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Position Preview: Linebacker

With a budding superstar and talented draft pick, the Jaguars linebacker corps looks to solidify the middle of the defense.

With an offense poised to be one of the best in the NFL, the Jacksonville Jaguars will look for improvement on their defense, which finished 24th in total defense a year ago, to round out the team.

An ever improving position for the team, the Jaguars linebackers will be led by Telvin Smith and Paul Posluszny. The team used the draft to bolster the position, drafting UCLA's Myles Jack in the second round, even with his injury concerns

Smith may be the best defensive player the Jaguars have, outside of free agent signing Malik Jackson. Recently named one of the game's best outside linebackers by Sports Illustrated, Smith has been a revelation for the Jaguars after they drafted the Florida State product in the fifth round in 2014. 

Starting as a rookie, Smith played in all 16 games, registering 72 solo tackles, which was good for second on the team behind Johnathan Cyprien. Smith filled the stat sheet his rookie year with two sacks, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.

Smith raised his production in his second year, ranking second on the team in tackles once again with 99, trailing Posluszny. The former Seminole added two forced fumbles and a pick six to go along with his impressive tackling stats.

The linebacker will look to improve on solid rookie and sophomore campaigns as one of the leaders of a young defense that's ripe with potential.

Smith's speed--the linebacker ran a 4.52 40-yard-dash at the combine--allows him to get to the ball wherever it is on the field. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Smith has the body size to slip through holes created by the line to stop a run play or potentially sack the QB, although that's not a huge part of his overall game. Fans can look for the linebacker to use his speed and experience to create havoc this season, potentially leading the team in tackles after two years of second place production.

Posluszny, the man Smith trailed a year ago, will once again be the team's staple at middle linebacker this year. A second round pick by Buffalo in 2007, Posluszny has been a mainstay of whatever defense he's been a part of since he stepped into the league. Signing with the Jaguars as a free agent in 2011, Posluszny immediately inserted himself into the defense, starting every game he has played with the team.

At age 31, Posluszny may be slowing down but his production has kept up with the early years of his career. His team-leading 103 tackles last season tied for his third best total in his nine years in the league. Although not known for his coverage, the aging middle linebacker tied his career high with three interceptions in 2015, showing versatility that the Jaguars will need heading forward.

Posluszny's role is likely to change this season with the addition of Jack, who is likely to replace him soon, if not this season. Posluszny wants to play, but realizes that in addition to making tackles, the team will look to him as a mentor for Jack.

"It’s going to be a huge job for me to get Myles to play right now. In large part, that will be my responsibility," Posluszny said.

But for now, Posluszny will man the middle while competing with Jack for playing time. Fans can sleep well knowing they have the former Penn State Nittany Lion at the helm while Jack adjusts to the game. Even when Jack displaces him as a starter, Posluszny will still add depth to a group that is largely made up of younger, less experienced players.

In one of the league's most celebrated draft classes, the Jaguars, along with drafting depth at several defensive positions, added a future longtime starter in Myles Jack. Sliding into the second round because of a knee injury, Jack will make an impact early if he is completely healthy and can stay that way.

The Jaguars are getting a player who is capable in both run and pass protection, the latter of which will be a main reason the rookie may be slotted above Posluszny in certain spots.

At 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, Jack may not have the frame fans have come to know for the linebacker position. But as the league shifts toward more versatile players, Jack fits the mold perfectly, potentially being able to shift positions when needed.

As a Bruin, Jack also starred as a running back, scoring seven rushing touchdowns as a freshman in 2013. His speed and agility from his running back days will provide him with the shiftiness needed to elude blockers or to chase down running backs. The intuition from being a former RB may allow the rookie a mental edge in defending the run game.

Known for an exciting style of play, Jack may need to hone that energy until he comes into his own as a pro. With the risk of injury, the Jaguars may want to ease Jack into play. But when it's time to turn him loose, the Jaguars and their fans can expect the former Bruin to become one of the league's best in a matter of a few seasons.

Along with Posluszny, Dan Skuta provides experience and depth to the linebacking core. In his first season with the Jags after time in San Francisco and Cincinnati, Skuta totaled 32 tackles and a forced fumble in 13 games, starting eight. 

Undrafted out of Grand Valley State, Skuta made a place for himself in the NFL with his work ethic, his up-tempo, hard-nosed style of play and his willingness to play when and wherever he was needed. For the Jaguars, Skuta provides depth as the fourth linebacker, particular as a weak side player much like Smith. As an edge rusher, Skuta is not afraid to play with his hand in the dirt when needed--it is something he did in his time with the Bengals.  

Skuta's off-the-field issues have caused some to wonder whether the team should part ways with the veteran. Skuta was arrested in June on charges of battery. The linebacker's attorney has been adamant that Skuta is innocent, and has said the situation he was accused of never happened.

After the core four, the Jaguars have several guys competing for roster spots at LB. 

Entering his second season, Hayes Pullard will likely make the roster and contribute as a reserve who can fill each linebacker position. In eight games as a rookie, Pullard recorded 17 solo tackles. 

Out of college, scouts liked Pullard's ability as a run defender, chasing down backs anywhere on the field. The knock on the former USC Trojan was his habit of backing off of the line or of a player and ultimately letting the game come to him. As a young player, Pullard can grow in that department, learning to pursue the situation more as the play develops.

Starting three games as a rookie, Thurston Armbrister totaled 15 solo tackles and showed he could make an impact as a reliable reserve player. Armbrister has been utilized as both a strong side linebacker and defensive end in training camp. 

Armbrister's experience in the defense may pave his way to making the roster. A spot on special teams is likely for Armbrister if does indeed make the team--this could lead to time as a defender if injuries occur.

An interesting prospect out of Montana, Tyrone Holmes was drafted in the fifth round earlier this year after earning FCS Defensive Player of the Year honors as a senior. He led the FCS with 18 sacks, 14 coming in the regular season. 

A defensive end in college, the Jaguars have Holmes listed as a linebacker for now, but may want to use him as an edge rusher if he makes the team. At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Holmes can play either as an end or a strong side linebacker. If Holmes doesn't make the team, expect him to land on the practice squad, where he more than likely would not stay for long.

Rounding out the group of potential roster candidates is Jordan Tripp. Also out of Montana, Tripp spent a season with the Miami Dolphins before joining the Jags in 2015. Last season, Tripp played in 12 games and ended the year with 10 solo tackles. Competing with the likes of Pullard and Armbrister, Tripp may miss out on a roster spot solely because of the surplus of players in a similar situation.

If Tripp were to make the roster, he would likely replace Armbrister or potentially Holmes if the rookie ends up on the practice squad.


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