New York Jets positional preview 2021: Linebackers

New York Jets, Jordan Jenkins

New head coach Robert Saleh has plenty of questions to address when it comes to the New York Jets’ linebacking corps.

The Position: Linebacker
On the Roster: C.J. Mosley, Blake Cashman, Sharif Finch, John Daka
Free Agents: Jordan Jenkins, Tarell Basham, Neville Hewitt, Patrick Onwuasor, Harvey Langi, Bryce Hager, Frankie Luvu
Reserve/Future: Noah Dawkins

The world was a lot different this time a year ago, unaware of the upheaval and interruption to daily life that 2020 was going to bring. It obviously pales in comparison to other items affected by the past year’s propensity for chaos, but the New York Jets’ situation at linebacker seemed to be trending in the right direction.

C.J. Mosley seemed destined to come back after an impressive debut in Week 1 of 2019, a year mostly most due to injury. Avery Williamson was establishing himself as a leader. Jordan Jenkins, fresh off a career-best eight sacks, was brought back on an affordable one-year deal at just under $4 million. Depth options Neville Hewitt and Blake Cashman were also returning through a new contract and new health respectively. The unit appeared to be trending in the right direction.

But things have drastically changed over the past year, with calamities brought on by both external sources and problems on the homefront leaving the linebacker corps in relative shambles. Mosley (understandably) opted out of the 2020 season due to the ongoing health crisis. Williamson was part of the Jets’ in-season fire sale in a deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jenkins failed to build on the last two seasons and ended up injured reserve with Cashman, who was limited to three defensive snaps by another injury. Hope did emerge in the form of Tarell Basham, who set career-bests in a contract year, but nothing that would truly solidify the Jets’ outlook.

Joining the Jets as defensive coordinator is Jeff Ulbrich, a decade-long linebacker in San Francisco fresh off a defensive coordinator stint under Raheem Morris’ brief watch in Atlanta. Both he and head coach Robert Saleh (having overseen linebackers in Jacksonville for three seasons) have their work cut out for them as they seek to gain clarity on a team in upheaval.

Free Agents-to-be

Tarell Basham

Basham took the most of extended opportunities, setting new career-bests in tackles (36), quarterback hits (13), and sacks (13). He notably served as the main catalyst behind the Jets’ Week 16 win over playoff-participant Cleveland, forcing two fumbles of Baker Mayfield late in the game. At the right price, Basham can serve as a veteran, situational pass rusher.

Bryce Hager

Mostly working on special teams, injuries forced the veteran Hager to start the final two games of the season at linebacker, earning credit for half-a-sack (the first of his six-year career) in the season finale in New England. Brant Boyer’s return could grant him at least a camp opportunity.

Neville Hewitt

Over the past three seasons, Hewitt has established himself as a very reliable depth option in green. Hewitt started all 16 games for the first time in his career last season, leading the Jets with 91 solo tackles (fourth in the NFL). While Hewitt has more than earned a new contract in New York, his strong showings off the bench may lead him to seek more permanent starting roles in a new locale.

Jordan Jenkins

Jenkins’ $3.75 million deal was seen as a steal, especially for a guy that earned 15 sacks over the prior two seasons. But subsequent shoulder issues stifled his 2020 endeavors, causing him to miss four games and earn only two sacks. Fresh off surgery, the Jets will probably let him walk, unless Saleh and Ulbrich view him as a veteran reclaimation project.

Harvey Langi

A restrcited free agent, Langi was another backer who enjoyed career-best number after taking over for fallen comrades (60 tackles) before landing on injured reserve himself. His familiarity with the Jets’ special team works could certainly afford him a new opportunity.

Frankie Luvu

Luvu has turned himself into a bit of a fan favorite over the past few preseasons, earning a roster spot through his tenacious pass rushing from the fringe. As an exlusive rights free agent, Luvu will probably gain another chance this summer in camp.

Patrick Onwuasor

Injuries limited Onwuasor to a mere single game and eight snaps last season…none of which came on defense. The former Raven could get another chance in New York if the team wants to keep some veteran guidance in tow.

Will They Draft?

Depends on what the Jets glean from a sizably talented free agency class, but with so many potential departures, they’ll certainly do their due dilligence this offseason. The threat of seeing multi-talented quarterbacks like Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa (who could become Deshaun Watson if Miami convinces the Texans to bargain), outside edge help would likely be the way to go. It’s unlikely that the Jets will use the No. 2 pick on a linebacker, but options with the late first from Seattle could include Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah or versatile Zaven Collins out of Tulsa.

