Off-ball linebackers are the forgotten men of modern NFL football. They have always done a lot of the dirty work of run support, and New York Giants history is filled with greats who were tough against the run such as Sam Huff, Harry Carson, and Carl Banks. In the attacking “position-less” defense of Wink Martindale, off-ball linebackers can also be chess pieces who sometimes rush the passer.
But in the passing-dominated 21st Century NFL, linebackers are increasingly asked to cover tight ends and running backs in addition to stopping the run. And that’s been bad news for the Giants in recent years. The Giants’ 2021 season went south in Week 2, when, having taken a 26-20 lead with less than 5 minutes remaining, their defense gave up a two-play, 75-yard TD drive. The first play of the drive was a pass to running back J.D. McKissic that went for 56 yards. Linebacker Tae Crowder had responsibility for McKissic, but the running back put a move on Crowder and blew right past him for an easy catch and an open field in front of him (photo from NFL.com video):
On the next play, Washington completed the drive with a 19-yard TD pass to tight end Ricky Seals-Jones.
Plays like this have been all too common in recent years. Here are pass coverage statistics for every Giants off-ball LB for the 2021 season from Pro Football Focus:
Crowder played by far the most coverage snaps of any Giants LB last season, and he was abysmal, allowing a 74.4 percent completion rate and 578 yards, almost half of them YAC, for a terrible 34.8 PFF coverage score for the season. The Giants’ other options for much of the season were hardly better: Reggie Ragland (57.5 coverage grade) gave up completions at an 86.7 percent rate, with most of the yards being YAC, and Bernardrick McKinney (28.6 grade) allowed a 68.4 percent completion rate with 70 percent of the yards being YAC. Even Blake Martinez, the Giants’ best LB, allowed completions on all 10 of his targets before his injury. Carter Coughlin, Cam Brown, and T.J. Brunson have played too few (or no) snaps on defense for any of them to be considered answers.
The Giants will see four of the top receiving tight ends in the NFL in the coming season: Dallas Goedert (91.1 PFF receiving grade), Mark Andrews (91.0), Dalton Schultz (77.4), and T.J. Hockenson (73.6), as well as heralded rookies Jelani Woods, Charlie Kolar, Jake Ferguson, and Isaiah Likely. They will also see six of the top pass-catching running backs: Christian McCaffrey (92.8), J.D. McKissic (76.2), Kenneth Gainwell (75.9), Nyheim Hines (74.3), Ameer Abdullah (73.9), and Aaron Jones (72.6). It would behoove them to improve upon their chronic coverage deficiencies.
Have the Giants addressed their linebacker coverage problem?
The 2022 NFL draft was deep in talented quick coverage linebackers, but the Giants waited until Rounds 5 and 6 before drafting Micah McFadden and Darrian Beavers. Positional value arguments suggest that this was the right strategy, since LB is a position at which value can be found outside the first few rounds. Both players have appealing qualities in a Martindale defense. For example, McFadden’s PFF pass rush grade in 2021 was 92.0, while Beavers’ was 86.1.
But can they cover TEs and RBs? McFadden scored a 65.4 coverage grade and Beavers 68.0 in 2021. Those are adequate rather than spectacular, but given how bad the Giants’ coverage has been at the second level, adequate would be a big step up.
Draft analyst Dane Brugler of The Athletic had this to say about McFadden and Beavers in his 2022 draft guide:
“Limited range in coverage, both laterally and vertically … doesn’t have the open-field burst to close on throws … his athletic and coverage limitations take excitement away from his pro evaluation.”
“Above-average reactive quickness to ... stay within arm’s length in coverage ... ordinary range and play speed … labors in his transitions vs. sudden offensive skill players … some stiffness shows in man coverage”
Mike Renner’s 2022 PFF Spring Draft Guide has this to say:
“Balance issues when asked to play in space. Not the guy you want matching the slot.”
“Not a true sideline-to-sideline guy. Will get outrun at times.”
