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Two years ago, the Jets drafted Darron Lee with their first pick, hoping to shore up one of their inside linebacker positions for the foreseeable future. Over the course of his first two seasons, he's been up and down, but he has retained an every-down role.
Last year, he struggled initially, then played the best football of his career in the middle of the season, only to regress down the stretch. However, there are no indications that the Jets intend to move on from Lee.
Alongside Lee, Demario Davis unexpectedly had a dominant season, which was easily the best of his career. When he was acquired - in a trade for Calvin Pryor - Davis was almost an afterthought, and even took a pay cut to remain with the team. He's now headed for a big payday in free agency, and the Jets will have a big hole to fill if they can't re-sign him.
Even if the Jets do re-sign Davis, they need to add some depth to the position. However, the back-ups last season only really played when there were injuries because Davis and Lee would typically play every snap, and there weren't many packages where a third linebacker was used. Reserves Bruce Carter and Julian Stanford are out of contract, and the only other inside linebacker under contract for 2018 is the recently-signed Micah Awe, who is more of a special teamer.
If Davis doesn't return and the Jets are looking to add a longer-term solution in the early rounds, then they'll be looking closely at the top prospects, which include Roquan Smith of Georgia, Tremaine Edmunds of Virginia Tech and Alabama's Rashaan Evans.
Smith was extremely impressive during the college football playoffs, as he is constantly around the football making plays. Edmunds, on the other hand, brings a unique combination of size and athleticism.
Based on comments made by Todd Bowles last year, he doesn't see Lee as an option at the mike linebacker position, so the Jets would have to carefully select someone who complements him well. Smith might be too lightweight to pair with the already undersized Lee, and forcing Edmunds into a middle linebacker role might mitigate some of his gifts, including his length and range, which would be better employed in space. Evans, however, made the transition to middle linebacker well this year, so he could be a player they consider on day two if they still need a potential starter.
Other potential day two picks include small school prospect Darius Leonard from SC State, who impressed with his length and athleticism during Senior Bowl week, and Clemson's Dorian O'Daniel who is more of a hybrid safety-type player at 215 pounds, but could also provide special teams value.
There are plenty of other prospects who could represent excellent value if they drop into the later rounds, including South Carolina's Skai Moore, Andrew Motuapuaka, and Purdue's Ja'Whaun Bentley. Each of these brings different things to the table. Moore is a playmaker in coverage with 14 career interceptions. Motuapuaka, a teammate of Edmunds with the Hokies, is a versatile player who contributes in coverage as a pass rusher and against the run. Bentley, at 250 pounds, is more of a thumper who excels against the run.
There are also several productive leaders from big schools who could be available on day three. Michigan's Mike McCray, USC's Cameron Smith, Malik Jefferson from Texas, Penn State's Jason Cabinda, and Ohio State's Chris Worley all fit this description if the Jets want to add a respected leader from an established program.
In the late rounds, Iowa duo Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann are both potential bargains. Jewell has great instincts and anchored the defense from the middle linebacker position in 2017, while Niemann did a good job in coverage. These players can raise their stock with good offseason workouts. Another middle linebacker from Iowa - this time Iowa State - with a possible NFL future is Joel Lanning, who is an interesting prospect because he was a quarterback until this season.
Finally, based on how many experts felt the Jets were going to approach the 2017 season, there's no more-aptly named player in this year's draft class than Kansas State's Trent Tanking. Joking aside, he's a decent player against the run and in coverage so he could be a late round option.
Ultimately, the Jets' approach to the inside linebacker class this year hinges on what they do with Davis. Even if they lock him up, there may be some bargains available later on to add some much-needed youth and depth.