Veteran Possibilities

Matt Judon, Baltimore

Through Mosley and Onwuasor, it appears the Jets have studied the Ravens’ linebackers extensively. It’s possible they could return to Baltimore’s fountain of defensive prowess through Judon, who will likely be the most-sought after linebacker prospect on the free agent front. They could go after Yannick Ngakoue again, but considering Baltimore sent over two picks to get him, they’ll likely be all-in on his re-signing, leaving Judon to test the open market (especially with only one franchise tag). At 28, Judon has plenty left in the tank and can give the young Jets a taste of success. The cap hit (over $16 million in Baltimore last season) could scare some suitors off, but Jets certainly have the funds available.

De’Vondre Campbell, Arizona

A former fourth-round pick out of Minnesota, Campbell got his start under Ulbrich in Atlanta. Prior to Campbell’s departure for the Cardinals last offseason, Ulbrich discussed his appreciation for Campbell and just how personal their relationship grew during their shared time with the Falcons.

“He’s a guy where my daughter watches his kids, babysits his kids and we have a deep connection in that way,” Ulbrich said last March, per D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “To see him grow as a player and as a man, it’s a guy that I would love to continue on with.”

With Campbell hitting free agency again, Ulbrich may have a chance to reopen that opportunity.

Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay’s defense, one fresh off stifling the mighty Chiefs in the Super Bowl, is young enough that they could be poised to be a problem for a long time. But Barrett can be the threat off the edge the Jets have been seeking for a long time, a role he filled in brilliantly during Tampa’s championship run. Barrett can be particularly dangerous in the 4-3 set that Saleh desires.

Outlook

The Jets have some big decisions to make at linebacker, a vital spot with defenseive masters Saleh and Ulbrich taking over. There’s certainly some changes to make in this area with so many names up for free agency. Focus has previously centered on offense, but the Jets have the necessary cap room (and could gain more with some releases) to make a play at some of the big names on the linebacking front. Either way, the relative stability they felt at the end of the 2019 toward the group seems like an attainable, if not vital, goal.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets: Have these victorious final hours saved Adam Gase?

The New York Jets have banded together to compete in the final stanza. This effort can save some players…but not this doomed staff.

If this keeps up, the New York Jets might be able to win the NFC East.

Alas, even the woebegone division, one that will undoubtedly put a team with a losing record in the playoffs after Sunday’s transpirings, would be too far out of the Jets’ reach in a surprising team swap. But Gang Green has spent December providing some holiday cheer in the form of consecutive victories at the end of the NFL season. Each win has come against a team in the thick of the NFL playoff hunt. The Jets (2-13) stole a tilt at SoFi Stadium against the Los Angles Rams (9-6) last weekend before topping the Cleveland Browns (10-5) in this season’s MetLife Stadium finale two days after Christmas.

The triumphs themselves have proved controversial amongst the fanbase. New York’s endeavor for Trevor Lawrence is officially dead after the win over Cleveland, as the Clemson quarterback appears to be headed for Jacksonville after Duval County endured its 14th consecutive loss while the Jets put a Christmas bow on their win over the Browns. The fact the Jets are etched into what will presumably be the first non-Lawrence pick is of little consolation to supporters of the metropolitan green squad.

Those responsible for the on-field triumphs have heeded no mind to those calling for losses, only energized by the past couple of weeks.

“It proves that we don’t quit,” linebacker Tarell Basham, a Sunday hero with two forced fumbles over the final four minutes, said in the aftermath according to an Associated Press report. “It proves that we still are approaching every week to win.”

“We’ve been more consistent, but obviously it’s too late,” quarterback Sam Darnold added in team reporter Jack Bell’s recap. “But it’s huge for our guys who are so resilient playing the way we did as an offense struggling in the second half. The defense and specials having our back. I’m super proud of the guys. We had a huge win in LA last week then came into work on Monday, the whole week and had a good week.”

In an effort to exorcise the demons 2020 has brought forth, football or otherwise, the box scores from the last two weeks are probably set for incineration, along with the rest of the ledgers of this cursed year. But it’s certainly encouraging to see the players band together and play well against what is clearly superior competition.

The Jets have pulled no punches when it comes to expressing their thoughts about supposed fans wishing active harm against the team. Seeing their hard efforts culminate it what has been a strong December…each game of their Christmas quartet has been close with the exception of a 40-3 shellacking in Seattle…is inspiring. All across the roster, participants could well be securing NFL futures in either New York or one of the other 31 markets.

But, in the midst of celebration, it’s worth wondering…have these unexpected triumphs breathed new life into the Adam Gase era?

New York Jets, Adam Gase
Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Gase’s tenure as Jets head coach, however long it remains, could well become defined by ill-advised victories. Time will potentially tell just how much a 7-2 stretch at the end of his debut season, one that followed a garish 1-7 start, altered the course of Jets history. The strong finish gained mostly against teams somehow in even more dire straits than the Jets was enough to convince the powers that be that Gase was the right man for the job. His 2020 performance has consistently proven otherwise.

