This is the third in a series of features on the 2016 NFL Draft, position by position. Today's position: Linebackers. The Jets' LB roster synopsis is followed by five players considered top candidates at the position, plus two "sleeper" picks who could be available when the Jets select in Rounds 3-7.
David Harris in his 10th year is still the guiding light of this unit, the gray eminence, the coach on the field, and ever "the Hitman" — if all goes well, he should get his 85th tackle of the season by early December to move into second place on the Jets' all-time tackles list.
Demario Davis left for Cleveland in free agency but Erin Henderson was re-signed and fits nicely next to Harris on the inside after his veteran play down the stretch last year. Taiwan Jones also played on the inside in preseason and finished the season on the active roster, although deactivated.
This will be a key season for second-year man LoZo IV — a.k.a. Lorenzo Mauldin — to show that he's not only an up-and-coming edge rusher with multicolored dreads but also a candidate as an every-down outside 'backer.
On the strong side, Calvin Pace remains a free agent. Special teams ace Trevor Reilly played on the outside last season as did Deion Barnes in preseason.
Filling in around these 'backers, Freddie Bishop was signed out of the CFL as a potential pass rusher, Bruce Carter has come in from Dallas and Tampa Bay with experience at all spots, Josh Martin (like Taiwan) was on the active roster at the end of the year and Julian Stanford was on the practice squad.
To those 10 'backers we know GM Mike Maccagnan and HC Todd Bowles will add a few more, including perhaps someone from our top-five-plus-two draft list below.
Top Five LBs in the Draft
What does it say that Myles Jack (6'1", 245) is the consensus top LB available, a potential top-five pick, and yet didn't play a down last year? One thing it says is that he's one crackerjack 'backer. The UCLA true junior tore a meniscus in a September practice that led to him missing the season and preparing to enter the draft. One of his great strengths is his athleticism — in his two seasons with the Bruins, he split time at LB and RB. In fact, as a freshman he made 75 tackles, broke up 11 passes, returned one INT for a touchdown, scored seven more TDs as a back, and blocked a punt.
Just as Jack is the No. 1 'backer, Alabama's Reggie Ragland (6'1", 247) is entrenched as the second LB. He was called "the heartbeat of the Crimson Tide's powerful defense" by the school after topping the NCAA title team with 102 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, just 2.5 sacks but seven pass breakups, all leading to unanimous All-America first-team recognition and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors. His run-play focus may detract from his coverage, but he's been described as a "throwback" 'backer who always leaves the game with the dirtiest jersey on the field.
Ohio State's Darron Lee (6'1", 232) is smallish but he's made up for it with loads of confidence and big-play production. He played only two seasons for the Buckeyes, but as a redshirt freshman he started all 15 games for the national champs and earned Sugar Bowl Defensive MVP for all the time he spent in 'Bama's backfield. In 2014-15 combined he had 27.5 tackles for loss and 12.0 sacks. Then Lee wowed 'em at the NFL Combine with a 4.47-second 40, the fastest LB time at this year's workouts and tied for the fasted among all LBs in the last nine Combines.
Leonard Floyd combined his lanky 6'6", 244-pound frame with an edge burst and a non-stop motor to rack up 17.0 sacks, 28.5 tackles for loss, 54 QB pressures and five forced fumbles in his three Georgia seasons. One draft analyst described him as "painfully thin," but several big mockers like him to fall to the Jets at No. 20, among them Rob Rang of cbssports.com, who writes that "Adding a speed rusher like Floyd to complement an already stout defensive line could be exactly what the Jets need to end the Patriots' supremacy in the AFC East."
Jaylon Smith (6'2", 223) suffered a bad New Year's Day hangover, but it wasn't from partying hardy — he tore his ACL and LCL in Notre Dame's Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. Despite the lost 2016 season ahead, he's still considered a late-day-one/early-day-two possibility. That speaks to the kind of player he's been: only the second to win both the high school and college Butkus Awards as the nation's top LB, totals of 284 tackles and 23.5 TFLs in three ND seasons, and a recommendation from Irish HC Brian Kelly that Smith is the best he's ever coached. Could be a steal for a team that can wait a year.
Two LB Draft Sleepers
Looking for inside help on day two? Ohio State's Joshua Perry (6'4", 254) could be a 'backer of interest. He wasn't a five-star recruit for Urban Meyer and isn't a big-splash playmaker. But his production over the last three of his four Buckeyes seasons is steady — 296 tackles, 18.0 TFLs, 7.5 sacks — one report after another says things like "coachable," "nonstop motor" and "will do what it takes." And his character is through the roof as measured by honors such as AFCA All-Good Works Team member and being a finalist for the Lott IMPACT, Senior CLASS and Wuerffel Trophy awards.
Temple's done well by the Jets, having sent them Muhammad Wilkerson in 2011 and, in a roundabout way, Todd Bowles as their head coach. Tyler Matakevich (6'0", 238) is another Owl of renown and in particular is a tackling machine — FBS-high 8.8 solos/game as a sophomore, Owls-career-record 493 total tackles, Bednarik winner, first Temple All-America first-teamer at any position since Paul Palmer in '86. Add in a lot of the same awards that Josh Perry was in the running for and we think Bowles will give an extra glance at this fellow alum.
Photos of the Top Prospects from Sunday's Drills from Lucas Oil Stadium