Prospect Watch: The Linebackers

As the Jets edge closer to the draft I’ll be running through some names that will intrigue, disgust and perhaps surprise you. This year’s draft is filled with talent at some positions and lacks at others but I’ll try to break it all down so we can get a glimpse as to whether or not we can expect the Jets to draft one of these NFL-hopefuls.

DE/OLB Andre Branch, Clemson
Height: 6′-4” Weight: 259 lbs 40-Time: 4.70

Background: While Branch primarily saw the majority of his snaps at defensive end, he does have experience at OLB, something the Jets would be counting on if they drafted Branch. He is very athletic and physical and can disengage blockers with relative ease while picking his way into the backfield. He plays with a non-stop motor and can manuver his way on the field reasonably well. Branch does have inconsistencies coming off the snap and will not always react to the play well. There are concerns about his pass rush moves, or lack thereof, and pad level.

Projection: The Jets have seemed to taken a keen interest to Branch in the past couple of weeks and why not? He may not be first round calibrer talent but he certainly has the tools to be successful at the next level and has even drawn comparisons to former teammate and current Jet Ricky Sapp sans the knee issues. While the Jets could go in a number of directions at #16 whether it be with a receiver or if Trent Richardson inconcievably falls that far but ultimately I do think they will spend it on a pass rusher. Is it Branch? I don’t think so. Not with talent such as Upshaw and Ingram likely available to them.

OLB Zach Brown, North Carolina
Height: 6′-1” Weight: 244 lbs 40-Time: 4.50

Background: As evidenced by his 4.50 40 time at the Combine, Brown is a speedster and because of it he is consistently in position to make plays. He has shown the ability to weave through traffic and make his way into the backfield while showing solid ability against defending the run. The problem with Brown is that he almost always relys on his speed and subsequently his technique in nearly every facet needs refinement.

Projection: I understand there are some people who like the skills, and potential, that Brown will bring to the table but at this juntion it would be a real reach for the Jets to take him at #16. That isn’t to say he won’t be good at the next level but what the Jets really need is someone who can come flying out of the gates and I just don’t see Brown doing that right away.

ILB Dont’a Hightower, Alabama
Height: 6′-2” Weight: 265 lbs 40-Time: 4.68

Background: Hightower is what you would hope for in a Rex Ryan linebacker providing a dominating physical presence on the field reminiscent of Bart Scott leveling Ben Roethlisberger. Hightower has been given ringing endorsements from former coach Nick Saben to former teammate Rolando McClain who have praised Hightower’s ability to play virtually anywhere on defense whether it be OLB, ILB or DE. A leader both on and off the field, Hightower can read and react well and isn’t generally prone to making costly errors and he can utilize his size to swallow up ball carriers. There are concerns about his health after suffering a knee injury that required surgery on his ACL, MCL and meniscus–he didn’t truly begin to rebound from the 2009 injury until his last season with the Crimson Tide. Hightower’s stiff hips expose him as a liability in pass coverage particularly in man-to-man and he can be taken out of plays due to poor cuts towards the receiver or ball carrier.

Projection: Hightower is someone who hasn’t really registered a lot on the Jets’ radar in recent weeks and while his versatility is enticing, the Jets need someone who is more polished in terms of pass rushing and Hightower will only provide you so much. Ultimately, I do not see him ending up with Gang Green.

DE/OLB Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
Height: 6′-1” Weight: 264 lbs 40-Time: 4.79

Background: Some say he’ll be gone by #16 while others contend the opposite. Whatever the case, Ingram is another hot commodity that teams will be coveting. Ingram is another versatile player who can line up at OLB, DE and even at NT. His physical prowress has been highly touted and allows him to anchor against the run while plowing through would-be blockers en route to the quarterback. His tackling technique could use some refinement and he needs to show more consistentsy coming off the snap. There are concerns about his short arms and he is still raw in pass coverage as it was something he was required to do frequently.

