New York Jets Potential Draft Targets: Inside Linebacker

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In continuation with our positional breakdowns of potential NFL Draft prospects for the New York Jets, we turn our attention to a position that, although may not seem as bad as it looks on the surface, could still benefit from some depth additions, while building toward the future. Today, our draft team provides a breakdown of potential inside linebackers that could be selected by the Jets in April’s draft. These initial rankings are certainly subject to change as we progress through the entire pre-draft process, but as it stands now, these players are who we feel would be the best additions to New York’s interior linebacking corps. Be sure to give our draft team a follow on Twitter, and to check out our previous breakdowns of potential quarterbacksrunning backswide receiversoffensive linemendefensive tackles, and defensive ends/outside linebackers.

Also, be sure to look for part 1 of our 2 part draft interview with former Denver Broncos’ General Manager, Ted Sundquist, of TheFootballEducator.com and Eye-Draft.com. Mr. Sundquist was kind enough to sit down with us and provide some excellent insight on all things NFL Draft. This will be a must read for any of our draftniks and New York Jets/NFL fans. If you aren’t already doing so, be sure to give Ted a follow on Twitter and to check out TFE and Eye-Draft for more fantastic NFL Draft insight and interaction.

Chris Gross

While the inside linebacker play of the New York Jets was average at best last season, an argument can certainly be made that the situation isn’t as bad as it looks. The Jets were victims to a number of things on the interior defense in 2012. Veteran Bart Scott was hampered by both age and injury all season, but was still not the worst 2 down linebacker in the NFL. David Harris saw his production drop off, but for reasons most cannot pinpoint. While Harris and Scott certainly seemed to be shells of their former selves in 2012, a factor that is being vastly overlooked for the dip in play at the inside linebacker position in New York was the situation at Nose Tackle.

In the 3-4 defense, outside of the hybrid outside linebackers that are asked to rush the passer, defend the run, and cover routes, the most important group in the front seven is “the triangle.” The triangle refers to the three interior positions – nose tackle and the two inside linebackers. These three positions are the keys to defending the run in the 3-4 scheme. The nose tackle needs to be big, strong, tough, and durable, and needs to be able to command double teams, allowing one of the inside linebackers to scrape free and put himself in a position to make a play.

Typically, the triangle of a 3-4 can be blocked a number of ways depending on the play, but generally, the idea for the offense will be to block three with three, meaning the center and two guards are responsible for the nose and two inside backers. Whether that is double teaming the nose to one inside backer with the center and guard, while setting up a lane block from the other guard to the second inside backer, the three interior lineman are generally responsible for the three interior defenders, or the triangle.

A lot of times, this blocking scheme isn’t pre-determined. The center and two guards only know who they’re responsible for when they break the huddle. Then, when the offense gets to the line and the center looks at the defense, he will make his line call based on what he sees to determine how the three defenders will be blocked. The bottom line is, the center and two guards have to get the triangle neutralized, and it doesn’t necessarily matter how.

The key for defending this 3 on 3 battle for a defense is through strong play at the nose tackle position. As mentioned above, the general blocking scheme against a triangle typically consists of doubling the nose to one of the interior linebackers and setting up a one on one blocking situation vs the guard and the other inside linebacker. If the nose can effectively be moved off of the ball and the guard or center can get off of the double team to seal the linebacker, the offense usually has the advantage in the one on one situation because the guard knows where the play is going and he can adjust his angle to the backer accordingly.

The key for the defense is for the nose tackle to be an immovable force. If the guard and center cannot drive him off of the ball, then one of them will not be able to get off of the double team, leaving one inside backer virtually unblocked. The offense will adjust the blocking throughout the game to try and set up angles to open up running lanes, but the bottom line is that if the nose tackle cannot be moved off of the line of scrimmage, one of the interior linebackers is going to be unblocked, while the other simply has to beat one blocker.

Unfortunately for the Jets, the play at NT was horribly inconsistent in 2012. Sione Po’uha was hampered by a lingering back injury all season which visibly hurt his ability to get off the ball and be an effective occupant in the middle. Kenrick Ellis showed great promise at times, but was also hampered by injury all season long. This left Mike DeVito, who is much more of a 3/5 technique, to take significant reps at nose. While DeVito is one of the highest effort players in the league, at just around 300 lbs he simply isn’t built to handle the constant double teams faced by a nose tackle.

