Connor Hughes at USA Today reported earlier this week that the Jets have a clear strategy for moving on at the inside linebacker position. They reportedly are planning on bringing back E.J. Henderson, who came to the Jets on a one year deal last offseason after sitting out the entire 2014 campaign due to legal issues. This means that GM Mike Maccagnan is willing to let Demario Davis hit the free agent market.
This move may be surprising, as Davis was a valuable young piece in two seasons under Rex Ryan, amassing 223 tackles during that span. He was seen as the eventual heir apparent to the middle of the Jets defense behind the aging David Harris. However, after starting the year at middle linebacker Davis’s lack of speed began to be exposed in Todd Bowles’s defense.
Bowles often asks his linebackers to play man coverage when he blitzes, using the defensive backs to check receivers and tight ends and asking whichever linebacker isn’t blitzing to cover the running back. Both Harris and Davis struggled mightily with this task, such as on this play when Davis is beaten cleanly by Eagles back Darren Sproles:
This would prove to be especially troublesome in Week 7 against the New England Patriots. New England would consistently motion a running back out wide, forcing Davis to play out of position, where he was consistently exposed. This lack of ability to play man coverage lead to the dwindling of Davis’ playing time.
By the middle of the season, Henderson and Davis were splitting playing time, rotating each series. Henderson truly began to shine towards the end of the season, recording 34 tackles during the 5-1 stretch the Jets had to finish their season. Brought on has a high upside special teams player, he worked his way into a starting job and earned himself a new contract.
While Henderson’s age (he is 30, while Davis is only 27), is of some concern, his time off from the league and high production at the end of the year make him a valuable piece of Todd Bowles’s blitz-happy defense. On the other hand, Davis has likely reached his ceiling, and his lack of speed makes him a disposable asset on a team that already employs lumbering physical backers in Harris and Calvin Pace. Henderson has the speed to be a valuable sideline to sideline player behind the stacked Jets defensive line.
Assuming the Jets are able to get a deal done with Henderson (he has expressed interest in returning to New York), they will enter training camp with both starting inside linebackers over the age of 30. It is likely, then that they will turn to the draft for a long term solution in the second day of the draft. Scooby Wright of Arizona and Tyler Matakevich of Temple are two early prospects to keep an eye on for the Jets to tap, though much is likely to change throughout Combine and pro day workouts.