Camp Countdown '09: Linebackers
The beginning of any linebacker discussion begins with 2nd year pro Vernon Gholston. To say Gholston’s rookie year was disappointing might be the understatement of the year. Gholston is a terrific athlete with great strength, but was absolutely lost trying to play in the NFL last season. He was inactive for one game and in the few chances he had to play he looked ridiculously bad. The Jets have 20 million dollars invested in Gholston and they need to find a way to make him rush the passer this season. Camp reports were not great. Rex Ryan has tried to put a good spin on Gholston’s offseason but most reports have had Gholston looking below average at best. Most everyone seems to have the same opinion that they had last season - Gholston looks lost. If he can not do it this year it is unlikely that he will have much of a future in New York.
What makes the development of Gholston even more crucial is the 4 game suspension handed down to starting OLB Calvin Pace for the use of a banned substance. Pace has the ability to be the teams best pass rusher. At times last year he showed the ability to get into the backfield and stuff the play, but has yet to be a consistent force, a knock that he also had in Arizona. He was not helped by the previous staff forcing him to drop into coverage so often either. The teams other outside linebacker, Bryan Thomas, should be a starter by default. Thomas never recaptured that 2006 form that earned him his extension with the Jets, but he knows he is likely playing to remain on the team in 2010 and perhaps that lights a fire under him. He is a decent complementary player, but in an ideal world might be best suited to split time with other players. Two players who could sneak into the teams plans at OLB this year are Marques Murrell and UDFA Jamaal Westerman. Murrell had an outstanding 2008 preseason and played in a few regular season games and was also a special teams contributor. Ryan named him as one of the top performers of camp. Westerman opened eyes during minicamp as he made the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker. He was said to be much more impressive and more natural at picking up the nuances of the position than Gholston. If Westerman can show a knack for getting after the QB in training camp he could find his way into the rotation especially with Pace serving a suspension.
The Jets big free agent splash of 2009 came at the ILB position as Ryan decided to break the bank for former Raven Bart Scott. From day 1, Scott is the player that Ryan wanted to be his on field leader. Scott is extremely energetic and very talkative, sometimes too talkative, and will be asked to provide the defense with an identity. The Jets have not really had a presence like this in a long time and if Scott truly can fill that role he will be worth the money. As a player Scott is good and very versatile. He is just as able in run support as he is in pass coverage. In the past he has shown an ability to get after the QB as well. He has never been a 100 tackle type player, but now that he emerges out of Ray Lewis’ shadow he will get the chance to prove he can be one. The Jets will have made out very well if that is the case. David Harris who showed so much promise in 2007 took a step back in 2008 as a number of injuries plagued him right from the start of camp. Harris’ numbers were down in the games he played and more importantly his impact plays were way down from 2007. Harris is a big hitter who made plays behind the line of scrimmage as a rookie. If he really is that kind of player he should excel in the Ryan defense. The Jets will be looking at two players in particular to be ready to jump into the games in the event of injury. Jason Trusnik showed something in the final game of the season when finally given significant playing time. He’ll be competing for minutes. Kenwinn Cummings made the team out of camp in 2008, before being placed on the practice squad. Cummings has a good head on his shoulders and the organization was high on him last year. He was one of the few Jets to be given a three year futures contract, which shows how much the team values him. Other names trying out for the team include Brandon Renkart, who spent a good deal of time on the practice squad last season, Craig Kobel, who has been trying to catch on in the NFL since 2004, and late UDFA signing Brock Christopher. None are likely to make the team.
Rex Ryan’s defense is going to give the linebackers much more freedom than Eric Mangini’s defense. Players will be asked to go after the QB much more and be aggressive right from the start. Even with the Pace suspension this is a good unit of players. The team should be very strong on the inside and many players will get their chance to shine on the outside. If Gholston can get it all figured out, and that is a huge if, the Jets would have, on paper, one of the better groups in the league. Gholston is the one player that does have potential to be a double digit sack guy that makes life miserable on the opposition and would bring a different dimension to the team if he ever realized that potential. The Jets may be in a position where a decision on that realization is made in camp. If they simply hand him Pace’s job and he is terrible the Jets will be throwing four weeks away and in the NFL you cant just throw four weeks away on an incompetent player. If the Jets have to use a two or three man rotation to get the most competent play then that is what the team should do regardless of contract money. Expect some shaky beginnings at the start of the year for this unit, but by week 5 or 6 they should be in full stride and everyone will have an idea of just how good the players and the scheme are.