COMMENTARY | New York Jets' head coach Rex Ryan has been hiding a weapon on defense in a matter of speaking. Outside linebacker Ricky Sapp, now entering his fourth year in the NFL, might end up surprising fans, analysts and opposing coaches by playing far more than ever would have been expected.
Who is Ricky Sapp?
Ricky Sapp was the fifth-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2010 out of Clemson. While he can fit into multiple linebacker roles, he is most suited to playing outside linebacker. In his 2010 rookie season, Sapp failed to make the Eagles' roster, and at the end the year he joined the Jets. While Sapp did not earn playing time with the Jets in 2011, he began to receive his first playing time in 2012.
After impressing people in the 2012 off-season, Sapp made the Jets' roster and played in four games before being made inactive. His most significant action was against the St. Louis Rams, when he played 20 snaps. He was made inactive after it was discovered that he had been playing with a stress fracture in his right ankle. Now heading into the 2013 season, Sapp appears ready to take on a bigger role.
Did Ryan Hide Sapp?
Jake Steinberg of TheJetsBlog.com suggests that Sapp was made inactive when it was not absolutely necessary as a forward-looking move by Rex Ryan. Steinberg writes, "With the season pretty much over and Rex looking ahead, he decided to 'hide' Ricky. He didn't want to get him on tape, and also felt it necessary to let his ankle heal."
Sapp is playing for the Jets this season for only $480,000, an extremely small salary by NFL standards. If he is able to contribute at all to the team, then that is a great value. Steinberg is suggesting that Ryan did not want other teams to take notice of Sapp, especially with the Jets out of playoff contention toward the end of the 2012 season.
If it was Ryan's intention to hide his unknown linebacker, that it would seem the plan worked. While Sapp has received some attention locally and is a player who dedicated fans would likely know about, he has remained more or less invisible to the national media.
Generally when the Jets are written about these days, the starting outside linebackers are assumed or at least suggested to be Calvin Pace and Antwan Barnes. Pace has been the Jets' starter for years, though he is now advanced in age. Barnes is a well-known outside linebacker who was signed this year and is known for his pass-rushing abilities.
Quinton Coples is also a name that has come up more often of late. He is a versatile player who this year is expected to play both at defensive end and outside linebacker or rush linebacker. Whether or not his outside linebacker snaps will be enough to view him as a starting linebacker is up for debate.
In light of recent information, it might be reasonable to start thinking of Sapp as not only a key situational player but also as a potential starter. Steinberg argues, "[Ricky Sapp] was receiving a ton of reps and was playing with the first team. I can see a scenario in which Antwan Barnes and [Calvin Pace] end up in more of a situational role with Ricky and [Quinton Coples] starting."
How Good Can Sapp Be?
It is difficult to predict just where Sapp's ceiling is. He is a young and quick player who could potentially bring to the Jets a lot of what was missing in 2012. The Jets' linebackers, especially the outside linebackers, suffered from lack of speed and the general effects of old age, resulting in not enough pressure on quarterbacks and some mistakes against the run.
A big part of this coming season will be whether or not Jets get quality play and sacks out of the outside linebackers. The increased role of Coples is clearly a part of that. The signing of Barnes is another signal of this. However, it seems plausible that Sapp, if healthy this year, could start to pay off and play a much bigger role in the Jets' linebacking group.
An important question that will have to be answered during the off-season is how well Sapp can fare in pass coverage. Coples, as a defensive ends, will probably have difficulty in coverage. Pace also has had difficulty in the past in pass coverage against tight ends and running backs.
If Sapp can stand out as a player who can not only rush the quarterback but also drop into coverage when needed, then he might get an edge over other outside linebackers and become a candidate to be a starter.
Adam Waksman is a Yahoo! contributor in sports. He also covers the New York Jets for Bleacher Report, where he is a Featured Columnist and award-winning blogger.
You can follow Adam on Twitter here.
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