The New York Giants need to address their linebacker position.
It’s a refrain we repeat every year. Complicating matters is the changing nature of offense in the NFL, much of which is predicated on attacking linebackers with athletic mismatches.
Of course, that makes the Giants’ perennial weakness at linebacker even more apparent.
The 2019 draft was fairly loaded at the linebacker position, with several impact players being drafted early, but the 2020 linebacker class isn’t quite so deep. It is very possible that the Giants could look at Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons with the fourth overall pick (or perhaps in a trade-down scenario). The Giants could also look at Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray or Ohio State’s Malik Harrison in the second round.
The Giants have pressing needs on the offensive line, at EDGE, and in the secondary, so they might be forced to wait on linebacker and — once again — try to find value later in the draft.
If so, which linebacker prospects could catch the Giants’ eye?
Troy Dye (Oregon)
Dye was an early favorite of mine until he returned to Oregon for his senior season. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds with plenty of athleticism, Dye is a natural fit as a modern off-ball linebacker. He has the length to match up with just about any offensive pass catcher and shows a natural comfort and awareness as a space player.
He is best used as run-and-chase linebacker, using his length and athleticism to disrupt in space or pursue ball carriers. Dye shouldn’t be played as a traditional downhill “thumper” of a linebacker and is better off avoiding blockers than trying to take them on directly.
Markus Bailey (Purdue)
Bailey isn’t the kind of hyper-athletic linebacker we see drafted highly. He is a functional athlete with enough agility and range to play in space at the second level, but his real value is between his ears. Bailey is a team captain and highly regarded for his sky-high football IQ, fast processing speed, and instincts at the second level. That good, quick mental footwork allowed him to be a highly productive impact player for Purdue. Over three years he had 301 tackles, 26 tackles for a loss, 13.5 sacks, 6 interceptions and 6 passes defensed.
Bailey will likely slip in the draft after losing his red-shirt Senior campaign to a torn right ACL (he tore his left ACL his freshman year). However, Bailey could be a good value on the third day of the draft if his medicals check out and the Giants are comfortable with his injury red flags.
Charles Snowden (UVA)
Virginia linebacker Charles Snowden stands out in a crowd — at 6-foot-7 it is tough to blend in. Snowden’s length will jump off the page or the screen for anyone looking at this linebacker class. But what is impressive is how well he uses that length. He only weighs in at 235 pounds, but he is consistently able to punch above his weight class because blockers never get in to his pads to establish leverage. He also puts that length to use clogging passing lanes, shrinking receiving windows, and making tackles well outside his frame.
Snowden is somewhat similar to Lorenzo Carter (albeit with a leaner frame) in that while he has a the traits that could translate to a role as an EDGE player, he is unrefined in that area and better in space. However, if the Giants’ next defensive coordinator decides to try Carter as an off-ball linebacker, pairing him with Snowden and fielding a pair of linebackers who wouldn’t look out of place on an NBA court (at 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7, respectively) is an interesting possibility.
The Buffalo Nickel
These prospect overviews aren’t intended to be philosophic discussions on the evolving nature of modern football. But we also can’t ignore that football is constantly evolving. In an effort to win and win now, the best NFL offenses are looking for every edge they can get. They are weaponizing speed, tempo, spacing, and looking for any way to attack defenses in ways in which they are worst at defending.
And defenses have to change to respond. The best response defenses have found is to be as versatile and “multiple” as possible. That’s why almost every modern defense uses some kind of “hybrid” front. That’s also why we view players who were once considered “tweeners” as a distinct “EDGE” position. Likewise, we are also seeing the emergence of a new breed of second level players. Different teams call the position a different name. James Bettcher calls it the “Moneybacker.” The University of South Carolina calls it the “Spur” (in keeping with the Gamecock theme), San Diego State calls it the “Aztec,” while other teams call it the “JOKER” or “STAR.”
Until we can all agree on a standard name for the emerging position, I decided to default back to “Buffalo Nickel.” That was my term for the position created by Perry Fewell for 6-foot-2, 215-pound strong safety Deon Grant when he used him out of necessity as a safety/linebacker hybrid in 2010 and 2011.
I believe that not only will we see more and more of these types of players come out of the college ranks — such as Telvin Smith, Landon Collins, Jabrill Peppers, or Derwin James — but they will become increasingly important in defending modern NFL offense. The faster and more versatile a defense is, the more it can do without having to substitute players, and the better it will be able to counter the offense.
Kyle Duggar (Lenoir-Rhyne)
Duggar’s is a name we’ve mentioned a few times already, but it is also one with which you should be getting familiar. Coming from a small Division-II school, most people didn’t know who Duggar was at the beginning of the season, but he is primed to become a big name in the draft process. Listed at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Duggar is an elite athlete with the speed and range to play strong safety, but the size and power to play linebacker. A two-time captain, Duggar reportedly has a fantastic reputation around the program, and has good fundamentals as a tackler as well.
Duggar was always the most athletic player on the field in college and dominated his level of competition — a must for a D-II prospect. Duggar not only played as both a box safety and free safety for the defense, but he was also Lenoir-Rhyne’s primary returner and played on offense as a running back.
Antoine Brooks Jr. (Maryland)
Brooks is listed as a safety on Maryland’s roster, but he does not play a traditional safety role. He is at his best going forward from a linebacker position at the second level. He has movement skills that make him tough to block in the run game, good football IQ to sniff out plays, a quick trigger, and is a big hitter. As a lover of defensive football, it is a joy to watch him track down ball carriers at the line of scrimmage or blow up screen plays behind the line of scrimmage.
Brooks is a solid pass defender at the second level, either in short zones or against running backs and tight ends in man coverage. He’s also an effective blitzer with a good get-off and instincts in finding rushing lanes — as well, his versatility lets him disguise pressures and create confusion along the offensive line.