With so much focus on who the Jets could target at Outside Linebacker, Safety, Wide Receiver, and Running Back in this year’s draft, little attention has been paid to the idea of New York selecting an Inside Linebacker in one of the early rounds. Many people forget that before the start of free agency, the Jets were reportedly shopping Bart Scott. No deal was ever made for Scott, but the intention to move the aging ILB shows that the Jets will be ready to get a younger player to pair with David Harris in the near future. There are three players worthy of the Jets taking in one of the early rounds.
1 - Luke Kuechly, Boston College – Kuechly is undoubtedly the cream of the crop of this year’s Inside Linebackers. With 516 career tackles at Boston College, including an astounding 191 this year alone, the 2011 Butkus Award winner is simply a tackling machine. Not only does Kuechly have ideal size at 6’3” 242 lbs, but his speed (4.58 40) and strength (27 reps) combined with his phenomenal football IQ and instincts to make him the prototypical Inside Linebacker. He would be a great fit with New York, but his value is likely in the top ten, and it is doubtful that the Jets would trade up to draft a position that is not its greatest need. However, if he somehow falls to them at 16, don’t be shocked if they pull the trigger on the BC product.
2 - Dont’a Hightower, Alabama – Hightower is one of the most intriguing players in the draft this year. With 83 tackles, 4 sacks, and 1 interception this past season, his numbers aren’t as impressive as Kuechly’s, but let’s not forget that he was on a defense with 3 first team All-Americans. Simply put, there was no room for one player to post huge numbers. Aside from statistics, Hightower’s measurables are what make him so interesting. At 6’2” 265 lbs, a 33 inch arm length, and great speed for his weight (4.68 40), Hightower is a player than can be moved all around the Jets’ scheme. He has the ability to play inside, while also possessing the intangibles to be a situational pass rusher off the edge. Rex Ryan could certainly be creative with his abilities, and this could possibly solve two needs in one, while grooming him to take over for Scott when the time comes. He should be available when the Jets pick at 16, and this has the potential to be an eyebrow raiser next Thursday night.
3 – Mychal Kendricks, California – Kendricks’ stock is rapidly rising as draft day approaches, and he is likely to be an early second rounder. At 5’11” 249 lbs, he certainly has the size needed to take on the double teams as a 3-4 ILB, while also possessing amazing speed (4.47 40) to make him a pass rushing threat from the inside (14 career sacks at Cal). The question with Kendricks will be if the Jets are willing to move up in the second round to get him. We have seen this act before when New York moved up in round two to grab David Harris in 2007, a move that was one of Mike Tannenbaum’s best decisions as GM. Expect the Jets to take a hard look at Kendricks if they don’t take Kuechly or Hightower. If he is available to them in the second round without having to trade up, it will be almost impossible for Gang Green to pass on a talent like this.
If the Jets do opt to pass on ILB in one of the first 3 rounds, there are several late round prospects they will take a look at. The top two late round prospects are Bobby Wagner of Utah State and Nevada’s James-Michael Johnson. However, despite being very quality, productive players, these two are a bit undersized to play 3-4 ILB, and will be much more suited to play MLB in a 4-3 scheme. I do not see either of them fitting into the Jets’ draft plans.
Audie Cole out of North Carolina State has a very high ceiling, but would be a work in progress. At 6’4” 246 lbs, he has great size and the production to go with it, posting 107 tackles and 5.5 sacks last season. However, his strength is well below average with only 15 reps on the bench press. This certainly will not cut it at the NFL level, especially in a 3-4 scheme, but his late round value may make him a worthy pick as a developmental type player.
Finally, New York could, and should, target Arizona State’s Vontaze Burfict in rounds 5-7. Burfict has been missing in action in every mock draft after a horrible combine, in which he weighed in at 248 pounds and ran a very below average 4.93 40-yard dash.
However, after the season, Burfict was a projected first rounder by several analysts including ESPN’s Todd McShay. Since then, his attitude issues and poor testing numbers have dropped him so far down draft boards that Mike Mayock of the NFL Network recently wrote that he sees Burfict going undrafted. That may be a bit extreme, especially when noting Burfict’s production at Arizona State the past two seasons, where he had 158 total tackles, 5 sacks, and 1 interception. His aggressive attitude that has seemed to scare many scouts away would fit perfectly with the Jets. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and has the swag that Rex Ryan looks for in his linebackers. If New York can grab Burfict in one of the last three rounds, it would produce a low risk, high reward scenario, and they should not hesitate to take a chance on him.