The New York Giants reportedly will be without linebacker Jarrad Davis for an extended period after the Detroit Lions’ former first-round pick received surgery on an undisclosed injury. Davis’ absence is magnified due to the Giants’ lack of depth at the linebacker position.
[UPDATE: The New York Post is now reporting that Davis suffered a knee injury. He is expected to be out for “a prolonged period of time.]
The Giants re-signed Davis to a one-year, $1.8-million contract for a chance to start alongside newly-signed linebacker Bobby Okereke in 2023. Davis’ main competition - second-year linebackers Micah McFadden and Darrian Beavers - are the likely beneficiaries of Davis’ misfortune.
New York did not draft a linebacker in the 2023 NFL Draft, and now the depth for linebackers coach John Egorugwu is apprehensive, a situation familiar to the second-year positional coach. Nevertheless, a roster spot will be available.
Unfortunately for the Giants, their cap situation is a concern. With all $14.7 million of Kenny Golladay’s dead cap on the 2023 books, the Giants have little maneuverability as currently constructed. Processes to create cap space do still exist but aren’t ubiquitous.
Before we address the five linebackers that may interest the Giants, I’d be remiss if I did not acknowledge one possible casualty to Davis’ adversity - cornerback Darnay Holmes. The Giants could save $2.7-million against the cap with less than $200,000 in dead cap, according to OverTheCap.com.
Similar to last season, every penny may matter, and, unfortunately, this is the first impactful injury the Giants have to handle, and we’re still two weeks out from training camp. GM Joe Schoen already drafted a possible replacement for Holmes in Cor’Dale Flott and added Tre Hawkins III in the sixth round of this year’s draft.
Holmes’ primary contribution is as a nickel defender, and safeties like Nick McCloud and Bobby McCain can also handle that role. I want to make this clear; I am not advocating for his release; I happen to appreciate Holmes and think he’s pound-for-pound one of the better tackling defensive backs when operating around the line of scrimmage, albeit he could improve in coverage.
Still, this Davis injury - and the subsequent move that will likely follow - could be the canary in the coal mine for Holmes’ place on the 53-man roster. However, wide receiver Darius Slayton found himself in a similar situation last year after the Giants drafted Wan’Dale Robinson in the second round. Not only did Slayton persevere, but he was the leading receiver and was awarded another contract with the team, so, certainly, anything is possible.
Anyway, here are five linebackers the Giants could look into, despite their cap situation.
Deion Jones, CLE
The 2016 second-round selection by the Falcons played six respectable seasons for Atlanta before the Cleveland Browns acquired him early last season in a late-round pick swap trade. Jones played more than 900 snaps in five of seven seasons as an NFL linebacker, and the 28-year-old played 422 for the Browns last year.
The 6-foot-1, 227-pounder is known for his speed and athletic ability. However, Pro Football Focus graded him poorly over the last two seasons. Jones has been productive throughout his career and has 696 total tackles with 46 for a loss, 11 sacks, 12 interceptions, five forced fumbles, and 64 pressures. Jones missed 14.9 percent of his tackles in 2022 and has only been in the single digits of missed tackle rate once in his career (2017, according to PFF).
He recorded 44 tackles, 2.5 sacks, six tackles for a loss, three passes defended, one interception, and one forced fumble in eleven games, with five starts, last season with Cleveland. The Giants expressed interest in Jones early this April. A deal was never made, but perhaps Jones was always the contingency plan if a situation like this arose.
Myles Jack, PIT
Like Jones, Myles Jack was also a 2016 second-round selection; only Jack was drafted to the Jacksonville Jaguars and also spent six respectable seasons with the team that drafted him. Jack spent the 2022 season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where the 27-year-old played 692 snaps.
Jack produced well in those snaps, recording 104 tackles (61 solo), three tackles for a loss, three passes defended, with five pressures. The 6-1, 255-pound linebacker is slightly thicker than Jones but is still solid as an athlete operating at the second level. Jack’s missed tackle rate was only 7.5 percent last season; he’s only been in the double-digits of missed tackle rates in his career twice (2018 and 2019). He is a young player who should be an option for the Giants heading into training camp.
Jaylon Smith, NYG
It may not be ideal, but Smith knows the defense and was the de facto LB1 last season for the Giants. Was he always in the correct position? No. Did he look like he drank five Red Bulls before every game? Yes. Despite that, he was far and away the Giants’ best linebacker option last season.
Adding Okereke alleviates the burden of responsibility placed on Smith’s shoulders. Smith is still just 29 years old, coming off a season where he had 88 tackles, three for a loss, with a sack, eight pressures, and only a 6.1% missed tackle rate. The last statistic may not paint the entire portrait of Smith’s play from 2022, but the Giants could do worse than Smith, and the cap situation remains an issue.
P.S. Smith, too, was a second-round pick in 2016 by the Dallas Cowboys.
Zach Cunningham, TEN
Cunningham spent much of the 2022 season with an elbow injury that landed him on Injured Reserve before the Titans ultimately released the once-accomplished Vanderbilt Commodore for a failed physical in February. Before his return to Nashville, Cunningham spent five and a half seasons in Houston after he was selected in the second round.
He’s amassed 620 career tackles, 29 for a loss, 19 passes defended, five force fumbles, and an interception through 4,555 defensive snaps. His career missed tackle rate is at 11.7 percent. There’s one primary reason why the 6-3, 230-pound linebacker intrigues me - length.
Cunningham’s arm length is in the 96th percentile for linebackers at 34⅜ inches. Imagine Cunningham playing next to Okereke, whose arms are 34½-inches (97th percentile) with a 98th percentile wingspan as well. Throwing windows would be tight at the second level. Compound their presence with Cam Brown, whose arms are in the 95th percentile, and the second level of Wink Martindale’s defense would resemble a Banyan forest (deliberately ignoring the fact that Brown only played three defensive snaps last year).
The new linebacker addition may have to also factor on special teams, and Cunningham has played 595 career snaps during his career. Still, prioritizing length while not sacrificing skill would lead to plenty of interesting personnel packages from a mastermind like Martindale, and that could prove difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
Kwon Alexander, NYJ
I don’t know if the Giants could make this work financially, although he did sign a cheap contract with the Jets before last season, but a veteran like Alexander could make a huge difference. The 28-year-old bounced around from the Buccaneers to the 49ers and Saints, and spent the 2022 season locally with the New York Jets.
Alexander had 69 tackles, six for a loss, a forced fumble, a half-sack, and 17 pressures in 17 games with the Jets, after following his former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to the Big Apple. Alexander suffered several injuries in recent seasons. His 2018 campaign ended with a torn ACL; he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in 2019 but returned for the playoffs, and then tore his Achilles at the end of the 2020 season.
He spent a month on IIR in 2021 with an elbow injury. Despite the hardship, the 6-1, 227-pound Alexander still played respectable defense for the Jets last season.