Camp Countdown '08: Linebackers
The Jets were extremely active in the 2008 offseason addressing what was the most disappointing unit on the defense in 2007. Gone are former starters Jonathan Vilma and Victor Hobson, while the remaining veterans, Bryan Thomas and David Bowens, will likely see their minutes reduced in favor of Calvin Pace, who the Jets broke the bank to bring in via free agency, and the number 6 overall pick in the draft, Vernon Gholston. It will be a fascinating battle between Gholston and Thomas in training camp. Gholston is a physical marvel that the fans will be pulling for to start from week 1. Gholston has shown tremendous ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage in college, but there will be concerns as to how consistent a player he can be in the NFL. Thomas broke out in 2006 moving from defensive end to outside linebacker, receiving a nice new contract for his play, but was nearly invisible in 2007. His contract makes him nearly uncuttable, but the moves the team made speaks volumes as to how he is viewed in their future plans. Dave Bowens, who played much better as the 2007 season came to an end, will try to get his name in the mix as well. Bowens renegotiated a deal with the Jets in early 2008 which should secure him a roster spot in September. He can also play DE in a 43 alignment and knows he is playing for a new deal in 2009. He will mainly be used in 3rd down situations. The Jets picked up Marques Murrell in the middle of the season last year to also play outside and he will have to convince the Jets he is a better player than Bowens if he wants to make the team. They both bring the same positives into the equation, but Bowens is a proven commodity while Murrell is not.
The lone bright spot last season was the emergence of ILB David Harris who became the tackling terror the team had been missing. Harris brings an intensity and physical presence lacking in the interior. Playing next to him could be one of many players. Eric Barton, the incumbent starter, has the natural instincts to play the position, but makes many costly mistakes from time to time. He is due to make well over 3 million dollars in 2008 which makes him a prime candidate to be released if he loses his starting job. Brad Kassell has had opportunities to start for the team and has not stood out as an everydown player. Kassell is a special teams standout and received a new contract, so he is a safe bet to make the team. Matt Chatham is a favorite of the coach but has yet to excel in any role on the Jets since coming over from New England. With a salary of $730,000 he could go this year as could Cody Spencer, another player who has done little except special teams the last few years. Jason Trusnik makes a small amount of money and can provide the same services as the higher priced Spencer and Chatham.
How many linebackers the Jets choose to carry is the question. In the last two years the Jets have not carried more than three players set to play the outside, but the OLB rotation would seem to be set with Pace, Thomas, Gholston, and Bowens meaning 4 will make the squad. Thomas will most likely get the starting nod, but it would not be surprising if he finds himself coming off the bench midway through the season. It is hard to picture Murrell making the team over Bowens, but that is his only avenue to make the team.
If the Jets carry 4 OLBís the ILB number should be cut down to 4, so it will be a battle to make the team this year. It would seem the team would like to move away from Barton, but the options look limited. One interesting thought that has been rumored is the switch of Thomas or Bowens from the outside to the inside position. If we see that in camp it will likely mean that Bartonís days are numbered as a member of gang green. With Harris being set it becomes a competition between Barton, Kassell, Chatham, Spencer, and Trusnik for three spots. If the Jets carry five players to work the interior its likely because nobody has laid claim to any job other than Barton and the team wants to keep their options open for a few weeks. Barton, Kassell and Trusnik are the guys who will have the inside track to make the team in 2008 to fill out the ILB position.