Remember the days of Sam Huff? Harry Carson? Antonio Pierce?
Yeah, those days of the stud inside linebacker have gone the way of the red jerseys, though unlike the red jerseys, the Giants have missed having a solid man in the middle of their defense.
That is until this year when New York took a gamble on Blake Martinez, a player capable of producing triple-digit tackles in a season and one who had flourished under defensive coordinator Patrick Graham when Graham was his position coach in Green Bay.
The gamble on Martinez and the role change from being a clean-up guy to more of an attack linebacker paid significant dividends for the Giants defense in 2020.
But while Martinez was solid, it takes more than one season's worth of production to start serious consideration for Martinez in the same breath as the Giants mentioned above legendary inside linebackers.
As for the rest of the inside linebackers, well, there's undoubtedly promise among the younger players, but right now, it's probably fair to say that there is Martinez, and then there's everyone else.
Blake Martinez (PFF Grade: 75.9)
2020 Stats: 151 Tackles, 3 Sacks, 9 Tackles for Loss, 6 QB Hits, 1 INT, 5 Pass Breakups, 2 Forced Fumbles, and 1 Fumble Recovery
When Martinez signed with the Giants, he pledged to be a rock for the defense, and he most certainly delivered on that promise.
Given more of an attack-type of a role, which allowed him to swarm closer to the line of scrimmage, he finished with an impressive 151 total tackles (third in the league) to become the first linebacker to lead the Giants in tackling since Jameel McClain in 2014.
When your linebacker is your team's tackles leader, that's a good sign because that usually means not much is getting past the second level.
Martinez's ability to quickly diagnose unfolding plays, take smart angles and attack the correct gaps and finish plays are among his strengths.
That he was the very picture of reliability who rarely came off the field (except for a couple of brushes with injury), served as a much-needed rudder for a defense that before his arrival had lacked direction.
One of Martinez's most underrated yet key traits is his football IQ. Defensive coordinator Patrick Graham's defense isn't exactly an easy one to run. Yet, Martinez not only ran it through Graham's eyes, but he also made the necessary adjustments to ensure his teammates were in the right position.
In a year in which every major free-agent signing made by the Giants was a solid one, the addition of Martinez is up there with among the best made during general manager Dave Gettleman's tenure.
Tae Crowder (PFF Grade: 36.4)
2020 Stats: 56 tackles, 1 sack, 3 Tackles for Loss, 3 QB Hits
This year's "Mr. Irrelevant" turned out to be very much relevant when he earned more and more snaps alongside Martinez at inside linebacker. Unfortunately, Crowder's impressive showing came to a halt when he suffered a hamstring strain and landed on injured reserve.
When he returned, he worked his way back into a full-time role over a two-game span, going on to finish strong by recording three of his six total pressures and 21 of his tackles over the last six games of the season.
Crowder delivered a lot more as a rookie than most people expected, and it should be good enough for him to open up next year as the incumbent. Whether he holds onto the role, though, remains to be seen.
David Mayo (PFF Grade: 47.6)
2020 Stats: 20 tackles, 2 Tackles for Loss, 1 Forced Fumble
Mayo, who missed the first five games on the season in IR while he recovered from knee surgery to fix a torn meniscus suffered late in training camp, saw his role on the defense change in that he played nearly 100 snaps at outside linebacker.
This change, which was most notable from Week 14 on, was likely the result of the injuries that hit the outside linebackers and forced the coaches to plug in someone--anyone--into the lineup to make it through the rest of the season.
Getting back to Mayo, though, his game's strength comes inside the tackle box, where he is a smart, contain player. Ask him to fire out to the edge, and his lack of ideal athleticism stick out like a sore thumb.
Mayo was more of a steady contributor on special teams, which has always been a strength. But his 112.9 converge rating was the worst of the Giants inside linebackers
Devante Downs (PFF Grade: 46.2)
2020 Stats: 27 tackles, 1 QB Hit, 1 Pass Breakup
Downs opened the season as the starter alongside Martinez, and he delivered against the run with some solid play. Of all the other inside linebackers not named Martinez, Downs was probably the surest tackler of the lot, and that's saying something.
However, teams began to realize that they could attack Downs in coverage, and that's where things got a little ugly. Downs might be a good downhill linebacker, but his lack of awareness and instincts stuck out like a sore thumb when put in space.
Downs is set to be a restricted free agent this off-season. Still, if the Giants want him back, they'll likely try to retain him on a negotiated contract rather than spend what Over the Cap projects as a $2.24 million original tender to keep him.
T.J. Brunson (PFF Grade: 58.5)
2020 Stats: No Defensive Stats Recorded
One of the three seventh-round draft picks at linebacker to make the team, the extent of Brunson's contributions came on special teams where he contributed three tackles (2 solo) on kickoff coverage.
Brunson received just three snaps with the defense in the five games in which he was active and didn't stand out in any one area in terms of speed, quickness, or instincts in such a small sample size.
Brunson will almost certainly be in camp this summer, where he'll have an opportunity to show the coaches that he's deserving of a more significant role on defense next season.
Martinez is the unquestioned rock of the defense, but the fact that the Giants don't have a clear-cut option next to him shouldn't be too alarming.
For one, the Giants don't line up in their base defense all that much to where a second inside linebacker is a high priority. But in those instances where they do, look for them to involve more three-safety looks, where either Jabrill Peppers and Xavier McKinney can come down to the box and line up as that pseudo linebacker as need be.
Mayo would be nice to have back if the cap circumstances allow for that (He has a $2.3 million cap hit in 2021). Mayo is not only a veteran but a critical special teams player whose presence can allow for the youngsters like Crowder to continue in their development.
Other 2020 New York Giants Position Unit Reviews
- New York Giants 2020 Position Review: Defensive Line
- New York Giants 2020 Position Review: Offensive Line
- New York Giants 2020 Position Review: Receivers
- New York Giants 2020 Position Review: Tight Ends
- New York Giants 2020 Position Review: Running Backs
- New York Giants 2020 Position Review: Quarterbacks
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