This is the sixth in a series of stories reviewing the Jets' 2007 season and previewing 2008, position by position.
Eric Barton has been an oak in the Jets' shifting linebacker landscape.
But even a venerable old oak might shake a little bit as the winds of change whip through its branches.
"This is my 10th year coming up — you can't play forever," said Barton, who indeed will reach double-digit seasons in his NFL career and is already a thirtysomething when it comes to birthdays. "Who knows when it's going to end or anything like that? More than that, I appreciate just being around the guys more than anything day to day."
However, some of the guys have changed positions and others have changed teams since Barton came over from the Oakland Raiders for the 2004 season. In shifting to a 3-4 base front with the arrival of head coach Eric Mangini in 2006, Bryan Thomas joined the two-point-stance group. Victor Hobson played the outside LB spot opposite B.T. for the two Mangini seasons but is now a Patriot.
On the inside, Jonathan Vilma missed the second half of last season with a knee injury and in March went marching to the Saints. And that meant the emergence of rookie David Harris on the inside.
That move occurred in effect in the yard next door to Barton's ILB berth, the one he's held (except for the last 13 games of '05 when he was injured) since he arrived.
"It's going to be different — since I've been here, Jonathan's been here," Barton reflected on the March trade. "He's a great friend of mine. Of course I miss him being around. I'm sure he'll do well now in New Orleans, and we'll keep going. David's great."
Harris has the look of a young, mighty mainstay in the Jets defense. Replacing Vilma in the starting lineup in Game 8 against Buffalo, all the Michigan rookie did was
* Register five sacks, the most by a Jets inside LB since Bryan Cox had 5.5 in 2000;
* Notch 117 tackles to become the first rookie since Stan Blinka in 1979 to lead the Jets in tackles (Barton had more tackles by coaches' video breakdown than Vilma in 2004);
* Call all the defensive signals (with guidance from Barton) for the last nine games.
"I think the sky's the limit for David," Barton said. "The future's in his hands. Working hard, practicing hard, things that he does, I don't think that's a problem. He's a great player, a great kid. He wants to be good. He always wants to know everyone else's assignments. That's what you like, to play next to a guy who feels responsible not just for himself."
Barton also saw the new additions on the outside, the arrival of transplanted veteran Calvin Pace from Arizona as an unrestricted free agent and the planting of draft sapling Vernon Gholston with the sixth pick of Saturday's first round.
"Adding those two guys, if they work hard and learn the defenses, they'll do nothing but help the team," he said. "Everybody's looking forward to getting started and helping the young guys progress as players."
Needless to say, the progress out of the box must be better than it was in 2006 and '07, when the defense in general struggled the first half of the season at stopping the run, rushing the quarterback and preventing points, then improved markedly in the second halves of both seasons.
The linebackers definitely suffered from that two-halves syndrome. One stat captures one aspect of the group's downs and ups: In the first eight games of '06-07 combined, the Jets' LBs managed 9.5 sacks. In the last eight games of both seasons, the total jumped to 23.5.
"You're always analyzing those things," Mangini said at the end of the season about the defense's Jekyll/Hyde nature, "and I thought we had some good things leading into the season that were going to be effective and they were not as effective as we anticipated."
"We want to keep putting pressure on QBs," Barton said, adding with a laugh, "We're playing hard together, but we need to do that a little earlier this year and correct that."
The new landscape looks different, promising even. Mangini won't deviate from his one-game-at-a-time, last-season-has-no-bearing-on-this-season approach, but Barton, who was a win away from a Super Bowl championship with the Raiders in 2002, has thought some about rings, and not the kind you can count if you cut him open in a few years after he's left the game.
"Obviously, the reason you play this game is for that ring," he said. "I think back to how hard it was to get there. It's not an easy task, and the ball has to bounce your way a couple of times. I'm hungry to get back to that situation, and maybe if I ever get there again, the outcome will be different."
But first things first. The Jets linebackers have more landscaping ahead of them this off-season. And they need to bark well before the bye this time around.