Off-ball linebacker is a difficult position to play in the modern NFL. The position used to be dominated by big, tough players whose job was primarily to stop the run and who sometimes went up against offensive lineman who weren’t much bigger than they were. In today’s passing-dominated NFL, though, agility is prized as much as toughness, because linebackers are sometimes tasked with rushing the passer and are often asked to cover running backs and tight ends.
Finding players who are adept at all three phases of the game is not easy. Just ask the New York Giants. The Giants have used four different off-ball linebackers in regular season games this year, and here are their Pro Football Focus grades:
Grades below 60 are considered by PFF to indicate “replacement-level” players, so by that measure the Giants do not have a single quality linebacker. To put those numbers into a league-wide context, so far this year there have been 117 LBs who have played at least 60 snaps (roughly 5 snaps per game). Of those 117, only 13 have grades below 40, and three of them are Giants. Tae Crowder is the fourth-lowest ranked linebacker in the NFL, and two of three who rank lower only play a few snaps per game.
The Giants’ defense has surrendered the third-most yards per rushing attempt in the NFL this year according to Pro Football Reference:
Of the 10 worst teams in rush defense by this metric, only the Dallas Cowboys have a high probability of making the playoffs. That’s different from 2021, when six of the 10 worst rushing defense teams were playoff teams. Perhaps that speaks to the re-emergence of the running game this season as an important part of NFL offenses.
Linebackers aren’t the only players responsible for run defense; the defensive line plays a large role as well. But the Giants have two of the NFL’s best run-stopping IDLs in Dexter Lawrence (83.2 run defense grade) and Leonard Williams (80.2), and their edge defenders have been adequate against the run. The second string IDLs, especially Justin Ellis and Henry Mondeaux, have been weak against the run, and that is an area to shore up in the offseason.
Linebacker seems to be ground zero for the Giants’ defense problems, though. Here are some specific numbers to illustrate:
Giants’ LBs routinely get drawn out of position by pre-snap motion, counter plays, etc., and are often unable to “stack and shed” blockers to get to the ball carrier. Crowder has the sixth-highest missed tackle percentage (22.4) in the league.
The linebackers are equally futile in pass coverage. About half the NFL’s LBs have a completion rate allowed lower than 80 percent; the best among those who have been targeted a lot have completion rates against of 58 to 70 percent. Giants’ linebackers have allowed completions at a rate of 78.9 (Crowder), 88.9 (Jaylon Smith and Micah McFadden), and 100 percent (Austin Calitro, in only four targets). The NFL passer rating when targeting each LB ranges from 97.5 to 146.5; the best NFL LBs have passer ratings against in the 60s to low 70s. On the plus side, Crowder has at least broken up one pass this year; none of the Giants’ other linebackers have done that even once. Twenty-one LBs have broken up at least three, and as many as five, passes this season.
So, yes, the Giants most definitely have a linebacker problem. At the moment.
Do linebackers improve over time?
Because linebacker is such a multi-faceted position, some linebackers with the talent to be good NFL players take time to develop proficiency in all phases of the game. Here are the rookie PFF grades for linebackers from the 2020 draft (minimum 10 snaps per game):
2020 was considered a vintage year for linebacker prospects. Four were selected in Round 1: Isaiah Simmons, Kenneth Murray, Jordyn Brooks, and Patrick Queen. Yet none of them shone as rookies, and in fact none of the LBs from that class has emerged as an above-average player over their career. Isaiah Simmons never lived up to the hype that some people (raises hand) bought before the draft, but he has become a useful player for Arizona, though now a strong safety more than a linebacker. Patrick Queen, considered “an early starter with a sky-high ceiling” by NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, scored an abominable 29.7, below water in all phases of the game except rushing the passer. Queen has improved over time, though:
He’s now at least an average linebacker against both the run and the pass, while remaining an effective pass rusher. Worth the Round 1 pick the Ravens used on him? No. But a solid player at least.
Kenneth Murray of the Los Angeles Chargers is a different story. He was slightly below average as a rookie but has gone downhill since and is probably on his way out of Los Angeles:
Jordyn Brooks started his NFL career as a slightly below average LB and he has remained that way in his third season. He illustrates the problem in finding linebackers for today’s NFL: He has generally been above average against the run, but awful in pass coverage, though improving slowly over time:
Then we come to Crowder, the only one of the four late-round linebackers drafted by Dave Gettleman in 2020 who has actually played regularly at the position. Crowder has had several big, game-winning or game-saving plays for the Giants, most notably his scoop of a fumble for the winning TD vs. Washington in 2020 and his goal-line interception of Jalen Hurts in the Giants’ victory over Philadelpia last season. Overall, though, Crowder has been a huge liability in both run defense and pass coverage, not to mention his missed tackles:
Crowder seemed to be upset with not being used on defense vs. Washington last Sunday. But he has had three years to prove himself worthy of playing time and has not grown into the position. In fact, none of the 2020 NFL draft class of linebackerss has become anything more than an average player.
Things have been a little better with the 2021 class. Here is their performance in their rookie year:
And in 2022 so far:
(Micah Parsons and Baron Browning are not listed for 2022 because PFF now classifies them as what they have become, edge defenders.) Of the actual off-ball LBs, four played above-average or close to it as rookies (Pete Werner, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Zaven Collins, and Nick Bolton), and all of them have continued to perform well, or almost as well, in Year 2 except Collins.
Of potentially more interest for Giants fans is the bottom of the 2021 list. Derrick Barnes of Detroit, a fourth-round pick who was terrible as a rookie, is now an average linebacker, and very strong against the run. Jamin Davis of Washington, selected just before Kadarius Toney, has gone from being a subpar player to at least an average player in his second year, though he is still weak in pass coverage. Ernest Jones of the Rams, a slightly below-average rookie, has stepped up as a sophomore, especially in run coverage.
There’s no guarantee that players will improve. Some like Divine Diablo and Garrett Wallow have not gotten better. But there are enough who do improve to offer hope for the future.