NY Jets Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports
With a new head coach comes brand new philosophies, as Robert Saleh will bring changes to the NY Jets in multiple ways.
One of those will be to the defensive side of the football, as the Jets will transition from a 3-4 defensive scheme to a 4-3. Meaning rather than three down linemen with four linebackers, the Jets will have four down linemen with three linebackers.
Such a change is going to bring many adjustments, especially for the team’s linebackers. The last time the Jets deployed a 4-3 front was in 2005, leaving the roster in need of a touch-up.
Currently, there is one player at linebacker who is a lock to start, that being C.J. Mosley. That is, however, assuming he does not opt-out for a second straight season due to COVID-19 concerns.
The Jets will have to add plenty of new faces to the linebacker unit, as Neville Hewitt, Jordan Jenkins, Tarell Basham, Patrick Onwuasor, Bryce Hager, Harvey Langi (RFA), and Frankie Luvu (ERFA) could all hit the market.
Therefore, leaving Mosley, Blake Cashman, Noah Dawkins, Sharif Finch, and Brady Sheldon as their only 4-3 linebackers under contract for 2021.
Taking all of this into consideration, there are going to be a handful of new faces at linebacker for the Jets next season. Luckily, the Jets are expected to have upwards of $80 million in cap space once cuts are all said and done.
That being said, here are five linebackers Gang Green could target in free agency.
Next: 1. One of the top names on the market
1. The NY Jets could target Jayon Brown
There is little doubt that the Jets will be able to stop the run in 2021, even with the scheme shift. Quinnen Williams and Folorunso Fatukasi were among the top run defenders in the league in 2021 and will make up the Jets interior.
What the team does need to improve is their coverage.
And that is where Jayon Brown comes in. The 6-foot, 226-pound linebacker does not win with power, rather his fluid movement in space, which makes him such an attractive free-agent option.
Drafted in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans out of UCLA, Brown has been a lineup regular over the past two seasons.
Since 2019, Brown has made 24 starts, totaling 181 tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and 16 pass deflections. And in 2020, he earned a 73.5 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus, good for 10th among linebackers.
In his career, Brown has started 33 of 56 games and can get after the passer too, as he has 9.5 career sacks. Brown’s game is not perfect though, as he has shown some inconsistencies in coverage on top of his issues against the run this past season.
Then again, he is among the best linebackers set to be available for a reason, and he will not command a cheap deal.
Brown will only be 26-years-old in 2021 and has shown upside to be one of the better 4-3 linebackers in the league since earning a bigger role in his second season.
Next: 2. An old friend of Robert Saleh's
2. The NY Jets could target K.J. Wright
As the Jets boast a very young defense in need of leadership, Robert Saleh could turn to an old friend for help. That friend being none other than former Super Bowl champion K.J. Wright.
Since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Wright has been a staple of the Seattle Seahawks defense. He has only missed 16 games in his career and started all but four games he has played in.
Simply put, Wright is an absolute iron man who is as reliable as they come.
Yes, Wright will be 32-years-old in 2021, but he has shown no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
This past season, Wright started every game, putting up 86 total tackles, 10 pass deflections, two fumbles recoveries, and an interception. In the end, Wright finished his 10th year in the league with a 75.7 PFF grade — seventh among all linebackers.
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What is more impressive about those numbers is that in 2020, Wright jumped from weakside linebacker to strongside linebacker due to injuries at the position. It put his versatility on full display, something that teams will certainly take note of as he hits the market.
Over the past decade, Wright has put together quite the resume — one that has made him a fan-favorite in Seattle.
Between his versatility and leadership, Wright could make for a dream signing for the Jets this offseason.
Next: 3. A former Super Bowl MVP
3. The NY Jets could target Malcolm Smith
Another player whose past ties to Robert Saleh could draw him to Florham Park is veteran Malcolm Smith. Both Wright and Smith were on Seattle at the same time Saleh was the team’s defensive quality control coach from 2011-2013.
Taken in the seventh round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Malcolm Smith has carved out a very successful career for himself. Over nine seasons, Smith has amassed 56 starts in 119 career games for six different teams.
This past season Smith spent as a member of the Cleveland Browns, starting four of 15 games played. He made 72 total tackles, intercepted a pass, forced a fumble, and held quarterbacks to an 83.9 passer rating when throwing his way.
Smith was also as strong as any linebacker in the league in coverage, earning the ninth highest grade in coverage.
This season, Smith will be 32-years-old and is no longer the same caliber player he was. Since missing the 2017 season with a torn pectoral muscle, he has only made 10 starts, playing no more than 55 percent of defensive snaps in a season.
Even so, Smith proved this past season he still has plenty of left in the tank, having finished with the 14th-highest PFF grade among linebackers. He is a veteran who knows how to win in the NFL and would be a fantastic leader in the locker room.
And as the Jets have many other needs outside of an off-ball linebacker, Smith will be much more inexpensive than Brown or Wright.
Next: 4. A longtime division foe
4. The NY Jets could target Kyle Van Noy
On March 2nd, the Miami Dolphins released starting linebacker Kyle Van Noy. This came just one year into Van Noy’s four-year, $51 million deal he signed last offseason with the team.
As one may expect, Van Noy is going to draw plenty of interest on the open market, and chances are the Jets will explore him as a possible addition.
A second-round pick back in the 2014 NFL Draft, the BYU product never worked out with the Detroit Lions. It was not until his second season with the New England Patriots that the 6-foot-3, 250-pound linebacker hit his stride.
From 2017-2019, Van Noy played all roles for Bill Belichick’s defense, starting 43-of-44 games played. He totaled 15.5 sacks, 34 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles, and 221 total tackles.
In his final season with the Patriots, Van Noy earned a career-high 84.2 grade from PFF, leading him to his massive deal with Miami.
Clearly, things did not work out between the two sides, as the Dolphins released him in order to clear up cap space. Due to the pandemic’s effect on the salary cap, this move comes as no surprise as every team making similar moves.
While Van Noy did take a step back in his first season out of Belichick’s defense since his Detroit days, he was still productive.
In 14 games, Van Noy posted 69 tackles, 10 being for a loss, as well as six sacks and two forced fumbles. Come seasons end, Van Noy had a 61.6 grade, ranking 26th among linebackers.
Van Noy will be 30-years-old in 2021 and has the versatility to play any spot in Saleh’s defense.
Next: 5. A high-reward option
5. The NY Jets could target Alex Anzalone
Lastly, we have another versatile linebacker in Alex Anzalone, who spends time in the box, along the defensive line, and even slot cornerback.
The former third-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints stands at 6-foot-3 and 241 pounds and has played all over the field for New Orleans.
The Florida product has never been viewed as a full-time starter by the Saints but started nine games this past season for New Orleans, most coming once Kwon Alexander got hurt. Nonetheless, Anzalone has produced when on the field.
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In four years in the pros, Anzalone has started 20 of his 38 games played. Anzalone has put up 123 total tackles with eight for a loss, four sacks, and three forced fumbles. He has also dealt with his fair share of injuries, finishing both his rookie and third seasons on injured reserve.
What Anzalone brings to the table is a leaner, athletic linebacker who excelled in coverage this past season. He is fantastic against tight ends, whereas in the run game he struggles. He also has proven he can get after the quarterback, though does not do so regularly.
For Anzalone, his upside lies in his coverage and whether or not he can stay healthy as he comes off of the best year of his career.
The clock is ticking until the start of the 2021 NFL year, and expect the Jets to attempt to make multiple additions to their linebacker corps during free agency.