Jets on edge: Years of neglect turns old strength into weakness

RICHMOND, Va. -- Every couple of weeks, Kevin Greene turns down the lights in his meeting room and shows his players -- outside linebackers -- what they should hope to be. He punches up video of his favorite pass-rushers: Von Miller, Clay Matthews and Khalil Mack.

"Occasionally, he'll pull up a video of himself going against a great tackle back in the day," Jordan Jenkins said of his coach, a Pro Football Hall of Famer who recorded 160 career sacks.

It's too bad the coach has more highlights than his players. When it comes to rushing the passer, the New York Jets are green, not Greene.

A franchise once known for its fearsome pass rush -- ladies and gentlemen, the New York Sack Exchange -- doesn't scare quarterbacks anymore. To be specific, it has been more than a decade since the Jets have had a formidable edge rusher. In a 3-4 defense, their scheme of choice since 2006, it's paramount for the outside linebackers to generate a strong rush. But the last outside 'backer to lead the team in sacks was Aaron Maybin, a former Buffalo Bills bust who managed a six-sack season in 2011 before washing out of the NFL a year later.

Again this year, the prospects are bleak, as coach Todd Bowles experiments on a daily basis with a group that includes castoffs and former middle-round draft picks. It will be the Achilles' heel on a defense that has a chance to be pretty good.

If only it had a stud pass-rusher.

"I think the last good pass-rusher they drafted was John Abraham," said former Jets great Joe Klecko, a member of the celebrated Sack Exchange, which terrorized quarterbacks in the early 1980s.

Abraham, a first-round pick in 2000, produced 53.5 sacks in six seasons with the Jets, but he was dealt to the Atlanta Falcons for a first-round pick because they didn't want to commit to a long-term contract. The Jets parlayed the pick into Nick Mangold, a terrific center, but they missed Abraham's speed and closing ability on the edge.

Part of the problem is that the Jets haven't invested much draft capital in the position, which is hard to believe when you consider that they've been a 3-4 team under their past three head coaches: Eric Mangini, Rex Ryan and Bowles. The last big draft splurge came in 2008, when they used the sixth overall pick on Vernon Gholston. He failed to record a single sack in three seasons and will be remembered as one of the biggest busts in team history. To say it was a costly mistake would be an understatement. They've used four first-round picks on defensive linemen in recent years (overkill?), but we're talking about big bodies, not speed rushers.

The Jets have tried free agency, too, with mixed results. In 2008, they signed Calvin Pace for six years, $42 million. He wasn't a high-profile player, but the Jets wanted him so badly that they gave him a helicopter tour around Manhattan on his free-agent visit. Worried about losing him to the Miami Dolphins, they dispatched a staffer to Pace's agent's office in Atlanta, essentially to make sure he received the actual contract and signed it. He led the Jets in sacks in 2009, and he produced a 10-sack year in 2013, but he never was viewed as an elite pass-rusher.

In 2010, Ryan was so desperate for a pass-rusher that he signed longtime Jets nemesis Jason Taylor, a former Dolphins great who was on fumes by the time he reached New York. Five sacks isn't what the team had in mind.

When current general manager Mike Maccagnan was hired in 2015, he talked about the importance of establishing a "pipeline" of 3-4 outside linebackers. The position, he said, is "the lifeblood of the 3-4." Maccagnan said he was well-acquainted with it because he came from an organization -- the Houston Texans -- that was built on the 3-4. He performed statistical studies on the top players, trying to find the secret sauce, so to speak -- the traits that make a top outside linebacker.

In four drafts, Maccagnan has selected three outside linebackers, but none in the first two rounds: Lorenzo Mauldin (third round, 2015), Jenkins (third, 2016) and Dylan Donahue (fifth, 2017). Jenkins is the best of the group, but he is viewed as a better run defender than pass-rusher. Mauldin, injured for much of his career, is in jeopardy of being cut. Donahue, who recently pleaded guilty to two drunk driving charges, is practicing with the third-string defense.

Get the picture? Most personnel executives will say it isn't an easy position to scout because it often requires converting college defensive ends into linebackers. In many cases, it's a projection, and that's where mistakes are made.

"Let's be honest: The Jets haven't done a very good job of scouting in that area," one personnel executive said.

Klecko, who lives in New Jersey, watches the Jets closely and wonders why they haven't been able to solve the pass-rushing riddle. Sheldon Richardson was a "helluva pass-rusher," Klecko said. Richardson, an interior rusher, was traded last year for the same reason Abraham was dealt in 2006: off-the-field concerns and fear of a long-term commitment. Klecko believed that Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples had the talent to be productive pass-rushers, but he saw a lack of hunger in the big-bodied linemen.

"I got in trouble a few years ago for saying Coples looked like Tarzan and played like Jane," Klecko said. "He was like a lot of players today: They just give up. They have no desire to get to the quarterback. I believe pass-rushing is 90 percent desire. The biggest ability is your desire not to be denied."

Greene preaches the same mentality. He's an old-school coach who breathes fire and speaks passionately about the art of pass-rushing. He compares it to hunting, and he wants his guys to put quarterbacks on the extinction list. Jenkins, for one, devoted his offseason to improving his quickness. He has 5.5 sacks in two seasons, and he doesn't think he's anywhere close to his ceiling.

"The sky's the limit for me," he said. "I want to go out there and dominate and turn the quarterback pressures and hits into sacks. No one pays attention to guys who almost get to the quarterback. You might get a hit and a shot at his ribs or whatever, but at the end of the day, it wasn't a sack, and they still won the game. You want to turn those into sacks."

The leading returning sacker among the outside linebackers is David Bass (3.5), who is injured and might not make the team. The Jets are so desperate that an undrafted rookie named Frankie Luvu, out of Washington State, is getting a chance to be a pass-rushing specialist.

Chances are, the seemingly never-ending search will continue into 2019.

"They're hard to come by," Bowles said. "Some years you'll get a bunch of them. Other years you won't get as many. But you have to look and find them. They're out there.

"We don't have the name guy -- we don't have the Lawrence Taylor, so to speak -- but we have guys that work hard and are very tough at the point of attack. You don't need a name guy. You just need a guy with production -- and production will make the name."

The Jets have been saying that for more than a decade.