2019 Season Rewind
Tremari Jerelle (TJ) Brunson spent the last two years of his Gamecocks’ college football career leading an SEC defense for whom he was a two-time team captain and a rock who utilized his quick ability to read his run keys, reacted downhill, and made aggressive tackles within the box.
Defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw, Brunson's college teammate, was drafted in the first round by the San Francisco 49ers. His role for the Gamecocks was to penetrate the A-Gaps and wreak havoc with upfield pressure.
Opposing teams were aware of Kinlaw’s aggressive style and would try and take advantage by running delay/misdirection concepts towards the A-gap, where it was Brunson’s duty to fill the void left by Kinlaw. This is something Brunson did well.
Brunson attended the Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, back in January. This is where Giants’ general manager Dave Gettleman is said to have grown fond of Brunson’s skill set, leadership, and how he conducted himself.
When the combine rolled around in February, Brunson was one of the high-profile snubs. He’s not the biggest guy on the field as he stands at 6’0 and 219 pounds with 31⅞” arms.
What Brunson does possess is a lot of starting experience--he’s started in 38 out of 49 career games for the Gamecocks--and he embodies toughness while on the field.
These two factors (experience and toughness) are two aspects of Brunson’s game to which Gettleman was likely attracted. That much playing time, combined with his skillset, led to a lot of production.
Brunson finished his college career with 283 tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, six sacks, one interception, and six passes defensed. In his senior season, he had 77 tackles, 6 for a loss, one interception, and five passes defended.
Brunson’s trophy case at South Carolina shines very brightly. He was awarded the 2019 leadership award for the defense. In 2018, he received the Joe Morris defensive Most Valuable Player Award, the Athletic Nutritional Award, the Leadership Award, the Most Productive Player Award (defense), the Most Unselfish Teammate Award (defense), and the Rex-Enright Co-Defensive Player of the Spring Award.
He also took home the 2017 Strength and Conditioning Award, the Defensive Tenacity Award, and AP All-Bowl Team Award. South Carolina’s head coach Will Muschamp has said that Brunson’s a player who speaks and teammates gravitate towards him.
These types of leadership intangibles are valuable to Gettleman, head coach Joe Judge, and represent what the Giants are trying to become.
Brunson was a key contributor who excelled in the tackle box. He keyed and diagnosed plays very well, reacted to his run keys, and executed solid angles to avoid blocking attempts and make tackles on ball carriers. It remains to be seen if Brunson will receive this opportunity in the NFL.
Brunson’s a seventh-round pick who will have to compete with UTSA’s Josiah Tauaefa, Penn State’s Cam Brown, Minnesota's Carter Coughlin, Georgia’s Tae Crowder, and North Carolina’s Dominique Ross for a roster spot. Like Brunson, Brown, Coughlin, and Crowder were all drafted in the latter stages of the 2020 NFL Draft while Tauaefa and Ross were undrafted free agents, Tauaefa in 2019, Ross this past season.
All of these players are competing for active roster spots and potential playing time behind Blake Martinez and Ryan Connelly. Based on what we've been able to ascertain about what Patrick Graham likes to do, he has a penchant for incorporating roving second-level defenders who can do several different things when asked in certain situations.
Coughlin and Brown fit this bill very well, whereas Crowder and Brunson don't due to their not possessing the same athletic ability as Coughlin and Brown.
Brunson struggles with a quick change of direction and lateral movements in space. Still, his ability to react accordingly in the box is useful, and a testament to his processing capability. He was the defensive signal-caller for the defense and was trusted by his coaching staff to make adjustments, and demand the most out of his teammates.
Brunson has redeemable qualities that should assist him in making this roster. Before the draft, the Giants were hurting for linebacker depth and starters. The team invested in Martinez. They have Connelly returning from injury, and now have a defensive coordinator coming in that implements a lot of different skill sets in a variety of effective ways.
If Connelly or Martinez suffer an injury, Brunson may be the one to step in on early downs and fill the void left by those talented starters. His chance to make this roster is realistic, and that can’ t be said about all seventh-round picks.
I expect Brunson to earn a spot on special teams, while potentially finding a place in the defensive rotation by the middle of the season. Still, his lack of athletic upside may hurt his ability to play in passing situations.