Other options for off-ball linebacker
The forgotten man from the 2021 Giants seems to be Jaylon Smith. Smith had an excellent 80.6 PFF coverage grade for the season, and that includes six games with Dallas and Green Bay in which he did not play especially well. That grade was fourth-highest in the NFL among linebackers in 2021. In his small four game sample with the Giants, Smith only allowed 3 completions in 6 targets for 17 yards. according to Pro Football Reference.
Jaylon Smith is still a free agent. Ed Valentine suggested back in January that the Giants should give Smith a chance to make the roster. Last week, Kyle Smith of the Washington Commanders’ SB Nation site Hogs Haven expressed a similar sentiment for his team. The Giants currently have $6.2M in cap space according to Over The Cap. Would a 2022 Giants LB corps of Martinez, McFadden, Beavers, Smith, and Crowder be an upgrade over the Crowder, Ragland, McKinney group that took the field for much of 2021? You bet. But at this point there is no indication such a reunion will take place.
Now that we have entered June, the trade and free agent market is likely to heat up a bit since the rules for how player transactions affect the salary cap change. It’s possible there could be one or more surprise roster cuts in the coming weeks, aimed at freeing up cap space for a possible trade. None of the currently available free agent LBs besides Jaylon Smith look particularly appealing from a coverage standpoint, however.
Covering tight ends and running backs with other personnel
It’s not always linebackers who cover tight ends and linebackers. In particular, when Wink Martindale rushes his linebackers the responsibility will often fall to defensive backs. Here are the PFF linebacker coverage statistics for the Ravens’ signature 2019 season, when their terrorizing of opposing offenses was at its peak:
There are several things to note from this chart compared to the similar one for the Giants. None of these linebackers are exactly household names - in fact, none has ever made a Pro Bowl, and all were undrafted free agents. Nonetheless, Bynes was above average in coverage, while Fort and Onwuasor were average and slightly below average. So Martindale got the job done without stars at the LB position. The one time Baltimore has drafted an off-ball LB, it has been a failure: Patrick Queen, taken in Round 1 in 2020, has had coverage grades of 30.0 and 35.1 in his two seasons (and low overall grades as well).
The second thing to notice is that the four 2019 Ravens off-ball linebackers played a total of 535 snaps in coverage, less than half the 2021 Giants’ 1170 LB coverage snaps and less than those played by Tae Crowder alone. So whatever deficiencies the 2022 Giants LB corps have in coverage, they may be hidden by using defensive backs more often to cover at the second level.
Cornerback James Bradberry had one of his best games of the 2021 season against Kansas City, often being assigned to Travis Kelce. Adoree’ Jackson took on tight ends as well, but his highest profile play of 2021 was being beaten by Ricky Seals-Jones for a TD after the J.D. McKissic catch in Washington.
Julian Love, and maybe sometimes Xavier McKinney, will get some of the work at the second level against tight ends. But also watch rookie safety Dane Belton, about whom Brugler says:
“Patient, composed athlete in his drops … balances his eyes between the quarterback and routes to get a head start on jumping the ball path … takes calculated risks, coming off his coverage to overlap and make a play in another area … shows soft hands a natural sense of timing to finish interceptions (second in the Big Ten with five interceptions in 2021) … trusts his angles to maintain proper spatial relationships in zone … comfortable turning and matching the physicality of tight ends in man.”
Belton is much more comfortable playing closer to the line of scrimmage than dropping deep, so expect him to get a chance to play the role that Jabrill Peppers did the last few seasons. Peppers was good in coverage with Cleveland but had difficulties with it in Patrick Graham’s defense, scoring 57.2 and 53.2 PFF grades in his last two seasons.
Whoever is in second level coverage, a Martindale defense has the same goal: Force the quarterback to get the ball out quickly, and get him on his back:
"At the end of the day, you want the quarterback on his back."— Giants Videos (@SNYGiants) May 26, 2022
- Wink Martindale pic.twitter.com/jyTgcTK4zu
That style of defense may be the Giants’ linebackers’ best friend.