnelly –  As all Jets fans know by now, linebacker was a black hole spot in 2012. Veterans like Calvin Pace, Bryan Thomas, and Bart Scott pretty much fell off a cliff, and old reliable David Harris had the worst season of his career. 2011 sack leader Aaron Maybin was a huge bust and was cut, Demario Davis didn’t see the field too often, and Ricky Sapp provided nothing. Shockingly, Garrett McIntyre was perhaps the lone bright spot as a linebacker, but that’s saying more about the other players than it does him, unfortunately. So where should this position be headed in 2013?

First, at inside linebacker, Bart Scott is going to be cut, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him back on a 1-year, minimum contract to play a small role and help against the run while Demario Davis develops as the new starting ILB next to Harris. Speaking of Harris, he’s a prime candidate for a contract restructuring because he is very obviously not worth the huge money he is going to be pulling in, especially coming off his subpar 2012 season. He badly needs to return to the dominant player of years past if this defense is going to return to it’s elite standing. If Scott is not brought back, I would look for Josh Mauga to assume that role as the role player who takes some reps from Davis, mainly to help against the run.

At OLB, I think it’s a 100% necessity that the team drafts one of the top players at the position available with the #9 pick in the draft. The team has drafted exactly zero OLB’s since Rex Ryan has taken over, and the time is now to change that. This draft is rich with talent at the position and we badly need one of them, whether it’s Jones, Mingo, Jordan, Moore, it doesn’t really matter. Our draft staff will break that down when the time comes, but the goal is clear: Target one, and draft him. But drafting one OLB isn’t enough. The Jets also need to target a mid-to-late round prospect and add him to the mix as well, because Pace and Thomas are both goners. Keep McIntyre around and look for a cheap veteran to compete for snaps and the position suddenly is looking up. In an ideal world, someone like Paul Kruger or Conner Barwin would be brought in to hold one of the spots, but with the Jets salary cap situation being what it is, that is unlikely.

So, to summarize, I think the Jets linebacker depth chart next year will look something like this: Harris and Davis starting inside, with Mauga and Nick Bellore backing them up. Outside will be the #9 pick and McIntyre starting, with a 4th or 5th round pick and a cheap veteran in the mix as well. As long as the new players don’t need to be timed in the 40-yard dash like our departing players, I’m cool with it.

Steve Bateman – While everybody clamors for John Idzik to fix 2012’s broken offense, some astute observers of the Jets roster believe that the linebacking corps represents the greatest vulnerability amidst an altogether patchy collection of talent.

Calvin Pace was appalling in all facets of the game last year, although he failed particularly miserably in his prime role as QB enemy number one. Meanwhile on the other side Bryan Thomas is no longer there to close down the edge, and in the middle David Harris has become an outright liability. Although he’s always been patchy in pass coverage, Harris was downright abysmal in this area last year, and his attempts to compensate for that by being equally inept against the run did little to win favor with a fanbase that once revered him.

The only real bright spot at the position is sophomore Demario Davis, but even then it’s difficult to get too excited about him as he was often exposed during his limited snaps last year. That said, he does appear to have all the makings of a ready-made replacement for the departed Bart Scott in a physical sense, so it now remains to be seen if he can step up his mental agility and awareness to the level that’s required to make it as an NFL starter.

In terms of backups, Josh Mauga and Nick Bellore are steady types who will never figure in a sane coach’s starting plans, while anybody who knows me via Twitter is already aware of my (rock-bottom) opinion on Garrett McIntyre.

So, how does Idzik repair things here? For me it has to be done via the draft, and although I would expect Radio City to be drowned in boos if the Jets take a pass-rushing linebacker with their first pick, I would personally applaud the move. Why? Because if the Jets don’t add a genuine sack machine to complement the excellent two-gapping work of Mo Wilkerson and Quinton Coples, then they will have effectively wasted their last two first round picks.

In terms of free agency I’ve long championed the cause of former Cowboy Victor Butler as an ideal and inexpensive fit for the Jets 3-4 scheme, while ex-San Diego man Antwan Barnes (who was on Rex Ryan’s hitlist previously) may also be an astute signing. Bottom line though… don’t screw up a defense that’s a step away from greatness by pandering to the fans and taking an offensive player with the first round pick. For me it has to be an out and out pass-rusher all the way.

Frank Giasone – The linebacker position was a source of concern for the Jets long before Rex Ryan became face of the franchise, and it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Poor scouting, bad signings and terrible contract restructuring have all played a role in the Jets struggles at one of the most vital positions in a 3-4 defense, forcing Gang Green into what is essentially a full on rebuild at the position this offseason.

The common thought around league circles is that 2012 starters Bart Scott, Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas will all be sent packing in the coming weeks, likely leaving David Harris as the lone returning starting next season. But before that happens, Harris can expect copious contract-restructuring pleas from GM John Idzik & Co., as his $13M cap number is impossible to justify. It puts a lot of pressure on second-year ILB Damario Davis, who struggled through his rookie season—leading to a lot of time spent watching from the sidelines. Davis will need to emerge as a dependable piece of the linebacker corps if the Jets have any chance of finding a way out of this predicament.

While free agency lacks a dominant OLB, teams will still overhype (and overpay) the top-rated guys (think Calvin Pace in ‘08). That means Connor Barwin, Paul Kruger and Anthony Spencer will all be out of the Jets price range. Shaun Phillips is an interesting name if the price is right, but that signing doesn’t do much for the future of the franchise, considering he’s 32 years old.

Luckily for New York, the draft is loaded at the OLB position. And sitting at No. 9, the Jets are in a great spot to land an immediate impact player. If the Jets are serious about staying in a 3-4 scheme next season, they have no option but to address the linebacker position in April. Dion Jordan is, in my opinion, the best all-around LB in this draft and worthy of the No. 9 selection (if still on the board). Jarvis Jones (Georgia), Barkevious Mingo (LSU), Demontre Moore (Texas A&M) and Ezekiel Ansah (BYU) are a few other Round 1 possibilites, while Stanford’s Chase Thomas (projected 2-3 round selection), is a very interesting option following Day 1.

Author: Joe Caporoso

Joe Caporoso is the Owner and EIC of Turn On The Jets. His writing has been featured in the New York Times, Huffington Post, MMQB and AdWeek. Caporoso played football his entire life, including four years at Muhlenberg as a wide receiver, where he was arguably the slowest receiver to ever start in school history. He is the EVP of Content at Whistle Sports