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Jets offseason preview: Linebackers

With the NFL scouting combine (Feb. 17-23) and free agency (March 10) approaching, we take a position-by-position look at the New York Jets as they head into the offseason:

Position: Linebacker

2014 snaps:

Key stat: The linebackers took some criticism for their pass coverage, but the numbers show it wasn't all that bad -- at least in the context of running-back receptions. The Jets allowed 68 catches, the fifth-fewest total in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The yardage total (504) was seventh in the league.

Pending free agents: Harris (unrestricted), Nick Bellore (unrestricted), Jermaine Cunningham (unrestricted).

2015 cap hits (position rank):

  • Coples: $2.8 million (No. 57)

  • Pace: $2.25 million

  • Davis: $1.7 million

  • Babin: $1.625 million

  • Mario Harvey: $660,000

  • Enemkpali: $529,670

  • Reilly: $524,212

  • Chris Young: $435,000

Money matters: Pace and Babin each have a $250,000 option bonus before the start of the league year, March 10. We're not talking big money, but the issue is whether the new regime wants to start with a linebacking corps that includes a couple of 34-year-olds. The Jets have until early May to exercise the fifth-year option for Coples, a former first-round pick. It was a no-brainer last year with Muhammad Wilkerson, but Coples (16.5 sacks in three seasons) hasn't performed at an elite level. For players picked 11th to 32nd (Coples was 16th in 2012), the fifth-year salary would be the average salary of players ranked third to 25th in salary for that position. Figure it'll be about $7 million, last year's number for an outside linebacker in that draft-pick range. The salary is guaranteed for injury as soon as the option is exercised. It's a tough call for the Jets, who might opt to decline in an effort to increase Coples' motivation.

Big picture: The top story involves Harris, who will be a free agent for the first time in his career. He has said he'd like to finish his career in New York, but the coaching-staff change could impact his future. Rex Ryan's system was heavily reliant on linebackers, especially Harris, who played the "Mike" position, called the defensive signals and never came off the field. Ryan stayed in base personnel for 587 snaps last season, third-highest in the league. In Arizona, Todd Bowles played most of the time in sub packages, replacing linebackers with defensive backs. In fact, he played a league-high 569 snaps in dime personnel. If he adopts the same philosophy with the Jets, it could minimize the value of the inside linebackers. Bottom line: Harris is a good player and it would hurt to lose him. The question is whether the new regime will pay to keep him. If he hits the open market, there is a good chance he will sign elsewhere, perhaps reuniting with Ryan in Buffalo.

The pass rush was fairly effective last season -- they ranked third in sacks per dropback -- but the Jets need more production from their edge rushers. Coples, Pace, and Babin combined for only 13.5 sacks. There are a few highly rated rushers in the draft who could be available with the sixth pick -- Shane Ray, Randy Gregory and Dante Fowler Jr. There are some free agents, too, that would make sense if the Jets are willing to invest big money.

Free-agent market watch: Pending free agents include Justin Houston, Jerry Hughes, Pernell McPhee, Brian Orakpo, Brooks Reed, Sean Weatherspoon, and Jason Worilds.