Mike Peterson (Doug Benc/Getty)
As the 2008 season nears, the Jaguars will have to look long and hard at their linebacking corps. Jacksonville’s backers are certainly talented, but with injuries causing a realignment of players last season, the Jags will look to certain things out in training camp.
The Jaguars started the 2007 season with veteran linebacker Mike Peterson lining up in the middle, the underrated Daryl Smith on the outside and the then second year stud Clint Ingram lining up opposite to Smith. Peterson’s 2006 season was ended prematurely with a torn pectoral muscle, and he started off last year slowly, but regained his old form quickly. However, Peterson broke his wrist and missed the final half of the season, including Jacksonville’s two playoff games. After his injury, Smith was shifted to the middle for a second consecutive season where he played admirably. To compensate for Smith’s transition, Jacksonville placed rookie Justin Durant into the starting rotation, where he performed like a seasoned veteran. Loaded, with experienced and gifted players, the Jaguars must now assess their linebackers in order to figure out who should be starting where.
Entering his tenth NFL season, Peterson will have the attention of his coaches and teammates this summer. In his tenure with Jacksonville, Peterson has performed at an All Pro level, but with injuries shortening his past two seasons, there are questions regarding whether he is over the hill or not. Combine that with a $3 million contract and Peterson will certainly be monitored closely. However, Peterson did receive a $1.6 million roster bonus in March, which indicates that the team is committed to him. The good thing about Peterson’s injuries the past couple of seasons was that they were to his upper-body, which means he shouldn’t lose too much of a step because of them. Peterson is an experienced, classy player who plays the game right, and Jacksonville will be well advised to keep him as a starter. As long as he shows that he hasn’t aged too much, Peterson should bring an electrifying presence back on the field with him.
It is all but guaranteed that Smith will be coming back as an outside linebacker for Coach Del Rio this year. He has filled in for Peterson admirably in the middle and is his apparent successor, but Smith is more than competent as an outside backer as well. Smith is perhaps a more natural fit inside, but he brings toughness and instincts on the outside and can do everything very well. Smith lacks some athleticism (not much) that teams look for in outside linebackers, but he more than makes up for it with his strength and solid fundamental play.
At the other position outside is where things get interesting. Ingram was very impressive as a rookie in 2006, but hit a sophomore slump last year and his starting job could be in jeopardy. Ingram has very good lateral quickness and is excellent at coming from the weak side to make plays, but he does struggle at shedding blockers at times. Opponents took note of that this last year, and with little resistance from a dinged up defensive line, offensive linemen were able to get to second level easily and cut off Ingram, who looked a little sluggish. If Ingram can add some extra strength this offseason and regain the quickness he displayed as a rookie, it’s likely that he will retain his starting job. Right behind him though is Justin Durant, who came on late in his rookie season. When Smith switched to the middle, Durant came in and after a few initial growing pains, he showed vast improvement. Durant is a little undersized, but he has phenomenal speed and burst, which he used to his advantage last year, leading the team in tackles numerous times. Unless he adds a little bulk without losing his elite speed, Jacksonville might use Durant as a situational player this season in the hopes that he doesn’t fall off like Ingram did last year. They will both battle it out for the starting job, and whichever player has the best practices in the pre-season will likely be named the opening day starter.
On the second string, Jacksonville brings into camp a nice blend of youth and experience. Tony Gilbert spent all of last year on injured reserve, but was a backup middle linebacker for the Jags the previous four years. Gilbert is tough and knowledgeable of the system, which is ideal for a backup. Because he lacks top end athleticism, Gilbert has never stuck in the league as a starter, but he has made a career of being solid on special teams and being instinctive.
Another player who has been a more than solid special teams player is Brian Iwuh, who the Jags love as a backup. Iwuh is entering his third year out of Colorado and performs at a high level whenever he is in the game. At 235lbs, Iwuh is a little undersized to man the middle, and he lacks the sudden quickness and straight line speed to be a full time starter, but coming off the bench, Iwuh offers a lot of talent.
One player to keep an eye on during OTAs is Thomas Williams, a 225 lb. linebacker from Coach Del Rio’s alma mater, USC. The rookie backer is small, but he has instincts. Williams didn’t start much for the Trojans, but his versatility and willingness to do whatever coaches ask of him should allow him a roster spot as a special teams contributor.
Lamar Myles is the team’s other rookie backer. The undrafted free agent from Louisville is only 6’0”, 220 lbs, but a 4.4 second 40-yard dash shows he has the speed Jacksonville likes in their linebackers. Myles could move to strong safety like Chad Nkang did last season, and if he brings a similar intensity that Nkang did as a rookie, he could make the roster.
Two other linebackers that will lineup with their hands down on the line are Brent Hawkins and Brian Smith. Both are a little undersized to play defensive end but aren’t athletic enough to play linebacker. Both will be designated pass-rushers and will be closely monitored. Without pads, Hawkins looked like a stud in training camp last year, but he had a difficult time once the pads were on. Smith sat out his rookie year with a hip injury that cut his collegiate career short at Missouri, but he has a lot of pass rushing potential. With the additions of rookies Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, both players will have to prove that they can be more than just pass rushers.
This summer will be used to evaluate Jacksonville’s linebackers and while there is uncertainty about who will play where, or if Peterson can return to form, and if Durant or Ingram can emerge as a consistent backer, Jacksonville’s linebacking unit could emerge as one of the NFL’s best.