The 2015 Jets linebackers featured stalwart David Harris on the inside alongside Demario Davis. On the outside were grizzled veteran Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples, until Coples was replaced in the latter half of the season by Sheldon Richardson. Principal backups included Erin Henderson, who gradually ate into Davis' playing time as the season wore on, and rookie Lorenzo Mauldin, who came on as a pass rusher late in the year. It was a reasonably effective unit, although far from dominant. Harris had perhaps his finest season in years, while Davis struggled so much the Jets let him go in the offseason. Coples was nearly invisible in the 10 games leading up to his release, and Richardson was miscast as his replacement setting the edge. Pace showed his age and is no longer in the NFL. By the end of the season head coach Todd Bowles was looking to upgrade the speed, big play ability and overall effectiveness of the linebackers.
The 2016 linebackers largely reflect the efforts to upgrade. Gone are Coples, Pace, and Davis, and Richardson is no longer miscast as an outside linebacker. In are rookies Darron Lee and Jordan Jenkins, along with speedy veteran Bruce Carter. Potential backups Freddy Bishop, Julian Stanford and Mike Catapano also may be in the mix. It is a completely revamped unit, with only Harris holding over as a starter from last year. Will the changes work?
Predicting how the linebackers will pan out is a tricky business. There is a lot of young, unproven talent that will need to take prominent roles in 2016. It is very difficult to predict how it will all work out. Harris was excellent last year, but he'll be 33 years old by the end of the 2016-17 season. It is possible he maintains or even exceeds the high level of play of 2015, but the better bet is some regression at this age. I don't think Harris will fall off a cliff, but odds are he won't do quite as well in 2016. Henderson began to replace Davis last year because he was simply better. I expect that will continue in 2016. Darron Lee is the wild card here; how much of Henderson's playing time will Lee take, and will his speed and talent more than make up for his rookie mistakes? It's very tough to have any degree of certainty here, but I'm going with Lee and Henderson will be better than Davis and Henderson.
On the outside Pace was really on his last legs in 2015. It is often said of such players that literally anyone would be an improvement, but that isn't really so. The importance of knowing your assignments, understanding the defense and always playing your role in the defense should not be underestimated, even where the physical talent has clearly diminished. Better physical talent will often have a difficult time making up for worse knowledge and execution. That brings us to the presumptive starter in place of Calvin Pace, rookie Jordan Jenkins. Jenkins in many ways looks like a young Calvin Pace. If Jenkins can get up to speed with the defense and limit mental errors and blown assignments he has the potential to be a big upgrade over Pace. In time I think he will develop into just that. The question remains, will it happen in 2016? It's very difficult to say. I think we will probably have to live with enough growing pains that the Jenkins for Pace switch ends up a wash in 2016, with Jenkins' better athleticism making up for his worse execution and occasional blown assignments.
Manning the other outside edge is likely to be second year player Lorenzo Mauldin. Mauldin had a nice rookie year as a pass rush specialist, but now he is stepping into a full time role setting the edge. In preparation Mauldin put on 15 pounds in the offseason. In preseason games Mauldin has been largely invisible and has had some problems setting the edge while rarely putting pressure on the passer. This is another crapshoot. Will Mauldin develop into a legitimate three down edge defender, setting the edge, defending the run, dropping into coverage, and rushing the passer effectively? It's a large leap for Mauldin, and one for which the early returns are not entirely promising. The saving grace is that the guys Mauldin is trying to replace were either invisible (Coples) or badly miscast (Richardson) last year. I foresee significant problems with Mauldin making the leap in year 2, but because he is replacing a largely ineffective Coples and a miscast Richardson, I'm still going with slight improvement at the position.
The primary backups, Carter, Lee, Bishop, Catapano, perhaps Stanford, are largely unknowns. Will they be better than the 2015 backups? Who knows? Carter has talent and may be somewhat comparable to Henderson last year. Lee has worlds of talent. Whether he can harness it effectively in 2016 is anyone's guess. Bishop, Catapano and Stanford have less talent and are nearly equally unknowns. The backups as a group probably are more talented than last year's backups. For that reason I'll go with them being slightly better this year.
The conviction level for the linebacker group is lower than any other position. So much has changed and so many of the new players are lacking in any meaningful experience that the situation almost defies prediction. Will youth and speed triumph, or will inexperience and blown assignments be the deciding factor? I really have no idea. I'll go with the 2016 unit being better, mainly due to the improved big play ability, but I will not be surprised if that proves to be wishful thinking.
What about you? What do you think? Will the Jets linebackers be better, worse or about the same in 2016?