Because of this, DeVito was consistently moved off of the ball, making it easy for the opposing guard or center to get off of the double team and onto the linebacker at the second level. This constant movement would also begin to hamper the other inside linebacker – whether it was Harris or Scott – as they constantly had something blocking their line of vision and clogging their pursuit lanes. In a nutshell, the interior linebacker play was average at best, but it can be vastly improved in 2013 by upgrading the NT position first.

So what does this all mean for the draft? It means that there is no need for the Jets to spend an early round pick on an inside linebacker. With Scott set to be released in the coming weeks, the 2013 starting inside linebackers for the Jets are all but certain to be Harris and 2nd year pro DeMario Davis. Davis saw limited action as a rookie, but it must not be forgotten that he was making the transition from a 4-3 OLB at Arkansas State to a 3-4 ILB in an extremely complex scheme. The hope is that with a full year and offseason under his belt, he will finally be able to adjust, mentally, and begin to flash that physical dominance that he displayed in college.

Harris, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere either. He is another product of the immovable Mike Tannenbaum contracts, so despite his down year, he will be starting alongside Davis in 2013.

So how can the Jets reestablish a dominant interior defense? The best place to start is at nose tackle. First, New York must make a decision on Sione Po’uha. If the team feels as though he cannot recover enough from his back injury to return to form, he will be released as a salary cap casualty. Then, the team must decide if they are ready to move on with Kenrick Ellis as the full time starter. While Ellis has shown promise, can he carry the load for a full 16 weeks? That is something they will need to look at and decide. From there, the Jets will look to add either a new starter, or backup for depth, via the draft or free agency.

Once the NT situation is cleared up, the decisions at ILB suddenly become easier. It will certainly be Harris and Davis starting in 2012, so as aforementioned, there is no reason to spend an early round draft pick on an inside linebacker, particularly with so many other holes on the roster. The key will be for the Jets to look to get late round value out of an inside linebacker that will provide depth at the position, along with special teams contributions in 2013, while serving as an insurance policy if David Harris continues to underperform his contract. This way, New York gets production out of the draft pick this season, but also allows them to move on from Harris in 2014 if he does not perform to his potential this year.

So, who could the Jets look to add in the draft to fill such a role? Let’s take a look.

Vince Williams, Florida State, 6’1″ 247 lbs - I’ve been beating the Williams drum here since watching him play at the Senior Bowl, and that will not change despite his snub from the NFL Combine. While Williams may lack elite top end speed, he makes up for it with rare instinct and deceptive sideline to sideline maneuverability. While he isn’t exactly fast, he is very quick to the point of attack, and shows a great understanding of offensive plays and tendencies as displayed by his excellent recognition skills and reaction time. He does a good job of using his hands to shed blocks while maintaining a low pad level with good leverage, but he needs to become more violent in attacking blockers. He sometimes allows the blocker to initiate the contact, which puts him in a bad position. He is at his best when he stays aggressive and tenacious.

Outside of his physical play, Williams shows the leadership on the field that any defense would love to have in their interior linebackers. Constantly showing a high level of energy and excitement, it is apparent that Williams raises the intensity of the entire defense as his teammates feed off of what he brings.

With prototypical 3-4 ILB size, Williams will need to impress at his pro-day and individual workouts to raise his stock, as it is the only platform he has left. His testing numbers may not turn out to be great, which could cause his stock to fall, but the bottom line is that Williams can flat out play. Look for him to be taken in the 4th-5th round range, which would be perfect value at the position for the Jets.

Nico JohnsonNico Johnson, Alabama, 6’2″ 249 lbs - Johnson is a very intriguing name to keep an eye on. Many thought he was a a protege of Dont’a Hightower in 2011, just a step slower. That assertion may be somewhat accurate based on how well Johnson defends the run through elite recognition and reaction time. He reads things very well and quickly with his eyes and does not show any sign of hesitation in his footwork. He is an attack linebacker against the run, with great experience in the 3-4, coming from Alabama.

Johnson is excellent at shedding blockers because of his strength, physicality, and ability to beat them to the point of attack due to excellent instinct, but the biggest area of concern here is coverage. While he has not proven to be horrible in this area, he still has a lot of work to do. His athleticism doesn’t necessarily rank at the top among his peers, but he does show good awareness and understanding of routes. His flexibility needs to be improved so he is not as stiff in the hips, which would help his ability to change direction in coverage.

Depending on how he performs in the next couple of weeks, Johnson is likely a 3rd-4th round pick. Coming from a defensively dominant team with a similar scheme, he could hold great value if selected in this range by the Jets.

