Heading into training camp, the New York Jets still have one or two areas of need and a veteran free agent could do the trick.
A little over a week ago, ESPN NFL insider Field Yates suggested that the Green & White complete their pursuit of linebacker Kwon Alexander as a final offseason transaction but he’s not the only player that could fill the Jets’ hole on the defensive side.
Jets X-Factor analyst Michael Nania went a different direction, urging they target a thumper that could help win the role Jarrad Davis was supposed to secure in 2021 — the primary run defender in the LB core. It’s definitely a problem that needs addressing and the analyst’s solution was former New England Patriots rival Dont’a Hightower.
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Second Attempt at Hightower Could Add Much-Needed Size
Under head coach Robert Saleh, the Jets have had a type when it comes to linebackers, smaller athletes with speed and lateral ability. Most times, these players have been former safeties that were converted to the position — Jamien Sherwood, Hamsah Nasirildeen, Marcell Harris, Javin White. They even targeted Keanu Neal last spring.
Alexander fits that type more than Hightower but the outlier was the aforementioned Davis. The ex-Lions bruiser was general manager Joe Douglas’ first signing of free agency in 2021 and there was a reason for that. This unit needed some muscle and the front office believed Davis could supply it.
Hightower would serve a similar purpose. Nania explained:
What the Jets are missing at the linebacker position is some beef. After the 250-pound C.J. Mosley, all of the linebackers on the Jets’ roster are on the smaller side… The Jets have plenty of speed at linebacker. But as things stand, they are poised to get steamrolled in the trenches. Former Patriots linebacker (and longtime Jets killer) Dont’a Hightower would bring the missing beef. Hightower is one of the largest linebackers in the NFL at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds. The 32-year-old’s best days are behind him, but he’d bring the size, run-stopping ability, and championship-winning experience that this unit lacks.
Nania also noted that while the NFL’s average linebacker size was 235 pounds in 2021, the Jets only had two members of their crew that were within 10 pounds of that weight outside of Mosley — Del’Shawn Phillips (230 lbs) and Quincy Williams (225 lbs).
He continued: “In 2021, Hightower’s coverage took a nosedive, as he allowed the 10th-most yards per cover snap (1.23) among 66 qualified linebackers. However, his run defense remained solid. His Pro Football Focus run-defense grade of 69.0 ranked 17th-best out of 66 qualifiers. That’s all the Jets would need from him. Other players will take on the brunt of the coverage responsibilities. New York just needs some more run-stopping security on the second-string unit in case things get dangerously bad in the run game for the youngsters.”
The Jets made a run at the reliable ex-Patriots team leader in 2017 but fell short. He has won three Super Bowl rings with New England, one coming after that failed attempt. Saleh and Douglas love bringing in players with championship experience and this short-term signing could be a long time coming.
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Does the Evidence Support This Case?
Nania’s very blunt in making his case for Hightower. It may not be a perfect fit but the veteran run-defender can seal gaps on early downs and take his leave once the opposition starts throwing the ball.
Makes sense, right?
The only problem is that the Jets’ actions have not supported an addition like this. Most recently, they’ve signed Harris and pursued Alexander, two weakside linebackers that are smaller and more adept in coverage.
As we’ve mentioned, Hightower addresses a different issue: stopping the run. Both were major problems for this linebacker core in 2021 but Williams profiles as the strongside tackler that specializes in blowing up ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage.
The Jets believe in Williams, that much is clear. Having said that, would they target another hard-hitting LB with sub-par coverage skills? That feels unlikely based on the evidence we’ve seen throughout the offseason.
Nania is serving as a voice of the fans on this one — bring in run-stuffers or get left in the dust. Whether the Jets share the same opinion is another story altogether.