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Making the case: Which linebacker should Giants draft at No. 23?

Cunningham, Davis, Foster could all be in the discussion

NFL: Combine
Zach Cunningham
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Could the New York Giants be on the verge of selecting a linebacker in the first round of the NFL Draft for the first time since 1984? Even at this late date, it’s a muddled, uncertain picture for the Giants, who pick 23rd. Linebacker, though, appears to be a realistic possibility.

Chris recently went through the edge rushers who could be in the discussion for the Giants. Among them, Tyus Bowser of Houston and T.J. Watt of Wisconsin are probably considered outside linebackers.

What about the more traditional linebackers? There are three who could be under consideration for the Giants in Round 1. Let’s look at them today. Sean Cottrell (@PhillyDraft), NFL and draft analyst for Inside The Pylon, will provide some added analysis about each of the linebacker prospects.

Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt

Reasons to Draft Him — Great length and athleticism. Outstanding production. Could play in the middle or at the WILL spot in a 4-3. In his prospect profile, Chris says “If a team is looking for a true three-down linebacker, there aren’t many options to pick from in the 2017 NFL Draft. As strong as the edge rusher and secondary classes are, the linebacker class is a bit mediocre. Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham is one of the best, and has the skillset to be an instant contributor at the next level.”

Reasons to Pass — Many analysts, including ESPN’s Mel Kiper, believe 23rd is too high to select Cunningham. His strength is questionable, with his 15 bench press reps at the Combine in just the fourth percentile among linebackers. Misses a lot of tackles, possibly because of his strength and possibly because he’s not quick enough to always be in good position.

Cottrell says — At 6’3”, 230 pounds, Cunningham sports a lean, athletic frame and appears to room to build further out on the top half of that frame without sacrificing his athleticism. He is an ideal fit on the weak side in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense but, unlike Foster and Davis, doesn’t have the versatility to play inside as he lacks the play strength to take on and defeat blocks on a consistent basis. Cunningham is a run and chase linebacker who has a knack for finding the ball and the range to string out or shut down runs to the outside or close quickly in pursuit from the backside of the play. He is good in both zone and man coverage and shows good awareness of his body in space to force difficult throws from the quarterback and balls skills to disrupt at the catch point. While he has solid ability to key and diagnose, he has a tendency to turn his body and fully commit to right to the ball which opens him up to blocks and occasionally forces him to overrun the tackle or forces him into arm tackles. Due to his size and play strength, Cunningham will most likely be a sub-package player early in his career as he adds weight to his frame and acclimates himself to the NFL. He may not be worth the pick at No. 23 but could be a great value in the second round, providing an injection of athleticism right into the heart of the Giant’s defense.”

Jarrad Davis, Florida

Reasons to Draft Him — When he played, Davis was outstanding. Kiper believes Davis is “a guaranteed first-round pick.” In his prospect profile of Davis, Chris said Davis “does everything the Giants ask of their linebackers, and would have the ability to play multiple positions and not have to come off the field in sub-packages.”

Reasons to Pass — Availability is considered a critical ability, and Davis hasn’t always been available. Could not work out at the Combine due to an ankle injury, and only played a full season once in four collegiate seasons. The Giants were the most injury-prone team in the league from 2013-15, and finally shed that title last season. Part of the reason they did so was by moving on from a number of injury-prone players. No matter how talented, Davis won’t be able to help the Giants if he can’t stay on the field.

Cottrell says — “Davis is a very good athlete, he tested off the charts at his pro day, absolutely destroying his jumps displaying the explosion that he consistently shows on tape. He brings versatility in that he has the size and strength to play in the middle of a 4-3 defense but may also be best flowing freely to the ball from the weak side. He has the range and closing speed to make plays sideline-to-sideline and the aggression to be the tone setter of a defense. Despite improving in 2016, his ability to read and react in the run game requires refinement and he will occasionally move off of his keys and get lost with various backfield actions and misdirection concepts. What he may lack in instincts, however, he makes up for with lateral speed, incredibly powerful hands and explosive hips to jolt offensive linemen and get off blocks. He has the athleticism and balls skills to match up in man coverage with running backs and tight ends but struggles occasionally in zone coverage, getting his eyes stuck on the quarterback and ends up covering grass. Davis is also very good as a blitzer. His aggression and ability to get into the chest and jolt offensive lineman would make him a nightmare in the Double-A gap blitzes that Spagnuolo loves to run. Davis has the ability to make an immediate impact as a tone setter the Giants have lacked at the linebacker position since the days of Antonio Pierce. If the Giants want an immediate upgrade at linebacker, they may have to prioritize Davis at No. 23, as he will probably be long gone by their next pick in the second round.”

Reuben Foster, Alabama

Reasons to Draft Him — Simple. On paper, he’s the best true linebacker in this draft class. In his prospect profile, Chris says Foster is “almost exactly the type of linebacker their defense needs. Athletic, aggressive, and a true 3-down player who came out of a complex and well coached defense. His range and athleticism would help lock down the middle of the field, his run defense would play terrifically with the Giants’ stout defensive line. Also, Spagnuolo has used a lot of linebacker blitzes (even discounting the times Devon Kennard has rushed as a defensive lineman), which would only be made more effective by Foster’s speed and explosiveness.

Reasons to Pass — Also simple. All the off-the-field concerns. An incident that, rightly or wrongly, got him booted out of the Combine. A diluted sample from a Combine drug test. If you’re going to plug a guy into the middle of your defense as its leader and signal-caller, you need to know you can rely on him. Could the Giants rely on Foster. They have stayed away from prospects with character concerns in recent years, which would make selecting Foster a real surprise.

Cottrell says — “Chances are slim that Foster will drop to pick No. 23 but, if he somehow did, it would be very difficult for the Giants to pass. Many view Foster as the prototypical middle linebacker in a base 4-3 defense but he may be better suited playing at one of the outside spots. His ability to key and diagnose then run is good enough to play inside at the next level but his greatest assets are his speed to the ball and aggression at the point of attack. Playing the outside, at least early in his career, will give him simpler run reads through the tackle or tight end and allow him to do what he does best, fly around and attack the ball.

“If there is one thing that Steve Spagnuolo loves in his defensive players, it’s versatility, and Foster brings a ton of that. He has the sideline-to-sideline range and mental processing that Spagnuolo likes from his middle linebacker, his best fit, however, would be on the weak side. Foster would be menace to opposing offenses if left free to roam on the weak side of the under fronts that the Giants often employ. In coverage, he has the athleticism to match up with running backs and tight ends in man coverage and has good zone awareness with the ability to plant and drive on routes underneath making receivers think twice before crossing his face. Foster plays with great leverage and explodes into every tackle with incredible force, often completely stopping any momentum a ball carrier had. His strength is also his weakness, though, as he has a tendency to be overaggressive in pursuit or go for a big hit before wrapping up. Despite this, Foster would be a great fit for Spagnuolo’s defense and instantly give it an identity on the second level.”

Poll

Which linebacker would you choose for the Giants at No. 23?

This poll is closed

  • 13%
    Zach Cunningham
    (180 votes)
  • 58%
    Reuben Foster
    (786 votes)
  • 28%
    Jarrad Davis
    (388 votes)
1354 votes total Vote Now