I find the incumbent AFC South linebacker crop a largely unimpressive bunch.
A healthy DeMeco Ryans is excellent, as is Gary Brackett. Mario Williams is now a linebacker, so we need to mention him. Daryl Smith is beloved by the Jaguars staff but not everyone’s reviews of him line up with the team's. I think he’s good, but I don’t notice he's consistently great. [LATE ADDITION: Football Outsiders says Smith was especially good at third-down stops in 2010.]
Two second-rounders will have a chance to make an impact, Akeem Ayres in Tennessee and Brooks Reed in Houston.
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. reviews the division’s linebackers in an Insider piece Monday. We’ve gotten clearance to do some sharing and offer a bit of his team-by-team review in the same order he ranks the groups.
“To me, Cushing is the prototypical strongside linebacker in a 4-3. He will be asked to play inside next to Ryans in the 3-4, but he is an inside/outside 'tweener in this odd front. He isn't the dynamic edge pass-rusher for the outside and he is cut a little high to take on blocks from the interior. You could certainly do worse than Cushing -- especially if he regains his 2010 form -- but he isn't a natural fit. Cushing does have a very good feel for coverage for such a young linebacker. Expect Wade Phillips to move him around quite a bit."
“Last year's second-round pick, Pat Angerer, showed well as a rookie and looks like a starter for years to come, either on the strong side or in the middle if Brackett were to go down or further decline. Angerer is far from a finished product, though, and his route-recognition skills and ability to turn and run with elusive running backs and tight ends is questionable. He might only be a two-down linebacker.”
“The Titans' best linebacker, Stephen Tulloch, is up for free agency, and after they selected two linebackers in the draft it doesn't appear the Titans will bring him back. Still, losing Tulloch would be a huge blow to this defense, especially against the run. Few play the run as well as Tulloch, and he is sure to command a lot of money for a guy who really is best suited to be a two-down linebacker. Tulloch was a major reason the Titans were the best defense in the division against the run last season.”
“After struggling early on, [Kirk] Morrison played well in the middle, especially as a run defender. But by the looks of its draft class, it seems Jacksonville is building for tomorrow, which might make Morrison more valuable to another team. [Justin] Durant has plenty of ability, but he has been too inconsistent with the Jaguars. Still, if Jacksonville -- or his next team for that matter -- could improve Durant's coverage recognition and overall skills, he could be a heck of a linebacker. Bringing him back would make some sense for the Jaguars, even if only as a two-down player.”