This is the first in a series of position-by-position stories on the 2011 NFL Draft by newyorkjets.com.
The Jets haven't drafted a defensive lineman in the first round since 2003, but that streak could very well end this April.
Ohio State product Vernon Gholston, whom the Green & White selected No. 6 overall in 2008, was listed as a defensive end in college. But Gholston was brought in to play outside linebacker under Eric Mangini before making a transition back to the hand in the dirt in 2010.
"He got better. He really did," said Rex Ryan, who coached Gholston the past two seasons. "It was unfortunate that he got caught in a coaching change, and that never helped him. We'll see what happens next. He's not done playing."
Gholston, who went sackless during his Jets stay, was released during the offseason. And if you remove the OLB/DE hybrid from consideration, Kentucky DT Dewayne Robertson was the last true D-lineman the Jets tabbed in the first round. Robertson, bothered by knee problems throughout his career and now out of the NFL, played five seasons with the Jets before getting shipped to Denver after New York moved to a 3-4.
The state of the Jets' current 3-4 appears to be in flux. Nose tackle Kris Jenkins was released and Shaun Ellis, the longest tenured Jet who was a first-rounder himself (No. 12 overall out of Tennessee) as part of that memorable quartet in 2000, turns 34 in June. Reserve lineman Trevor Pryce will be 36 in August and he's said to be considering retirement.
The Green & White, owners of the 30th selection in the opening round, could sit tight and still find a quality DL on Thursday, April 28.
"It doesn't take a super scout to figure out we've got some pretty good defensive linemen in this year's class," ESPN's Todd McShay told newyorkjets.com at the NFL Combine. "Right now I have eight defensive ends with first-round grades, and it could be nine if Cameron Heyward of Ohio State didn't have the Tommy John surgery. It just moves him over to the second round. I've got another four defensive tackles with first-round grades, so you're talking about 13, 14 defensive linemen that have a chance to come off the board in the first round."
Alabama DT Marcell Dareus appears to have inched ahead of Auburn DT Nick Fairley as the top-rated DL prospect in the draft. The 6'3", 319-pound Dareus is a prototypical nose tackle for 3-4 clubs, a big man who is going to command double-team attention and figures to be a force in the middle for the next decade. He can push the pocket, too, as evidenced by his 4.5 sacks last season, and he totaled 11 stops behind the line of scrimmage.
"You're not going to have a reason not to pick me at No. 1." Dareus told NFL Network. "I am a complete player and that's how I feel all the way around."
Fairley, a 6'4", 291-pounder who should fit in well on the interior in a 4-3 front, is coming out after a sensational junior campaign. He led the SEC with 24.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in 2010, ending his junior year with 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble in Auburn's national-championship victory over Oregon. It has been an amazing journey for Fairley, a junior college transfer from Copiah-Lincoln CC in Wesson, Miss., who started only twice for the Tigers in 2009.
"It's crazy for me to be in this position," Fairley said. "Coming into this year, I didn't think things were going to be this big. I didn't know I was going to have a big year like that."
Is Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers dropping down draft boards? He didn't work out in Indy due to a knee injury but is scheduled to take part in a private pro day on April 1. Bowers, 6'3", 280, had 15.5 sacks and 24 tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season as he repeatedly beat overmatched tackles to the quarterback. He is long and his play against the run is a plus as well.
California's Cameron Jordan hails from a solid football pedigree. His father, Steve Jordan, played 13 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and made six Pro Bowl appearances. Jordan played DE in a 3-4 alignment at Cal, earning All-Pac 10 honors for his 5.5-sack, 62-tackle season. The 6'4", 287-pounder has the potential to be a top-15 pick after playing 50 games for the Bears and starting 32. His career totals include 16.5 sacks and 34 tackles for loss.
There aren't many prospects who can say they had as good as a combine performance as Wisconsin DE J.J. Watt. A transfer from Central Michigan, the 6'5", 290-pound Watt played two seasons for the Badgers and was credited with 106 tackles, 36.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, four fumble recoveries and 14 PDs. Like Jordan, he also fits the bill as a 5-technique in a 3-4.
"I think one of the 3-4 teams will love him in the top half of the first round," said NFL Network's Mike Mayock.
Local product Muhammad Wilkerson, a Linden, N.J., native who played collegiately at Temple, is a wonderful athlete in his own right. The All-Mid American Conference first-team selection has a chance to be the first player from Temple to be chosen in the first round since 1997. A talented power forward in basketball during his high school days, Wilkerson can also fit in as a 3-4 end or a 4-3 tackle.
"Wilkerson is about where most teams had pegged him a month ago as a late-first-round, early-second-round pick, between No. 30 and No. 40 overall," said NFL.com's Gil Brandt of Wilkerson, who enters the pros off a 10-sack season. "Players in that range tend to look similar during the evaluation process, so a good workout or a team taking a particular liking to a prospect can push him to the low end of that range."
Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn had a mild case of Erb's palsy at birth, but he hasn't allowed that to slow him down. An 11.5-pound baby, Clayborn had nerve damage in his neck and his right side, which caused some lost movement and weakness in his right arm.
"I don't think they're going to question it," said Clayborn of the NFL in a gazette.com article. "Some teams would probably be scared away, but there are 32 teams. Somebody will like me."
There's a lot to like. The 6'3", 281-pound Clayborn had 37.5 tackles for loss and 19 sacks in game action, and he also was a multiyear captain for the Hawkeyes.
Corey Liuget (pronounced "legit"), viewed as either a 3-4 end or a 3-technique in the 4-3, was most recently an All-Big Ten second-team player with 63 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. On March 16 Liuget put on an impressive show at the Illinois pro day and bumped into none other than Ryan, the Jets' head coach.
"He asked me if my last name was Ryan," Liuget said in a Post-Dispatch article. "I told him to start putting me on the payroll. He definitely is a comedian. He's a funny guy. I like him a lot."
Heyward, son of the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward (who played his high school ball at Passaic just a few miles west of the Meadowlands) started 45 times during his Buckeyes career. He amassed 157 stops during that time and 14.5 sacks, but his sack production dropped from 6.5 in '09 to 3.5 in '10.
And as we have noted numerous times on this site, many pundits think Baylor DT Phil Taylor may be the perfect selection for the Jets. McShay and CNNSI's Don Banks have Taylor slotted to the Green & White at No. 30. The 6'3", 334-pounder, a transfer from Penn State, is a big man and has some impressive weightroom achievements with a 665-pound squat, 455-pound bench and 400-pound power clean. A late bloomer, Taylor is a space-eater who can clog the middle.
Christian Ballard, DE, Iowa; Kenrick Ellis, DT, Hampton; Drake Nevis, DT, LSU; Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State; Jabaal Sheard, DE, Pittsburgh.
(Robert Quinn, North Carolina, Aldon Smith, Missouri, and Ryan Kerrigan, Purdue will be covered in our linebackers feature on Tuesday. All three fall under the hybrid category.)