The Giants defense, on the whole, wasn't the main problem with last year's team.
But it also didn't help. And a very noticeable issue was that the Giants run defense wasn't as effective in 2021 as it had been in 2020, a big part of that being the linebackers.
Simply put, the Giants, due to injuries and performance, seemed to go through inside linebackers like crazy Blake Martinez was lost early on to a torn ACL. Tae Crowder took over as the full-time starter and held his own but was no Martinez when it came to making the plays Martinez had made in 2020.
The Giants then lost Carter Coughlin to a season-ending injury. Reggie Ragland, signed to a prove-it deal, was okay against the run but a liability in coverage. The team then turned to Benardrick McKinney, a former Pro Bowl player, but he fizzled out when the team brought in former Cowboys defender Jaylon Smith, perhaps the most promising looking inside linebacker of the string.
Looking ahead, the Giants have question marks at inside linebacker. Martinez's recovery is among the top questions, especially since he's the fifth-highest cap hit on the team. But it's also fair to wonder about the depth at the position. Ragland and McKinney likely won't be back as both will be free agents. Smith looks like a keeper.
The jury is still out on Coughlin as an inside backer. Do the Giants need more at this position? It looks that way.
And more importantly, does new general manager Joe Schoen put a little higher premium on the position than the previous regime seemed to do? That might depend on who the new head coach is, but we'd hope that would be the case given how the defensive performance against the run and the pass at the second level seemed to be less effective in 2021 than it had been in 2020.
Among the many decisions, the Giants have to make at inside linebacker is what to do with Blake Martinez's contract, which, per Spotrac, is the fifth-highest hit on the 2022 cap ($14.025 million).
Martinez is coming off an early-season torn ACL, an injury that's not his fault. And certainly before that injury, Martinez was earning his keep, finishing as the team leader in tackles with 150 in 2020, his first year with the club, his average depth of tackles being 4.0.
But ACL injuries, as we have seen before and saw with running back Saquon Barkley this year as he attempted his comeback from a torn ACL, sometimes it takes a while longer for a player to regain his burst and range.
Like Barkley did last year, Martinez will spend part of his time training and rehabbing. When a player has to disrupt his usual training schedule due to rehab from an injury, his odds of being the same player as before are not always very good.
That said, Martinez's injury happened very early in the year, and the odds are in his favor that he'll be back on the field by the 2022 season opener. I don't think the Giants will flat out cut him--if they were to do so, he'd yield $8.525 million savings and dump $5.5 million into the dead money ledger. (The Giants restructured Martinez's deal in March of 2021, converting $7 million of his original base salary to create $3.5 million in cap space.)
What the Giants could do is restructure Martinez again by actually tacking on a voidable year, as shown in the cap construction table below:
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This model results in a $3.42 million cap savings, which should be enough to fit in either a backup quarterback or perhaps a veteran offensive lineman.
Do they have a keeper in Jaylon Smith?
They just might. Jaylon Smith brought a level of physicality to the position that hadn't been there consistently. Smith showed an eagerness to stick his nose into a hole and turned out to be more of an attack-oriented inside linebacker.
Coming to the defense as late as he did in the season and then getting thrown in there in a matter of a couple of days, it was clear that Smith did some guesswork on the fly. Still, in a small sample size, Smith showed enough to warrant a return engagement over fellow inside linebackers Reggie Ragland and Benardrick McKinney, who will be unrestricted free agents this off-season.
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Can they continue with Tae Crowder as a starter?
After Martinez was injured, Tae Crowder took on a more prominent role, including wearing the radio in his helmet. While not horrible in his expanded role, Crowder just didn't pack the same punch as Martinez.
In run support, the second-year linebacker missed a team-leading ten tackles. His average depth of tackles against the run was 4.3 yards (for a linebacker, anything under four yards from the line of scrimmage is generally considered ideal).
Crowder has good foot speed, which is why he's effective in coverage. But there were times when he seemed hesitant with his reads, not showing the instincts you'd like to see from that position, and is hesitant to fill gaps. Many of Crowder's plays are made in pursuit, but a lack of physicality--he tends to fall off tackles--is concerning.
Crowder will likely get a chance to compete to remain as a starter, but it won't be surprising if he goes back to more of a specialized role that takes better advantage of what he does well.
Keep, Tweak or Dump?
Tweak. I think the Giants stick with Martinez under the scenario I outlined, and I think Crowder and Smith return, as does Carter Coughlin, who also landed on IR. But I also think the Giants might want to add some additional speed to the unit if Martinez and Coughlin aren't back from their respective injuries.
Regardless of the defensive system that will be run, the Giants will want guys who can disengage from tackles and shoot gaps to help shore up the run defense, something they didn't always have last year. And although inside linebacker isn't a top need on this team, if they have a chance to add to that group later in the draft or after, I think they will.