This season can only be described as unfulfilled. The hopes of a repeat were agonizingly drawn out over the course of 17 weeks. We, the fans, can assign blame for their shortcomings to multiple parties. For now we look to the off-season and ways to improve the team. Consensus says the defense did not play up to potential (stats will support that thought too). The search for answers starts there.
At times this season the Giants defense looked incapable of stopping both the run and the pass. Analysts, media and fans can talk about the lack of sacks produced by the defensive line but as multiple Giants players explained, it all starts with stopping the run. The quickest way to improve this defense will come from improving its run defense.
This progression of thought is what sparked this post. As we turn our attention to the NFL Draft, the collective voice of the fans can agree to several positions of need. I will argue that what should be considered first is the Linebacker position. Granted, the Giants organization does not draft based on needs but rather best player available so if a Jason Pierre-Paul or Prince Amukamara should present itself at the 19th spot we know the Giants will not hesitate to pull the trigger there.
As we've seen in the Perry Fewell defense, a 4-man rush is pretty standard. And on any given running play you will have 5 offensive lineman, possibly a 6th lineman, 1 or 2 Tight Ends or a Fullback. The odds of the front 4 making a play on a running play are not in their favor. Obviously this all depends on the personnel groupings, direction of the run, defensive call, etc. but purely as a numbers game, the defensive line does not have an advantage. So when talking about stopping the run, ideally, it is a collective effort of the front 7. Which brings us to the Linebacker corps.
Not knowing where to start researching, I looked at the personnel. When you think of current great Linebacker play, you think of Ray Lewis, Clay Matthews, Patrick Willis, etc. One thing that these respected LB corps have is consistency. Whether 1st down or 3rd down, 4 yards to go or 15 yards, these players will be on the field. I believe that is part of the problem with the Giants' Linebackers. Based on the down and distance you may see Chase Blackburn, Michael Boley, Jacquain Williams, Mathias Kiwanuka, Keith Rivers, Mark Herzlich, or Spencer Paysinger. There is no consistency. The old saying, "if you have two Quarterbacks, you don't have one" should apply on defense too, especially at a position as important as Linebacker. Linebackers are historically the captains of the defense and the main communicators (look to see how many LB's are captains http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Football_League_team_captains). Communication break-downs occurred too often in this defense, maybe it is the lack of cohesion that enabled it.
As a starting point, I looked at the generic Tackles stats. For your reference, http://espn.go.com/nfl/statistics/player/_/stat/defense/sort/totalTackles/seasontype/2/qualified/false. 49 of the top 80 players on this list are Linebackers. 7 are Cornerbacks and 24 are Safeties. I was curious to see where the Giants players ranked on this list. The leading tackler for the Giants was Chase Blackburn with 98 tackles. That places him at 52nd in the league in tackling. He was followed by Antrel Rolle with 96 tackles and Michael Boley with 92. This is interesting to note in this off-season because Blackburn is a free agent and many believe Boley could be a cap casualty. One or both may not be back next season which would make Linebacker an even greater need. Luke Kuechly lead the league in tackles this season, Vontaze Burfict lead the Bengals in tackling and came in at 15th in the league. It's not wild to think that a 1st round Linebacker at the 19th spot could be an upgrade over Blackburn or Boley in that respect. But tackles don't tell the whole story. It can be a skewed stat. Tackles don't necessarily correlate directly with strong defenses. This brought me to Team Rankings. I looked at their Tackles for loss stats (http://www.teamrankings.com/nfl/player-stat/defense-tackles-for-loss). You may have thought, as I did, that this is where the defensive line makes up their value, but that's not necessarily the case either. Out of the top 100 players according to their rankings, 44 players were Linebackers. 5 were Cornerbacks, 37 were Defensive Ends, 12 are Defensive Tackles and 2 were Safeties. Linebackers make up the most of any position. Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora are the only Giants on this list and ranked 16th and 93rd, respectively.
To be an effective run-stopping defense you make plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. Linebackers play a huge role in that regard as you can see. This is not an attack on the group currently on the roster. I think Jacquain Williams is a talent and the stories of Chase Blackburn and Mark Herzlich are great and I root for all of them to succeed. I am arguing that it would not be a bad investment to pick a possible stud Linebacker in the 1st round as that might actually benefit the run defense as much, if not more, than a 1st round defensive lineman who will play sparingly behind the established front-4....what do you think?