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Based on reports from Thursday's practice, linebacker Blake Cashman got plenty of work with the first unit. Could this be a sign that the rookie has a realistic shot at earning a regular role on defense during the 2019 season?
Cashman had already made an impact in the spring, including an interception of quarterback Trevor Siemian during one of the OTA practices that was open to the media in May.
Prior to the draft in April, a few scouting reports characterized Cashman as athletically limited, but his film seems to suggest otherwise, and his combine workout numbers were outstanding. The main concern with him is that he has extremely short arms, but this would be less of an impediment to his ability to succeed if he's playing in space, so hopefully this wouldn't be a major issue in a coverage role.
The Jets linebacker group has been somewhat overhauled this offseason, with CJ Mosley signing a big-money deal to take over the crucial Mike position, as former first rounder Darron Lee shipped out and Avery Williamson slides over to the Will position.
Last season, Lee and Williamson each played a three-down role, which meant that the backups were just there as cover and for special teams. However, this may change in Gregg Williams' defense, which is expected to use a wider variety of personnel packages and different formations.
When Lee was suspended last year, Neville Hewitt was the starter, but Kevin Pierre-Louis entered entered the game in certain coverage situations. That might end up being similar to how the Jets approach the 2019 season under Williams.
The key might be Williamson, who had undertaken a three-down role in the first three seasons of his career with Tennessee, but often exited the game in passing situations in 2017. He responded with arguably the best season of his career that year. That may also have been the Jets' plan in 2018 as well, had Pierre-Louis not been injured for most of it.
If the Jets think Williamson's effectiveness will be improved by sometimes using him in a two-down role, then that might be wise, especially given the additional coverage responsibilities required at the Will position. That could require the team to use some packages where six or seven defensive backs are in the game, but where it calls for a coverage linebacker. Cashman could be one of the candidates to specialize in such a role
Most of the other reserves don't fit the bill as a coverage specialist. Hewitt isn't viewed as a coverage specialist if he was removed from the game in coverage situations last year. Anthony Wint has good instincts but is more of a run stuffer. Undrafted rookie Jeff Allison is probably too athletically limited. Finally, Harvey Langi is versatile but has spent more time rushing the passer than picking up coverage assignments.
However, there was one recent addition that could threaten Cashman's chances of ascending to a situational coverage role in his rookie year. James Burgess wasn't signed until the last week of May, but Williams and head coach Adam Gase are both familiar with him after he started 11 games in Williams' defense during his two years in Cleveland. He also spent time on Miami's practice squad during Gase's tenure as the Dolphins head coach.
Burgess showed some good coverage abilities during his college career and has the athletic makeup to handle a coverage role. He's been a productive tackler, but his overall coverage numbers so far have not been that good
If Cashman can impress the coaching staff more than Burgess and the others, he could earn himself reps as the third linebacker when the Jets utilize a conventional 4-3 base defense, but if he can also convince them he's a better option on passing downs than Williamson then he has a chance to earn himself a significant role in the 2019 season.
It's encouraging to see a rookie getting an opportunity to shine and making the most of it, especially when it's not one of the top picks. Too often during the Jets' previous front office regime, they drafted talent that was buried behind veterans on the depth chart and was slow to develop and contribute, perhaps as a direct result of that.
As for his longer-term chances, many are high on the fifth-round rookie's potential to become a full-time starter at this level, including some high-profile analytics sites. As noted, his lack of length might be an issue if he's required to play in the box and mix it up with blockers, but perhaps he can prove he is instinctive and athletic enough to succeed in spite of this. If all goes well, the Jets might give consideration to Cashman challenging for even more of Williamson's reps and maybe even his starting job at some point.