Candidates: Calvin Pace, Ricky Sapp, Garrett McIntyre, Antwan Barnes
Background: The linebacker situation was not at all pretty last year for the Jets. On the inside, the team is hoping David Harris has a bounceback campaign and that Demario Davis is ready to produce in a starting role. On the outside, the Jets are shifting 2012 first round pick Quinton Coples to linebacker. On the other side, there is still a giant question mark. Incumbent starter Calvin Pace is back after playing over 90% of snaps in 2012. He is joined by journeymen Garrett McIntyre and Ricky Sapp and free agent pass rushing specialist Antwan Barnes.
Handicapping the battle: After playing over 90% of the snaps last year and not being benched for poor play, Pace figures to have the inside track. When in doubt, coaches tend to stick with what they know. Coaches also tend to be very loyal to players who have brought them success. Pace was a contributor on the successful Jets teams early in Rex Ryan's tenure, which has engendered that kind of loyalty from the head coach. The Jets cut Pace's hefty contract during the offseason but brought him back on a cheaper deal. Doing that has made the odds high he will see a healthy cut of the playing time. Rex will be able to sell the idea that Pace is the best option because he has by far the best NFL track record and the other options include a situational pass rusher, a guy who turns 27 during the season who has yet to make an NFL impact, and a guy who turns 29 during the season and has yet to make an NFL impact.
What is the problem? Some people have this idea that while Pace is not the player he once was, he is still effective. This is just not the case. Pace is one of the least effective linebackers in the league. Anybody can see how slow he is in coverage. The same can be said for his lack of athleticism as a pass rusher. For some reason, people have this idea that Pace is still effective against the run. He is not. The film shows this. So do the numbers. Let me give you two stats from Pro Football Focus. They say 34 outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense played at least 25% of their team's snaps last year. One of their stats tracks the number of tackles on rushing plays that constituted a "loss" for an offense. The idea behind the stat is simple. If you tackle a runner eight yards down the field, you get credit for a tackle, but the play was a success for the offense. This stat tracks how many run plays you destroyed. Pace ranked 32nd of 34 with a stop on just 3.1% of his snaps against the run. For reference, McIntyre finished 23rd and Bryan Thomas 21st. How about tackling efficiency, which studies the rates at which players miss tackles. Again, Pace finished 32nd. McIntyre was 26th, and Thomas was 11th. Pace has been in a steady decline for a few years. These things tend to not magically reverse themselves at 32 years old. They tend to just get worse.
McIntyre is not a great option, but we can see here that he actually is a slight improvement on Pace across the board. There is this idea that the Jets brought Pace back for leadership, but again you could have gotten the same from McIntyre. McIntyre did not get a chance in the NFL until he was 26 years old. He bounced around in the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League just to keep his dream alive. If you want a good influence who can teach young players about hard work and perseverance in your locker room, he's a pretty nice guy to have. Pace adds no value with a guy like this around. All his presence does is tempt the coach to overplay him as happened in 2012.
JB's optimal use: For the reasons spelled out above, the Jets should part ways with Pace. When it comes to this position, the Jets are probably going to be sending out a very weak run defender. If they are going to suffer in the run game, they might as well have the best pass rusher possible at the position. That would be Barnes. Barnes has typically been a situational pass rusher, but getting more playing time has made him more productive, not less. In 2011, he was pressed into the lineup to play over 40 snaps in 5 different games. He had 8 sacks in those 5 games. To rest him, the Jets might want to give the younger Sapp who has more theoretical upside the playing time and keep McIntyre to special teams.