The 2019 New York Giants’ linebacking corps wasn’t exactly something to write home about. The 2018 acquisition of Alec Ogletree from the Los Angeles Rams, one of Dave Gettleman’s first moves as general manager, proved fruitless. Relatively unknown players like David Mayo and Ryan Connelly both played, the former was valiant in his efforts but is a replacement-level starter, while the latter showed a ton of promise before suffering a season-ending ACL injury against Washington in Week 4.
There wasn’t much depth at the position; Nate Stupar wasn’t an excellent choice and ended up being a liability on special teams. Tae Davis didn’t work out. Josiah Tauaefa wasn’t ready to step into Bettcher’s defense full time, and neither was Devante Downs. Luckily, the Giants were able to snatch up Deone Bucannon, a former Cardinals player under James Bettcher, on the free agent wire. Bucannon was released by the Buccaneers and was a valuable addition for the Giants.
The linebacker group has seen tremendous amounts of change with an influx of young late-round talent. There finally appears to be depth at the position. It’s not Isaiah Simmons, but it could be a slight upgrade from last year, so let’s discuss!
Why the Giants might be better
The biggest addition of the offseason was Blake Martinez, a former Green Bay Packer who had more than 100 tackles each of the last three seasons for the cheese heads. Martinez signed a three-year, $30.75 million contract with $19 million guaranteed. Some Giants’ fans were disappointed with the addition because Martinez is not known for his coverage ability. While I agree with the sentiment, I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the significant upgrade Martinez brings to the linebacking corps over Ogletree.
Martinez was given a lot of freedom in Mike Pettine and Dom Capers’ defense and has experience working with Patrick Graham. He’s a quarterback on defense and possesses a high football IQ while being efficient in the box with his keys and fitting the run well. Martinez is functionally athletic, he’s not Roquan Smith or Devin White but he’s no slouch. His game, however, is more predicated on the mental side of football while also being a good physical wrap up tackler. His addition over Ogletree suggests that the linebacking corps has improved.
It’s also hard to ignore the additions of all the late-round picks. You throw a dart at the board enough times maybe you’ll hit a bulls-eye or get close; I guess that was the plan of attack and I fully support it. I feel Cam Brown and maybe one of Crowder, Brunson, or Ross can earn a roster spot, presuming that Tauaefa makes the roster. I also won’t be shocked if three make the roster and Downs or Tauaefa fails to latch on. I love Ross’s size and athletic ability and I think Crowder and Brunson are both physical players, but I wish they were a bit more athletic. Nevertheless, the Giants linebackers seem to be in a better place in 2020 than they were in 2019.
Why the Giants might be worse
An argument can be made for the loss of Bucannon, a hybrid second-level defender who is effective against the run and solid in coverage, being a bigger deal than people are advertising. Bucannon’s most successful years were with former Giants’ defensive coordinator James Bettcher. He had a couple of nice open-field tackles in 2019 and helped the sub-packages of a defense that lost Jabrill Peppers towards the end of the year.
He has good size for the hybrid role, he’s a solid athlete, and he’s only 27 years of age. Outside of Martinez, there doesn’t appear to be another linebacker that is as dynamic as Bucannon as of right now. But even with that fact, it’s difficult to think the linebackers got worse, especially with the potential of a healthy Connelly coming back. Even the retention of a player like Mayo can go a long way on special teams and in spot start situations. Mayo should figure to be the third inside linebacker behind Martinez and Connelly and he was brought back to the team on a fair three-year $8.4 million deal.
The Giants upgraded from Ogletree with Blake Martinez and added a bunch of young linebackers who can create a competitive environment where it can be a meritocracy. I liked Bucannon a lot but I still feel the linebackers definitely improved from the end of last season and vastly improved since the beginning of last season.