At the end of the 2019 season, the New York Giants had major question marks at the linebacker position. Alec Ogletree struggled to find success on the field, perforce he got released. Once defensive coordinator James Bettcher was fired, the likelihood of retaining Deone Bucannon was slim, albeit I enjoyed his play in his half-season wearing Giants’ blue. David Mayo, a favorite of Dave Gettleman, filled in as a starter and played valiantly, earning himself a three-year, $8.4 million extension, which I felt was fair. 2019 fifth-round selection Ryan Connelly proved to be effective, in his short stint with the team before tearing his ACL.
In free agency, New York nabbed Blake Martinez, the 26-year-old former Green Bay Packer defensive signal-caller. The Giants were entering the draft with just Martinez, Mayo, and Connelly coming off an injury. The depth of the position was tenuous and that posed a problem, which they addressed late in the 2020 NFL Draft by selecting Penn State’s Cam Brown, Minnesota’s Carter Coughlin, Georgia’s Tae Crowder, and South Carolina’s T.J. Brunson. All the linebackers have different skill sets, but Brunson is more of the traditional two-down linebacker who may not thrive in coverage due to athletic limitations.
Brunson was a two-time captain for the Gamecocks, and Gettleman claimed that the Reese’s Senior Bowl was the place where Brunson caught his eye. He started 38 of 49 career games for South Carolina and was a physical box defender, while being undersized: 6-feet, 219 pounds, with 31 ⅞-inch arms. Due to the paucity of proven talent behind Martinez, Connelly, and Mayo, Brunson could be a player who could step into a significant role, if injuries surface, once again, at the position. To earn that role, Brunson will have to beat out another seventh-round pick, Georgia linebacker Tae Crowder.
With that being stated, let’s look at five plays to get excited about and a couple that might be cause for alarm.
Play 1: South Carolina @ Missouri
First quarter, 0:52 seconds, Second-and-11
Missouri lines up in Pistol 10 Personnel, with wide stacks in a 2x2 set. The boundary receivers are about 4 yards off the numbers, and the field receivers are a yard inside of the numbers. This kind of offensive formation spreads the defense out, and it sets up receivers to have space in the open. The Gamecocks are in a 3-3 over, with the “Joker” in a two-point stance to the boundary. Brunson is to the boundary side, and the offense runs outside zone to the field. Brunson is a physical tackler who thrives inside the box and he typically does a good job working through traffic to find the ball carrier. Here, we see Brunson stay square to the ball carrier, while avoiding second level blocks and putting himself into a position to deliver a big hit. With his shoulders square, and his hips to the target, Brunson scrapes through the moving line of scrimmage, to the far B-Gap, locates the ball carrier and makes a punishing tackle for a minimum gain. Brunson has success on these types of plays, due to box instincts and physicality. Brunson’s tackling mechanics aren’t always as clean as what we see above, but in short spaces he gets the job done well.
Play 2: Clemson @ South Carolina
First quarter, 8:59, Fourth-and-goal
Plays like this one are the reasons why Brunson was a team captain. This is the first drive of the game for Clemson, and he comes up with a huge play in a big situation. Brunson is lined up, in the goal-line package, at the bottom of the “O” and stud running back Travis Etienne (9) takes the rock behind two lead blockers and attempts to score on the fourth-and-goal. D.J. Wonnum (8) slants inside to help take out No. 87 and the inside lead blocker. It’s the job of No. 13 to kick Brunson out and provide a whole for Etienne. Brunson comes down from the second level and sets a hard edge. Brunson takes on the block and still uses his outside arm to help force a turnover on downs. Then Brunson wraps Etienne up and brings him down, with some help from his rallying teammates. This is a very nice rep from Brunson in a high leverage situation. If Brunson fails to set that edge and keep his outside arm free, Etienne would have had a walk-in touchdown, which would have accelerated the inevitable beat down that South Carolina put on Clemson.
Play 3: Clemson @ South Carolina
Second quarter, 6:20, Second-and-10
Having the ability to sniff out what the offense’s brew is a key part of playing linebacker. Instincts, trusting your run/pass keys, and being able to avoid blocks, while putting yourself in a position to succeed, is a vital part of the position. Brunson flashes these traits. Brunson is the field side, weak side, linebacker in a nickel sub-package, with Diondre Overton (14) motioning away from his side. This is a classic backside running back screen, a play that Clemson has utilized effectively over the last several seasons. Bruson’s assignment is running back Lyn-J Dixon, who leaks out to the field with three blockers, a pursuing Wonnum and Brunson coming in hot. Brunson is headed downhill before Lawrence throws the football; he sees the lineman kick out, Dixon turns to the quarterback, and then he takes the wide angle to avoid the blocks. Brunson beats the blocks to their set points and delivers a huge hit on Dixon for a big loss to set up a third-and-long. This is a very good angle, tackle in space, and physical hit on Dixon, albeit the running back was just turning around and securing a catch.
