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Position preview: Have the Giants’ linebackers finally turned the corner?

Where do the Giants’ linebackers stand as we enter the 2021 season?

Syndication: Akron Beacon Journal Jeff Lange via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The linebacker position is always something of a sore spot among New York Giants fans. But for the first time in a while there is something akin to optimism — or at least satisfaction — with the Giants’ linebackers.

Starting middle linebacker Blake Martinez lived up to his billing as a tackling machine in his first year with the team. His football IQ helped get the rest of the defensive front in place and allowed him to flow to the play, while his tackling acumen let him get ball carriers to the ground and generally clean up after the Giants’ stout defensive line.

Behind and around Martinez was a shifting cast of journeymen, developmental players, and defensive backs. While not ideal — certainly not so for those with memories of Harry Carson, Carl Banks, and Lawrence Taylor — the Giants’ linebackers weren’t a liability in 2020 and even ‘adequate’.

This year Martinez has another year in the system while Tae Crowder and Carter Coughlin have had a full year’s worth of development. Could this be the year that the Giants’ linebackers take the long-awaited step forward?

Initial 90-man roster depth chart

MLB: Blake Martinez, Reggie Raggland, Carter Coughlin

WILB: Tae Crowder, Devante Downs, TJ Brunson, Ryan Anderson

53-man roster depth chart

MLB: Blake Martinez, Reggie Ragland, Carter Coughlin

WILB: Tae Crowder

Injured Reserve: TJ Brunson

Where do they stand now?

The linebacker position occupies a curious position in the Giants’ defensive scheme and in the grand scheme of things in football as a whole.

The position is at once vitally important for the defense to function properly while also being something of an afterthought.

Coming in to the 2021 training camp, the Giants had plenty of linebackers on their roster. Blake Martinez returned from a productive first year with the Giants as the clear leader of the group, and he was joined by veteran journeymen Reggie Ragland and Ryan Anderson. Behind them was a cadre of young linebackers drafted late in the 2020 draft in Carter Coughlin, Tae Crowder, and TJ. Brunson, as well as Devante Downs who was added to the Giants practice squad after being drafted (and waived) by the Minnesota Vikings in 2019.

Stepping back slightly, we can see the dynamic in the depth chart construction: The important investment at the top, a low-cost insurance policy, and some lottery ticket developmental candidates.

Important and an afterthought.

Stepping back further, we can see that there’s a numbers game involved in how the linebackers are viewed.

For one, the Giants’ defense doesn’t differentiate between defensive ends and outside linebackers. A player who plays on (or close to) the line of scrimmage could play with his hand on the ground one play and standing up the next. It’s just easier to call them an “EDGE” and not get bogged down in specific techniques or alignments — they need to do it all anyway.

Likewise, much of the Giants’ defense is dominated by defensive backs. The Giants are a team that loves to put extra defensive backs — either safeties or corners — on the field. Not only does it give them athletic options for matching up against the high-powered passing offenses which dominate the modern NFL, but they give Patrick Graham options for disguising coverages and scheming pressure packages. But with just 53 roster spots to work with and only 11 players allowed on the field at any one time, something has to give.

And that something is the linebacker position. Because linebackers are often the first players taken off the field in defensive subpackages, it doesn’t make sense to have a crowded depth chart.

That all goes into why the Giants only have four off-ball linebackers on their final roster.

Martinez was always going to be the Giants starting middle linebacker, and it was safe to assume that one of Ryan Anderson or Ragland would make the final roster as a veteran backup.

Of course, the news that Anderson would be suspended for the first six games of 2021 made the decision between he and Ragland pretty easy for the team. Likewise, Brunson’s torn ACL put his career on and helped make decisions for the final roster easier.

Crowder was also a good bet to make the roster after he raised eyebrows with his play as a rookie. Crowder is an athletic linebacker who can patrol a large stretch of field in coverage, which is useful in a variety of blitz packages. He earned a significant role in the defense in 2020 and that carried forward to a starting job in 2021.

But one of the real bright spots from the Giants was the development of Coughlin as an off-ball linebacker. Coughlin was drafted out of Minnesota as an undersized EDGE defender, making up for his lack of length and bulk with tenacious play and underrated athleticism. Over this past offseason he transitioned to an off-ball role and thrived in the 2021 preseason. Coughlin jumped off the screen with his play against the New York Jets. and backed it up with a strong game against the Cleveland Browns. Coughlin’s athleticism and football IQ translate well to the second level, and his background as an EDGE gives Patrick Graham added options for linebacker blitzes — which we’ve already seen him play around with in preseason.

While Martinez and Crowder are the Giants’ current starters, one of the more intriguing storylines to watch this year will be whether Carter Coughlin is able to push Crowder for more playing time. Given Carter’s varied skillset and ability to pressure the passer, he has the potential to be a significant contributor on defense.

After years of fans clamoring for an improved linebacking corps, could the Giants finally be adequate — or even good?