By MICHAEL FAIRLIE //
With the expected departure of Demario Davis at the ILB position, the Jets need to start planning towards the future in the middle of their defense. Given that David Harris has been a mainstay at the position for the past nine seasons, and that the Jets are trying to bring back Erin Henderson after a solid season with the team, Gang Green could be in much worse shape at Middle Linebacker.
Harris and Henderson certainly make for a quality starting duo when compared to a lot of the other teams in the league. But with the battering ram, Harris, starting the 2016 season at the age of 32, and Henderson turning 30 just prior to the season, it is obvious that the team needs to infuse some youth at the position.
The 27-year-old Davis, who was a 3rd round selection of the Jets in 2012, has never really lived up to expectations in his role on the team. Known for his speed and athleticism coming out of Arkansas State, Demario has often been a liability in coverage, particularly against halfbacks, and even his ability to defend the run has started to slip.
That is a big part of the reason that the team slowly started to phase him out as the season went on, while working Erin Henderson in, during the 2015 season. The Jets plan on letting Davis test the free agent market and it is not likely that they will be re-signing him when all is said and done in free agency.
One of the best draft picks made by the Jets in the past decade, David Harris has been a solid centerpiece in their defense for all of his nine seasons in the NFL. He has led the team in combined tackles for the past five years, as well as seven of his nine seasons with the team, since being drafted out of Michigan in the 2nd round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
David has stood out as a leader on the unit as well as the entire defense for almost a decade, setting an excellent example for his teammates with his incredible effort and understanding of the game.
Much more of a run defender, Harris does not offer much in the way of pass coverage, which has been a problem with the Jets linebacking corps for quite a while now. Luckily, the team’s safeties have improved dramatically with the addition of Marcus Gilchrist and the emergence of Calvin Pryor in his second year in the league, and they have terrific talent at CB, but finding a linebacker that can cover TE’s and HB’s would be a real plus for the Jets moving forward.
After sitting out the entire 2014 season due to two arrests on DUI and drug charges, which led to him being released by the Minnesota Vikings, Erin Henderson had a strong bounce-back season for the Jets in 2015. With most of his work early on in the season being on special teams, Henderson earned himself more playing time on defense, all but stealing Demario’s spot in the ILB rotation by season’s end.
Totaling 112 combined tackles and four sacks for the Vikings during the 2013 season, the Jets are hoping Erin can return to that form after a year in their defensive scheme. Initial indications are good that they can get a deal done, but time will tell what the market dictates, and even if they do bring him back they are going to need to inject some youth into the group.
The only other inside backer currently on the Jets roster is the rather raw, yet promising Taiwan Jones, who signed with the team as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State in 2015. Standing at 6’3, 252, the former Spartan compares favorably to David Harris and with the proper development may one day replace him in the Jets lineup.
Similar to Harris, Jones is not known for his coverage skills, but he is a monster against the run and displayed excellent on-the-field leadership during his career with Michigan State.
Originally expected to be chosen in the 4th and 5th round of the 2015 draft, the Jets were fortunate to get Jones when they did, although he still needs a lot of seasoning. Hopefully his year with the team has provided him with a working knowledge of the defensive system and prepared him to take his game to the next level in 2016.
Time will tell where Taiwan fits into the inside linebacker rotation going forward, but it would still be beneficial for the Jets to bring someone else into the mix.
The question is: Who are some of the more attractive options available in free agency at the position that are also under the age of 30? Topping the list of potential ILB free agents is the Denver Broncos’ Brandon Marshall.
Although it would be confusing having two Brandon Marshalls on the team to say the least, and his price tag may be a bit too much considering the three-year deal they just gave Harris along with their cap situation, Marshall would make a great addition to the mix at middle linebacker.
At just 26-years-old, the 2012 5th round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars really came into his own during the past two seasons with the Broncos. The problem is, just like the other inside backers on the Jets roster, he is not all that gifted in coverage.