BosticJon Bostic, Florida, 6’1″ 245 lbs - Like Williams and Johnson, Bostic is a very physical player. He shows good recognition against the run, but is a bit inconsistent with his reaction at times. Sometimes he is a bit too reckless and over pursues, causing him to be hesitant and not aggressive enough on the next play or two. His consistency in this area needs improvement, but when he allows his instincts to take over, he is very good against the run in his steps, downhill angles, and pursuit.

He has some inconsistencies taking on blockers, as well, as he can tend to get too tangled up with them, rather than shedding quickly, but his overall play in this area is far from bad. He does a good job of filling his gap with the correct shoulder, and is typically a problem for leader blockers when he is coming downhill.

He shows a great understanding of his defense, often times aligning his teammates before the snap, and the amount of work he puts in watching film is evident through his recognition of offensive formations and tendencies.

Coverage wise, Bostic is probably a step above the two players aforementioned, but still needs to work on his overall flexibility and transition skills. He displays very good awareness, however, and is an overall effective coverage player. He can blitz as well, often times showing block scheme recognition, which gives him an advantage in taking the proper angles and lanes toward the quarterback.

Bostic is another mid-round prospect who could certainly be worth a pick for the Jets, if they opt to pass on players like Williams and Johnson.

Frank Giasone

When appraising the Jets inside linebackers it’s fairly obvious that the success at the position hinges on two key aspects. Can Demario Davis develop into a legitimate piece on the defense? Will David Harris continue the decline Jets fans have witnessed over the past two seasons?

Both of these unknowns will play heavily in the future of the Jets linebacker corps, and while Rex Ryan will need to start answering those questions as the Jets prepare for the 2013 NFL Draft, the alarming lack of depth at LB certainly puts more pressure on the franchise to get these picks right.

The biggest problem for teams in need of help on the interior this offseason face is the scarcity of legitimate ILB prospects, as this draft class finds itself starved of talent at the position. Luckily for New York, there is an abundance of LBs who appear able to play inside and outside, offering the Jets coaching staff some versatility moving forward.

Here’s a list of my top ILB prospects as April approaches:

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Kiko AlonsoOregon, 6’3” 242 lbs –Right off the bat it’s hard to miss Alonso’s tenacity and nose for the football, as the inside linebacker regularly flashes on film, flying all over the field. If his four interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2012 are an indicator, the projected mid-round pick looks like he may have a promising future in the NFL.

Alonso boasts an impressive combination of size and speed despite his large frame, helping the versatile LB to assist against the run as well as in coverage. At Oregon, Alonso primarily played inside, but was moved around the defense in different schemes. He will also likely contribute on special teams in the NFL, due in large part to his tremendous motor.

While Alonso has character and injury concerns (he received a DUI in 2010, and has had ACL and wrist injuries during his college career), his hard-hitting aggressive approach on defense is something the Jets could certainly use. His versatility is hard to ignore as well, and it’s likely that Rex Ryan could have some fun designing schemes for the intriguing prospect.

linebacker-manti-teoManti Te’o, Notre Dame, 6’2” 255 lbs –The middle linebacker’s senior season didn’t go exactly as planned, as his tremendous 2012 regular season campaign culminated in a less than impressive performance in the National Title Game. As if the thrashing at the hands of Alabama wasn’t enough, Te’o was then thrust into a humiliating “scandal” with an imaginary girlfriend, her imaginary death, and of course, an interview with Katie Couric.

It seems like an eternity has passed since the middle linebacker was being touted as the safest pick in the draft, as his scandal-led slide has led some to position Te’o outside the first round.

Early on Te’o was praised for his leadership on and off the field, and many felt his presence could help the Jets in 2013 and beyond. But after his humiliation at the hands of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, I’m not so sure teams will feel as strongly as in the past.

Aside from possible personality concerns, the National Title Game brought to light lots of questions about his game. Te’o struggled to shed blocks against Alabama’s offensive line, which is about as close as you can get to NFL talent in the college ranks, leading to a very disappointing performance in the biggest game of his college career.

He received a lot of attention for his ball hawking skills in 2012, his toughness to overcome disaster during the season (both real and manufactured), and his teams’ success. But his stock has fallen the past few months, and I’m not sure he’ll be able to do anything to keep it from falling further as April approaches.

