Age is just a number, unless you're a football player. Then it's much more than that. It can be a key strategy point for an opponent, especially if that age is indicative of something else: a lack of athleticism or speed.
Such is the case for the New York Jets, specifically at linebacker, where age has begun to creep up on the starting unit as a whole.
The Jets know that their athleticism (or lack thereof) at linebacker is in focus, and everyone—from the players to the coaches to the personnel department—is doing something about it.
"Bob Sutton, our linebacker coach, has really focused with us on our pass drops and man-to-man drills," said Jets linebacker David Harris, according to the team's official website. "We go against some pretty athletic tight ends every day in Dustin Keller and those guys, so we get good work out of it in practice and it'll carry over to the field."
The question is, will it be enough to help this team defend the new breed of tight ends in the NFL, spearheaded by division rivals Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski? Pass-catching running backs like Dolphins running back Reggie Bush and Bills running back Fred Jackson may also have a thing or two to say about the Jets' age at linebacker.
The running backs and tight ends are certainly the weapons that are in the most focus for the Jets' linebackers. They know the perimeter of the field is in good hands.
"Me in the middle, I know I have to cover a little more area, more ground in between those hashes and between the two receivers," Harris said. "We know the middle of the field is going to get attacked this year with the type of talent we have with [cornerbacks Darrelle] Revis and [Antonio] Cromartie.
"Offenses aren’t going to win those matchups very often, so coming into this offseason, we knew we had to get into better shape, a step quicker and anticipate route combinations which offenses are going to try to throw at us."
According to Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value on average formula, which calculates performance based on opponent, the Jets ranked an impressive sixth against running backs, but 27th against tight ends. So clearly, there's work to be done.
Harris is not the only one taking his conditioning seriously. Under orders from head coach Rex Ryan, linebacker Bart Scott shed "around 10-15 pounds of fat" according to Bruce Beck of NBC New York. Scott ranked out as one of Pro Football Focus' best interior linebackers last year for his stellar play against the run, despite what was a down year for him overall and against the pass.
According to Beck, Rex reportedly wanted his squad to get lighter and faster during the offseason to help them match up with more fast-paced offenses that are running rampant through the NFL.
But while cutting 10-15 pounds of weight may help Scott this year, what about the next two or three years?
Beyond the conditioning of Scott and Harris, the Jets' personnel department has taken matters into their own hands, as well. The depth chart is loaded with linebackers ages 22-25, and they grabbed linebacker Demario Davis in the third round of the 2012 draft to provide that spark of athleticism and youth that's been missing from the top unit of linebackers in the Jets defense.
"He's doing a great job," said Harris of the rookie linebacker. "He's staying after for meetings with Bob, and getting the extra coaching tips. He's a fast learner, which is good. He's very athletic and it helps him on the field. He still has a long way to go, but he's much improved from where he was in OTA's."
The Jets are hoping to develop Davis into an eventual replacement for someone, but who? That could be either Scott or linebacker Bryan Thomas, who Harris alluded has been the mix-and-match piece in the linebacker corps, standing up in the 3-4 and putting his hand in the dirt in the 4-3. That would seem to indicate that he is the most suspect in coverage, and the best of the edge-setting pass-rushers of the group.
Finding the right mix at linebacker starts with finding a unit that the team can count on going forward. They started that process with Davis, and that may give way to a youth movement across the unit.
And it should, if the Jets want to keep up with the new era of NFL offenses.