Analyzing Jets’ Linebacker Roles Under Jeff Ulbrich & Robert Saleh

Jarrad Davis

Getty Former Detroit Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis is set for a major role in this fresh New York Jets LB core.

Throughout the course of spring and early summer, we’ve scouted this entire New York Jets linebacker core with feature articles for the majority of its personnel. Now it’s time to figure out how it all pieces together in training camp.

To project the roles and usage of each player in this group, we must first understand this 4-3 defense.

This system has storied ties that span back to the legendary Monte Kiffin, and it has a history of developing linebackers and putting them in a position to succeed at mastering their craft.

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Understanding Saleh’s 4-3 Scheme

Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich stem from the Pete Carroll coaching tree that has its roots tied to the aforementioned Kiffin. When Gus Bradley was Carroll’s defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks, the two new Jets coaches were on their staff.

Kyle Breitkreutz of The 49ers Hub wrote that this defense is unique because it “values speed, instincts and athleticism over size.” Nearly every Joe Douglas draft pick on the defensive side since Saleh joined the organization has fit this mold.

Carroll’s 4-3 was famous for playing Cover-3 on the back-end. The basic Cover-3 drops the two outside cornerbacks into a deep zone along with the free safety who plays centerfield. This system generally rushes four and has the linebackers and strong safety cover both the flats and the “middle hook” zones.

As the league began to catch up to this scheme during Saleh’s time in San Francisco, the Niners’ DC decided to adapt, transforming into what the NFL world refers to as a Cover-3 Buzz.

In this variation of the 4-3, the outside corners show press coverage and either drop back when the ball is snapped or jam at the line and switch into a man-to-man look. One of the two safeties (usually the strong safety) also becomes the “buzz” defender and moves up into the middle of the defense, rather than guarding the flats.

Focusing on the run game, there are usually three go-to formations in Saleh’s system, according to Breitkreutz.

  • 4-3 Over; standard look with three linebackers behind a four-man front that is shifted into the strongside gaps of the offensive line.
  • 4-3 Under; a pass-rushing front that brings the strongside (SAM) linebacker up to the line of scrimmage on the shoulder of the tight end, alongside a defensive end.
  • 4-3 Bear; a run-heavy formation that sometimes calls up two linebackers onto the edge of the defensive front, bringing up the strong safety alongside the remaining linebacker.

More specifically, the positional breakdowns follow these guidelines.

  • MIKE; middle LB/captain of the unit and “gap destroyer” against the run, key “read defender” both pre-snap and at the heart of zone coverages.
  • SAM; strongside LB that usually matches up with the tight end in the passing game or the “deep hook” zone, assigned gap defender against the run that may also blitz on occasion.
  • WILL; the most “athletic” player in this group is generally the weakside LB, known for his elite open-field tackling on cutbacks and his zone coverage ability in the flats.

The Jets have been constructing their linebacker personnel around this scheme, so let’s dive into how this unit might look in 2021.

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Jets Linebacker Personnel

Let’s start with the players, led by returning four-time Pro Bowler C.J. Mosley. So long as Douglas doesn’t make a move for a veteran, nine linebacker possibilities are competing for a job.

  • Mosley; MIKE-backer, captain of this linebacker core.
  • Jarrad Davis; former first-round pick that flamed out in Detroit, is projected to start at SAM linebacker due to his experience.
  • Blake Cashman; the oft-injured 2019 fifth-round pick out of Minnesota.
  • Jamien Sherwood; a thumper box safety out of Auburn that could become a prototypical WILL linebacker due to his expert tackling ability.
  • Hamsah Nasirildeen; another college safety that was known for his rare physical attributes at Florida State, coming off a torn ACL but supposedly 100%.
  • Noah Dawkins; an athletic converted defensive end that has logged over 98% of his NFL snaps on special teams.
  • Del’Shawn Phillips; former undrafted prospect with Ulbrich in Atlanta, likely outside linebacker or special teamer if he makes the roster.
  • Camilo Eifler; 2021 undrafted free-agent that profiles as a hard-hitting WILL linebacker that could become an asset on special teams.
  • Brendon White; 2021 undrafted tweener prospect out of Rutgers that profiled as a box safety in college, still unclear if the Jets consider White as a defensive back or linebacker.

Out of these nine, five or six are likely to make the Week 1 roster. The Jets will have to make some tough decisions after the preseason and I do believe that safety and linebacker combined will make up a total of nine spots, rather than 10.

Gang Green drafted a couple of these tweener-hybrid talents for a reason and I expect Douglas to maximize his 53-man group by dropping one ‘typical’ backup at these five starting roles. That would mean asking one or two players like Sherwood, Nasirildeen or White to learn LB and safety.

You also have to consider that the 4-3 scheme only starts two linebackers a large portion of the time in the modern-day NFL. Anytime the defense shifts to nickel, big-nickel or dime, which would happen most times the opposition fields pass-heavy sets with three or four wide receivers, that third linebacker could drop in favor of an extra safety or nickelback.

Michael Nania of Jets X-Factor determined that Saleh only used a third linebacker an average of 26% of snaps in 2020. In Atlanta, Ulbrich used the third linebacker approximately 31% of snaps.

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Projecting Jets Linebackers

Assuming they stay healthy, Mosley and Davis are the locks to make the roster. I don’t necessarily see Davis as a 95% snap guy like Nania does, but he should get a healthy chunk of playing time behind Mosley.

I could see Davis subbing out for a WILL linebacker on passing downs. Despite a solid coverage grade from Pro Football Focus in 2020, the former Lion has not excelled in this area throughout his career with an atrocious 30.0 grade in 2019 and a 64.5 in 2018. His most consistent strength in Detroit was his ability as a pass-rusher.

I expect that the rookie out of Auburn, Sherwood, becomes the prospect to watch in 2021. He was created to play in this defense and Ulbrich’s praise in practice has really highlighted his intelligence and football IQ.

Cashman is another key player to watch in training camp. Although he’s trying out at WILL, he’s the only real MIKE-backer on the roster outside of Mosley and Davis. I could see the Mike Maccagnan draft pick getting cut if his injury issues persist. I could also see him starting at WILL, or backing up Mosley at MIKE.

The ripple effects of Cashman’s roster chances will certainly affect players like Eifler, Dawkins, Phillips and White. Special teams duties will also play a major role. In the end, here are my unofficial projections for the 2021 Green and White linebacker core.

Player Chances of Making Roster Projected DEF Snap Share
Mosley (starting MIKE) 100% (if healthy) 95%
Davis (starting SAM) 95% (if healthy) 65%
Sherwood (ST, starting WILL) 90% (practice squad protected if he does not make it) 40%
Cashman (ST, backup MIKE) 65% 15%
Nasirildeen (ST, backup SAM/WILL) 75% (practice squad protected if he does not make it) 10%
Dawkins (ST, backup SAM) 20% less than 5%
Phillips (ST, backup WILL) 15% 0%
Eifler (ST, backup WILL) 25% less than 5%
White (ST, versatile depth) 15% 0%

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