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Giants position review: Off-ball linebacker needs an upgrade

The injury to Blake Martinez exposed a major issue

NFL: NOV 01 Giants at Chiefs Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The New York Giants had little depth at their off-ball linebacker position behind Blake Martinez. Unfortunately for New York, Martinez tore his ACL in the first quarter of week three’s loss to Atlanta. The injury put immense pressure on Tae Crowder and Reggie Ragland, who failed to be positive contributors for the 2021 Giants.

Dave Gettleman invested four late-round 2020 picks into the linebacker position. One was a hybrid EDGE in Carter Coughlin, who attempted to transition to linebacker in 2021 but made little progress before hurting his ankle and landing on injured reserve. New York also selected T.J. Brunson out of South Carolina, Cam Brown out of Penn State (in the sixth round), and Tae Crowder out of Georgia as Mr. Irrelevant.

During the preseason, Brunson suffered a season-ending injury. Brown was a key contributor on special teams throughout the year. Crowder was the player who assumed the most significant role on defense. Crowder shouldn’t be a full-time starter, and the injury suffered by Martinez forced the young player into a role that required bigger shoes.

Let’s look at the off-ball linebackers as we continue our position-by-position reviews of the Giants.

2021 in review

The roster

Starters: Tae Crowder, Reggie Ragland
Backups: Jaylon Smith, Benardrick Mckinney
IR: Blake Martinez, T.J. Brunson, Justin Hilliard
Practice squad: Omari Cobb

The injury to Martinez forced Crowder to receive one of the green dots as the communicator of defensive calls upfront. Reggie Ragland also had a green dot, as did Logan Ryan for the secondary. The linebackers were a liability all season after Martinez’s injury. Crowder had flash plays of filling the hole quickly, which led to his 37 STOPS, tying Austin Johnson for the team lead.

However, Crowder guessed far too often, didn’t trust his eyes, failed to consistently key and diagnose offensive rushing schemes, and was out of position a lot. Ragland wasn’t much better; he was a bit better from the mental standpoint of reading and reacting to what he saw, but the athletic limitations of Ragland were always a hindrance to his overall effectiveness as a linebacker. Ragland had 215 coverage snaps in just 474 total snaps - that’s a vulnerability to the Giants’ sub-packages.

Of qualifying linebackers who played at least 50 percent of their team’s defensive snaps, Pro Football Focus had Crowder as the lowest-ranked overall linebacker - 61st out of 61. Reduce it to linebackers who played 20 percent of their team’s snaps, and he’s still the lowest graded player in terms of overall defense. Ragland was 42nd out of 94 qualifiers at 20 percent or more of the snaps.

It’s safe to say the Giants need to upgrade their linebackers. I appreciate that they attempted to add depth through the season with other teams’ castoffs. McKinney played 181 defensive snaps; he started at a solid rate but trailed off near the end of the season.

Jaylon Smith is interesting. He was overpaid by Dallas and ultimately released less than two years after receiving a big contract. He then failed to stick in Green Bay in the middle of the season, but the Giants allowed him to prove himself. He played in 154 defensive snaps through the final four games.

Patrick Graham used Smith in a variety of ways. He was used as a traditional linebacker in base, in nickel sub-packages next to Crowder, as an EDGE rusher against the Chargers, and as a quarterback spy on Jalen Hurts. His burst is undeniable, and he is still a good athlete for the position. There’s upside with Smith, but he too struggles to know exactly where to be and when to be there.

I want Smith to receive a chance with the next coaching staff. The Giants shouldn’t rely on him by any means, but if he can contribute and develop more than just his movement skills, then that’s a win. Smith carries more intrigue than Crowder and Ragland, plus the latter is a free agent who will more than likely walk.

New York occasionally used Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin as linebackers, but neither should be relied upon, and they’re both primarily special teams players. Brunson, Hilliard, and Cobb are also not to be relied on; Cobb signed a future contract with the Giants to potentially remain on the practice squad.

The current state of the Giants linebackers is a mess if Martinez fails to successfully return from his knee rehabilitation. Even with a fully healthy Martinez, Crowder or Smith would be playing in nickel and base, which is not currently desirable. Linebacker is a position of need for this Giants team.

2022 outlook

Ragland, McKinney, and Smith are all free agents. Martinez is a free agent in 2023, and his current availability isn’t certsain. This essentially leaves Crowder as the only linebacker with any experience on the roster. That’s scary, albeit the expectation is that Martinez will be available.

The Giants can use some of that draft capital on their linebacking corps. They could also retain Smith and go forward with a competition between Crowder and Smith, although that’s still not an ideal situation.

Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean is linked to the Giants in some mock drafts. Dean will likely be a high first-round selection. The Giants have so many holes to plug on their team that allocating a top 10 pick to a linebacker could be viewed as less than optimal. Dean should be in the discussion, but so should several other high-profile collegiate players.

New York has holes at three positions on the offensive line (counting on one of Shane Lemieux or Ben Bredeson to start). They need help at tight end, could stand to add another receiver, and need to add EDGE help. Their linebackers are a gigantic need as well - add it to the long list. This roster needs work, and finding a game-changing modern linebacker who can execute multiple roles should be in the cards for the Giants during the 2022 offseason.