Commentary

Gang ready to try for LB ... again

Four years after an epic poor choice, the Jets need to land a pass-rusher

Updated: April 24, 2012, 1:18 PM ET
By Rich Cimini | ESPNNewYork.com

Warning: You're about to relive a painful memory.

Barring something wacky, the New York Jets will draft a linebacker for the first time since -- brace yourself -- Vernon Gholston in 2008.

Four years after perhaps the worst draft pick in team history, the Jets are prepared to get back on the horse and give it another try. This time, they hope the horse is a thoroughbred, not a birthday-party pony.

Vernon Gholston
Sam Sharpe/US PresswireVernon Gholston, a defensive end at Ohio State, did not transition well to outside linebacker.

"Look, we all make mistakes," said general manager Mike Tannenbaum, looking back. "We're going to learn from ours."

They're still paying for it because here they are, sitting with the 16th pick in the first round, hoping to land an outside linebacker who rushes the quarterback and develops into a three-down player.

But mostly rushes the quarterback.

Basically, coach Rex Ryan is looking for his new Terrell Suggs, an edge rusher who can wreck blocking schemes and consistently beat one-on-one blocks. Ryan was lucky to have Suggs in Baltimore. In New York, he's never had a player with more than eight sacks in a season.

The Jets still managed to finish first, third and fifth in total defense, respectively -- a testament to the coaching of Ryan and coordinator Mike Pettine -- but the unit started to show signs of age last season and it's time to address the matter early in the draft.

Former Buffalo Bills draft bust Aaron Maybin wasn't signed until Week 4, and he still wound up leading the team with six sacks. When somebody else's castoff arrives late on the scene and still finishes with the most sacks, it's a problem.

Under Pettine, who called the plays for the first time, the Jets became more conservative than in previous years. They finished 12th in blitz percentage (32 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information. With Ryan calling plays in 2009 and 2010, they ranked first and third, with a 52 percent mark in '09.

Ryan has said he's planning to resume a more active role in the defense, which probably means a return to the aggressive pressure schemes. But that may not be a cure-all.

"They manufacture pressure; they don't do it with conventional numbers, and that exposes the coverage liabilities in the middle of the field," said one AFC personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Melvin Ingram
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireMelvin Ingram's power and athleticism make him an early-first-round prospect.

If the Jets can draft a stud pass-rusher, they should be able to scale back on the blitzing. South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, an explosive rusher with the ability to line up almost anywhere, is their top pass-rushing target, according to league sources.

Ingram recorded 10 sacks, 15 knockdowns and 10.5 hurries last season, according to STATS LLC. The only player in the draft with better numbers is Illinois' Whitney Mercilus, who produced 16, 19.5 and eight, respectively.

Ryan attended Ingram's pro day and came away impressed, according to a source. He also scouted the pro days of Andre Branch (Clemson) and Quinton Coples (North Carolina). Another highly rated pass-rusher, Chandler Jones (Syracuse), visited the Jets.

Curiously, the Jets haven't shown much interest in Courtney Upshaw (Alabama). Ryan didn't attend his pro day and, according to Upshaw, he wasn't invited for a pre-draft visit. Upshaw is "a fantastic football player," according to Joey Clinkscales, the Jets' vice president of college scouting.

Smoke screen? Possible. The Jets may not deem Upshaw worthy of the 16th pick.

If they can't get Ingram, who probably has a 50 percent chance of slipping to 16, the Jets could settle for one of the second-tier pass-rushers. Here's a potential concern: Like Gholston, they'd be taking a college defensive end and trying to convert him into a 3-4 outside linebacker.

They whiffed on Gholston, the sixth pick in the draft, because they felt he had the size and speed to overcome a lack of football instinct. As it turned out, he was painfully robotic and ineffective. Scouts have a saying about players like that: Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane.

This time, the Jets' scouting department needs to be right; it can't survive two Gholstons.

It's a tough evaluation: How much do you weigh college production? If that was the No. 1 criterion, Mercilus would be the guy.

What about the measurables? Be careful; big and fast doesn't always equate to football-playing ability. The Jets learned that lesson with Gholston.

In the end, Upshaw might be the safest pick because he was a rush linebacker at Alabama, but many scouts believe he lacks the upside of Ingram, Branch and Jones.

It's a deep position in the draft, and there's no excuse not to pick one. It just has to be the right one. Said Clinkscales: "I don't think we can be gun-shy about going back to the position."

Rich Cimini

ESPN New York Jets reporter

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