The New York Jets return many of the same faces at linebacker from last year’s disappointing defense. Not surprisingly, the same questions from last season pertain as the 2017 campaign approaches.
Is David Harris on the decline as he enters his 11th season? Will Darron Lee have a more refined role as he enters his second season? Can the Jets generate some sort of pass rush from its outside linebackers?
The Jets also made an intriguing addition at the position this month, bringing back former linebacker Demario Davis from Cleveland in the Calvin Pryor trade. Davis has experience in Todd Bowles’ defense and could team up with Harris again on the inside.
What will New York’s linebacking group look like this season? Let’s take a deeper dive in our first positional preview of the summer:
Projected starters: David Harris (ILB), Darron Lee (ILB), Lorenzo Mauldin (OLB), Jordan Jenkins (OLB).
Depth players to watch: Demario Davis, Bruce Carter, Freddie Bishop, Josh Martin, Julian Stanford, Dylan Donahue (rookie).
One big number: 5.5. Jets outside linebackers recorded a combined 5.5 sacks last season. Mauldin and Jenkins both had 2.5 sacks apiece, while Josh Martin chipped in with a half sack.
Same team, new player? The Jets reunited with Davis, who spent his first four seasons with the organization. However, New York’s new regime allowed Davis to walk in free agency last offseason. The Jets probably would have preferred to get a draft pick back for Pryor, but they’ll be satisfied with bringing back a player they’re familiar with.
It’s tough to gauge what kind of role Davis will play in his second stint with the team. Keep in mind, he was a three-year starter for the Jets and started all 16 games during Todd Bowles’ first year at the helm. There’s a chance Davis could return to his spot alongside Harris as the starting “Will” linebacker. But that leaves Lee without a home.
Lee could occasionally play on the outside as a situational edge rusher, but he’s probably not meant to play full-time on the outside.
Expect Davis to start the season in a depth role and get his fair share of snaps throughout the season. Davis is still a productive player and is a resource for this thin unit.
Youngster to watch: It has to be Darron Lee, right? Lee didn’t exactly find a niche during his first season, but he seemed to get better as the season went on. Lee can attack a hole rapidly, but he needs to continue to improve his technique against the run. He recorded 70 total tackles and 1 sack during his rookie season. He wasn’t spectacular, but he was decent. The Jets need to find more ways to utilize him and must extract more of that potential in his second season.
Don’t forget about: It’s tough to forget about Jordan Jenkins since he’s a projected starter, but he sort of goes under the radar as New York’s edge sealer on the outside. The 2016 third-round pick quietly recorded 39 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 11 starts as a rookie. Jenkins doesn’t fit the bill as a pure pass rusher, but he’s more reliable against the run. The hope was he and Lorenzo Mauldin could create a diverse duo along the edge, but that didn’t exactly pan out last season. Another year of development should help both of them. Watch for Jenkins to be a pleasant surprise on a defense that lacks much to get excited about.
Jet Factor: It’s Mauldin and not even close. The Jets simply need more from the 2015 third-round pick. If he develops as a reputable pass rusher, it makes New York’s defense much more formidable. He didn’t get much better in 2016 and his third season will be crucial.
How it all goes well: The Jets get one more healthy, productive year out of Harris. He gets back to triple digits in tackles and serves as a valuable veteran mentor on a losing team. Lee takes a significant step forward and becomes that hybrid linebacker that adds versatility to the unit. Jenkins improves as a run stuffer and throws a few sacks onto the pile. Mauldin becomes a threat as an edge rusher and records at least five sacks. The Jets find a diamond in the rough in the pass rushing department in former Canadian Football League product Freddie Bishop. Depth players such as Davis and Julian Stanford provide valuable insurance behind the starters.