Another 2012 draft pick, who also happens to currently be on the Broncos roster, Danny Trevathan would appear to be a nice fit in the Jets defensive scheme. He may also command a cost-prohibitive contract, but if the numbers are right, the Broncos 6th round pick out of Kentucky would at least somewhat improve the coverage of the Jets linebacking corps.
Pro Football Focus ranked the combination of Marshall and Trevathan as the NFL’s fifth and sixth best players at their position in 2015. Known more for his coverage ability than his run-stuffing, Trevathan might be the better fit of the two Broncos’ free agents to be.
A little further down the list of free agent options at middle linebacker is the Dallas Cowboys’ Rolando McClain, a 2010 first round pick of the Oakland Raiders. Again, he might present a problem as far as fitting him under the cap, but if they can find a way to get him on the team, McClain might be the perfect complement to Harris and Henderson.
One of the better coverage options available at the position, Rolando would fill a glaring need on the team. Although the Raiders do not seem to feel that he is the answer, he would most likely be a nice fit for the Jets.
If they are looking for a more affordable option in free agency, the Jets could consider the Tennessee Titans’ Zach Brown. While his numbers dipped in the 2015 season, after two solid seasons to start his career, Brown is still only 26 years old and a 2012 2nd round pick from North Carolina with a decent upside if placed in the right system.
Zach is another player with a higher ceiling in pass coverage than in run defending, which might be just what the Jets need given that they already have Harris and hopefully Henderson on board for the 2016 campaign.
In addition to the possibilities that exist in the free agent market, there seems to be a decent crop of inside linebackers available in the top four rounds of the 2016 NFL Draft. The highest ranked ILB in the upcoming draft is Alabama’s Reggie Ragland.
Standing at 6’2 254 pounds, Ragland is a force to be reckoned with in the middle of a defense. Although he is not thought of as the most outstanding athlete in the group, Reggie is a consistent and versatile player who recorded 102 tackles (6.5 for a loss), seven pass breakups, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in his senior season for the Crimson Tide. He is expected to be chosen anywhere from the middle of the first round to the beginning of the 2nd.
Projected to be selected at some point in the 2nd round of the draft, Missouri’s Kentrell Brothers, who had a phenomenal senior year in which he recorded 152 tackles (12 for a loss), two interceptions, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble, three passes defensed and a blocked punt.
Also not recognized as the greatest athlete, Brothers makes up for his ordinary athleticism with his non-stop motor and exceptional instincts, proving to be an excellent run defender and enthusiastic tackler during his impressive collegiate career.
Another name worth mentioning as a possible draft pick for the New York Jets in 2016 is Arizona’s Scooby Wright III. Besides having an awesome name, Scooby possesses extraordinary instincts and remarkable awareness in space, making him a significant weapon against the run and getting to the quarterback.
In 2014, Wright was the winner of the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Rotary Lombardi Award and the Chuck Bednarik Award due to his sensational play.
The one major red flag with Wright is the fact that he missed the majority of the 2015 season due to a surgically-repaired meniscus in his left knee and a considerable foot sprain. Expected to go anywhere from the 2nd to the 4th round, Scooby should at least be considered by the Jets, pending a clean bill of health of course.
In the event that they can convince Erin Henderson to come back, the Jets will have a quality starting tandem at ILB, but there is always room for improvement, and getting younger as well as faster at the position would be rather beneficial for 2016 and beyond.
Regardless of what happens in negotiations with Henderson, the Jets need to keep an eye on the future of the position. As I said before, it helps tremendously to have a much improved secondary, but they still need to increase their speed and coverage abilities at all of their linebacker spots.
You can read my article from 2/16/16 about Kentrell Brothers by clicking below:
You can read my Jets Pre-Combine Mock Draft article from 2/24/16 by clicking the following link:
You can read my article from 2/19/16 on NYJetsNews.Com about a few options for the Jets in the 1st Round of NFL Draft by clicking below: