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New York Jets Offseason: Building a Linebacker Pipeline

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In a little over a year on the job, Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan has been willing to share some of his big picture ideas for building a roster.

One of them is a belief in frequently drafting outside linebackers. Dom Cosentino wrote about it last April.

"A lot of teams who've had success with 3-4 outside linebackers, you'll go back and look at the ones they've taken shots on, and there's a good number of misses," Maccagnan said. "But I think the constant thing is they're constantly sort of stocking that pool."

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"In fact, we really tried to study their success," Maccagnan said of the Steelers. "Pittsburgh always seems to have guys in the pipeline. They had a long period of time where one would be productive, and then as soon as they' would maybe lose him in free agency, they'd have another step up right behind him. It's sort of the lifeblood of your 3-4."

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"From my standpoint, I'm not going to guarantee I'm going to draft one every year," Maccagnan said. "I think you really go into the draft every year, if you're a 3-4 team, and you'd like to have a young one every year because they take time to develop."

Maccagnan expressed it again last month in an interview with Mike Francesa on WFAN.

"Certain positions get out there in free agency. Some don't. From a pass rusher standpoint, they're a commodity in our league. We're going to look hard into that to see whether we can add somebody through free agency....but Pittsburgh always seemed to have a pipeline of 3-4 outside linebackers, and a lot of them were very good pass rushers. They did that by drafting and developing them...In a perfect world we'll try to solve it through free agency, but it might be a position where we have to build it through the Draft."

You saw it on Sunday. Edge rushers are premium players on defense. It's great to have interior guys like Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson who can get after the quarterback. The great pass rushing defenses have guys coming off the edge, though. It is where the top sack artists have room to operate.

Think about where the Jets are on the defensive line. They have built a pipeline of talent. In an ideal world, they would be able to keep both Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison. Even if they do not, they have developed enough talent to still have a top young defensive line. It has been a product of the extent to which the Jets have focused on drafting and developing interior players. While it certainly helps to have this type of interior line talent, it would benefit the team much more to have this type of pipeline at edge rusher. As Maccagnan notes, it is probably the most important position on the defense.

Drafting Lorenzo Mauldin a year ago was a first step in bringing youth to the edge. It certainly was not a strength this season, and that is due to years of neglect. It wasn't that the Jets were too reluctant to invest. It is that they spent years not investing at all. Incredibly, the team went five straight Drafts from 2009 through 2013 without taking a single edge rusher. They didn't even invest in a late round project in that time. IK Enemkpali and Trevor Reilly finally broke the streak in the late rounds of the 2014 Draft. Mauldin came aboard last season.

Was it that they got gunshy after the failure of Vernon Gholston? Did Rex Ryan not believe it was a premium position because he believed his blitzing scheme could cover for it? Was this a product of Mike Tannenbaum's propensity to trade away picks limiting the team's opportunities to take edge rushers? Was it some combination of these and more? We will never know.

What we do know is it left the Jets lacking at the spot. In recent years they have stuck with veterans for years after their expiration dates, first Bryan Thomas and more recently Calvin Pace. They tried and fail to covert interior rushers. Quinton Coples comes to mind. Sheldon Richardson was used this way a bit this season, and the results were not great.

Mauldin finally provided a sorely needed infusion of youth, but Maccagnan's talk indicates he might not be done. Why would he be.

I have heard a few people ask why the Jets would take a rusher when they have Mauldin. It isn't like Mauldin is going to be off the team if the Jets take another one.

The Jets don't know what they have in Mauldin. Is he going to play the run well enough to be more than a situational pass rusher? Even if he is a situational guy, he will have value. The Jets surely will need players to take starter level snaps, though. Is Mauldin going to be more of a versatile guy who drops into coverage as frequently as he rushes the passer? If that is the case then the Jets need a primary edge rusher to get after the quarterback when Mauldin drops into coverage.

What if Mauldin breaks out as an elite pass rusher? Can the Jets afford to invest in another? Will they be blocking his development and showing a lack of faith? Heck no! What's wrong with adding a second great pass rusher off the edge. Ever hear of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware? The Jets should be so lucky to have a great rusher coming off each edge.

Maccagnan also referenced the Steelers. Again, the current defensive line situation for the Jets is a parallel. Even if they get great edge rushers, they cannot stop drafting and developing. They might end up in a spot where they cannot afford to keep everybody. The position is so important that it will be essential to have a young guy waiting in the wings. Chad Brown picked up the slack when Kevin Greene left in free agency. Jason Gildon picked up the slack when Brown left. Joey Porter was there when Gildon left. James Harrison (undrafted) was there when Porter left. Lamarr Woodley was there after Harrison left.

The defensive line is important, but it's time for the Jets to focus the same attention on getting edge rushers.