Out of all the positions on the defense, the New York Jets’ linebackers could be one of the most significant factors this season
The defensive line is one of the most talented and deep groups in the league, featuring a versatile group of players that can serve in any situation. Sauce Gardner, D.J. Reed, and Michael Carter II form arguably the best cornerback trio in the NFL. Training camp standout Tony Adams is helping to solidify the safety room.
While things are trending up for most of the defensive units, one position group still has some uncertainty: the linebackers.
At the top of the depth chart is C.J. Mosley. A Pro Bowler and second-team All-Pro in 2022, Mosley is the leader of the Jets’ defense and contributed positively in both phases last season. In 2022, the veteran linebacker had 115 solo tackles and 43 assists, adding two sacks, an interception, and six pass breakups. Mosley also allowed a passer rating of just 83.0 on throws in his direction, ranking eighth-best among 60 qualified linebackers.
Mosley is considered the stabilizing force in the Jets’ linebacker room, both as a leader and from a production standpoint. The other linebacker positions are where there is not as much certainty.
The other projected starters are Quincy Williams and Jamien Sherwood. Williams is poised to be the Jets’ second every-down linebacker alongside Mosley. Sherwood projects to fill in for Kwon Alexander as the Jets’ rotational third linebacker, playing around half of the snaps.
Williams was signed to a three-year, $18 million extension this offseason and is heading into his third season with the Jets. Quinnen’s younger brother is coming off his best season, as he had career-highs of 50 defensive stops (T-17th among LB), 12 tackles for loss (3rd), and three sacks. The Murray State product is at his best when able to play fast and freely. Williams’s speed allows him to deliver big hits and fly in for pressures when blitzing.
However, there is a downside to this play style. Williams tends to miss a lot of tackles, as he has 31 in his two seasons with the Jets. In 2022, his 17 missed tackles tied for the 10th-most among linebackers. And while he has improved each year in coverage, Williams still struggles in this facet of the game when targeted. In 2022, he allowed a 103.8 passer rating, ranking 45th out of 60 qualified linebackers.
Sherwood, a converted safety, was drafted by the Jets out of Auburn in the fifth round of the 2021 draft. The Jets have spent the past few seasons developing Sherwood under the tutelage of Mosley.
In only 25 defensive snaps last season, Sherwood showed promise as he amassed 10 tackles and a half-sack.
The Jets, who let Kwon Alexander walk this offseason, trust Sherwood to fill in the post vacated by the veteran. He has shown flashes in both games and practices, but it remains to be seen if Sherwood can be relied upon as a starter.
On top of some uncertainty with the starters, the Jets’ depth at linebacker is a significant concern. The team has Zaire Barnes and Chazz Surratt, among others, competing for the fourth linebacker spot behind the starters mentioned above. Barnes is a sixth-round selection from the 2023 NFL draft, while Surratt is a third-year player who was chosen by Minnesota in the third round of the 2021 draft.
Up to this point of the preseason, some of the questions have begun to be answered. Sherwood has played at a high level in both practice and games; he forced a fumble against Cleveland and has been a solid contributor in defending the pass and run. Through three games, Sherwood has made seven tackles over 45 defensive snaps and is yet to miss a tackle.
Barnes and Surratt have shown glimpses of top-tier athleticism, but both players carry concerns. Barnes leads the Jets with four missed tackles this preseason and also allowed a touchdown reception into his coverage against Cleveland. Surratt shined with an interception against the Browns but missed the next two games with a hamstring injury.
While their importance is sometimes overlooked, the Jets’ linebackers are vital in allowing the team’s defense to function at its highest level. Because of the Jets’ dynamic duo at cornerback and the deep rotation they have along the defensive line, teams will use quick passes to attack the middle of the field.
As a result, the linebackers will need to be at least average in coverage and very reliable as tacklers. Without this level of production, offenses will be able to drag out drives and prevent the Jets’ defense from getting into favorable situations to attack.
The linebackers are an underrated factor for the Jets in 2023. They could either elevate the overall defensive unit or hold it back.