Heading into last offseason, it appeared to be a mere formality that the Jets would trade middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma. This came to fruition at the beginning of the free agency period, when Gang Green sent him to New Orleans for what turned into the pick used to select Dwight Lowery and a third rounder this year. Looking back, this move hampered the Jets in 2008. It may work out over the long haul if Lowery and this year's pick turn into above average players, but the trade does not look great after a season.
The skeptics made points of varying validity on why dealing Vilma best suited the team. After an excellent first two season as a middle linebacker in the 4-3, where his athleticism and ability to go sideline to sideline was paramount, the quality of his play tailed off after Eric Mangini's ill-advised move to the 3-4. His small frame led to struggles getting off blocks, and his athleticism was not as important since he had less ground to cover. The emergence of David Harris also seemed to render Vilma expendable. With Jon coming off microfracture surgery on his knee, getting something in return before he hit the free agent market probably seemed like the right move so the Jets dealt him.
There were problems with this thinking. The first was the choice was not between Vilma and Harris. It was between Vilma and Eric Barton. Harris was the best 3-4 inside linebacker on the roster without a doubt, but two players from that position start in the scheme. Vilma is more talented in any system.
Vilma's play fell off in the 3-4. Of this there is no question. However, to say he did not have the ability to play in the system is a rush to judgement. The players around him had a lot to do with his struggles. Dewayne Robertson could not hold the point of attack on the nose. Vilma constantly had linemen in his face because his lineman kept getting pushed into his face. With Kris Jenkins in front of him, Jon would have had more room in front of him. Remember, Ray Lewis implored the Ravens to pick Haloti Ngata a few years ago to give him space in which to play.
The 3-4 does not necessarily demand both inside linebackers to play identical positions. The strongside linebacker can play in the scheme as a combination of 4-3 middle linebacker and strongside outside linebacker, while the weakside backer can play a combination of 4-3 middle and weakside. Harris' primary role would have been taking on blocks while playing the run, while Vilma would have helped providing contain on the backside by covering more ground.
Where Vilma really would have complimented Harris was pass coverage. David could have served as the thumper inside, while Vilma's solid pass coverage skills would have helped mask Harris' deficiencies there. The Jets could not cover a tight end all season. Jon can run with most tight ends in the league. Gang Green sorely missed him in that area.
Unfortunately, the NFL is a league with little patience. The second a guy struggles, fans are ready to send him out of town. That is what happened with Vilma, even though his decline had mitigating factors. The Jets sorely missed him. A player like this was one of the missing links on the roster, while Vilma led his new team in tackles.