Yet, even as the Jets threatened to join an unholy trinity of 16-game imperfection with the 2008 Lions and 2017 Browns, Gase’s departure somehow felt anything but certain. After all, several names with football resumes far more expansive than Gase’s were bid farewell before a change in head coaching was apparently considered. Veteran defensive starters Steve McLendon and Avery Williamson were dealt for day three draft picks. Le’Veon Bell was outright released. It took highly publicized bad call for Gregg Williams to be handed an ousting less than 24 hours later. All the while, Gase remained in charge, making increasingly questionable decisions that didn’t exactly fuel the idea that the Jets were trying to win ball games.

The wins over teams of a playoff caliber may be reopening the case for Gase. Even some of the Jets’ recent defeats have show a sense of honor, with four of their prior seven losses coming by one possession. Darnold even remarked after the Cleveland win that he “(loved) working for him”, per Connor Hughes of The Athletic.

But if Gase is back coaching the team in 2021 even in part thanks to this last stretch, that says more about New York management than it ever will about the former Peyton Manning overseer.

For one thing, future discussions of these Jets victories may require asterisks. The Rams victory lost a little bit of luster with rookie rusher Cam Akers noticeably sidelined by an injury (not to mention two of his longer runs, including a touchdown, erased by penalties). A positive test for COVID-19 not only delayed the Browns arrival but the ensuing contact tracing forced them to leave a good portion of their receiving output in Ohio. It’s safe to say that the timing of their respective matchups played well in the Jets’ favor.

But hidden behind the final score are subtle signs that the Jets are making the same mistakes that dug them into this hole in the first place. Progress isn’t be made in the right areas. The Jets are winning in spite of their recurring, apparent issues…not because they’ve overcome them.

For example, the Jets offense still hasn’t reached optimal levels of output, especially under a supposed “guru” like Gase. Darnold, for example, hasn’t taken the next step on his journey as an NFL franchise man. He has yet to earn a triple-digit passer rating and has yet to break the 300-yard mark this season. Sure, numbers don’t entirely make or break an NFL quarterback’s career, but there was a reason that Jets fans were so eager to see Lawrence fall into their laps. Speaking of offense, a lack of scoring, particularly the shrinkage as the game goes on, has been concerning from an offensive standpoint. The Jets have had matching, convincing 13-3 leads at halftime in each of their last two games, but have been forced to rely on bailouts from a tired defense to secure each win. This Sunday marked only the fourth time this season the Jets offense has gotten past the 300-yard mark (333). Such a struggle should almost be impossible in this modern NFL ruled by a fantasy football deity.

Additionally, Gase and Co. continue to make baffling decisions that make one question whether the Jets want to truly pull out a victory. The Jets continue to leave points on the field at opportune times of the ball game, whether it’s sending Braden Mann out to punt on a one-yard fourth down circa midfield or continuing to insist on a Frank Gore farewell tour while Ty Johnson and La’Mical Perine watch. Not only does it affect the Jets’ task at hand, but it throws a wrench into their future as well. One can argue that Johnson and Perine aren’t cut out for a New York future, but the evidence will never be present if they’re not getting some of Gore’s workload in a dire situation.

A purge is indeed coming to the New York Jets. Part of it will be enforced by contractual endeavors…the Jets will have 32 players up for free agency this offseason…but necessity will be the primary factor. At no point in Gase’s tenure have the Jets come remotely close to resembling a contender in the modern NFL. Not even the good times, whether it was the optimistic second half of last season or this new, active winning streak, have given much hope, as fans have grumbled about falling down in the draft order rather than relatively upward in the standings. With rare exception, players have not been put in a strong position to succeed, to extend whatever good times have surfaced over the past few seasons. Those shortcomings, still very much present despite new results on the scoreboard, primarily fall on Gase and his staff with little exception (i.e. special teams boss Brant Boyer).

At the end of the day, those who thrust the Jets into a bizarro football world where victories are considered to be the worst thing that can happen to the franchise should be the first ones held accountable when the purge inevitably comes. Two wins don’t change the fact that Gase is the main culprit.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets: 3 stars from Sunday’s win vs Cleveland

The New York Jets took advantage of a depleted Cleveland Browns squad to earn their second consecutive victory in their home finale.

For their role as spoilers, the New York Jets might be gaining some extra Christmas presents across the NFL. 

Jamison Crowder earned touchdowns through both passing and receiving, while the defense sacked a beleaguered Baker Mayfield four times as the Jets (2-13) earned their second straight victory, topping the Cleveland Browns 23-16 in their 2020 home finale. Sam Darnold also threw two touchdown passes (the other going to Chris Herndon) while Frank Gore (48) became the third rusher in NFL history to surpass 16,000 rushing yards. The ensuing loss of the Browns (10-5) was welcome news for their fellow wild-card combatants in Miami and Baltimore, as well as the Pittsburgh Steelers, who clinched the AFC North title with the Cleveland defeat.