Play 4: Clemson @ South Carolina
First quarter, 1:51, First-and-10
Here we see the Gamecocks in a 4-3 defense, with TRIPS to the wide side of the field, and Brunson as the boundary linebacker with a tight end to his side. The three wide receivers all go to either cut or stalk block the corners and safeties to the field, as Lawrence pitches the ball to Dixon with space. Brunson comes from the far hash and is able to avoid blocks, work through trash, and locate Dixon. Brunson brings a mighty hit at the point of contact, flashing his brute nature as a linebacker. Brunson has these noticeable plays that showcase his toughness, which is encouraging, but his lack of athletic ability will always be an issue, which we will see later.
Play 5: Michigan @ South Carolina
First quarter, 11:59, Second-and-7
This is a play that is common on tape from Brunson. It’s a high-leverage game back in 2017, the Outback Bowl, and Brunson is the field linebacker, with a defensive back to his side covering the BUNCH formation. This is a single-back inside zone run, and the running back hits the D-Gap. Brunson inserts himself right into the gap and takes on the lead blocker, who is a tight end. Trusting his instincts, Brunson squares up, squats to balance, extends his arms, and stack/sheds the tight end in the hole while locating the running back for the tackle. This is a textbook stack-and-shed from a second-level defender and Brunson does this well against tight ends.
Things to work on
Play 1: South Carolina @ Missouri
First quarter, 11:59, Second-and-9
Yes, I know, there are three plays here, but the latter two are to substantiate my concerns with Brunson. My biggest issue with Brunson is athletic ability as Brunson doesn’t possess the athleticism to be a three-down linebacker and too often failed to make nearside plays, like the three we see above. In the first clip, we see Brunson in coverage, sinking towards his landmark, and ensuring that the wheel route is covered. Brunson does so and notices a drag route from the field side (opposite side). Brunson sees the route develop, and sees the throw, with a lot of space to locate (Brunson’s near the top of the numbers at the 44-yard line and the receiver is on the hash at the 48). Brunson waits, attempts to square the receiver up, and looks stiff/rigid in his attempt to make the tackle. His change of direction in short spaces is marginal at best, and we see that in the other two clips too. Can’t locate Trevor Lawrence on a near side QB keeper, as the boundary linebacker, and he can’t change direction, and laterally explode to tackle the running back, as a blitzing linebacker. These concerns are very real and can prevent Brunson from ever having an impact. In these situations, it looks as if Brunson has cinder blocks on his feet or as if his feet are stuck in the mud, a very unnatural look for a player that shows other promising traits.
Play 2: South Carolina @ Missouri
Second quarter, 8:43, Second-and-9
Brunson is the boundary linebacker on the play side of a pin-pull, power/gap, running scheme with two lead blockers. On this play, Brunson needs to be very decisive with his run keys, and he must act quickly, which he did not. By the time Brunson starts heading towards the gigantic hole, the lead blocking lineman has a head of steam and the running back is exiting the mesh point. Brunson runs into the hole high and is met by the lead blocker and planted. His lack of size shows here, and he has to be more instinctual to succeed against players that big. We saw Brunson succeed here in “Play 5,” against a tight end, but his reactions and form were both much better. Brunson gets bullied to the ground and buried again by the lineman. He can’t be late.
Brunson is a physical player, who has leadership intangibles and a ton of experience. Typically, he trusts his eyes and uses good instincts within the box, which make him a possible two-down defender if he develops and adjusts to the speed of the NFL. Brunson lacks the desired athletic ability and spatial awareness in zone coverage to be a difference-maker on passing downs in the NFL. The short area change of direction, when he’s in a static state, on tape is a major concern of mine, but I think Brunson could have a place on the Giants as a special teamer, early on. The NFL may agree with me on the concerns with Brunson’s athletic ability — not many players receive an invite to the Reese’s Senior Bowl and not the Combine. Between Brunson and 2020 Mr. Irrelevant, Tae Crowder, there may only be room for one of them on the active roster, so training camp may be interesting. If it occurs at all this offseason.