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New York Giants position breakdowns: Middle linebacker

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In a way, we have been talking about the future of the New York Giants middle linebacker position for months now. Let's do that formally today as we continue our series of position-by-position breakdowns.

In fact, we have been talking about a future that does not include incumbent middle linebacker Antonio Pierce for a couple of seasons now. Have we reached the point when that future is now? Very possibly.

We know that the Giants have to get better play from the middle linebacker spot in 2010. Lack of solid run-stopping from that spot hurt the Giants in 2009. And in a Perry Fewell defense, Tampa 2 or a different zone scheme, the middle linebacker will have to be fast enough to handle some significant coverage responsibilities.

Can the Giants current MLB candidates do those things? I'm not so sure. Let's take a look at each player individually.

Antonio Pierce: We know that AP, an eight-year veteran has long been a terrific defensive 'quarterback.' No doubt the Giants missed that presence after he went on Injured Reserve with a bulging disc in his neck.

Question is, even if doctors clear Pierce to resume playing again in 2010 is his leadership enough to warrant bringing him back despite his obviously declining physical skills? Personally, I think not.

It is clear that Pierce is not the same player who totaled 167 tackles back in 2006, or even the guy who had 129 tackles in 2007. He has slowed down to the point of being an extreme liability in pass coverage. Against the run game he is not big enough or physical enough to be a real force, and gets caught out of position too often for a player as smart as he is.

In fact, Pro Football Focus has actually rated AP a below-average middle linebacker for three years running. AP rated -1.0 in 2009, a league-worst -24.1 in 2008 and even a below-par -7.0 in the 2007 Super Bowl season.

So, if you are harboring the illusion that Pierce is still an upper-echelon middle linebacker it just isn't the case. It's time to cut ties and try to upgrade that spot.

Jonathan Goff: So, if the Giants move on and try to replace Pierce is Goff capable of stepping in and doing the job? I really don't think we know the answer to that question. He had a five-game audition at the end of the season, and what we saw was a mixed bag. He made eight tackles in a promising first start against Dallas, but never really duplicated that type of success.

He is athletic, but at 236 pounds not a physical force in the middle. To my eyes, he often seemed to have trouble getting through traffic to make a play. Maybe he will improve with experience, but pass coverage did not seem to be a strength.

What does Pro Football Focus have to say? A decent run defender (-0.9), but awful against the pass (-6.0).

Chase Blackburn: We all love Blackburn, but I think that what you see is what you get with him. He is an excellent special teams player and a solid fill-in at any of the linebacker spots. Definitely a guy who belongs on the team. But a guy who belongs in the starting lineup? I don't think so.

Conclusion: If it is a choice strictly between Pierce and Goff I have to take Goff, only because at least there is potential upside with Goff as he gains experience. If it is a choice between Goff and another impact middle linebacker, though, I am looking elsewhere. That means Alabama's Rolando McClain is a no-brainer if he somehow falls to the Giants in the 15th slot of the first round. Or, possibly Florida's Brandon Spikes. How about Barrett Ruud (Tampa Bay), Karlos Dansby (Arizona) or DeMeco Ryans (Houston) as free agents?

Whatever the Giants do, the status quo at this position is definitely not acceptable.

Keep: Goff, Blackburn

Dump: Pierce

Draft/Free Agency Priority (1 being the highest, 5 the lowest): 1 -- I think we all agree that if the Giants have a shot at an impact middle linebacker they need to take it.

(E-mail Ed at bigblueview@gmail.com)