For years, the Giants linebacker position was the unquestioned strength of the defense and the team.
But somewhere along the line what was once a position that had at least one stable among the starters has evolved into a revolving door of Day 3 draft picks and free agents.
That approach didn't change in 2020, as the Giants followed that same formula hoping to find gold among a diverse group of inside linebackers. Will that finally happen this year?
Last year there were encouraging signs that rookie Ryan Connelly might be that guy, but then an ill-timed torn ACL suffered early in the season put an end to that.
Connelly is on track to return, along with a mostly new cast of characters whom general manager Dave Gettleman said after the draft brings speed to the unit.
Let’s go through the unit and see what the Giants have.
Roster Locks: Blake Martinez, Ryan Connelly
With all due respect to Alec Ogletree, Blake Martinez is very much an upgrade at the position. He does a nice job keying and diagnosing blocking schemes and reacting well when coming downhill towards the line of scrimmage. Martinez also gains good leverage against blocks and uses his hands to jolt a would-be blocker.
Add to that his ability to get into position to make tackles outside the box and some blitzing ability that new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham can deploy, and the possibilities of how Graham might use Martinez certainly are appealing. There have been some questions about Martinez’s consistency in coverage, specifically in sideline to sideline range and in guarding tight ends in man coverage (the latter of which he wasn’t asked to do much). Still, overall, there is enough there to consider Martinez an upgrade.
As already mentioned, Connelly is coming off a torn ACL. When we last left him—that being on the day after the 2019 season when the team cleaned out its lockers, Connelly was getting ready to do some running and was moving around without any hint of his injury. Obviously, running and cutting puts a lot more strain on a person’s knees than simply walking and running straight ahead.
So what will the Giants get if Connelly is as good as new? They’ll get a linebacker who makes lightning-quick reads and who wastes very little movement in attacking the line of scrimmage. They’ll get a player who seemed to have that extra sense in sniffing out where the ball is going, and they’ll get a smart player who played a heck of a lot faster than his timed 40-yard dash at the combine suggested.
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Backups: David Mayo, TJ Brunson
David Mayo proved to be a valuable pickup for the Giants last year. Waived by the 49ers at the end of training camp, Mayo, whom Giants general manager Dave Gettleman had drafted in the fifth round in 2015, was scooped up by the Giants and stepped in when Ogletree and Connelly dealt with injuries.
A staple of Mayo’s 80-tackle season was some solid discipline and physicality against the run, and an overall game filled with lots of smart decisions that saw him read and diagnose well. Mayo has his limitations in coverage due to average mobility—very few inside linebackers nowadays excel at both the run and in coverage. But there was no denying his run defense just as there was no denying his contributions on special teams.
TJ Brunson is a bit undersized at 6’1, 230 pounds, but his competitive toughness and tackling jump out on tape. He excels in limiting yards after contact, is disciplined and aware when it comes to identifying and filling running lanes. He also carved out a nice little niche for himself as a downhill linebacker and seems to be someone whose aggressiveness and solid tackling technique would be ideal for special teams.
On the Bubble: Tae Crowder, Josiah Tauefa, Dominique Ross
Tae Crowder, this year’s Mr. Irrelevant, was apparent so much looking forward to getting to work, that he as the first of the Giants’ 10-member draft class to sign his rookie deal. But with that said, Crowder, only converted to linebacker in 2016, so he’s still a little raw at the position as he continues to learn its nuances.
Crowder does have a good athletic base for the position with good speed, agility, and fluidity, and his vantage point of the game through the eyes of a running back (his former position) could help him in the run defense. But it would be a stunning development if he lands on the 53-man roster this year until he develops more of a comfort level in playing defense.
Josiah Tauaefa was an undrafted free agent last year who, once he adjusted to the speed of the game, began to carve a niche for himself on special teams. Unfortunately with so many new faces on defense added, Tauefa is likely to be buried on the depth chart, which is a shame considering when he did get on the field on defense, he took good angles to the ball and did not look out of place.
Dominique Ross, a UDFA out of North Carolina, is a 6’4, 228-pound linebacker who possesses burst and movement skills but who was a bit of a late bloomer in college in that 60 of his 126 tackles, 6 of his 11 TFLs, and 2.5 of his four sacks came in his final season.
With that said, Ross has a good set of skills, including sideline to sideline ability and a good closing burst that should allow him to become a supporting player in just any defensive alignment. He appears to need a little more development until he’s ready for that point.
Despite the additions via the draft and free agency, there are still too many questions on this unit that, if not answered correctly, could make for another long year in the Giants' quest to find anchors for the position.