Newyorkjets.com's coverage of the 2012 draft includes breakdowns of each position group, the Jets' needs at the spot, and the top players expected to be selected at the position from April 26-28. Today: Linebackers.
While other positions are receiving more attention leading into the 2012 NFL Draft, the Jets will certainly look at the deep linebacker class. The Green & White have selected only six linebackers with their last 69 picks spanning 11 drafts. Of the eight linebackers currently under contract with the Jets, only David Harris was an original draft pick (2007, second round).
Harris serves as the anchor in the middle of the Jets defense, and has led the team in total tackles in each of the last three seasons. Harris and the Jets agreed to a four-year extension last August, guaranteeing that "the Hitman" will remain with the Jets through 2014.
Fellow starting LB Bart Scott is also under contract, providing the Jets with two veterans to man the middle of the field. Josh Mauga also got some playing time with the base defense at key times during the year and the former undrafted free agent showed the NFL spotlight wasn't too bright for him.
The outside is where the Jets may look to add depth and perhaps their next starter. OLB Bryan Thomas is still rehabbing his torn Achilles suffered back in Week 4 at Baltimore but was re-signed within hours after he technically became an undrafted free agent and is expected to be ready to roll come opening day.
Calvin Pace quietly put together another productive season and will return to the Jets on the side opposite BT. He was third on the team with 72 tackles, including 4.5 sacks, and forced a pair of fumbles.
LB Aaron Maybin was a restricted free agent who pleasantly surprised in becoming the team leader with six sacks and only the second Jets LB since 2000 to force four fumbles in a season (trailing Pace's five in '08). Maybin was tendered at a first-round level by the Jets, who didn't tender Jamaal Westerman and saw him leave for their AFC East rivals, the Dolphins.
After Thomas went down in Baltimore, the Jets filled the position with a rotation of Westerman and well-traveled free agent LB Garrett McIntyre. Pace served as the reliable option at the other outside backer spot. Will the Jets add to the mix and find their next big pass rusher from the candidates below?
Round 1 Rushers: Ingram, Upshaw
Screaming loudly on many draft boards has been South Carolina OLB Melvin Ingram. Depending on the analyst, Ingram is either a defensive end or an outside linebacker. Either way, he is an elite pass rusher. At 6'1" and 264 pounds, he is a nightmare to block and could fit in perfectly in an NFL 3-4 system similar to that of the Jets. Currently he projects as a mid-first-round selection, and some mocks have had him dropping to the Jets with their 16th overall pick.
In addition to Ingram, Alabama OLB Courtney Upshaw (6'2", 272) is considered to be the other top-notch pass rusher. Upshaw helped lead the Crimson Tide to the national title last season as a member of the nation's top overall defense. An All-American in 2011, Upshaw was a finalist for the Lombardi, Butkus and Bednarik awards. He played both inside and out at Alabama, but projects as a pass-rushing 'backer in a 3-4 system at the NFL level.
Among inside backers, Boston College's Luke Kuechly (6'3", 242) is drawing the most interest. Kuechly was by one unofficial count the nation's leading tackler with 191 stops last season. He's a two-time All-American and won the 2011 Butkus, Nagurski and Lombardi awards. And his 4.58 seconds in the 40 was the second-best time among ILBs at the NFL Combine in February.
Other potential first-rounders include North Carolina OLB Zach Brown and Alabama ILB Dont'a Hightower. Brown (6'1", 244) has experience playing inside and out — and his 40 time of 4.50 was the best among all linebackers at the combine — while Hightower (6'2", 265) was a star for the Crimson Tide. There is no shortage of top-level talent at the linebacker position expected to be taken in the first round.
Another two interesting prospects include Clemson's Andre Branch and Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, who were covered in Monday's Defensive Line overview. Both played predominantly at DE in college, but have been tabbed as potential 3-4 outside linebackers. Branch was named to the All-ACC team in 2011, leading the conference with 10.5 sacks. Mercilus led the nation with 13.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles and was a Nagurski finalist.
More 'Backers Sure to Intrigue
Nebraska's Lavonte David stands as a wild-card option for a creative NFL defense. At 6'1" and 233 pounds, he's undersized by pro standards. However, what he lacks in size he more than makes up for in competitive drive. David earned a reputation as a tackling machine at Nebraska, totaling 285 over the past two seasons. Ability is not the question for David. Rather, where does he fit?
With a nickname like "the Hammer," it's only fitting that Oklahoma OLB Ronnell Lewis (6'2", 253) will get to hit people for a living. In 2011 Lewis had a career-high 59 tackles, 13 stops for losses, 5.5 sacks, five pass breakups, one interception and one forced fumble as the Sooners junior earned All-Big 12 first-team honors.
Bruce Irvin, a West Virginia product who comes in at 6'3", 245 pounds, is blessed with wonderful athleticism and amassed 22.5 sacks the past two seasons. Unfortunately, Irvin was arrested for destruction of property and disorderly conduct after his pro day, so he may have to allay some teams' character concerns before Draft Weekend.
Inside 'backer Vontaze Burfict (6'3", 250) from Arizona State is puzzling. On the field he can be Ray Lewis-intimidating, but off-field issues have been hurting him. As NFLDraftScout has noted, "his stock continues to tumble with every test" this postseason. from unimpressive interviews at the combine to 5.00-plus times in the 40.
Mychal Kendricks, California; Jonathan Massaquoi, Troy; Shea McClellin, Boise State; Sean Spence, Miami; Bobby Wagner, Utah State.