<
>

Jets need pass-rushing linebacker, but where are they hiding?

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

Position: Linebacker

2017 cap hits of top returnees:

Pending free agents: Erin Henderson, Bruce Carter, Mike Catapano, Corey Lemonier, Josh Martin.

Key stat: The pass coverage needs to improve -- by a lot. When using a 3-4 alignment, the Jets allowed a 73 percent completion rate, four touchdown passes, one interception and a 120.3 passer rating (28th), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Money matters: Believe it or not, the Jets are in decent shape. Harris has a big cap number as he enters the final year of his contract (1oth in NFL among inside linebackers), but it's not prohibitive. He's still a starting-caliber player and a favorite of coach Todd Bowles, who values his on-field leadership. The Jets declined Henderson's option, making him a free agent on March 9 -- a $2.6 million cap savings.

Big picture: It's the same old story: They need a 3-4 outside linebacker who can pressure the quarterback -- i.e. a speed-rusher to complement the interior horses. Mauldin, a former third-round pick, was supposed to be that guy, but he has been slow to develop. Jordan Jenkins, who enjoyed a strong finish to his rookie year, is more of an edge-setting run defender than a pass-rusher. If an elite rusher becomes available, either through free agency or the draft, the Jets could pounce. They should pounce. Lee, coming off a so-so rookie year, needs to make a significant jump. At some point, he probably will take over for Harris as the every-down signal-caller.

Free-agent market watch: Chandler Jones (OLB), Melvin Ingram (OLB), Dont'a Hightower (ILB), Nick Perry (OLB), Zach Brown (ILB), Kevin Minter (ILB), Jarvis Jones (OLB), Lorenzo Alexander (OLB), DeMarcus Ware (OLB), Lawrence Timmons (ILB).

Also could become available: Brian Cushing (ILB), Elvis Dumervil (OLB), DeAndre Levy (OLB), Lamarr Houston (OLB).

The game plan: Jones and Ingram were slapped with the franchise tag by their respective teams, effectively taking two of the premier pass-rushers off the market. A side note: The Rex Ryan-Mike Tannenbaum regime passed over Jones and Ingram in the first round of the 2012 draft to pick Quinton Coples -- yikes! I remember one Jets insider whispering to me that Ingram's short arms would prevent him from becoming a productive pass-rusher. How's that working out? Coples was a bust and Ingram has 18.5 sacks over the past two years. Perry, who broke out last season with 11 sacks, is an attractive option. His first position coach in Green Bay was Kevin Greene, the Jets' new outside linebackers coach. Hmm. I don't think the Jets have given up on a Jenkins-Mauldin tandem, but it wouldn't shock me if they explore the market just a bit. They also need experienced depth at inside linebacker.