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Jets Draft Preview | LB Could Be Attractive Addition to Back Seven

Some Top Selections at Linebacker and Safety for GM Joe Douglas and Green & White to Consider

FILE - Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders (42) celebrates after making a big play against Cincinnati during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. Sanders was selected to The Associated Press All-America team released Monday, Dec. 12, 2022.(AP Photo/Michael Woods, File)

Even with the outstanding season and statistics that the Jets defense posted in 2022, rising to fourth in the NFL in total yards and points allowed, the Green & White would seem to be in the market for a linebacker and a safety.

Even though Lamarcus Joyner hasn't been re-signed as a free agent, the Green & White still have last year's UFA starter, Jordan Whitehead, at one safety position and Chuck Clark coming in via trade from the Ravens to fight Ashtyn Davis, undrafted second-year pro Tony Adams and the rest of the safety crew for the other starting job, so safety may or may not be on the frontburner.

HC Robert Saleh and DC Jeff Ulbrich keep a trimmed-down LB corps led by C.J. Mosley in the middle and Quincy Williams outside, with third-year players Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen competing at the other OLB spot. But if GM Joe Douglas doesn't re-sign UFA Kwon Alexander, the Jets may want to spend some draft capital on the best 'backer available when they're on the clock.

Here are thumbnails on three of the NFL Draft's best linebacker candidates who will become available beginning April 27, followed by "thumbs" of three top safeties who will also be selected during the three days of the 2023 draft.

See NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah's updated list of the top 50 prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft.

ILB Jack Campbell (6-4, 249), Iowa
Campbell, one of the biggest LBs at the NFL Combine, was also one of the most athletic. He easily had the best time among all 'backers in the 3-cone (6.74 seconds) and posted strong marks among ILBs in the 20 shuttle (4.24), broad jump (10-8) and vertical jump (37.5 inches). He built his résumé over four Hawkeyes seasons to a senior year in which he earned the Dick Butkus Award as the nation's top LB and was named first-team AP All-American, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and winner of the "Academic Heisman." The only red flag: sometimes plodding playmaking and a lack of a short burst (his worst combine drill was the 40 at 4.65).

ILB Drew Sanders (6-4, 235), Arkansas
Sanders gets an A for his college career. He started out signing with Alabama as a top high school recruit out of Texas and played two seasons for the Tide. Last year he transferred to Arkansas and excelled with 103 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and an INT, all of which got him first-team status on All-SEC and AP All-America teams. Sanders lost out to Campbell for the Butkus award, and now he's vying with Campbell to be the top LB taken in the draft, although both are longshots to make it into Round 1.

OLB Daiyan Henley (6-0, 225), Washington State
Henley is the top outside 'backer in this draft, although he played inside collegiately. LA born and bred, he started his college clock as a WR at Nevada, flipped to DB in '19, used his medical redshirt to play LB at Nevada in 2020-21, then transferred to Washington State, where he racked up 106 tackles, four sacks, one interception and three FFs, was named first-team All-Pac 12 and, like Sanders, finished behind Campbell for the Butkus. His 4.54 speed in the 40 sometimes gets negated in coverage and he can be a non-factor at times vs. the run, but his athleticism and experience (he'll turn 24 in November) could induce an NFL team to take him in Round 2.

Other top-rated linebackers: Clemson OLB Trenton Simpson (6-2, 235); Alabama ILB Henry To'o To'o (6-1, 227)

S Brian Branch (5-11, 190), Alabama
Branch was used everywhere in 'Bama's secondary, safety, corner and nickel, and he played those positions so well that he's the only back-seven player in this draft expected to be a slam-dunk first-rounder, probably in the middle of the round. Last year he was the only SEC player with 90-plus tackles, 2+ interceptions and 2+ sacks, and in his three Tide seasons he played 35 games, made 172 tackles and 19.5 tackles for loss, racked up three interceptions and 23 pass defenses. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein sums up Branch this way: "There are areas where he can improve but no real weaknesses, which could make him one of the safest picks in the draft."

S Antonio Johnson (6-1, 198), Texas A&M
An injury cost Johnson the Aggies' last three games last season, and he went pick-less and with only one PD. Yet he racked up three forced fumbles and 71 tackles in his nine games and was named first team All-SEC in his third and final college season. He throws his NFL size around in moving up to the line of scrimmage while not being as impressive in midrange and deep coverage, making him a solid Day 2 draft pick for a team in need of a box safety.

S Sydney Brown (5-9, 211), Illinois
Brown and JL Skinner from Boise State are the best of the rest of the deep middle in this draft. Brown has the athleticism to make an NFL roster, with his 4.47 seconds in the 40 finishing just a whisker out of the top three times among safeties at the Combine. He played five seasons with the Illini, including a redshirt 2020, and last season snapped up six INTs, finishing one away from tying for the FBS lead, and his average of 64 tackles/season combined with his 23 reps in the Combine bench press indicate a physicality packed in a smaller frame. One caution: He suffered 19 missed tackles the past two seasons.

Other top-rated safeties: Boise State's JL Skinner (6-3, 209); Penn State's Ji'Ayir Brown (5-11, 203)

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