One of the great laments among fans of the New York Giants is the state of their once awe-inspiring linebacking corps.
Oh sure, they've been good enough to help the defense hold a couple potent Patriot offenses to a a combined 31 points in two Superbowls. But I think we all know that the defensive line did the yeoman's work in both of those contests. For the most part, since Jerry Reese has been the Giants general manager he has populated the linebacking corps with late-round draft picks, undrafted free agents and mid-level veteran free agent signings.
Gone are the days when the Giants boasted one of the most fearsome collection of linebackers in the whole NFL. Instead, Jerry Reese has chosen to concentrated on keeping the defensive line of the Giants 4-3 defense stacked with talent, as well as their often injured secondary.
On draft day, Jerry Reese and the rest of the Giants' front office are adamant that they stick to their board and pick the best player available (who makes sense for the team). But is that just camouflage for a not-so-secret hatred of linebackers?
Well, let's take a look at Jerry Reese's selections from the first two days of the draft in context and see if that offers any clues.
Round 1) Aaron Ross (CB, Texas) - 20th Overall
Linebackers Available: Jon Beason (25th overall), Anthony Spencer (26th overall), Paul Posluszny (34th overall)
Round 2) Steve Smith (WR, USC) - 51st Overall
Linebackers Available: Quincy Black (68th overall), Buster Davis (69th overall)
Round 3) Jay Alford (DT, Penn St.) - 81st Overall
Linebackers Available: Stewart Bradley (87th overall), Michael Okwo (94th overall), Anthony Waters (96th overall)
The only selection here where it was really close was Aaron Ross over Jon Beason. For the first half of Beason's career he was one of the top linebackers in the NFL. However at the time, the Giants also had a very capable middle linebacker in Antonio Pierce, what they didn't have was a competent secondary. Further muddying the waters was the important role Ross played on both Super Bowl teams. Beason may have been a better, more consistent player, but Ross filled an urgent need, and helped the team win two Super Bowls.
Round 1) Kenny Phillips (S, Miami) - 31st Overall
Linebackers Available: Curtis Lofton (37th overall), Jordon Dizon (45th overall)
Round 2) Terrell Thomas (CB, USC) - 63rd Overall
Linebackers Available: Tavares Gooden (71st overall), Dan Connor (74th overall), Shawn Crable (78th overall)
Round 3) Mario Manningham (WR, Michigan) - 95th Overall
Linebackers Available: Beau Bell (104th overall), Xavier Adibi (118th overall)
I don't think that there is much question that linebackers would have been inferior picks. Though Phillips' and Thomas' careers were derailed by unforeseen injuries, they were both excellent players for the Giants. Mario Manningham was a dangerous and dependable third option, and helped deliver one of the most memorable plays in Giants history.
Round 1) Hakeem Nicks (WR, UNC) - 29th Overall
Linebackers Available: James Laurinitis (35th overall), Rey Maualuga (38th overall)
Round 2) Clint Sintim (LB, Virginia) - 45th Overall, Will Beatty (OT, UConn) - 60th Overall
Linebackers Available: Jason Williams (69th overall), DeAndre Leavy (76th overall)
Round 3) Ramses Barden (WR, Cal Poly) - 85th Overall, Travis Beckum (TE, Ohio St) - 100th Overall
Linebackers Available: Tyrone McKenzie (97th overall), Kaluka Maiava (104th overall)
This is a bit of a sticky one. The Giants did select a linebacker here, but thanks to a failed defensive coordinator and two torn ACLs in less than nine months, his career was derailed almost before it began. The Giants also got almost nothing out of Barden and Beckum, so it could be argued that Maiava, who had three modestly successful seasons with the Browns, would have been a better pick.
Round 1) Jason Pierre-Paul (DE, USF) - 15th Overall
Linebackers Available: Sean Weatherspoon (19th overall)
Round 2) Linval Joseph (DT, ECU) - 46th Overall
Linebackers Available: Daryl Washington (47th overall), Sean Lee (55th overall), Brandon Spikes (62nd overall), Pat Angerer (63rd overall)
Round 3) Chad Jones (S, LSU) - 76th Overall
Linebackers Available: Donald Butler (79th overall), NaVorro Bowman (91st overall)
At the time, Giants' fans were furious over the selection of the raw defensive end who was better known for backflips than sacks over Weatherspoon -- I know, I was one of them. But I think we can all agree that JPP has been a much better player, and quite frankly, the Giants don't win in 2011 without him. The second round is tricky for me. Daryl Washington is one of my favorite linebackers to watch, and the way he plays shows so many of the traits I have come to look for in a linebacker. Likewise, Lee is smart, instinctive, and talented. However, neither linebacker has been anything like dependable for their team. Though the Giants couldn't sign him to a second contract, dependable was one thing Linval Joseph always was. So the question there is: Do you want the talented, game changing linebacker who stands a good chance of letting your team down, or do you want the rock in the middle of your defensive line.
Sadly, there is no way to evaluate the third round. It's entirely likely, even probable, that Bowman would be a superior player to Chad Jones, but thanks to a tragic car accident we will never be able to know for sure. In hindsight, Bowman (who has had his own injury issues) would be the better pick, but Reese had no way of knowing that Jones would almost lose his leg before his first training camp.
Round 1) Prince Amukamara (CB, Nebraska) - 19th Overall
Linebackers Available: Akeem Ayers (39th overall), Bruce Carter (40th overall)
Round 2) Marvin Austin (DT, UNC) - 52nd Overall
Linebackers Available: Jonas Mouton (61st overall), Dontay Moch (66th overall), Nate Irving (67th overall), Kelvin Sheppard (68th overall)
Round 3) Jerrel Jernigan (WR, Trow) - 83rd Overall
Linebackers Available: Mason Foster (84th overall), Akeem Dent (91st overall), K.J. Wright (99th overall)
It's the third round that stands out here. While a bevy of linebackers went after Marvin Austin, he is another player where the selection was poor in hindsight, but he came into the league with enormous potential. Reese had no way of knowing that a litany of injuries (chest, knee, back, and groin to name a few), would cost him his career with the Giants before it got started.
