The inside linebacker position was at once a symbol of the advancement the New York Giants made in 2020 and of how defensive coordinator Patrick Graham mixed and matched to work around certain talent deficiencies.
Blake Martinez played at an All-Pro level after signing a free agent deal last offseason. The other inside linebacker spot was a revolving door. Let’s go player-by-player through the position.
Starters: Blake Martinez, Tae Crowder
Reserves: Devante Downs, David Mayo, T.J. Brunson
Martinez was the on-field brains of a schematically-diverse and ever-changing Giants defense. He gave the Giants both the best defensive quarterback and best player at inside linebacker — yes, they are different things — since the heyday of Antonio Pierce.
Martinez took obvious pride in being the signal-caller and stabilizing force for a defense that vastly exceeded expectations in 2020.
Martinez was credited with 151 tackles, just four off his 2019 career-high of 155. Martinez’s 75.9 Pro Football Focus grade was a career-best. His 58 stops bested his 2019 career-high of 57, and his 82.6 passer rating against was a career best.
The last player selected in the draft, Crowder was easily the most productive of the teams’ four seventh-round picks.
Crowder ended up starting six games and playing 403 snaps, even though his development was derailed by a midseason hamstring injury that cost him five weeks.
Crowder gave the Giants speed and athleticism that none of the other players who lined up next to Blake Martinez could offer. Martinez was impressed.
“He’s a great player. I actually told him you’re one of the best rookies I’ve been around in this league. Work-ethic wise, intelligence, play skill, play ability. Being able to pick things up as quickly as he did, and also be able to help me out on the field as quickly as he did,” Martinez said during an end-of-season videoconference. “He was one of the guys I trusted out there to kind of calm me down if I ever had any moments of need. It was kind of cool to see.
“Sky’s the limit with him, Mr. Irrelevant or not. “
The release of Ryan Connelly, the knee injury suffered at the start of the season by David Mayo and the inexperience of rookie seventh-round picks T.J. Brunson and Tae Crowder conspired to hand Downs a bigger role on defense that could have been expected.
Entering the season, Downs had been a special teams performer who had not played. a since defensive snap in two seasons totaling 20 games with the Giants and Minnesota Vikings. In 2020, he started eight games for New York at inside linebacker and played a total of 232 snaps, 21 percent of the defensive plays.
Downs wasn’t terrible, but he’s not a long-term answer as part of the linebacker rotation.
After four seasons as a bit player on defense with the Carolina Panthers, Mayo emerged with the Giants in 2019. He played a career-high 632 snaps and earned a three-year contract.
In 2020, a knee injury cost him five games and a change in coaching staff returned him to a role as a part-time defensive player. Normally an inside linebacker, Mayo spent time over the final few weeks playing significant snaps on the outside.
Mayo ended the season with a poor PFF grade of 47.6 while being officially credited with 29 tackles, 18 solo.
Brunson was drafted 17 spots ahead of Crowder, but clearly spent the season behind him on the Giants’ depth chart. Brunson played only two defensive snaps and 53 special teams snaps in five games.