As we move through the position groups in our look ahead to the New York Giants 2018 training camp, the time has come to take a look at the linebackers.
The Giants have long preferred to invest their resources in their defensive line and secondary, before putting whatever is left — either draft picks or cap dollars — into the linebacking corps. It might have made sense conceptually in a 4-3 defense that emphasizes the line and coverage, but the result has been predictable, as tight ends have gashed the middle of the Giants’ defense for years. Likewise, run defense has been spotty and depended heavily upon the health of the defensive line.
Dave Gettleman overjoyed Giants’ fans when he declared that one of his goals was to rebuild the linebacking corps, and one of his first moves as GM was to add a former first round linebacker in the prime of his career. Let’s take a look and see how the position is shaping up in Gettleman’s first year.
(Note: I have separated the “EDGE” and “Linebacker” positions. For this post’s purposes, “linebackers” are primarily expected to play off the ball and not move up to the line of scrimmage in certain situations.)
Alec Ogletree - Ogletree proved to be the first big personnel surprise of 2018 for Giants’ fans when he was acquired in a trade from the Los Angeles Rams. As a former safety turned linebacker, Ogletree brings a level of athleticism to the second level of the Giants’ defense that it hasn’t seen since Michael Boley.
The Giants are counting on their their new inside linebacker to be the quarterback for their defense, a leader on the field, shore up coverage over the middle, and contribute to the pass rush as a blitzer.
B.J. Goodson - B.J. Goodson looked like the linebacker the Giants had been waiting for when the 2017 season started. The sophomore linebacker impressed throughout the off-season and pre-season as the next quarterback for Steve Spagnuolo’s defense under the tutelage of Antonio Pierce. He carried that momentum through to the first week of the season with an impressive 18-tackle performance against the Dallas Cowboys, flashing in both pass coverage and the run game.
He was then promptly injured and never looked the same in the other five games he was able to manage before going on the season-ending injured reserve.
But between flashes in his rookie season and before his injury last year, there is reason to be excited about Goodson, and it will be interesting to see how his role changes in James Bettcher’s defense and with Ogletree on the team.
Ray-Ray Armstrong - Armstrong came to the Giants last season when he was claimed off waivers from the San Francisco 49ers. A safety in college, Armstrong’s role on the defense will likely be as a coverage linebacker, usually in nickel situations. He was, reportedly, active in that regard on the field during OTAs and has been one of the Giants’ principle back-up inside linebackers this spring.
However, Armstrong’s path to the final 53-man roster will likely be through special teams after showing upside — including a forced fumble — on specials during his five games as a Giant in 2017
Mark Herzlich - Herzlich will once again try to fill the role that has given him an NFL career that has lasted far longer than anyone could have predicted.
Signed in 2011 as an undrafted free agent, Herzlich is, by far, the longest tenured member of the Giants’ defense. He has never been a “starting caliber” but has carved out a role for himself as a back-up linebacker — with some solid play as a run stopper in short-yardage situations — and key player on special teams.
Herzlich missed last season after landing on the injured reserve in pre-season, but with a renewed interest in improving special teams, it bodes well for Herzlich. He has also been one of the team’s second-team inside linebackers throughout the off-season.
Calvin Munson - Munson had an impressive preseason after signing with the Giants as an undrafted free agent out of San Diego State, going so far as to earn a roster spot following the injury to Mark Herzlich. Expected to simply be a backup and special teams player, Munson wound up playing 388 defensive snaps after the injury to B.J. Goodson, in addition to his role on special teams. He was aggressive playing downhill, leading the Giants’ linebackers with 19 defensive stops, but his athletic limitations were apparent too often.
Munson will look to build on his experience last season and improve in his second year.
Thurston Armbrister - The Giants signed Armbrister to a reserve/futures deal early in January. Armbrister was initially signed as an undrafted free agent by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2015, and has played in 30 games for the Jags and Detroit Lions with 5 starts between 2015 and 2016.
As with much of the Giants’ depth at linebacker, Armbrister’s path to the final 53-man roster will run through special teams. Camp and preseason will give him the opportunity to show that he is more than the linebacker who started two games for an injury-ravaged 2016 Lions’ defense.
Tae Davis - An undrafted rookie out of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Davis is an intriguing prospect. Converting from safety to outside linebacker, he racked up 74 total tackles (42 solo), five tackles for a loss, a sack, and six quarterback pressures in just nine games.
Davis might be something of a longshot to make the roster, but his instinctive and aggressive play, as well as versatility, might surprise over camp and preseason. His experience at both safety and linebacker might make him a candidate for Bettcher’s “Moneybacker” position, if such a position will exist in the Giants’ defense.