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It’s time for the Giants to get serious about finding good linebackers

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NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Boise State vs Oregon
Leighton Vander Esch
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Linebacker. It is the position group that has been the ugly step-child of the New York Giants’ for years — perhaps decades.

At least the Giants have thrown real draft and free-agent resources at their misbegotten, woeful offensive line. They just haven’t gotten it right. Linebacker? Giants’ fans know the history. A first-round draft pick hasn’t been used on a linebacker since Carl Banks third overall in 1984. A truly top tier linebacker hasn’t been drafted since the Giants stumbled into Jessie Armstead in the no-longer existing eighth round of the 1993 draft. There have been a smattering of veteran free agents who have had good seasons here and there, but a truly difference-making free agent linebacker hasn’t been acquired since Ernie Accorsi signed Antonio Pierce way back in 2005.

Former GM Jerry Reese treated the position like an afterthought, like any collection of misfits would be fine if the defensive line and secondary were good enough. Sometimes, they were. Too often, they weren’t. From 2007 until being fired before the end of the 2017 season, Reese never signed a top-notch free agent linebacker. Only once did he use a draft pick on a linebacker before the fourth round, taking Clint Sintim in the second round of the 2009 draft.

That simply won’t do any longer. NFL defenses cannot function without fast, versatile, play-making linebackers who are physical enough to play the run and fast enough to cover tight ends and running backs sideline to sideline. It doesn’t hurt if it least one of them can rush the passer, either.

GM Dave Gettleman loves his offensive and defensive line “hog mollies.” He has to decide whether or not the heir apparent to Eli Manning at quarterback is in the 2018 NFL Draft class. He also, however, has to find a way to upgrade the linebacker level of the Giants’ defense. Especially since new defensive coordinator James Bettcher has historically employed a high number of 3-4 alignments in his multiple front schemes.

2017 in review

The Giants surrendered the most touchdown passes to tight ends in the NFL (12). Only four teams allowed more receptions or yards than the 79 and 823 the Giants gave up to tight ends last season.

Despite having defensive tackle Damon Harrison and a group of defensive linemen who are stout against the run, the Giants were just 19th in the league in yards against per running play at 4.2. Only seven teams gave up more than the 787 yards receiving the Giants allowed to opposing running backs.

The Giants got only six sacks from their linebackers — four from Devon Kennard and two from Calvin Munson. Kennard, though, spent much of his time with his hand in the ground as a pass-rushing defensive linemen. Eighteen NFL linebackers had more than six sacks individually.

All of those numbers point to one inescapable conclusion — the Giants’ linebackers were not close to good enough in 2017.

Middle linebacker B.J. Goodson, in his first year as a starter, had 18 tackles in the season-opener against the Dallas Cowboys. He never duplicated that success, though, spending most of the season on the training table and playing in only seven games.

Jonathan Casillas is a standup guy and a good locker room spokesman. He is, though, a journeyman linebacker. He played in just eight games, and a neck injury may not only have ended his season but his career as well.

Kennard is an excellent run defender and can provide some pass rush. He is not, though, a guy the Giants have wanted to expose in pass coverage.

Keenan Robinson played in only six games. Kelvin Sheppard signed midseason. He is a steadying presence who can get guys lined up, but he’s vulnerable in coverage and far from a dynamic play-maker.

Looking ahead to 2018

Goodson figures to be part of the Giants’ future. There are two questions with him — can he cover and can he stay healthy? The second one is probably going to be most important to determine how bright the 2016 fourth-round pick’s future is.

Beyond that, what the Giants’ linebacking group looks like in 2018 is anybody’s guess.

Munson made the team as an undrafted free agent last season. He can be effective in small areas against the run, but lack of speed makes him vulnerable in coverage. Really, he is a special-teamer. Kennard is a free agent. Casillas is a free agent. Robinson is a free agent. None of the other guys who floated in and out of the lineup really matter.

Bettcher figures to supplement the linebacker position by using some of the Giants’ existing personnel differently. We will likely see defensive end Olivier Vernon standing up more often. That is something we saw him do at times under Steve Spagnuolo, and he certainly did not appear uncomfortable. Maybe we see safety Landon Collins reprise, at least occasionally, the “moneybacker” role Deone Buccanon played with the Arizona Cardinals.

All of that is well and good, but the Giants will still need to supplement this group. Bringing back Kennard would help, but adding talent at this position is a must.

Free agency

We recently discussed the idea of pursuing Philadelphia Eagles’ linebacker Nigel Bradham if he slips away from the Super Bowl champs. After Bradham, though, there don’t appear to be a whole lot of difference-making options expected to hit the market. [via Walter Football: Outside Linebackers | Inside Linebackers]

2018 NFL Draft

Would the Giants skip over their needs at quarterback and the offensive line, and bypass running back Saquon Barkley in the first round? If they stay at No. 2, the answer seems to be probably not. If, however, they trade down then perhaps Tremaine Edwards of Virginia Tech or Roquan Smith of Georgia would be in play.

Day 2 possibilities might include Leighton Vander Esch of Boise State, Rashaan Evans of Alabama, Josey Jewell of Iowa [Prospect Profile] and others. There appears to be enough depth in this linebacker class that the Giants could find one on the second day of the draft if they choose to go in that direction.