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Intriguing LBs Could Be Waiting at No. 30

This is the second in a series of position-by-position stories on the NFL Draft by

On the one hand the Jets rusfhed the passer better in 2010 than some gave them credit for. Their 40 sacks in the regular season was tied for eighth in the NFL and their sack rate (one sack every 14.3 dropbacks) was ninth in the league and second-best in the last decade of Jets football.

On the other hand, the Jets' pressure can get better.

"Everybody needs pass rushers," Jets head coach Rex Ryan told reporters at last week's owners meetings in New Orleans. "We were 10th in the league last year in sacks and third in the league in defense, and yet we need pass rushers. If we need them, then how about these other teams? Everybody needs pass rushers. Clearly, if a pass rusher's there and we think he's the best player, then that's the guy we'll take."

And in the Ryan/Mike Pettine defensive scheme of things, pass rusher equates to linebacker. In the 38 games of the Ryan era of Green & White football, the Jets have totaled 87 sacks. LBs have totaled 44 of those, more than half, and 31.5 of those were turned in by outside linebackers.

Of course, LBs do a lot more than just apply the heat. They shut down the run and they cover backs and tight ends. Regardless of the system, the top backers are the BattleBots of all defensive positions, applying just the right combination of skills — whirring speed, pinpoint change of direction, hammering hits, surgical pass defense — to make the play.

And considering the Jets' age at the position, Rex, Mike Tannenbaum and company may want to explore a youth movement. At the start of the next season, Bryan Thomas will be 32 years old and in his 10th season, Bart Scott will be 31 and in his ninth, youngster David Harris will be 27 and in his fifth, and Calvin Pace will be almost 31 and in his ninth season. Jason Taylor, who was released and told The Associated Press he'd like to return to the Jets, will be 37 and would be entering Year No. 15. Not exactly creaking but on average not a bunch of twentysomethings either.

Thus we turn to linebackers in next month's draft. With the first round heavy in DEs and DTs (another area of interest for the Jets, to be sure), only two LBs may be called once the primetime first round ends late on the night of April 28.

One LB doesn't figure to be anywhere near where the Jets select in Round 1, even if they trade up. Von Miller, the 6'3", 246-pound Texas A&M senior, has top-5 written all over him. He posted 27.5 sacks his last two years, 10.5 coming last season after he suffered an early high-ankle sprain, and took home the Butkus Award, presented to the country's top linebacker.

"More than a sack artist, Miller has shown coverage skills that complement known pass-rush production," Mel Kiper has written this month. "Workout totals icing on the cake." Most of the reviews have been positive, although one draft analyst has said he hasn't shown the effort of Patrick Willis, the 49ers' top pick at ILB in 2007.

Miller won't be around when the Jets pick in Round 1, but here are two who could be. Akeem Ayers, the athletic and versatile 6'3", 254-pound redshirt junior from UCLA, has fallen to No. 30 in a few prominent mock drafts, including a recent one turned in by National Football Post.

NFP's Wes Bunting acknowledges Ayers' 4.84 40 time but counters that "Every draft we see a number of good football players fall during this time of the year because of a poor 40 time that end up developing into early impact players at the next level. And following the combine, I think that prospect could end up being Ayers this year, and whatever team ends up getting their hands on him is going to be happy that he did.

But another mock by the inestimable Pat Kirwan of says the Green & White pick won't be Ayers but rather Justin Houston, the big 'backer from Georgia who's also a redshirt junior. "A big outside 'backer with pass-rush skills, Houston had 10 sacks last season and ran a 4.68 40 at 270 pounds," Pat K writes. "He has similar traits to some of the Ravens' outside linebackers that Rex Ryan coached when he worked there."

Crossover Crunchers

Also in our LB piece are three prominent crossover candidates, DEs in college who could line up there or at OLB or both in the pros. North Carolina's Robert Quinn (6'4", 265) is the most prominent of the threesome — telling, perhaps, because Quinn was suspended for 2010 by the NCAA for dealings with an agent and because he also still has a tumor located at the base of his brain, although he's had no symptoms since undergoing surgery after his high school career ended.

Mike Mayock,'s draft expert, has Quinn as his No. 6 overall pick and says, "I think from an edge-rush perspective, he might be the best guy in the draft."

Two other hybrids who have bounced back and forth in the middle of many first-round mocks are Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan (6'4", 267) and Missouri's Aldon Smith (6'4", 263).

Kerrigan had a fine career as a Boilermaker, totaling 33.5 sacks and a Football Bowl Subdivision and Big Ten record of 14 forced fumbles, and crowned everything with Purdue's first unanimous All-America selection since 1980.

Meanwhile, Smith, a redshirt sophomore, put together fine numbers for 10 games of action (5.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 58-yard INT return) while fighting through an early "slightly fractured" right leg. Evaluators look at him as a potential John Abraham or Julian Peterson type of pass rusher, says

The Top Insider

Inside 'backer, as often happens on the field, is not as high-profile in this draft as the outside dudes. The top pure ILB appears to be Martez Wilson, the 6'4", 250-pound redshirt junior from Illinois who turned in, among other combine efforts, a 10'4" broad jump that topped all ILBs. The Drafttek people see Wilson as "an explosive player with an exceptional straight-line game. His overall size and wingspan will help bat down or deflect passes." And he can "create havoc in some blitz packages as he is one of the fastest LBs available."

Other Notables

Sam Acho, OLB, Texas; Bruce Carter, OLB, North Carolina; Colin McCarthy, ILB, Illinois; Dontay Moch, OLB, Nevada; Brooks Reed, OLB, Arizona; Quan Sturdivant, ILB, North Carolina.

Friday, March 25 —**Defensive Linemen**

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