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Giants finally have competence at linebacker

The starting duo is solid, but concerning lack of depth remains an issue with the roster

Los Angeles Rams v New York Giants Photo by Mike Lawrence/Getty Images

The New York Giants went 9-7-1 with a playoff win in 2022. Their biggest vulnerability on defense was a dearth of talent at linebacker. GM Joe Schoen acknowledged the issue and signed former Indianapolis Colt Bobby Okereke to a four-year $40-million contract with $21.8 million guaranteed. Okereke proved worthy in the first year of that contract.

2023 in review

The roster

Bobby Okereke, Micah McFadden, Isaiah Simmons, Carter Coughlin, Cam Brown, Darrian Beavers (PS), Dyontae Johnson (PS)

Schoen’s addition of Okereke to Wink Martindale’s defense quenched the nervousness of Giants fans after a 38-7 Divisional round loss where the Philadelphia Eagles toyed with the second level of the defense. However, it was unclear who would assume a starting role opposite Okereke.

Jarad Davis underwent surgery in July, which put two second-year linebackers in a position to seize the opportunity. Darrian Beavers - who was recovering from a torn ACL - and Micah McFadden - who was benched several times during his rookie season - were the frontrunners.

New York also traded for 2020 top-10 pick Isaiah Simmons in August. Their vision for Simmons wasn’t on early downs but as a sub-package linebacker with immense blitzing upside that, unfortunately, was not actualized on a disappointing team that rarely earned fourth-quarter leads.

Simmons finished the year with just eight pressures, a sack, 30 tackles, and a walk-off pick-six to secure a victory against Washington in Week 11. Simmons’ utility would have successfully assisted the Giants 2022 team, who had late leads to protect and operated often in BIG DIME and BIG NICKLE packages.

Okereke’s ability was expected, but the ascension of Micah McFadden as an above-average linebacker was a pleasant surprise after a disappointing rookie season. McFadden had 101 tackles, 63 solo, 12 TFLs, five passes defended, a sack, an interception, and four fumble recoveries in his breakout sophomore season.

He was also an asset as a blitzing linebacker in Martindale’s defense - something he successfully showcased at Indiana. His development was positive, but he must clean up his tackling issues. McFadden did have 25 missed tackles - a missed tackle rate of 20.7%. He had the third most missed tackles at LB in the NFL.

Luckily, Okereke only had a 7.7% missed tackle rate, which was the lowest of his career. Okereke played every defensive snap for the Giants, and he recorded 149 tackles, 92 solo, 11 for a loss, 2.5 sacks, 10 passes defended, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles. It was a career year for Okereke, with highs in TFLs, passes defended, forced fumbles, and interceptions.

Overall, the linebacker position was far better in 2023 than the abysmal 2022 unit, which struggled to fit counter and power/gap concepts all season. It unfortunately didn’t lead to many victories, as the Giants finished the season 6-11.

2024 outlook

The combination of Okereke and McFadden is a solid tandem moving forward, but depth is necessary on the roster. Carter Coughlin and Cam Brown - who are primarily special teams players - are set to be free agents. Simmons and Jarrad Davis are also free agents.

I am open to resigning either special teams player for that same role or Isaiah Simmons. I question if Simmons would want to return to the Giants, who may be in a somewhat rebuilding situation. Simmons would thrive on a team with a good offense and a creative defensive coordinator who can leverage his versatility and immense potential. The Chiefs with Steve Spagnuolo is one team that comes to mind.

It’s clear, though, that New York must find players to round out the depth chart, but it remains unclear what exact type of linebacker the Giants will desire since there’s a vacancy at defensive coordinator.

Okereke remains a top-four - arguably top-three - defensive building block for whoever is coaching the unit next season. If McFadden cleans up his tackling issues, then the 2024 starters at linebacker could be in the top half of the NFL. However, one injury would force who into the starting lineup?

Behind the top two guys, it’s just Darrian Beavers and 2023 UDFA out of Toledo, Dyontae Johnson. Beavers, who tore his ACL during the 2022 preseason, played 37 special teams snaps for the Giants in the final two games of the regular season. Johnson did not dress for a game.

Linebacker remains one of many needs on this Giants roster. Still, with a glass-half-full mentality, at least New York has a proven tackling machine in Okereke and a young player who progressed with positive momentum in Micah McFadden.