One of the consistent laments among fans of the New York Giants is the state of their linebacking corps. Once upon a time they were a proud unit, stacked with first round draft picks that struck fear into the hearts of offenses everywhere. Since the team transitioned to a 4-3 defense, and the passing game rose to an all-time high in importance, the linebackers fell in priority when it came to building the Giants' defense.
However, that doesn't mean that the team and front office are not making an effort to improve the position. The question is: Have the linebackers improved over the 2014 season despite not having the resources poured into the position that the defensive line and secondary have enjoyed?
Let's take a look
2014 Depth Chart
|Strong side Linebacker||Jameel McClain||Devon Kennard|
|Middle Linebacker||Jon Beason||Jameel McClain||Mark Herzlich|
|Weak side Linebacker||Jacquian Williams||Spencer Paysinger|
2015 Depth Chart
|Strong side Linebacker||Devon Kennard||Mark Herzlich||Uani' Unga||Brad Harrah|
|Middle Linebacker||Jon Beason||Jameel McClain||Cole Farrand||Tony Johnson|
|Weak side Linebacker||J.T. Thomas||Jon Casillas||Victor Butler|
Departures - Jacquian Williams, Spencer Paysinger
Additions - J.T. Thomas (FA), Jon Casillas (FA), Victor Butler (FA), Cole Farrand (UDFA), Brad Harrah (UDFA), Tony Johnson (UDFA)
Have The Linebackers Improved?
Have the Giants improved their linebacking corps heading into the 2015 training camp? That's a bit of a loaded question. Not only is the play of the linebacking corps dependent on the linebackers themselves, but also on the play of the defensive line in front of them. With upgrades such as Kenrick Ellis and George Selvie, the linebackers shouldn't have to deal with as many offensive linemen getting up to the second level as they did in 2014.
As far as the personnel are concerned, J.T. Thomas and Jonathan Casillas were brought in to be upgrades over Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger.
Casillas was brought in to be a utility back-up and a core special teamer. Both roles he has brought in to fill for the New England Patriots following a rare mid-season trade in 2014.
J.T. Thomas was brought in to replace Jacquian Williams as the Giants starting weak side linebacker. Though he was not very well liked by Pro Football Focus, he was also disliked by quarterbacks. Thomas lead the Jaguars in interceptions as well as breaking up five passes. Thomas is a smart, versatile, aggressive, and athletic player who should be a good fit in Steve Spagnuolo's swarming, blitz-heavy defense.
Among the returning players, though he finished the season among the top 4-3 linebackers in the NFL, Devon Kennard was only a rookie in 2014 and he should continue to improve as he grows as an NFL player. He has size, athleticism, instincts, intelligence, and a tremendous work ethic, all of which bodes well for the unit going forward. Also often overlooked Mark Herzlich seemed to find his niche as a SAM linebacker after struggling as a backup middle (MIKE) linebacker. His power and aggression coming downhill, and ability to stack and shed blockers made him a capable run defender.
Have the Giants improved their linebacking corps over the 2015 offseason? Well, like so many of their position groups, this one has a lot of "ifs". If the defensive line can play more consistently well than it did in 2014, they should be better. If players like Jon Beason -- whose ability to quarterback a defense could be crucial in 2015 -- and Devon Kennard stay healthy, the unit should be improved.
On paper, the Giants have improved their linebackers -- they might even be pretty good in 2015. However, until they get the pads on and some of these questions we simply can't answer now get answered, we can't know for sure if they will play any better than in past years.