|Antonio Pierce had the worst season of his four years with the Giants in 2008. Can he rebound in 2009, or is it time to start looking for a new middle linebacker?|
Now that Bill Sheridan has been named as the Giants new defensive coordinator, today seems like the perfect time to discuss what most of us agree is the biggest issue on the defense right now.
That would, of course, be the position Sheridan used to coach -- linebacker.
We have to begin by dissecting the play of the group of linebackers the Giants used in 2008. I would not classify this group as disappointing, I would just call them adequate at best. Definitely not good enough for a team with championship aspirations, or for a team that needs its defense to be dominant.
The only place to start that discussion is with the leader of that group, middle linebacker Antonio Pierce.
Pierce has been a terrific leader an an excellent player in his four seasons with the Giants. He is not a dominant middle linebacker, though, and the numbers tell you this was his worst season since becoming a full-time starter back in 2004 with the Washington Redskins.
Pierce had 94 tackles in 15 games this season, down from 139 tackles in 16 games just two seasons ago. He seemed to be out of position on several long runs by opposing backs this season, and seemed slow in pass coverage.
I don't see anyone on the current roster replacing him, though. Chase Blackburn is a nice player who started several games outside this season but I don't see him as a long-term starter for a championship-caliber defense. Who knows what Jonathan Goff, who was hurt most of his rookie season, can do.
Now, let's look at the outside guys.
As I have already said, I don't see Blackburn as a long-term starter. He is a great special teams player and an adequate fill-in, but nothing more. Danny Clark? The Giants signed him to be Reggie Torbor, a fill-in and special teams player. They ended up asking him to be Kawika Mitchell, a full-time playmaker, and he didn't measure up. It won't bother me if he isn't back next season.
I love Bryan Kehl, the fourth-round pick out of BYU last season, and think he could be a playmaker for the Giants at one of the outside slots. Gerris Wilkinson? Hasn't been able to get on the field for two years, so you can't count on him for anything.
The big question on the current roster is, of course, Mathias Kiwanuka. Does he return to linebacker, where he was settling in nicely before breaking his leg in 2007, or does he stay at defensive end and form a big-time pass rushing troika with Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora?
I don't know what the right answer is. I always loved his potential at linebacker, and still think he can be a dominant force there. I can also see how valuable he can be at DE helping to limit the numbers of snaps Tuck and Umenyiora have to play.
I just know it isn't fair to Kiwanuka to keep bouncing him back and forth. Fortunately for Kiwanuka and the Giants, I think new defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan -- linebackers coach the past couple of seasons -- should be the perfect guy to make that decision.
There are several quality free-agent linebackers available. Three of the Baltimore linebackers are free agents, but I honestly wouldn't go looking at any of those guys. Or, for that matter, any other 3-4 linebackers. Who is on that list that you really like?
Fortunately for the Giants, this year's crop of linebackers appears to be very deep. This is what Pro Football Weekly had to say about the linebackers available in this April's draft.
This year’s LB class is very strong inside and outside and could be the gem of the draft, with intriguing versatility a signature of the group. With the addition of defensive ends being projected to rush linebacker, this year’s class really could turn out to be not only deep, but special — maybe even unmatched in its overall strength.
I will be honest here. I have not studied the available players in any depth, so I can't tell you who I would like. I am sure some of you already have ideas about that.
I will be disappointed, though, if the Giants don't use an early pick -- or two -- to find some playmakers at this position.