As camp approaches, we’re going to take a look at some more of the Jets’ offseason acquisitions, continuing today with James Burgess.
Burgess is a 25-year old linebacker who was undrafted out of Louisville. He is 6’0” and 230 pounds and has started 11 NFL games, all with the Cleveland Browns. He has racked up 83 tackles, four sacks and three passes defensed in three seasons but was limited to just three appearances last year due to injuries.
Burgess was an all-American in high school, which saw him recruited to Louisville in 2012. As a true freshman, he started four games, racking up 28 tackles and two interceptions.
He became a full-time starter over his last three seasons, racking up 232 tackles, 28 tackles for loss, four sacks, five interception and 13 passes defensed over the three years. He was a 3rd-team all-conference selection in his senior year.
Burgess was not invited to the scouting combine and ended up going undrafted, but Adam Gase’s Dolphins signed him as an undrafted free agent.
His rookie year was a rough one, as he was released in final cuts then spent time on the practice squads of five different teams. He ended the year on the Browns’ practice squad, with whom he signed a futures deal at the end of the season.
In 2017, Burgess made his NFL debut with the Browns and established himself as a key contributor with Gregg Williams as his defensive coordinator. He started nine games and racked up 75 tackles and four sacks.
In 2018, he was also contributing early, but a couple of injuries wrecked his season and he ended up making just three appearances, two of which were starts. He ended the year with eight tackles and found his way back onto Miami’s practice squad after having been released from injured reserve.
The Jets claimed him in May after the Dolphins, having signed him to a futures deal after the season, opted to waive him.
Now let’s take a look at what Burgess brings to the table, divided into categories.
Burgess lacks ideal size and has short arms, although his hand size is large. He’s a pretty good athlete though, showing some explosiveness on film.
His pro day results were a mixed bag, as his 40-time (4.72), bench press (21 reps) and vertical were all about average. His short shuttle was poor, but his broad jump (121”) and three-cone drill (6.99) were good. His 40-time was independently clocked at as low as 4.61.
Burgess is an off-ball linebacker who saw a lot of work with the Browns in coverage situations, often matching up with receivers in the slot.
In 2018, he was mostly employed as an inside linebacker, but in 2017 he played more up at the line on the strong side.
Burgess has been a productive run defender who comes downhill aggressively and showcases some ability to shoot gaps or navigate traffic.
However, his lack of size and length can be a problem. Once a blocker gets his hands on him, he usually has to give up ground to get off the block, which can angle him out of plays.
On a related note, he has a tendency to try and go around blockers which can lead to him being sealed off.
Burgess has displayed some good coverage abilities, making a ton of plays on the ball when in college, including seven interceptions.
At the NFL level, he’s been less successful, as teams have had a high success rate targeting him on short passes. He fared slightly better in his limited 2018 action as he gave up just one catch in three targets.
Here’s a play where he’s matched up in press coverage with Ben Watson, but loses separation due to Watson’s quick first step before he can get a clean jam, although he almost recovers and at least stays close enough to make the immediate tackle.
Burgess looks good from time to time when he makes a decisive read, but pre-draft scouting reports indicated that he would sometimes be confused and out of position and there is some evidence of this on film. For example, he got caught inside quite often on outside runs and was late to react on a few reverses.
He can also be guilty of peeking into the backfield at times, as he was on this play, which he then exacerbated by running into a teammate as he tried to recover.
On this play, Burgess appears to have man coverage responsibility on the back out of the backfield, but instead plays zone, leading to a 40-yard pass play.
However, Gregg Williams did praise Burgess in Cleveland, noting in particularly that he had good positional sense and anticipatory skills in zone coverage.
Burgess was productive in his one full season at the NFL level, bringing with him a reputation as a big hitter.
However, he tends to miss far too many tackles, often as a result of being over-aggressive. He overruns Sam Darnold on this play as Darnold is able to side-step him and get the throw away.
At the NFL level, he’s missed 16 tackles in about a full season’s worth of action and he had 15 and 16 missed tackles in his last two years of college, too.
Burgess has been an effective pass rusher, usually on blitzes up the middle, although he’s also had some production cleaning-up. He had four sacks in four years of college and another four in his first full year at the NFL level.
He’s generated pressure as a consistent rate, although he averaged one pressure per three pass rush attempts in college and only one per seven at the pro level. That’s still a decent rate though.
Despite his lack of size, Burgess is not afraid to be aggressive in terms of taking out a blocker.
However, as already noted, he can struggle to shed blocks, which can cause him to take the long route to the football.
He shows some good physical play in coverage, both in terms of press coverage or contacting crossers in zone coverage and can make some big hits as a tackler, as noted.
Burgess has shown some special teams abilities with the Browns, as he’s been credited with five special teams tackles. He did also have two penalties though.
In college, Burgess also made an excellent heads-up play on this fake field goal attempt.
Burgess apparently grew up in a rough area, but was able to stay out of trouble thanks to a focus on education from an early age.
He has an NFL pedigree, as his father James Sr. played in 31 games with the Chargers in the late nineties, and has been described as a humble leader with a good work ethic. He’s also been commended for his work in the community.
As a sign of his team-first attitude, Burgess told the media he was not satisfied with his performance despite racking up a career high 15 tackles and a sack in a 2017 loss to the Jaguars.
On the field, his discipline has generally been good, although he was fined for an unnecessary roughness penalty on special teams in 2017. Otherwise, he has only averaged one penalty per season since his college career began.
Burgess was one of 20 Browns players who opted to kneel during the national anthem before one game last season.
Burgess had some injury concerns last season, as he sprained his knee against the Jets in week three, then suffered a hamstring injury when he made his return three weeks later.
The Jets might have a role available for Burgess if Williams continues to have confidence in his coverage abilities. Whether as a third off-ball linebacker or as a replacement for Avery Williamson, the Jets will have some packages that will need to make use of the abilities of a player like Burgess.
Rookie Blake Cashman will perhaps be his main competition for those reps in the short term, but perhaps Gase and Williams having familiarity with him will give Burgess the edge.
The Burgess signing wasn’t widely heralded but he does add to the competition in an area which was undermanned following Darron Lee’s departure.
During his career, Burgess has been productive, although he hasn’t graded out particularly well. He tends to get swallowed up in the wash too often in the running game, but does bring something to the table with his coverage abilities and physicality.
This was a smart addition by the Jets, which doesn’t represent a surefire roster lock, but does add some experience to a position that doesn’t have much beyond the starters and Neville Hewitt.