It happens almost every year: The New York Giants draft a linebacker. But, rather than on the first or second days like Giants fans would prefer, they have drafted a number of linebackers on the third day of the draft. This year was no exception.
Devon Kennard was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, is coming off of a productive senior season (60 tackles, 13 for a loss, nine sacks, four passes defensed), and has been widely praised for his impressive intangibles.
Despite all this Kennard fell to the fifth round, 174th overall. His fall was largely due to injury concerns and less than impressive athleticism (though something of a "Tweener" status thanks to playing a variety of positions could have contributed as well).
Did the Giants get the five-star recruit, and a steal in the fifth? Or did they get a late-round JAG? Since we can't talk to him to verify the intangibles that his coaches and teammates rave about, let's go to the tape.
The first goal of the New York Giants' defense is to stop the run. By stopping the run they are trying to force offenses into passing situations and making them one-dimensional.
Play 1) 0:47 - 0:55
The play starts with Kennard lined up as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 front. He is lined up right on the line of scrimmage and is matched up on the tight end. At the snap the defensive end is pushed out of the play by the right tackle while Kennard takes on the tight end. He does a nice job of controlling the TE and getting off the block to make the tackle as the back comes near him. The back makes a nice gain, but that isn't on Kennard.
Play 2) 3:16 - 3:25
This time Kennard is on the left side of the offense, between the left tackle and the tight end. Unlike the last play, he is basically a stand-up defensive end in a four-man front.
At the snap Kennard does a fantastic job of reading the play and scraping across to the other side to make a play on the running back. However, we see Kennard's relatively pedestrian athleticism when the left guard gets in his way just enough to keep him from catching the running back. It doesn't help that the other "defensive end" ran past the play on his rush. and the linebackers dropped back into coverage rather than coming up to fill the gaping hole the offensive line opens up. But ultimately this play is a mixed bag for Kennard. On one hand it showed his intelligence and instincts, but on the other it exposed his (relatively) pedestrian athleticism.
In the modern NFL offensive coordinators are attacking the middle of the field in a variety of ways. Passes to slot receivers, running backs, full backs, traditional tight ends, and the emerging class of hybrid tight ends all have to be defended against. With coverage needs at an all-time high, defenses are relying on extra defensive backs to protect the middle of the field. If a linebacker wants to be a full-time player, he has to be able to cover.
Play 1) 4:31 - 4:39
For this play Kennard lines up as an outside linebacker in a three-man front across from the tight end. The tight end initially appears to be blocking, but cuts inside to receive a quick pass from the QB. Kennard does a nice job of sticking with the tight end through the whole play. It looks like Oregon St. might have been setting up a tight end screen, but Kennard knocked the ball away before the play had a chance.
Play 2) 8:32 - 8:43
This time Kennard is lined up as a stand-up defensive end in a four-man front. He initially rushes the quarterback, but recognizes the quick pass to the receiver and breaks off his rush to help tackle the receiver before he can do any damage. This play isn't about Kennard's coverage so much as his instincts, awareness, and ability to process and act on information quickly.
This was the area of weakness for the Giants' defense in 2013. While a return to health for their best pass rushers should certainly help matters, having a capable blitzing linebacker would be a welcome addition. Kennard had a few pass-rushing "wins", but the Oregon St. scheme had the ball out of the quarterback's hands before the rushers could get there. He did, however, get to the QB twice, so I want to take a look at how.
Play 1) 1:49 - 2:00
Once again we see Kennard lined up wide of the left tackle as a stand-up defensive end in a four man front. At the snap he gets blocked by the left tackle and chipped by the tight end. He uses a very nice inside spin move to slip off the chip block and between the left tackle and left guard. Finally (and it's tough to see at full speed), the left guard gets an arm around Kennard, and he has to power through that to get the quarterback on the ground.
Play 2) 5:33 - 5:42
For the final play we'll be looking at, Kennard is once again lined up wide of the left tackle as a stand up defensive end in a four-man front. He does a great job of setting up then beating the tackle on this play. At the snap Kennard takes a quick step toward the hash mark, setting the tackle up to block against an outside rush. However as the tackle starts to widen his slide, he makes a quick move inside to shoot the gap between the left guard and left tackle, and he gets the sack.
So, what kind of linebacker did the Giants get? Looking at this tape, they got an intelligent, instinctive, high-effort linebacker who can have an impact in run defense, pass coverage, and rushing the passer. He isn't a spectacular athlete, and that gets exposed at times. Within his range, however, he is certainly effective.
There's also the question about where he will play. At USC, Kennard played middle linebacker and defensive end, while in a 3-4 defense in 2013 he played outside linebacker. To my eye, he looks like an outside linebacker in Perry Fewell's 4-3 defense. However, it's possible that he could provide depth inside, or possibly even move inside in nickel packages.
To start with, Devon Kennard will have to make his mark on special teams. However, assuming he can stay healthy (which has been an issue with him), he has the tools to eventually contribute on defense, even if only as a pass rushing specialist.