Jets' Vilma already playing like Ray
By Kara Yorio - SportingNews
Jets middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma is expected to be a force in this league, possibly Ray Lewis-like in style and impact. But as Vilma, the NFL defensive rookie of the year, enters his second season, there is something that could derail his development.
"For him to perform well, it starts up front," says coach Herman Edwards. "Can the defensive line keep the offensive players off him so he can run and make plays? If they don't do their job, as good as he is, he can't do his job."
The loss of free-agent tackle Jason Ferguson to Dallas could leave Vilma vulnerable. Third-year tackle Dewayne Robertson is an emerging star, but he will be playing alongside former Giant Lance Legree, a career backup with limited skills. The Jets have a strong pair of pass rushers in ends Shaun Ellis and John Abraham, but of the two, only Ellis has the kind of power game that helps protect middle linebackers.
At 6-1, 230, Vilma won't consistently overpower opponents. He is good at slipping blocks, but if he is forced to fight off guys constantly, he'll be taken out of plays and eventually will wear down. "I don't care how good you are," says CBS analyst Solomon Wilcots. "It's like a quarterback. A middle linebacker needs to be (kept) clean, needs that same kind of time to read and react."
Assuming that will happen, Vilma, 23, looms as one of the league's elite linebackers. Thanks to his speed and nose for the ball, he almost always is in position to make plays. He is a good open-field tackler and instinctive in coverage, which allows him to stay on the field on third down. His closing burst on the quarterback makes him a solid blitzer, too.
All those skills were evident in his rookie season, when he started 14 games after replacing injured Sam Cowart in the lineup. Vilma got three interceptions (one of which he returned for a touchdown) and two sacks, and he finished second on the team in tackles with 118. He led the Jets in tackles in both of their playoff games, getting 13 stops in a wild-card win over the Chargers and 17 in a divisional playoff loss to the Steelers.
Well before the playoffs, Jets coordinator Donnie Henderson said Vilma was five years from reaching the level of Lewis, a Super Bowl MVP, seven-time Pro Bowl player and two-time defensive player of the year with the Ravens. Wilcots already puts Vilma in Lewis' category in every area except consistency. They even share the same alma mater, the University of Miami.
But unlike many former Hurricanes, Vilma doesn't carry a load of off-field baggage. No arrogant strut, no rap sheet, no boorish behavior. By all accounts, he is a model player on and off the field.
Having pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice five years ago, Lewis isn't as squeaky clean as Vilma. But oh, is Lewis the consummate team leader. His play, work ethic and personality are so electrifying, teammates naturally follow him. Edwards sees that leadership potential in Vilma and wants him to become more vocal, starting in training camp.
"I have to make sure that it comes naturally," says Vilma, who called defensive plays as a rookie. "Just because the coach says that doesn't mean you can go out and be a leader. I still have to perform, still have to get that respect."
A year ago, Vilma's primary concerns were getting to know his new teammates and coaches, learning the Jets' system and adjusting to life in the NFL. After his stellar rookie season, he can focus on improving his skills and becoming more consistent.
"One area to be more consistent in is getting off blocks," says Vilma. "Things get technical at this level. It's not a matter of how fast you can run or how hard you can hit."
Vilma doesn't just run fast and hit hard; he's a smart player who can read and react, anticipate plays and learn quickly from mistakes. He'll need all that if he is to follow in Lewis' footsteps.
Along with a big assist from the Jets' line.
I know this is just an opinion, but I think this guy is going to be something special, and reading things like this just excites me more