ESM has a trio of game balls to hand out in the wake of another big victory.

3rd Star: DL Nathan Shepherd

3 tackles, 1 sack

Shepherd, a Canadian import out of both Fort Hays State and Simon Fraser, is one of several Jets establishing himself as essential personnel as the Jets go through the macabre process of free research and development. He was a constant prescience in the Cleveland backfield on Sunday, earning three tackles, a sack, and two other pressured hits on Mayfield, making sure the polarizing thrower was even more uncomfortable without his top receivers in tow.

2nd Star: LB Tarell Basham  

5 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 sack

There no greater defense than Basham’s antics as Cleveland’s comeback fell just short. The Ohio alum ended each of the Browns’ final two drives, forcing a pair of Mayfield fumbles that secured the final score. His first, recovered by John Franklin-Myers, allowed the Jets to add Sam Ficken-induced insurance, while the other was recovered by the Browns, but unable to be advanced due to rules enacted inside the final two minutes of the second half.

1st Star: WR Jamison Crowder

7 receptions, 92 yards, 1 TD
1 carry, 14 yards
1-for-1, 43 yards, 1 TD

Could it be that the Jets’ new franchise quarterback has been on their roster the whole time?

Obviously, Crowder isn’t that man, but the Jets were happy to provide Duke fans with a blast from the past during Sunday’s festivities. New York trickery was likely the first sign to the Browns faithful that Sunday was not going to be their day, as his 43-yard strike to Braxton Berrios put the Jets ahead for good. It was Crowder’s first touchdown pass since the 2014 Sun Bowl, when he gave the Blue Devils a late lead over Arizona State with a 12-yard scoring toss.

Crowder, who has turned into one of the NFL’s most dependable slot receivers, also got his name in the scorebook through his traditional aerial ways, nabbing a 30-yard scoring grab from Sam Darnold to conclude the Jets’ first drive of the second half.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

The Good and The Bad of New York Jets First Scrimmage

New York Jets, Nate Hairston

A number of things stood out to me from today’s first team scrimmage for the New York Jets, and for the most part they were not very good. So, let’s breakdown what went right and what went wrong for the Jets today.

The Good

Frank Gore

Gore reportedly looked “terrific” according to The Athletic’s Connor Hughes among others. Gore has been fantastic to this point according to Gase in terms of leadership impact and on the field performance. The ageless wonder continued to amaze and I’m excited to see him debut with the Green and White.

LaMical Perine

Sticking with the running backs, Perine was impressive today ripping off a 20 yard gain and then a 79-yard score. Perine was known for his breakaway speed at Florida and he flashed that today. The Jets know they have a unique blend of speed and size in that running back room and the perfect definition of that is Perine. I’m intrigued to see how he continues to grow from here as the season progress.

Mike White and James Morgan

The little known former 5th rounder was a practice squad fixture last season. Then this season, Gase said it’s been like two different quarterbacks. He’s thrown the ball very well in camp to this point and that reportedly continued today with another solid showing. Morgan also dominated the first-team defense which is impressive but also scary.

Ashtyn Davis

Davis continued his impressive camp with a pick-six today. Davis has been working side by side with the Jets defensive coaches in order to maximize his potential early on. It’s clear the organization has high hopes for him.

The Bad

Turnovers

The Jets first-team offense turned the ball over 3 times today against the second-team defense. That’s inexcusable and something that you’d expect earlier in camp, not two weeks away from the season. That’s an issue that needs to be worked on quickly.

First Team Defense Pressure

The Jets reportedly had no pressure in the backfield today. Presumably, Tarell Basham was set for the second pass rusher role, but with his injury, Jenkins will get targeted all the more. So, this makes pressure a difficult thing for the Jets to sustain right now. A move might need to be made for a pass rusher if Basham won’t be ready by week one.

Injuries

It seems like every day more injuries occur. Today, Lawerence Cager caught bad luck during his excellent camp with swelling emerging around his knee. That’s the latest receiver out and latest important piece. Then, new guard, Greg Van Roten got hurt as well. The Jets need to find ways to minimize injuries or this will be a long year.

Wide Receivers

I touched on the injury to Cager, but with Crowder and Hogan having a bad record with injuries and both fumbling during the scrimmage, it’s apparent the Jets need more insurance. Perriman and Mims will be back soon, but the Jets could use another vet to provide more insurance.

Lev Bell

Lev was pulled after just a few reps. It was reportedly to keep him loose, but he refuted those claims on Twitter immediately. He claimed that he needs reps to get going and the Jets were mismanaging him. All I can say is, welcome to Jets football.