In the third round the Giants could have drafted either Mason Foster or K.J. Wright. It is the non-selection of Foster that garners the most gnashing of teeth, but Wright has probably been the best player. At the time the Giants had to look at life after Steve Smith, who was recovering from a severe knee injury and was a free agent, and they also couldn't know that Victor Cruz would become a play-making susperstar. There were certainly arguments for taking Jernigan. But at the time and in hindsight, both Foster and Wright were better options.
Round 1) David Wilson (RB, Virginia Tech) - 32nd Overall
Linebackers Available: Courtney Upshaw (35th overall), Mychal Kendricks (46th overall), Bobby Wagner (47th overall), Zach Brown (52nd overall), Lavonte David (58th overall)
Round 2) Rueben Randle (WR, LSU) - 63rd Overall
Linebackers Available: Demario David (77th overall), Sean Spence (86th overall)
Round 3) Jayron Hosley (CB, Virginia Tech) - 94th Overall
Linebackers Available: Nigel Bradham (105th overall), Kyle Wilber (113th overall)
Sigh ... I'm really getting tired of writing about promising young draftees who have their careers taken from them long before their time.
Once again, in hindsight, Kendricks or Wagner would have been much better picks than David Wilson. However, the Giants had parted ways with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmahd Bradshaw's injury history was significant. More importantly, Wilson had the physical ability and temperament to be a truly special player. As good as Wagner could be on the Giants' defense, I think I can safely speak for every single Giants fan, and employee, when I say it is a tragedy that we never got to see the offense with Odell Beckham and David Wilson on it.
In the third round, the Giants took Jayron Hosley, and while his name has become a synonym for poor play among Giants' fans, at the time, the pick was hailed as a steal of colossal proportions. Bradham has been a very good player for the Bills, but in 2012, Hosley was viewed as a player with first round talent and potential game-changer, who slipped for character reasons.
Round 1) Justin Pugh (OL, Syracuse) - 19th Overall
Linebackers Available: Manti Te'o (38th overall), Kevin Minter (45th overall), Kiko Alonso (48th overall)
Round 2) Johnathan Hankins (DT, Ohio St.) - 49th Overall
Linebackers Available: Jonathan Bostic (50th overall), Jamie Collins (52nd overall), Arthur Brown (56th overall), Sio Moore (66th overall)
Round 3) Damontre Moore (DE, Texas A&M) - 81st Overall
Linebackers Available: Zavier Gooden (97th overall), Nico Johnson (99th overall)
I was a big fan of both Minter and Alonso coming out of college. But however deflating the Pugh pick was at the time, the Giants offense would be in a much worse state without him than the defense is without Alonso or Minter.
Back in 2013, Reese passing on Arthur Brown for a big, two-down run stuffing defensive tackle enraged members of the "Beezer Brigade". Time, however, has proven Reese very right on that pick, as Hankins has quickly become one of the best, if least appreciated, defensive tackles in the league. He is one of the very few tackles to grade out in the top-10 in both run defense and pass rushing.
While Damontre Moore has yet to truly show the talent that had some grading him as a top-five player before the 2013 Scouting Combine, the linebackers taken after him haven't been better. Moore could blossom into a dominant player under Steve Spagnuolo.
So, does Reese hate linebackers? Honestly, I don't think so. Looking at his draft history, I don't think he even really ignores the position. There have only been a couple instances where both player value and positional need were equal between the players he selected and the linebackers he passed on. The most obvious instance was the selection of Jernigan over Foster or Wright in 2011.
Over the course of his nine drafts as the Giants general manager, Reese has gone back to the wide receiver, defensive back, and defensive tackle wells time and again, but only once drafted a linebacker. As the weight of years piles up, it gives the impression that he has no regard for that once proud unit.
Will 2016 be the year that Reese finally selects a linebacker in the first three rounds of the NFL draft? Looking ahead, it very well could be. There are a number of talented linebackers who will be draft eligible.
Scooby Wright III (Arizona) -- Scooby Wright exploded onto the national stage in 2014, racking up Madden-like stats (163 tackles, 29 tackles for a loss, 14 sacks). He won the Bronko Nagurski Award over players like Malcom Brown and the Giants' own Landon Collins
Reggie Ragland (Alabama) -- The Crimson Tide's do-it-all replacement for CJ Mosely, Ragland doesn't have the athletic talent that Mosley does, but he is intelligent, instinctive, has great size, and shows a great -- and decisive -- first step.
Myles Jack (UCLA) - Jack is a converted running back, and a remarkably athletic inside linebacker. He is undersized, but possibly not too much for the Giants. He racks up tackles, but his pass coverage is special, notching 18 passes defensed to go with three interceptions over the last two years for UCLA.
Joshua Perry (Ohio State) -- Perry took over the inside linebacker duties for the Buckeyes after Ryan Shazier left for the NFL. At 6-4, 250 pounds, with long arms and solid athleticism, Perry just looks like a Giants' defender. Add to that a sterling character and a striking comparison to current Giant Devon Kennard, and Perry is a player to keep an eye on.
That, of course, is just a small sampling of the linebackers who will be coming out in 2016, but the possibilities are enticing. With Jon Beason and Jameel McClain also possibly leaving the team, they could find themselves in need of a new linebacker or two, even if the 2015 Giants' linebackers shock the world.