Last offseason the Jets were one of the NFL’s biggest spenders in free agency, rolling out almost $135 million in contracts to 23 players across 9 different positions. The majority of that money went toward the wide receiver and defensive end positions, with a little bit extra spent across the offensive line and secondary.
One area in which they spent very little in was the linebacking room, where former Lion Jarrad Davis received a one-year, $5.5 million contract in what was hopeful to be a “prove-it” deal. Change your scenery, reclaim the hype you once had flashed, and a new and pretty contract will be waiting for you on the other end.
The former first-rounder did not rediscover his potential, and with little else to show amongst the unit, it is yet again another need an offseason later. While Davis was a flop, not every linebacker signed that offseason was.
Denzel Perryman, another free agent that year, received $6 million to play in a similar defense in Las Vegas and flashed as a top-25 linebacker in the sport. His $6 million was also spread across two years. Kyle Van Noy, another free agent, returned to New England at $6 million a year two seasons and graded out as the 16th-best linebacker in football.
Anthony Walker Jr. was given $3 million to play in Cleveland’s defense and was the fifth-best linebacker in pass coverage, and Kwon Alexander was given just over $1 million to be the 16th-best linebacker in pass coverage. All were gambles, but only the Jets dealer hit 21. Now they’re in the search for linebacker help again.
Fortunately for New York, I feel a bit better about this crop than the group from a year ago. It features a 2021 All-Pro at the top in De’Vondre Campbell from the Packers, a young former Pro-Bowler in Leighton Vander Esch, and then a mix of old Pro-Bowlers, solid starters and another crop of “prove-it” deal guys.
They may try to splurge on one of the more expensive options, but the need to bring in high quality players at expensive positions like cornerback, safety, wide receiver and tight end may push that likelihood aside. It might be risky for the Jets to dip their toes into the “prove-it” pool two years in a row, but let’s discuss some of the hotter names if that does end up being the plan of attack.
Kyzir White, Los Angeles Chargers
My top option for the Jets this offseason is a three-down, young linebacker who is begging to enter his prime years over the next two seasons. Kyzir White has been terrific for the Chargers the last two seasons, and was a top-20 guy at the position in 2021.
Effective in all three phases, White is typically best in pass coverage but can easily hold his own when it comes to stopping the run and getting to the quarterback — earning a top-30 grade in all three. He missed a few games during the 2020 season, but was available all seasons in-between and starting all 17 this past year.
He needs some open lanes in order to be effective in the run, as blockers manhandle him in the run game, but the hope is that someday the Jets defensive line can make life easier for the linebacker corp. Since his responsibilities will primarily be in coverage, this isn’t something that worries me too much when it pertains to putting pen to the paper.
There would be a small learning curve for White, bringing him into a defensive scheme that isn’t identical to the 3-4 base the Chargers ran last year, but the traits he offers in the pass game while still being a capable run defender make him a noteworthy asset. White will probably be the most expensive of the options mentioned today, but that three-down capability is hard to come by in this class and shouldn’t be passed up.
Anthony Walker Jr., Cleveland Browns
Maybe the Jets should try and catch him the second time around. After not signing the athletic, speedy linebacker an offseason ago he was very productive in Joe Woods defense for the Cleveland Browns last year. Woods, a Joe Douglas disciple from their days in San Francisco, uses his linebackers in a very similar way that Douglas does and his familiarity with the system should make for an easy transition in New York.
The downside with Walker Jr. is his lack of use on early downs. He has not performed well against the run and blockers hold well against his smaller frame. However, every team he’s played for — the Colts and the Browns — have really applauded his intelligence and ability to cover in space. Having someone who can learn quick and assist as another coach to the rest of the group can go a long way in developing the younger guys on the unit.
He won’t be a three-down player at the position, but Walker Jr. would be an extremely helpful boost to this linebacker group and really excel in pass coverage — something none of the Jets backers did this past season.
Jayon Brown, Tennessee Titans
Jayon Brown is essentially the higher risk, higher reward version of Walker Jr. He’s been one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL over the last four seasons, is freaky athletic and does a great job getting his hands on the football. On the flipside, just as with Walker Jr., he cannot shed blocks and is on the losing side of too many plays in the run game.
While Walker Jr. has only missed a few games over the last few seasons due to one hamstring injury, Brown has missed time in each of the last three seasons with various injuries to his hamstring, knee, elbow, groin and shoulder.
The worry that his body won’t last a full season is real, but the payoff if it does is a player that is one of the league’s best at a valuable position. League offenses are littered with playmakers that are trying to expose the middle of NFL defenses, and having a linebacker that can thrive in coverage would be a massive upgrade for a Jets defense that had one of worst, if not the worst, units in football.
If the Jets feel comfortable with the medicals, Brown will catch the Jets as he starts to enter some of his final prime years and be a big addition to the pass defense at the linebacker position.
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