Bent, theJetsBlog.com Follow on Twitter
The surprising release of David Harris is inevitably going to create big changes on the Jets defense. Harris has been a three-down player over the last decade, missing just six games in total. We're not going to dwell on the timing of the move or the financial aspects here. Instead, we shall focus on how they can replace his contributions.
As the middle or "Mike" linebacker, Harris played three downs, wore the headset, and primarily played a sideline-to-sideline role against the run. In coverage, he was typically employed in underneath zone coverage, reacting to tackle the receiver on short passes and occasionally latching onto receivers on crossing routes or following them into the flat.
The Jets' most effective inside linebacker pairing in recent years was when Bart Scott was alongside Harris from 2009 to 2012. Demario Davis was drafted to replace Scott but he didn't fare as well at taking out lead blockers or in terms of the direct coverage assignments. As a result, he was sometimes employed interchangeably with Harris both in Rex Ryan's system and while playing for Todd Bowles in 2015. Therefore, Davis does have limited experience in the Mike role.
Davis also reportedly played some Mike when he was in Cleveland last year and his return to the Jets last week presumably factored into the decision to release Harris. Bowles recently said that he doesn't view Darron Lee as a potential Mike and envisions him staying at the weakside inside linebacker or "Will" position. Lee apparently gained some valuable experience of wearing the headset during the last year, so it's possible they are transitioning towards him being the player responsible for calling the defense on the field.
If Lee is going to stay at the Will position and Davis will compete for the Mike role as Bowles suggested, then this would enable Davis to handle those underneath coverage responsibilities while Lee is exposed to the more difficult man-to-man coverage assignments. If nothing else, at least the Jets will be faster at the position, but they'll be losing something in terms of size and instincts.
Interestingly, for much of Bowles' last season in Arizona, the Cardinals had just one inside linebacker on the field. That was veteran Larry Foote, who actually had a poor season. So maybe the Mike linebacker isn't as integral to the success of Bowles' defense as you might expect. Alongside Foote, the Cardinals used Deone Buccanon, a hybrid safety, most of the time. With Lee already being undersized, it seems unlikely they'd pair him with a safety, but perhaps it's something they'll experiment with in certain situations and the team has discussed using more three safety sets.
Bowles also mentioned Bruce Carter and Julian Stanford along with Davis when asked by the media who would compete for Harris' role but Davis would have to be considered the favorite to land the role.
Looking further into the future, undrafted rookie Connor Harris - the NCAA's all-time leading tackler - is a player with experience at the Mike position who might eventually be able to compete for that role. It seems unlikely he'll find his way into the line-up as a rookie though. Frank Beltre could be one to watch at the Will position, as he was working there with the second unit in Tuesday's practice.
We should be under no illusions as to the downgrade this move is likely to provide in the short term. Harris was called the most underrated player in the NFL by Rex Ryan three years ago and Bowles said he was "the glue that keeps everybody together" in 2015.
While it's difficult to know how the team will fare without him, given that he's been so omnipresent, it's probably not a good sign that the only game he missed last year was a huge blowout loss to the Cardinals.
However, the team isn't expected to contend this year and was obviously set to move on from Harris sooner rather than later so perhaps it will enable some younger players to step up and claim a bigger role. If the team loses more games as a result, then at least there's the silver lining of a more valuable draft pick.
The more pressing concern might be how they replace Harris' contributions in terms of leadership and on-field communication. If a team that already had a lot of blown coverages last season is forced to suddenly shift the "defensive quarterback" responsibilities onto another player that could be trouble. If it backfires, things could get ugly back there, which could slow down the rebuilding effort and the development of some youngsters.