Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports has been doing position rankings in advance of the upcoming NFL season. When he ranked linebacking units recently, Cole put the Giants' group 30th out of the 32 NFL teams.
Here is what Cole said about the Giants' linebackers.
The disintegration of Antonio Pierce was both sad and fascinating to watch last year. After helping the Giants to a Super Bowl title in the 2007 season, Pierce was still solid in 2008. But by 2009, his series of injuries caught up to him and forced him to retire. Now, the Giants must not only rebuild, but replace the most focused, dutiful leader the team had. Ouch. Outside linebacker Michael Boley was pretty good last year when he was healthy, but the rest of the group is a collective question mark with the likes of Clint Sintim, Jonathan Goff and Chase Blackburn.
Well, OK. Hard to argue with Cole's logic. But, 30th out of 32 teams? Are they really that bad? Maybe I am overly optimistic, but I don't see this unit as being that awful.
Let me go player-by-player, and give you my thoughts on each guy.
Cole is right about Boley -- he was pretty good when he was healthy. Problem is, like many of the Giants' defenders he wasn't healthy nearly enough. Boley had a breakout 2007 season in Atlanta with 93 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions. He fell into the doghouse in 2008, and was signed by GM Jerry Reese in hopes he would provide the team with a play-making outside linebacker. When he is healthy Boley is the one Giants' linebacker who has historically shown he can cover tight ends and running backs. Last season, though, leg injuries limited his effectiveness in that area. You have to wonder if they also limited his ability, at 235 pounds, to hold the edge against the run. Pro Football Focus graded Boley at -6.8 against the run in 2009.
This is really a sort of make-or-break season for Boley, who will be 28. If he can approach his 2007 performance, when he was Pro Football Focus's highest-ranked outside linebacker that would go a long way toward improving the Giants' defense.
The Giants are handing the strong-side linebacker job to the 2009 second-round draft pick, and we have talked often throughout the off-season about the high expectations the team has for Sintim. We know, also, that Sintim has those same expectations for himself.
Now the question is, will he fulfill them? The Giants let veteran Danny Clark leave as a free agent, and really don't have a Plan B (Chase Blackburn, maybe) if Sintim fails. So, the Giants need him to perform. I believe he will, even if the 10 tackles, one sack and limited playing time he received in 2009 is not much to go on.
Sintim's primary problem as a rookie was confusion, which, in a way, was understandable. First, he came from a 3-4 defense and was being asked to learn a new scheme. Secondly, it seemed even many of the veterans did not seem to know what they were supposed to be doing for Bill Sheridan's defenseless unit. Sintim has spent a ton of time studying this off-season, and should be much better prepared to be productive for Perry Fewell.
This is what Sintim told me earlier this off-season during an appearance on Blog Talk Radio w/Pat Traina (Inside Football)and myself.
"It's going to be an important year. I'm not a rookie anymore," Sintim said. "All that stuff that 'well, he's just a rookie and he can make that mistake, he's a young player' all those excuses may not fly.
"I'm expected to be a better player, to be smarter about the game. I haven't though about it as pressure, I've just thought about it as a great opportunity."
We saw during the 2009 pre-season that Sintim is a pure pass rusher. He has the size at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds to be solid against the run. His pass coverage skills were obviously lacking last season, but should be improved in 2010. If they still aren't up to snuff, the simple solution is to let him do what he does best on passing down -- rush the quarterback.
Will Sintim become the first big-time linebacker drafted by the Giants since Jessie Armstead in 2003? I suspect we will go a long way toward learning that answer this season.
Jonathan Goff/Gerris Wilkinson/Phillip Dillard
I'm lumping the middle linebacker candidates in together, mostly since right now we have no idea who will emerge as the No. 1 guy.
I really don't know who comes out of this competition with the job -- though I suspect Goff has the inside track to begin the season as the starter. I am also not under the illusion that the Giants will get Pro Bowl-caliber play from this position -- they probably won't. If, however, they get adequate play from the middle that will be better than what they got most of the time in 2009. And it should be good enough.
Goff was up and down in his few opportunities toward the end of the season. His best game was his first start, against Dallas, when he had eight tackles. Goff seemed a step off the play quite often in 2009, but let' see if a year of experience and a majority of first-team practice reps help him.
Wilkinson is a wild card, a player with undeniable talent who has never been able to stay healthy long enough to show it. Dillard, the fourth-round pick from Nebraska, probably gets this job eventually. We will just have to wait and see if the Giants were right to wait that long to address this spot.
The primary depth is Blackburn, Bryan Kehl and whoever loses the middle linebacker competition. Kehl is a guy who's physical ability has seemingly not yet translated on the field.
One other thing. I have said this constantly throughout the off-season but I believe strongly that the play of the defensive line will have a lot to do with our eventual perception of the linebackers. You can -- justifiably -- criticize the 2009 linebacker play, but if the linemen can't hold up their part of the bargain any group of linebackers is not going to look good. I think the defensive line will do a better job in 2010.
There are a lot of question marks and no clear answers right now. Perhaps that is why Cole ranks this group so low -- there just isn't much to go on with the guys likely to play. In the end, though, I have to believe this unit will work out fine. Not 'Crunch Bunch' fine, of course, but good enough to help erase the memory of 2009.