Jets' C.J. Mosley embraces new start but won't let go of his past

Which NFL team has improved most this offseason? (1:59)

Adam Schefter, Ryan Clark and Marcus Spears break down the most improved teams in the NFL, including the Jets, Jaguars and Browns. (1:59)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When C.J. Mosley signed his record-breaking contract on March 13, he became known as "The $85 Million Linebacker." While he appreciates the commitment by the New York Jets, he isn't fond of the label. He doesn't believe success should be measured by the size of a paycheck. If there's a number that reflects his personal journey, which began in a small town on Alabama's Mobile Bay, he'd like it to be 32.

Mosley wore No. 32 during his decorated career with the Alabama Crimson Tide, his tribute to late childhood friend Robert Hardy, who donned the number as a middle-school football player. Hardy was 13 when he collapsed on a basketball court, felled by a heart condition. It happened on June 10, 2006, and it crushed Mosley, who served as a pall bearer at Hardy's funeral and dedicated his career to the memory of his friend.

As kids, they always talked about playing college football together. To this day, Mosley remains humbled and inspired by Hardy. He had to change his uniform number to 57 to conform to NFL policy, but his feelings for "three-two" remain the same.

"That was C.J.'s best friend," said Jamey Mosley, C.J.'s younger brother and a rookie linebacker on the Jets' practice squad. "C.J. doesn't really show a lot of emotion, but you can tell that definitely fueled him. Robert is very near and dear to our hearts. We all grew up together. That was something that definitely motivates us. [His death] was very instrumental in our lives. We love to dedicate everything we do for Robert."

They've done him proud.

The Jets begin a new era on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills (1 p.m. ET, CBS), and one of the driving forces behind it is C.J. Mosley. He's the quarterback of the defense, providing the brains and, yes, plenty of thump. You haven't heard a lot about him this summer because he doesn't do a lot of talking. He's a reserved leader who learned discipline and a blue-collar work ethic from his parents -- Tracy, a parent-teacher coordinator at his old high school, and Clinton, a shipyard supervisor who once held him out of a middle school game because he didn't complete a school assignment.

In a way, Mosley, 27, is a football nerd. He sits in the first row of the defensive meeting room, takes meticulous notes (he learned that from a social studies teacher in high school) and highlights the important stuff with a yellow marker when he reviews the notes later that night.

His cerebral approach helped him to four Pro Bowls in five seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, and now he's hoping to achieve more by venturing outside his comfort zone. He has more freedom than ever to make pre-snap adjustments for the defense, and he has emerged as more of a vocal leader than in the past.

Mosley runs the traditional players-only defensive meeting at the end of each week, a gathering to discuss the game plan, scouting reports and any issues that come up. It's an open-mic session, with Mosley leading the discussion -- something he didn't do in Baltimore.

"That's been different for me," he said. "It helps me to grow a little more as I get older. You always want to figure out something you can get better at, whether it's on the field or off the field. That's going to expand my horizons more because I can see what everybody else sees and what they're talking about. We'll get closer as a unit."

On the field, Mosley is entrusted to call the signals. In Gregg Williams' system, the middle linebacker has more latitude than your typical Mike 'backer. If he suspects a vulnerability on defense based on how he reads a formation or an offensive line split, he has the ability to change the defensive call on the fly. The coaches not only want him to do that, they expect it -- and they expect him to be right a lot more than he's wrong.

"Cooperstown is -- what? -- three out of 10 and you're going to the Hall of Fame," senior defensive assistant Joe Vitt said. "It has to be better than that."

Vitt recalled a Baltimore game last season that illustrated Mosley's importance to the defense. He went out with a knee injury in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals, and "the Ravens' defense couldn't get lined up" without him, Vitt said.

In fact, the Ravens were so out of sync they allowed a touchdown on four straight possessions after the injury.

Vitt, 65, is a crusty coach who doesn't do many superlatives, and yet he practically gushed when talking about Mosley.

"He excels at [running the defense]," Vitt said. "You get a guy who's smart like he is and takes on that responsibility. ... Look, he's big, he's physical, he can tackle, he's productive, he's got great character. That's a special guy."

Nose tackle Steve McLendon offered a unique description of Mosley, saying he practices "from the neck up" -- meaning with mental intensity. And on game day, "now he's doing it with the rest of his body. He throws his whole body into it."

Jets coach Adam Gase called him "an action guy," not a talker. But Mosley will raise his voice if he deems it necessary. One day in training camp, the offense broke off a couple of big runs. Mosley walked past Gase, the offensive playcaller, and barked, "That s--- stops now!"

It stopped.

Mosley was a two-time captain at Alabama who was drafted in the first round by the Ravens to replace one of his boyhood idols, Ray Lewis. There was a one-year gap between Mosley and Lewis, one of the greatest middle linebackers in history, but the challenge was clear. He didn't flinch. Mosley, the anti-Lewis (no dancing, no fiery speeches), maintained the level of excellence. His hero noticed; Lewis called him the best middle linebacker in the league.

"He was the example of a linebacker in Baltimore," said former longtime Ravens linebacker Albert McClellan, who was re-signed by the Jets on Monday. "We all thought he would be the next Ray Lewis, that he would take over the defense and keep it for 10, 10-plus years. Some things you can't control."

Economics changed everything.

The Ravens let Mosley hit the free-agent market, and they were outbid by the Jets, who gave him the richest contract in history ($17 million per year) for an inside linebacker. (The Seattle Seahawks' Bobby Wagner has since passed that mark with $18 million per year.) The Jets, desperate for Mosley's culture-changing presence, Godfather'd him: They made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

When the enormity of the contract was mentioned to Mosley, he fidgeted. He seemed uncomfortable talking about it.

"You do the right thing long enough," he finally said, "you get blessed with great opportunities."

Mosley's approach hasn't changed.

"He's always been locked in, very studious about the game," Jamey said.

That Jamey and C.J. play for the same NFL team is storybook stuff. Weekends will be easier for their parents, who used to attend Jamey's college games at Alabama and hop a flight to wherever the Ravens were playing the next day. Now the family will be together. Hardy's name will come up, because it usually does in happy times. Just the other day, Jamey received a photo from his mother of him wearing No. 32 in a youth-league game. The number is part of their lives.

"He's with us wherever we go," said Jamey, who wore No. 16 at Alabama.

On draft night in 2014, C.J. Mosley was exhausted after a long day of hype and speculation. After leaving Radio City in New York, Mosley -- selected 17th overall -- retired to his hotel room. He walked into the bedroom and saw an athletic T-shirt on his bed. Hardy's younger brother had left it for him. It had a number on the back.

Of course it was 32.