Pinpointing the exact ranking of the New York Jets’ linebacker unit in 2022
On Thursday, I published an article that ranked all 32 safety units in the NFL.
My goal with the study was to quantify how the New York Jets‘ safety unit performed relative to the rest of the safety units in the league. Most observers already agreed the Jets’ safeties were a problem, but I wanted to verify that while also pinpointing a specific ranking so we could get an idea of exactly what type of an impact the Jets’ safeties made.
The results of the study revealed the Jets’ safety unit was certainly as much of a liability as it seemed to be. New York’s safety unit ranked 28th.
This got me curious about other positions. So, I decided to do the same study for the linebacker position.
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People seem to have a wide range of opinions on the quality of the Jets’ linebacker unit in 2022. Some observers loved the unit and others think it is a gaping weakness that needs just as much help as the safety unit.
The avid supporters of this unit have some solid evidence on their side. C.J. Mosley was a Pro Bowler and a second-team All-Pro while Quincy Williams and Kwon Alexander put together an impressive reel of eye-popping plays throughout the course of the year. The trio stayed very durable, playing 49 out of 51 possible games. On a weekly basis throughout the season, it felt like all three players were consistently making big plays in timely spots for one of the best-performing defenses in the NFL.
The critics of this unit primarily point to its weaknesses in coverage. They believe the Jets’ linebackers were exposed too often in underneath coverage, allowing running backs and tight ends to do too much damage – especially late in the season. Mosley is also commonly pegged as an overrated player who is not nearly as good as his accolades.
Let’s find out which side is closer to being correct.
I chose five different metrics for evaluating linebacker play (the same metrics I used in the study for safeties) and ranked all 32 linebacker units in each of them. I then ranked all 32 linebacker units based on their average ranking across the five categories.
Here are the five metrics I chose:
- Missed tackle rate
- Yards per target allowed
- Stop rate
- Touchdown/interception margin
- Snaps per penalty
All stats are via Pro Football Focus.
Time to hop into it.
Missed tackle rate
Formula: Missed Tackles / (Missed Tackles + Tackles)
- Jets linebackers: 11.7% (21st)
- League average for linebackers: 10.5%
The Jets’ linebackers were below average at finishing tackles, although they weren’t terrible.
C.J. Mosley was a reliable finisher, recording a miss rate of 8.7% (22nd-best out of 60 qualified LB). Quincy Williams and Kwon Alexander whiffed more often than would be ideal. Williams had a miss rate of 14.0% (51st of 60) and Alexander had a miss rate of 13.4% (48th).
Yards per target allowed
Formula: Yards Allowed / Targets
- Jets linebackers: 6.8 (6th)
- League average for linebackers: 7.6
Despite the criticisms of their play in coverage, the Jets’ linebackers were actually quite good at preventing yardage on a per-target basis. They did a solid job of keeping things in front of them and not allowing any big plays to break through.
All three of the Jets’ primary linebackers were above average in this category. Williams allowed 6.6 yards per target (17th of 60), Mosley allowed 6.7 yards per target (19th of 60), and Alexander allowed 7.3 yards per target (29th of 60).
Formula: Defensive Stops / Defensive Snaps
- Jets linebackers: 5.32% (7th)
- League average for linebackers: 4.82%
Matching up with their apparent knack for making big plays, the Jets’ linebacker unit was one of the league’s most efficient at collecting “defensive stops”, which PFF defines as “tackles that constitute a ‘failure’ for the offense”. In other words, these are tackles that go for short gains on first or second down or a tackle short of the sticks on third/fourth down.
Williams is the primary catalyst here. He tied for 17th among linebackers with 50 stops despite placing 36th in defensive snaps with 792. This gives him a stop rate of 6.31%, which ranked eighth-best out of 60 qualifiers.
Mosley ranked 40th with a 4.58% rate (51 stops on 1,113 snaps) while Alexander ranked 41st with a 4.48% rate (25 stops on 558 snaps).
I think this undersells Alexander, though. As we broke down in our analysis of the Jets’ 2022 run defense, Alexander provided stellar off-the-stat-sheet production against the run. He helped stuff a lot of runs in which he did not receive statistical credit for a tackle or defensive stop.
One of the best parts of Kwon's game is how aggressively he takes on blocks. He loves to lead his shoulder into the blocker and give him a good shot. Rarely gets moved an inch by a block
Kwon helped stuff so many runs by eating blocks to clog lanes – often getting no stat credit pic.twitter.com/h6XT4wPRHj
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) January 25, 2023
Formula: Touchdowns – Interceptions
- Jets linebackers: +2 (16th)
- League average for linebacker units: +2.5
The Jets’ linebackers allowed 3 touchdowns into their coverage while recording 1 interception (+2). The league averages for linebacker units were 4.2 touchdowns and 1.7 interceptions (+2.5).
So, the Jets’ linebackers were effective at keeping the ball out of the end zone, but they probably should have gotten at least one more interception.
Mosley recorded the lone interception. Williams allowed 2 touchdowns while Mosley allowed 1. Alexander did not allow any touchdowns.
Snaps per penalty
Formula: Defensive Snaps / Defensive Penalties
- Jets linebackers: 426.2 (24th)
- League average for linebacker units: 545.4
The Jets’ linebackers committed 6 penalties on 2,557 snaps, an average of one penalty every 426.2 snaps that ranked ninth-worst.
Mosley was the main culprit here. He tied for fourth among linebackers with four penalties. There were 16 teams whose entire linebacker unit committed fewer than four penalties. In fact, the league-average linebacker unit committed exactly 4.0 penalties.
Playing 1,113 defensive snaps, Mosley committed one penalty every 278.3 snaps. Mosley had two unnecessary roughness penalties, one illegal contact penalty, and, worst of all, an unforgivable fourth-and-1 encroachment penalty in Buffalo that turned a punt into a touchdown drive.
Williams had two penalties on 792 snaps, which isn’t ideal (one every 396.0 snaps). Most notably, Williams was called for a horse collar tackle in Miami that directly set up a game-winning field goal, putting the Dolphins in the playoffs and knocking the Steelers out. Williams also had a pass interference penalty against Cleveland.
Alexander stayed clean with zero penalties over 558 snaps.
Here is how all 32 linebacker units stack up when sorted according to their average ranking across the five aforementioned categories:
The Jets finished with an average ranking of 14.8 across the five categories, which placed 13th out of 32 linebacker units.
It appears the Jets’ linebackers were slightly better than average. They were not detrimental, but they also were not a major strength, leaving room for improvement. Overall, though, the linebacker unit seemed to be a small positive for the Jets’ defense.
Williams and Alexander are set to become free agents. In my simple offseason plan for the Jets’ defense, I proposed New York should aim to bring both players back.
I think the results of this study support that proposal.
The Jets will be focusing most of their limited resources this offseason on the quarterback and offensive line positions. They will not have the assets needed to improve upon a 13th-ranked linebacker unit. If I were Joe Douglas, I’d happily settle for giving it another go with the 13th-ranked linebacker unit.
Come 2024, once Mosley is likely released and the Jets have hopefully settled themselves on the offensive side of the ball, then the Jets can swing big at linebacker, searching for an elite stud at the position to replace Mosley and take this unit from good to great.
For now, though, I believe the Jets’ best course of action would be to maintain continuity with a unit that proved it can play at a competent level in 2022, holding its own within a top-5 overall defense.
Would you agree?