It's time to talk about Devon Kennard. As we continue our series of player-by-player profiles of the New York Giants' 90-man roster, let's look at the second-year linebacker who has the fan drooling over his immense potential.
2014 Season in Review
Forget the numbers for a minute. What was Kennard's biggest accomplishment during his rookie season? That would be raising the hopes of a fan base starved for a play-making linebacker to emerge Kennard did that with plays like these:
Drafted in the fifth round, Kennard played in 12 games with six starts. He had 43 tackles, 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. He compiled a +4.7 Pro Football Focus grade. His 23 defensive stops were sixth on the team despite playing only 338 snaps. Kennard's impact would likely have been greater had he not missed several weeks early in the season with a hamstring injury and sat out the season finale with a toe injury.
In the games he did play, Kennard showed pass-rushing ability, toughness and instincts the Giants have been missing at linebacker for a while now.
2015 Season Outlook
Pro Football Focus named Kennard the Giants' 'Secret Superstar' heading into 2015. Here is part of what PFF wrote about Kennard:
Kennard isn't the finished article by any means, for a start he still needs to show his coverage can hold up under sterner testing. ... Even so, the Giants appear to have found one piece of the puzzle at linebacker in Kennard, a forceful outside linebacker, and auxiliary pass rusher.
So, how good can Kennard be?
Middle linebacker Jon Beason was effusive in his praise of Kennard this spring:
"I can't praise Kennard enough. He prepares better than any rookie I've ever seen, and that's including myself. He just really wants it, he gets it, he understands it.
"He played most of his life on the line, he's really a pass rusher.
"He took coaching. He worked on it. The thing I noticed the most this offseason is I think he's a step or two faster, he's quicker. And he's not afraid anymore, he's making calls. ... I trust in him. He has potential to be as good as he wants to be, as good an anybody that's played there. The skill set is very unique, but it allows him to be a great blitzer coming off the edge and he's also a great pass coverage linebacker, which is shocking to see that savvy and that smarts this early in his career."
Let's look at Kennard several different ways.
Why was he available in the fifth round?
How did the Giants manage to find a player this talented in the fifth round? Well, Kennard got lost in the shuffle a bit during his time at USC. A torn chest muscle cost him the 2012 season, and coaching changes led to some indecision about his position. He played middle linebacker, outside linebacker and defensive end for the Trojans. It seems nobody knew exactly what he was. Witness this note in a pre-draft scouting report from CBS:
Bit of a jack of all trades, master of none type. Does not possess ideal strength to hold up as a traditional defensive end and may not be fluid enough to handle traditional outside linebacker duties in a standard 4-3 alignment.
What he does well
It is too simplistic to say that Kennard is an excellent blitzer and sure tackler. Andrew McKagan of SB Nation's USC web site, Conquest Chronicles, did an extensive film study of Kennard's rookie season and came away impressed. The 4.5 sacks and a pass rush productivity score of 19.1 (sixth among 4-3 outside linebackers who played at last 100 snaps) speak to his ability to rush. Kennard had a solid 8.9 runs top percentage and missed just one tackle all season.
The image and analysis below are from McKagan:
This is a pass rush, featuring Devon Kennard versus Joe Staley, one of the best offensive linemen in the league. Kennard works against Staley using perfect technique, using the old "long arm" trick. This employs the "one arm is longer than two" philosophy, and keeps Staley from getting his hands on Kennard.
Kennard ends up beating Staley around the edge here, and would have put pressure on Colin Kaepernick had Kaepernick not already escaped the pocket. Still, an impressive pass rush from Kennard.
McKagan, though, was especially impressed by Kennard's ability to play the run on early downs.
Kennard's work in the run game was very solid, to say the least. His length and strength are his biggest assets, and I think his athleticism (speed and quickness) is very underrated as well.
McKagan offers several examples of Kennard setting the edge vs. the run (something the Giants had tremendous difficulty with as a team), shedding a blocker and getting in on a tackle. Here is just one:
Former Giants linebacker and current radio broadcaster Carl Banks has often spoken highly of Kennard, who plays the strong side position Banks once manned so capably. Banks said that it is obvious Kennard came to the NFL already knowing how to play his position.
"Devon is fundamentally sound," Banks said. "He came to the NFL with a great foundation."
Is there anything he can't do?
So, why didn't the Giants use Kennard as an every-down linebacker in 2014? The answer is that there are concerns about the 6-foot-3, 251-pounder's foot speed and his ability to match up in pass coverage.
Banks thinks he will get there:
"He has to continue to improve his foot speed. He understands passing concepts and shows great anticipation. He will be very adequate in all pass coverage and will excel in zone defense," Banks told Big Blue View.
Kennard isn't the fastest linebacker in the world, which I think is something he can work on in the offseason. In today's NFL, the most valuable linebackers are the ones who never come off the field, like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Lavonte David, guys with range who excel in coverage. Kennard was never asked to do much in coverage this year beyond dropping into short zones.
His burst and initial quickness shown above suggests he has the capacity to be pretty good in coverage, but slightly altering his body type in the offseason (a.k.a. losing some weight) might be necessary to achieve this.
You might be thinking that rushing Kennard off the edge is the obvious solution. Problem is you can't do that on every passing down without giving away what you are doing defensively. If Kennard is going to play every down, and the Giants' defense will be better for it if he can, he has to be able to cover the pass adequately.
Let's face it, you can't make an impact from the sidelines and durability has been an issue for Kennard. He missed the 2012 season with a torn pectoral muscle, had thumb surgery before the 2010 season and hip surgery after it, and tore knee ligaments in 2008. Last season he missed time with the aforementioned hamstring and toe injuries. He missed the entire spring this time around with a hamstring issue.
Let's not put the 'injury-prone' label on Kennard just yet. Let's just say that to become the impact player the Giants think he can be, and a future cornerstone of the defense, he has to stay on the field. Until he proves that he can, that is a concern.
If Kennard can stay on the field there is no reason he can't become the best linebacker drafted by the Giants since Jessie Armstead was selected way back in 1993. It certainly is past time for the Giants to have another great, home-grown linebacker. If he is healthy, Kennard should be the Giants' best linebacker in 2015. It will be disappointing if he isn't on the field for all three downs.