The battle at outside linebacker is for the time being a temporary one. Whoever wins it is only filling in for the first four games of the year when Calvin Pace is suspended. It could turn into a bigger audition, though. If Bryan Thomas gets off to a slow start, a Pace replacement who plays well could send Bryan to the bench for the fifth game.
There are four very similar candidates for the job. Vernon Gholston, Jason Trusnik, Marques Murrell, and Jamaal Westerman are all young and inexperienced converted college defensive ends. None has seen much time on the field. Murrell and Trusnik enter their third pro seasons. Gholston starts his second. Westerman is a rookie. All were undrafted except Gholston, a hyped top ten pick.
Handicapping the race:
On paper, Gholston is the favorite. The team wants him to win the job because of how much has been invested in him, a top ten pick and a big contract. Rex Ryan also took a stake in Gholston's success, calling Vernon a personal project. You would also think he has a leg up due to his experience. One of the biggest adjustments defensive ends moving to linebacker have to make is playing pass coverage. Gholston did some of that in college at Ohio State.
Maybe this is why Ryan named Gholston his starter already. The fact of the matter is such declarations mean little. Ryan is in the business of winning games. Maybe he thought he could boost Vernon's confidence or light a fire under him by making the move. If somebody else outplays him, Gholston won't start. Ryan is in the business of winning games, not justifying big contracts.
I can't shake pessimism on Vernon's prospects. I know some guys struggle early in their careers and then put it together later. Usually, though, these guys show at least flashes of what they become. There are some plays where their natural ability shines through, and you think about how good they'd be if they consistently played like that. Gholston showed nothing during his rookie year. He looked painfully slow with pads on, nothing like the athletic wonder he was at the Combine. Nothing would make me happier than for him to prove me wrong, but I don't have a ton of hope.
The under the radar guy to watch is Trusnik. Rex Ryan kept Bob Sutton on the staff presumably because he wants Sutton's input on the defensive player. Sutton thought enough of Trusnik to get him significant playing time with the season on the line last year in Week 17 against the Dolphins. Trusnik played extremely well, which leads us to our next point. Rex Ryan has undoubtedly studied game film of his new team. Of the four candidates, Trusnik's performance in that Miami game is the only record of any of them succeeding on an NFL field.
I'll be in the minority and call Trusnik a slight favorite at least for now.