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Jets set to begin major overhaul at linebacker position

With free agency approaching (March 9), we're analyzing the biggest needs on the New York Jets' roster, examining possible upgrades:

Position: Linebacker

2016 cap hits of top returnees (rank/average per year):

Pending free agents: Demario Davis, Calvin Pace, Erin Henderson, Jamari Lattimore.

Key stat: The linebacking corps contributed only 14.5 of the team's 39 sacks. The Jets were a middle-of-the-road team in terms of sack production, finishing 18th in sacks per dropback (5.8 percent).

Money matters: As you can plainly see, there isn't a whole lot of money invested in the linebackers. Harris' salary is fully guaranteed, the last of the guaranteed money he received in last year's contract.

Big picture: Can you say "overhaul"? The linebacking corps, which for years was known for its continuity, figures to have three new starters by opening day. Harris, 32, will return for his 10th season, a "glue" player who runs the defense. Davis, demoted late in the season, is expected to move on. He will hit the open market, and the Jets don't seem eager to bring him back. He could be replaced by Henderson, a cheaper alternative. The Jets hope Mauldin, limited to pass-rushing duty as a rookie, can develop into an every-down player on the outside. As for the other outside slot, it's anybody's guess. Pace, 35, could return down the line for a minimum-salary contract, but the preference is to get younger. Defensive end Mike Catapano can contribute as a pass-rushing specialist, but the Jets need to bring in a hold-the-fort starter until the heir apparent is ready. That heir apparent probably will come via the draft.

Free-agent market watch: Outside: Bruce Irvin, Tamba Hali, Mike Neal, Nick Perry, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron. Inside: James Laurinaitis, Donald Butler, Derrick Johnson, DeMeco Ryans, Darryl Smith, Rolando McClain.

The game plan: Clearly, this is a top draft priority, but it would be wise to address it before then. Ideally, they should sign two low-to-moderately-priced free agents (one inside, one outside) to short-term contracts -- stopgaps. What, did you expect Von Miller? Upshaw doesn't sack the quarterback, but he could be a cost-effective run-stopper. Perry is an interesting possibility. He never lived up to his first-round draft status with Green Bay, but he made 3.5 sacks in the most recent postseason. Chances are, they will wait until after the first wave of free agency, looking for bargains.