Projection: Ingram is intriguing for a lot of reasons namely because of his high potential at the next level. There have already been concerns regarding his one-year wonder status but consider that even when he wasn’t starting, he managed to rack up 9 sacks in 2010 and 8.5 more as a starter. I’m no math major but those seem like pretty solid numbers. While there will be questions about his arms, the majority of his flaws are likely rooted in the fact that he has lacked a lot of experience as a starter. If he is around at #16 with Upshaw, I would not envy anyone in the Jets’ draft room.

DE/OLB Chandler Jones, Syracuse
Height: 6′-5” Weight: 266 lbs 40-Time: 4.87

Background: Jones’ stock has only started to rise somewhat in the past few weeks and he does provide some compelling evidence to back that up. His hands are constantly active and long arms and size provide him with the tools to use effective pass rush manuvers to get to the quarterback. He has the ability to track the ball and provides a physical presence who plays until the whistle blows. The question for Jones though is how high will his ceiling be? He has all the proper tools to succeed but how well he uses them and how receptive he will be will make all the difference. He isn’t a speedster and tends to play too high. He cannot easily change direction and will rely to much on one aspect of his game, particularly his size, to help him.

Projection: From a scouting standpoint it is all there but again, there will be questions as to whether or not Jones can put it all together to succeed at the next level. At #16, Jones would be a huge reach for the Jets to take a flyer on with more polished prospects more than likely to be available when they’re called to the podium.

ILB Luke Kuechly, Boston College
Height: 6′-3” Weight: 242 lbs 40-Time: 4.58

Background: Kuechly is a dominanting physical linebacker who will do just about anything to get to his man and make the tackle. He has a real nose for the ball and has shown an incredibly high football IQ evidenced by his high volume of production at BC. He isn’t going to offer you much in terms of pass rushing as he lacks the physical tools to become an elite rusher and his run defense is sound but suspect at times.

Projection: Kuechly would be a great fit if he could offer more in terms of pass rushing. His coverage ability is solid which would certainly help the Jets in their quest to cover tight ends but ultimately, the Jets don’t need an ILB as much as they need an OLB and following his combine performance, there is speculation that Kuechly could go within the Top 12.

DE/OLB Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
Height: 6′-3” Weight: 261 lbs 40-Time: 4.68

Background: Mercilus is relatively new to the football scene but already he has made an immediate impression. He is constantly going and will not stop until the whistle blows. He isn’t afraid to use his hands and speed to pick his way into the backfield and he is a pistol off the snap. He has also mastered his tackling technique pretty well. That said, Mercilus is more of a straight-line player and struggles to play in space. Overall, his lack of experience means he is fairly raw and will need some refinement.

Projection: Mercilus is another linebacker slapped with the one-year wonder status and whether that is true or not remains to be seen. The good news is he already has a lot of the tools to succeed but this will all be dependent on how it all translates at the next level. It can’t be all bad considering he has garnered comparisons to Jason Pierre-Paul who was an unexpected delight for the Giants in his rookie season. The only thing that would stop the Jets from drafting Mercilus is the fact they have been burned by unrefined talent in the past and there will almost certainly be more polished talent available to them.

DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw, Alabama
Height: 6′-1” Weight: 272 lbs 40-Time: N/A

Background: Rex Ryan has professed his love for him and smoke screen or not, there is a lot to like about Upshaw. From the get-go he was a pass rusher first and will always be regarded as such. He is able to stand up against his man and has a variety of pass rushing moves to make his way to the quarterback consistently. He has also has the physical tools to step up in pass coverage and his versatility will allow him to play at multiple positions, an essential component in a Pettine/Ryan defensive scheme. He plays very physical and is not afraid to impose his will on opponents. He doesn’t possess elite speed and physically isn’t your protypical pass rusher though he makes up for that within other aspects of his game.

Projection: Even with his flaws, Upshaw is just one of those guys who jump out at you with his ability, production and attitude. Ryan has expressed an exuberent amount of love for Upshaw though consipracy theorists have viewed it as a smokescreen. Regardless, Upshaw has exactly what the Jets have been looking for and is one of the likely choices for Gang Green at #16.

Honorable mentions: Vinny Curry, Nigel Bradham, Bruce Irvin, Ronnell Lewis, Shea McClellin and Nick Perry.