The 2021 New York Giants had a rotating door at linebacker opposite Tae Crowder after the devastating loss of Blake Martinez in Week 3. Martinez was the glue of the Giants’ front seven; he ranked sixth in STOPs among all linebackers in the NFL during the 2020 season.
Replacing the leadership and consistency of Martinez proved to be complicated. Crowder - 2020’s Mr. Irrelevant - is a great story and solid depth option but not a reliable starter, and he assumed linebacker one responsibilities after Martinez tore his ACL.
The 2021 linebacking crew was often out of position in their run fits and were excessively eager in pursuit, leaving cut-back lanes. The Giants signed Benardrick McKinney and Jaylon Smith during the season to renovate a quickly deteriorating position group; not only was Martinez injured, but Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin suffered early-season injuries.
The injury to Jabrill Peppers early in the season added to the stress, for Peppers played a substantial role as a box safety in dime and dollar packages employed by Patrick Graham.
The injuries, and the linebacker position as a whole, were just some of the many issues plaguing the 2021 Giants. Let’s not just turn the page but slam the book down and hope the 2022 team, under different leadership, can rebound like Dennis Rodman in the nineties.
Key losses: Reggie Ragland, Benardrick McKinney, Jaylon Smith
Key additions: Micah McFadden, Darrian Beavers
Why the Giants might be better
The primary reason they will be better is a healthy Blake Martinez; getting Coughlin and Brown back are important as well, but let’s analyze this just off the key losses and additions. The Giants drafted two rookie linebackers who can execute various roles in a versatile defense under the tutelage of Wink Martindale.
McFadden and Beavers are dissimilar as prospects, but both will have value if they can make the roster. McFadden seems tailor-made for Martindale’s blitz packages; out of all college linebackers who played at least 50 percent of their defense’s snaps, McFadden ranked third in PRP: a PFF formula that combines sacks, hits, and hurries relative to how many times they rush the passer.
McFadden is 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, and blitzed 124 times in 2021, recording 32 pressures and 6.5 sacks. He finished ninth in the FBS in total pressures at linebacker and fourth in sacks while recording 44 STOPs. He also had four PBUs in 2021 and four career interceptions in college.
McFadden will more than likely start the season in a situational role, primarily on passing downs, and will be incorporated into Martindale’s pressure looks up the middle. I won’t be shocked if he starts next to Martinez at some point in 2022.
Beavers was a former edge defender at UCONN who is thick and instinctive in-between the tackles as a linebacker. He delivers punishing hits and still offers upside as an EDGE rusher on passing downs. Beavers is 6-4, 237 pounds, albeit he looked like he played around 250 pounds.
Beavers was 12th in the NCAA in STOPs, and he recorded 11 tackles for a loss and four sacks in 2021. Both Beavers and McFadden were team leaders who reportedly have all the intangibles.
The infusion of youth brings athletic upside and mold-ability for the next four years, provided the players can make the roster. Both players can mesh well into the scheme, and the departures of journeyman veteran types like Smith, Ragland, and McKinney aren’t severe losses.
Why the Giants might be worse
If we’re just looking at this situation through the lens of key additions and departures, the Giants could be worse because they lost veteran players with experience and replaced them with two rookies. However, Ragland was slow-footed; McKinney had a few nice moments but ultimately wasn’t in a great position consistently enough. Smith was quick and flashy but also struggled to leverage his gaps.
All three of these veterans played in multiple systems under many defensive coordinators. They’ve been around football for quite some time, and the two rookies are fresh-faced kids out of college. If the inexperience hinders the two rookies and prevents them from seeing the field, then that would be the primary avenue where the 2021 linebacker corps is better than 2022.
I’m taking the two rookies over the three departing veterans. The rookies are hand-picked by this current defensive coordinator, and they’re not panic moves made by a desperate front office during the middle of the season due to injuries.
The return of Martinez, Brown, and Coughlin helps the position immensely. Crowder has another year under his belt, which should only support his development. The Giants’ linebacking corps isn’t exactly a strength. Still, it has a proven leader who is a tackling machine, capable backups who thrive on special teams, and two youngsters who can develop and offer versatility. The position is in a better spot than it was a year ago.