Giants' 2020 Roster Report Card: Grading the Outside Linebackers
How stagnant has the Giants pass rush been?
Pretty much so. The Giants have finished in the bottom third of the NFL in four out of the last five seasons, the lone exception being in 2016 when they finished 14th with 35 sacks.
To be fair, part of the problem has been the coaches promoting hope that the scheme will produce the pass rush. But the problem with that argument is that it lends itself into trying to plug guys into specific roles within the scheme--roles for which they might not be ideal.
The other part is the performance of the backend of the defense. If the defensive backs aren't holding their coverage, it won't matter who's rushing the passer. Quarterbacks are trained nowadays to get the ballot of their hand quickly, and in doing so, how many times can the Giants pass rush just barely missing out on a sack?
Answer: a lot.
But there's good news. Giants general manager added some talent to the group of pass rushers carried over from last year (Oshane Ximines and Lorenzo Carter). While there's not yet a No. 1 pass rusher among them, the changeover in coaching will hopefully make a difference as there's no shortage of talent among players with that potential skill set to force opponents to pick their poison any given play.
Let's look at the position group with clearly the most potential on the team. (We have not included Markus Golden in this group because, as of the time this article was written, Golden had not yet signed his UFA tender. He is expected to sign at which point Golden would fit into our Backups section.)
Roster Locks: Kyler Fackrell, Lorenzo Carter, Oshane Ximines
For the second year in a row, the Giants are taking a flier on a pass rusher who previously produced double-digit sacks at least once before only to drop off.
This year’s outlier is Kyler Fackrell, whom Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham coached when he was the Packers linebackers coach in 2018. That year, Fackrell produced 10.5 sacks, which wasn’t enough to stop Green Bay from adding Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith.
Still, Fackrell has a variety of pass rush moves he uses to get at the quarterback and does a good enough job bending the edge. Although he’s not as athletic as Markus Golden, who last year maned to get back to double-digit sacks after fighting his way back from a torn ACL, Fackrell can set and manage the edge and does a decent enough job in coverage.
Lorenzo Carter was one of those second-year players last season whom the Giants hoped would take a significant leap forward in his development. Unfortunately, that development didn’t come as Carter had his share of power issues and seemed to be more reactive than proactive.
There is enough of an argument to question whether Carter was misused in the Giants defense, which affected his quest to have that much-anticipated breakout season, however, so it will be interesting to see if Graham has a different idea regarding how to deploy Carter.
On the plus side, Carter continued to show that he’s smart, hustles, and has speed and height and long arms to be a force in the passing game. Late last year, the coaches had him lining up inside, where Carter used his long arms to crowd the passing lanes. He ended up finishing second among the team’s linebackers in passes defensed with five, one behind now-former linebacker Alec Ogletree.
It will be interesting to see where Graham has Carter fitting in this year, especially with Fackrell now on board plus the return of Golden and the promising development of Oshane Ximines.
Speaking of Ximines, considering he came from a small school program, he came in with a rather sophisticated toolbox of pass rush moves, which led to him finishing with 4.5 sacks last year. Ximines showed that he has just enough speed around the edge to be a threat. His first step off the ball reminded us very much of a young Osi Umenyiora, who excelled at timing that first step before exploding into the backfield to create disruption.
Where Ximines needs to improve his game is in his strength so that he can better hold up against the run. Make no mistake; his calling card will be the pass rush, but the last thing anyone wants to see is this promising second-year player being ambushed repeatedly every time an opponent runs right at him.
Backups: Carter Coughlin, Cam Brown
The Giants might very well have come away with a couple of steals in these two backup linebacker candidates.
Carter Coughlin is an undersized but athletic EDGE prospect with a good motor and success in disrupting the pass. In four seasons at Minnesota, he recorded 40.0 tackles for a loss, 22.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, and four passes defensed in his four years.
Coughlin is quick off the ball with good bend around the edge to beat blockers and disrupt the backfield. Although he's a bit undersized at 6'3, 236 pounds, he has the skillset to contribute both on the edge and as an off-ball linebacker, where he has shown the requisite athleticism to play if asked to cover in space.
Penn State's Cameron Brown is a long, lean, athletic, and versatile player who some draft analysts labeled as a “poor man's Isaiah Simmons” given all the ways he was deployed in Penn State's defense.
An athletic sort, Brown held his own dropping into coverage and keeping up with tight ends, running backs, and bigger receivers on underneath and intermediate routes. He also took smart angles to ball carriers and even flashed an ability to consider using him as an occasional blitzer.
The one thing that could get in the way of Brown making the roster is his strength, which, while not poor, could use some improvement. Brown's ticket to the roster will be special teams, but we'd be curious to see if he might be able to carve out a role as a nickel linebacker.
On the Bubble: Dana Levine, Devante Downs, Mark McLaurin, Chris Peace
Dana Levine, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Temple, lined up primarily as a defensive end for the Owls and will likely need to get used to operating from a two-point stance before he’s ready to contribute.
He played in 39 games in four seasons at Temple, primarily as a defensive end. His career totals included 91 tackles (52 solo), 18.5 tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks, and four forced fumbles. As a senior in 2019, he had career highs of 11 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks among his 32 tackles (19 solo).
Devante Downs was initially signed to the Giants practice squad in early October last year. He was promoted to the roster three weeks later but didn’t have much opportunity on defense instead of trying to make his mark on special teams. The Giants brought him back as he appears to offer some versatility as both an off-ball and outside linebacker, but the 6’3, 250-pounder could find himself getting caught up in the wash given the slew of linebackers this team added in the draft.
Mark McLaurin is a bit of an unknown as he suffered a broken foot early in training camp last year. He’s listed as a linebacker by the Giants, but he’s 6’1 and 212 pounds which would make him more of a tweener type, who might be better off transitioning back to strong safety, the position he played at Mississippi State (and a position hat right now is very crowded).
Before the 2019 Draft, Draft Wire called McLaurin “a lean, long-limbed defensive back prospect that’s going to make his money by coming up and making plays.”
Peace, who was acquired off waivers from the Chargers last year, has good size at 6’2 and 250 pounds. Mostly deployed on special teams in his four games, Peace did get a few snaps against the Packers on defense, but the small sample size didn’t show enough to make one take notice. If special teams is his ticket to this roster, he has a lot of competition in front of him.
There's a lot to like here as far as potential, but at the end of the day, that potential needs to produce. And we've been told for two years and counting that the plan is to produce a pass rush via the scheme only to see that not come to fruition.
We have already heard the same thing again this year, that the scheme will generate the pass rush and it won't be all on one player. Well, show us, then, because this approach hasn't been working since it entered the Giants vocabulary.
Better yet, instead of touting the scheme, how about touting the virtues of the pass-rushing talent in the group and aiming to get those guys on the right track to be the next Strahan-Tuck-Umenyiora-Kiwanuka quartet?