Giants history is filled with outside linebackers ranking among some of the best in the history of the NFL, including, arguably, the greatest defender to every put on a uniform, Lawrence Taylor. Names such as Carl Banks, Brad Van Pelt, and Jesse Armstead conjure memories among Giants fans of spectacular tackles for losses and breathtaking quarterback sacks. Jameel McClain was signed to play outside linebacker, but forced to play in the middle when Jon Beason was injured. He was disappointing at best and did not flourish under former defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s tutelage. Devon Kennard, the rookie linebackers from USC, has shown the potential to restore some of that pride, but it’s been decades since the Giants have had an outside linebacker patrolling the second level of their defense that keep opposing offensive coordinators up at night thinking of ways to stop him.
The team has an opportunity this year to remake it’s linebacking corps, both through free agency and the draft, with 4th year player Jacquian Williams poised to hit the free agent market along with backups Spencer Paysinger and Mark Herzlich. The free agent market will be ripe with talented linebackers that would provide an immediate upgrade and give returning defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo blitzing and pass rush package options that will put the increased pressure on opposing quarterbacks that was missing in 2014.
When evaluating the potential free agents for the Giants, the player must first be an outstanding run defender. That is the primary role of a linebacker and without the ability to stop the run, a linebacker’s value is nil. Second comes coverage ability. Playing running backs out of the backfield and tight ends on shorter routes often falls to the outside linebacker and versatility adds value at the position. Being an accomplished blitzer or lining up on the defensive line are viewed as bonus attributes as they will add flexibility to Spagnuolo’s play calling. These are not core attributes of 4-3 linebackers, but also not something that should be dismissed if they player has the talent.
The free agents have been divided into four categories, dependent upon their experience, performance from 2012 to 2014, and presumed contract demands. The first category, as always look at the departing Giants veterans, and whether they should be retained or allowed to seek opportunities with one of the other 31 NFL teams.
Jacquian Williams, 26, 6’4″, 225 lbs, 5th season: Williams is a player that’s seems to always look better on the practice field than after kickoff. Looking the part of a dominating linebacker, with superior size, terrific speed, and seemingly good instincts, Williams never had the impact the Giants hoped when he was drafted in the 6th round out of South Florida in 2011. His 2014 season ended after 9 games with a serious concussion that saw him placed on injured reserve. It’s time to move on.
Spencer Paysinger, 26, 6’2″, 236 lbs, 5th season: Paysinger is a backup quality NFL linebacker that has started just 14 of his career 62 games. An excellent special teams player, Paysinger was not tapped as a starter when the Giants went through a period of multiple injuries to their starting linebackers at mid-season, which volumes about his defensive skills. Despite this, his special team prowess warrants a one year, veteran minimum deal and camp invitation. He might not make the team, but has earned the opportunity to compete.
Mark Herzlich, 27, 6’4″ 250 lbs, 5th season: Herzlich logged 8 of his 14 career starts in 2014 and was an impressive run defender. Unfortunately, his run defending prowess was completely overshadowed by lack of pass coverage ability. Opposing running backs and tight ends ran free on his watch, as Herzlich looks dazed and confused when asked to defend the pass. To make matters worse, the usually dependable special teams warrior’s play slipped. If it’s a choice between Paysinger or Herzlich, based 2014 special teams performance, Paysinger gets the nod.
They are the among the top free agents on the market. Young, talented, and, if signed, will be thrust into immediate competition to be starters on the Giants defense. The ratings are, as always, courtesy of profootballfocus.com, the website that reviews and grades each player and play in every game. These players rated out well, and would deepen the pool of talent Steve Spagnuolo has to work with as he reshapes the Giants defense back into a unit that can contend for a championship.
Justin Houston, 26, 6’3″, 258 lbs, 4th season, Kansas City: Houston is the top free agent linebacker on the potential free agent market, but is also the most likely to be franchise tagged. He is a solid run defender, above average in pass coverage, and sack master. Houston registered 10, 11, and 22 sacks in his past three NFL seasons, disrupting opposing quarterbacks rhythm with regularity. He will command a high dollar contract, in excess of the 5 year, $66 million dollar contract signed by the Packers Clay Matthews in 2013. For an impact defender who has started 53 of his 59 NFL games, it would be worth considering.
Pernell McPhee, 26, 6’2″, 250 lbs, 5th season, Baltimore: Coming from the Ravens, Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will be familiar with McPhee, a backup with the Ravens, and can provide insight to the Giants personnel department. Despite not starting a game in 2014, McPhee registered 7.5 sacks, 21 quarterback hits, and 35 quarterback pressures, showing an ability to get to passer that the Giants desperately need. McPhee is a solid run defender, can hold his own in pass coverage, and lines up on the defensive line, giving Spagnuolo the flexibility to move him around.. He also made the veteran minimum in 2014 and can likely be signed to a team friendly contract.
Brandon Graham, 26, 6’2″, 265 lbs, 5th season, Philadelphia: Signing Graham would provide a double whammy as it not only boosts the talent on the Giants defense, but takes it from a division rival. While just an average coverage linebacker, Graham, who can also line up on the defensive line, excels at run defense and rushing the passer. While he’s registered just 17 combined sacks in the past three seasons, he did register 39 quarterback pressures in 2014, showing the ability to penetrate into the backfield. He’d also come at a reasonable price. Evaluating players on the Eagles is a challenge due to the up tempo offense the team runs. It requires the defense to be on the field for more plays and longer than most other teams, skewing their data.
