While the Jets have been stockpiling quarterbacks, they have quietly used the draft to dramatically alter their landscape at linebacker.
"In the long-term, the draft is how we have to build the team and in a perfect world re-sign our own and then augment what we need by pro free agency," said GM Mike Maccagnan following his second draft with New York's AFC representative.
It started last year in the third round when the Jets selected Louisville product Lorenzo Mauldin, an explosive rusher with a non-stop motor. While he racked up four sacks last season playing mostly in sub situations, the Jets expect Mauldin to take a leap in Year 2.
"He got better as the year went on. As he got comfortable, he started to show his personality and (was) letting his game speak a little bit more," said head coach Todd Bowles at the NFL's owners meetings in March. "In Year 2, we expect him to make a big jump as far as being a full-time player at outside 'backer. If he comes in shape that way, we'll sit down and have that talk. But I expect Mauldin to be a major player this year."
A year after adding Mauldin, the Jets again addressed the OLB position in the third round with the selection of Georgia product Jordan Jenkins. A three-year starter for the Bulldogs, the 6'3", 259-pound Jenkins is considered an excellent edge-setter, and he uses his long arms and strong hands to fend off blockers to get upfield.
The Jets Selected ILB Darron Lee, QB Christian Hackenberg, OLB Jordan Jenkins, CB Juston Burris, OL Brandon Shell, P Lachlan Edwards & WR Charone Peake in the 2016 NFL Draft.
"Jenkins is a solid linebacker," Bowles said. "He's gritty, tough, has heavy hands, a great work ethic and we just look forward to him coming in and competing."
Seemingly a perfect candidate to play the Sam 'backer over the tight end, Jenkins can also line up and play the Will as well. The Bulldogs defensive MVP in 2015 was a co-captain who finished with 59 total tackles while adding 10.5 tackles for loss.
"He'll make a slight transition to what we do in the NFL and that's as a 3-4 outside linebacker. But we really liked him as a person, character from an intangible standpoint and as a player on the field," added GM Mike Maccagnan. "And I think he will be a good addition to us on the outside."
Jenkins won't be handed a starting job. The Jets have built depth on the outside as Trevor Reilly and Mike Catapano are set to return and Freddie Bishop, a CFL transplant who racked up 11 sacks last season with the Calgary Stampeders, is an intriguing prospect as well.
"We have Bishop, we have Reilly, we have Catapano," Bowles said. "We have a bunch of guys at that position as well, so we increased the competition and the best guy is going to play."
After re-signing Erin Henderson and adding versatile veteran Bruce Cater in pro free agency, the Jets stuck to their best player available mantra in the first round and landed perhaps the most versatile linebacker in the entire draft class. Darron Lee, a second-team AP All-American in 2015, collected 27.5 tackles for loss along with 12 sacks in 28 starts at Ohio State.
"He's going to start as an inside linebacker, probably the 'Mo' position that Demario (Davis) held," Bowles said. "Probably behind Erin and he'll play some packages and work his way in. And as it gets going and as he learns the system, he'll probably end up being a three-down 'backer."
In the Jets' defense, David Harris will continue to patrol the middle of the field at the Mike position and take on the play at the line of scrimmage. The "Mo" backer will be allowed room to roam, make plays sideline—to—sideline and be asked to cover more.
"We felt very fortunate that Lee fell to us in the first round. He was a player we liked quite a bit, he fits what we're trying to do," Maccagnan said. "I know there was some talk about that initially, but we are a very big and strong and powerful defense. We're trying to become a little bit more athletic and to complement that aspect of it. And Lee will be a good addition in that role, at the 'Mo' linebacker."
Lee, who said he weighed around 237 pounds last weekend, is a prototypical linebacker in today's NFL. With teams favoring spread looks while increasing the tempo, Lee is a counter that will give the Jets more flexibility. And on the outside, don't expect the Jets to keep adding depth when opportunities arise.
"Generally those positions transition from different positons in college like Mauldin for example really was a defensive end until his last year in college. And Jenkins plays both in a two and a three-point stance, so he plays a little bit of both depending on what front they're in," Maccagnan said. "But both those guys are guys we liked and were quite happy to get. And again going forward, we'll probably try to stockpile that position through the draft."