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Steve Beuharnais, Rutgers, 6’1” 236 lbs – Beuharnais certainly isn’t the most complete inside linebacker in this draft—and there’s a chance that he find himself undrafted—but using a seventh-round pick on Beuharnais (or even better signing him as an UDFA) could be a possibility for the Jets as they search for depth in the dwindling linebacking corps.

Beuharnais faced questions regarding his ability to transition to the NFL during the season and he didn’t do much to help his stock at the Senior Bowl, as he looked outmatched for much of the week. But the Rutgers LB has some redeeming qualities that could help him become a Day 3 pick.

Most notably, Beuharnais is affective in coverage, showing an impressive ability and awareness when dropping back. While a bit undersized, Beuharnais boasts strong tackling and can also play multiple positions—something the Jets really can’t have enough of.

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Bruce Taylor, Virginia Tech, 6’1” 234 lbs – Taylor is another ILB prospect who faces questions, but due to the lack of prospective talent at the position, could find himself drafted higher than his sixth-round projection.

While he lacks the ideal size of an ILB, Taylor makes up for it with his ability to shed blocks, his burst, and his ability to impact the game in the backfield. He’ll need to prove that he’s capable of staying healthy (he suffered a Lisfranc injury ’11), but his aggressive, sure-tackling style is hard to dismiss.

Zev Sibony

Alec Ogletree, Synjyn DaysAlec Ogletree, Georgia, 6’3” 236 lbs - Ogletree, like Jarvis Jones is just a monster and a freak. Hands down the best ILB in the nation. After missing the first four games of the season he finished with 111 tackles. 111 tackles. In 10 games. To put that in perspective, David Harris had 123 tackles in 16 games this year. Aside from his tackles, he had 11.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 INT and 5 pass defended. Ogletree was good in the pass game, as well as the run. He always seems to be around the ball with great sideline-to-sideline speed.

Even with his great instincts and talents, he will have to put on about 10-15 pounds properly to help him endure the more physical NFL. If the Jets are dead set on drafting Ogletree, it would be best to try and trade down and get more picks before drafting him. A sure first round selection.

MinterKevin Minter, LSU, 6’2” 245 lbs - Minter was the glue for LSU’s defense last year. He was consistently phenomenal throughout the whole season. Considering how many great players LSU had on their defense, that speaks volumes. Minter had 130 tackles, 15 TFLs, 4 sacks, 5 pass defended, a forced fumble and an INT. Run support is Minter’s strength as he makes quick decisive reads with no missteps. He hits like an absolute truck with good tackling form, as well. He has no hesitation with a very physical style of play. These are good attributes for an inside linebacker to have.

Rutgers North Carolina FootballKevin Reddick, ILB, UNC – 6’1” 246 lbs- Riddick started the 2012 season slow but picked it up towards the end. He is an overall solid linebacker in terms of technique but will be best utilized by a 3-4 team that likes to blitz from the inside. Does that sound like a team we used to know? Riddick also seems incredibly fast on tape. He might be the fastest in a straight line, but field speed is different than straight-line speed. Either way, Riddick has the tools and instincts to be a good NFL inside linebacker, especially if he has the right coaching. Look for him in the 2nd round, maybe early 3rd at the latest, barring a bad combine performance. If the Jets can make trades and stockpile picks, there is no reason why they shouldn’t take a hard look at him. David Harris isn’t going to last much longer.

Vince Williams, Florida State, 6’1” 247 lbs - Vince Williams didn’t really “jump off the page” at Florida State this past year, but he was surrounded by a lot of talent on an excellent defense. There are only so many plays that can be made. In the Senior Bowl, however, he was impressive throughout the entire week. He was playing at a level that ranked among the highest of all the ILBs that were invited. Physical, strong, smart, and a big hitter. He isn’t the fastest of the ILBs but he certainly isn’t the slowest. Speed can be worked on, but instincts are what’s important. Williams was probably a 5th or 6th round pick before the Senior Bowl, now he may move more into the 4th round range.

Sio Moore/ Zaviar Gooden - I wrote about two of these 4-3 OLBs in our DE/OLB roundtable because I think both can make the switch to OLB. I also think they can play ILB in the 3-4 defense. From what I’ve seen from the two of them, they kind of have opposite strengths. Sio Moore excels in the run game, while Gooden uses his speed and is better in the pass game. Although those are their strengths, they are still solid in other areas. Moore will likely be a 2nd rounder while Gooden will be chosen in the 4th or 5th round.