The ILB Picture as Vilma Hits the Comeback Trail


Vilma with swagger after a great play

During the Jets' regular-season finale, linebacker Jonathan Vilma returned to the sideline with his teammates. The four-year veteran, a defensive captain who had his season cut short because of a right knee injury, was a spectator at the Meadowlands as his teammates tripped up the Chiefs in overtime.

It had to be tough for Vilma to watch, but he'll undoubtedly take a positive approach toward his off-season rehabilitation.

"He had a significant injury, one that put him on injured reserve. I know Jon real well — he's a hard worker and smart," said GM Mike Tannenbaum. "I expect him to be back. Where and how he is used is going to be up to the coaches."

When Vilma was placed on injured reserve in late October, rookie David Harris, a second-rounder from Michigan, took his place in the lineup. The 6'2", 243-pounder was terrific in relief, registering a team-high 117 tackles and tying Shaun Ellis for the Jets' lead with five sacks.

"David has a lot of the attributes that Eric [Mangini] and I believe in. He's smart — you could see that he was preparing to play even before he went out there," Tannenbaum said. "When he got out there, he hit the ground running. He plays real physical and he's an excellent tackler, not only in the line-of-scrimmage play but also in space. He did a really nice job with that and was productive in rushing the passer as well. He's a complete player."

In addition to the impressive stat line, Harris quickly had to become a vocal presence. After 56 games of receiving signals from Vilma, the defenders looked to Harris in each of his nine starts.

"I just told David he needed to be assertive, he didn't have to be a jerk out there, and just to make sure everybody gets the call and to take charge," said fellow inside 'backer Eric Barton.

And Harris, with help from Barton among others, did exactly that. He took command in Vilma's absence, anchoring a sound 3-4 unit in the second half. He humbly assessed his play at the end of the season.

"I think I did OK. I just tried to be ready when my number was called. When Jonathan went down, I knew the defense needed me to step up and take his place, and I just try to be ready when my number is called," he said. "With the help of the linebackers — Eric Barton, Brad Kassell, Vilma and our position coach [Jim Herrmann] — they got me ready."

Following season-ending surgery, Vilma addressed the media. In his only public statements to date, he complimented his rookie replacement.

"As far as watching him and his demeanor on the field, watching the way he handles himself and carries himself, the energy and intensity he plays with is very impressive and very good," he said in November.

If Vilma is completely healed, the Jets have luxury on the inside. Harris, who was just named to the NFL All-Rookie team, is a star in the making and the Jets like Barton's intelligence and toughness. At his season-ending news conference, head coach Eric Mangini was asked how the team might use Harris and Vilma in '08.

"Those are actually mirror positions, the two inside linebackers," Mangini said. "There are some differences between the Mike and the Will in terms of the run fits. Barton and David knew both spots and Jonathan knew both spots because what you don't want to do is have a team 'step' the tight end, motion him over and now you're playing to the tight end side and you don't know how to play those blocks. So those are really mirror positions and you have some flexibility there."

Position flexibility is a trait Mangini covets and depth is something Tannenbaum continually focuses on. While it remains to be seen where Vilma fits in '08, the Green & White are sure of his value as a player.

"Jonathan is a leader and has always done everything he can to help this team win," Mangini said after Vilma's injury. "He's diligent in his preparation and has always unselfishly taken the time to share his knowledge of the game with his teammates. I know he will approach this challenge with that same type of effort and focus."

Always the competitor, Vilma actually wanted to play through his condition at first. So you can be sure he'll do everything he can to get back to full speed in the coming months.

"Unless you carry me off on a stretcher," he said, "I want to play."

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