Jabaal Sheard, 25, 6’2″, 255, 4th season, Cleveland: Despite recording just 2 sacks in 2014, Sheard has 23 in 50 career starts and is the most accomplished run defender of the linebackers highlighted in this section. He consistently pressures the quarterback, is average in pass coverage, and can also play some down lineman, if needed. He started just 5 of 16 games in 2014, after being a full time starter in his first three seasons, and may be looking for a change in scenery. With a 2014 base salary of $994,000, Sheard has the potential to be a reasonably priced free agent with a big upside.
Improving Players/Limited Snap Options
When sifting through the dozens of outside linebackers that will be available to sign in early March, it would be easy to pick out the top names or highest rated, make a list and post it. In order to provide complete, in-depth coverage, Giants360 looks below the surface to identify players who have shown improvement in their play during the past few seasons or performed well while only playing a limited number of snaps. They may be fringe starters, role players, but the improvement in their ratings indicates a work ethic that bodes will for continued development. The type of player the Giants coaching staff can continue to mold into a complete player. Some will surprise and compete for a starting job. Others will provide needed, quality depth and play special teams. Both are areas of great need for the Giants, who lacked greatly in both areas last season.
Larry Dean, 26, 6’0″, 226 lbs, 4th season, Buffalo: Dean has appeared in 61 career games with no starts. A solid special teams player, Dean’s play was good across the board, a rarity among the second level of players hitting the free agent market. He made the veteran minimum in 2014, and would be a depth and special teams addition for the Giants. With some continued development, he could become a role player on the defense.
Arthur Moats, 26, 6’2″, 250 lbs, 5th season, Pittsburgh: A 9 game starter for the Steelers, Moats is a solid run defender who improved as a pass rusher in 2014, ringing up 4 sacks. He’s started just 29 of 75 career games, is average in pass coverage, and plays both strong and weak side linebacker. He made the veteran minimum in 2014, and could be signed to a team friendly contract. Moats is not a special teams players and would only be signed is he were expected to contribute on defense.
Sam Acho, 26, 6’3″, 257 lbs, 4th season, Arizona: Acho was a 4 game starter in 2014 and has stared 32 of 51 career NFL games. He’s not a pass rushing linebacker, but is solid against the run and good in pass coverage. Dependable on special teams, Acho could compete for a starting job, but is most likely suited for a backup slot at both outside linebacker positions and key special teams contributor.
Marcus Benard, 29, 6’2″, 256 lbs, 5th season, Arizona: Another linebacker that rates out well across all three categories – run defense, pass rushing, and pass coverage, Benard is an improving special teams performer that is best suited as a backup strong side linebacker and special teams performer. Starting just 3 of 49 career games, Benard made the veteran minimum in 2014 and would likely be able to be signed for the same this season.
Justin Durant, 29, 6’1″, 228 lbs, 8th season, Dallas: Durant started the first 6 games of the season for the Cowboys before tearing a bicep and going on injured reserve. He improved all three rating areas and was an above average linebacker who would compete for a starting job on the Giants. Having started 80 of 95 career games with Dallas, Detroit, and Jacksonville, Durant plays all three linebacker positions, versatility that is valuable in the NFL. Commanding a salary of $1,250,000, Durant is more expensive than the other players in this group, does not play special teams, but would be a steadying, reasonable priced presence on the second level of the Giants defense.
They’re more expensive, but bring a wealth of experience. Often nearing the end of their career, or possessing a serious flaw in their game, when a veteran player hits the market, the first question the other 31 teams need to ask is why? NFL teams simply don’t let talented players go often. Two players that should make it to free agency could have a big impact on the Giants defense, providing leadership and an immediate upgrade. Both come with some risk, will be costly, but the juice would be worth the squeeze.
Lance Briggs, 34, 6’1″, 244 lbs, 12th season, Chicago: After suffering through a 5-11 season, the Bears decided to clean house, bringing in a new general manager and head coach. John Fox plans to oversee a conversion from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4, displacing veteran linebacker Briggs, a career Bear. He’s a solid run defender, who is capable of covering tight ends and running backs and has started 170 of 173 career games, including 16 last season. He’s near the end of line and would command $3.5 to $4 million dollars and would only be a 1 or 2 year solution. A top performer, and dependable starter, Briggs’ signing would buy the front office time to bring in and develop younger talent behind him.
Brian Orakpo, 28, 6’4″, 257 lbs, 7th season, Washington: Orakpo would be the ultimate risk/reward signing. In 5 NFL seasons, Orakpo has suffered a myriad of injuries, including torn pectoral muscles in 2012 and 2014 that cost him 12 and 9 games, respectively. In his other 4 years, he’s missed only 2 start combined and when he plays he is a dominating on the field, earning top ratings in all three categories. The Redskins took a chance and franchise tagged Orakpo in 2014, only to see him miss more than half the season with the torn muscle. If the Giants could sign him to a multi-year, incentive laden contract, that would allow him to earn big dollars if he plays up to his capability and avoids injury, he would conjure up images of linebackers in eras gone by. The incentive basis would also protect the team in the event that he continues his injury prone tendency.
In a free agent market that will be flooded with almost 4 dozen outside linebackers, the 11 highlighted above would bring skill sets and demonstrated ability to upgrade the Giants shallow talent pool at outside linebacker. Under the Jerry Reese and Tom Coughlin tandem, the linebacker position has been an afterthought with resources and cap dollars concentrated on the defensive line While positive results were achieved with this strategy in 2007 and 2011, in between, the run defense has suffered and, when the pass rush has faltered, opposing quarterbacks have picked apart the Giants secondary. Linebackers rarely provided a serious blitzing threat and have not made impact plays against the run. That needs to change for this defense to return to it’s glory days.
In Giants360 next article, we will take a look at some free agent inside linebackers, with an eye towards improving depth behind Jon Beason and his eventual replacement as the quarterback of the Giants defense.
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