This is a question the New York Giants had to be asking themselves ever since Jon Beason was (once again) lost for the season. "Who is going to be our middle linebacker for the future?"
With the Giants officially parting ways with Beason, that question becomes even more pressing.
Losing the middle linebacker is a tremendous blow to Steve Spagnuolo's communication-heavy scheme. For a while Devon Kennard handled the duties of calling the defense, until he too was lost to injury. Fortunately the Giants had signed veteran linebacker Jasper Brinkley earlier in the season. It took him several weeks to master the playbook enough to be a viable MIKE linebacker.
So, who then will man the middle of the Giants defense in 2016? Let's take a look at some of their options.
Once he was up to speed in the Giants' defense, Brinkley played well as the middle linebacker. Despite being 30 years old, the long time Viking had one of the best seasons of his career in just nine games for the Giants, notching 67 tackles, a sack, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Brinkley's hard hitting style not only impacted the run game, but it also had a way of separating a player from the ball.
The downside with Brinkley is two fold. First is his age. At 31 to start the 2016 season, he won't be getting any better and is likely only a patch until a younger, long-term solution can be found. Second, Brinkley doesn't offer much as a pass defender. His game is played downhill, stacking and shedding blockers and stuffing runs. The Giants will likely want their middle linebacker -- Spags' extension on the field -- to be a player who can play any down or distance.
Brinkley is an unrestricted free agent.
Unga forced his way onto the Giants roster with a strong pre-season performance and made a statement early in the season with 12 tackles and an interception against the Dallas Cowboys. However, that proved to be the high point of his season as he would only have more than three tackles three more times last season.
Unga played well on special teams, but he found himself exposed as a liability as injuries ate away at the Giants roster and teams got a look at him on tape. Also, at 28 years old, Unga is a very old second-year player.
Kennard has pretty much locked down the strong-side (SAM) linebacker role. His size and ability to drop in coverage, play the run or rush the passer make him a natural fit there. However, he also has the intelligence and versatility to play the middle linebacker position as well, and, in fact, was the first man up there when the Giants lost Beason to a foot injury in the spring of 2014 (Kennard's rookie year).
We know from the NFL Network's "Finding Giants" miniseries that some in the Giants' organization viewed him as their future middle linebacker from the very beginning. However, his pesky injury history makes counting on him in such a crucial spot a risky proposition. Perhaps the revamped strength and conditioning staff will be able to keep him on the field (regardless of position).
One of the Giants' big free agent signings in the 2015 free agency period, Thomas played both outside and middle linebacker for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Signed to play the WILL linebacker position for the Giants, Thomas battled a hamstring injury throughout the season and was often taken off the field in passing situations.
Whether or not the Giants like him enough at WILL to keep him there, and whether they think he has the mental makeup to be a full-time MIKE will likely decide where they play him next year.
There are several options for a middle linebacker in the draft, though whether they will be there and present value when the Giants pick is another matter entirely. Here are some names:
Myles Jack (UCLA) and Jaylon Smith (Notre Dame) -- These are the gold-standards for linebackers in the 2016 draft. However, the Giants would require some breaks in their favor for either to be in blue come May. Jack is a rare athlete at linebacker and very highly regarded by scouts and personnel departments around the league. Even drafting at 10th overall, Jack might not make it to the Giants. For the Giants to draft Smith, he will need to get good news regarding the rehab from his knee injury.
Reggie Ragland (Alabama) -- Ragland is considered something of a "throwback" linebacker, and surprised by weighing in at the Senior Bowl at 6-foot-1, 259 pounds. He played well for the Crimson Tide, but benefited from a phenomenal defensive line. With limited range, Ragland presents both an awkward scheme fit as well as awkward value. He would likely be a reach at 10th, and unlikely to fall to 40th.
Kentrell Brothers (Missouri) -- Brothers isn't as high-profile as some of the other linebackers, but he is smart, instinctive, and a hard hitter. Brothers doesn't have that extra gear like Jack or Smith, but he is a tackling machine who led the nation in tackles per game (12.7)
This is a pretty deep class for linebackers, with players like Scooby Wright III (Arizona), Dominique Alexander (Oklahoma), and Tyler Matakevich (Temple) who could be options in the later rounds.