Giants Free Agency: Middling in the Middle


The Giants rich history of great linebackers is not limited to the outside linebackers, with two Pro Football Hall of Fame member having patrolled the middle of their defense, Sam Huff and Harry Carson. Other solid middle linebackers that have played for the team over the years include Gary Reasons, Antonio Pierce, and Pepper Johnson. Their current starter on paper is Jon Beason, who came from the Carolina Panthers in a trade in October 2013, and solidified the defense that season, but missed most of 2014 with a toe injury that was re-aggravated twice and ultimately put him on injured reserve.

McClain is not the Mike.
McClain is not the Mike.

Jameel McClain took over the “Mike” position, despite his infamous, “I’m not the Mike” declaration to Tony Romo on a late Sunday afternoon game last October. He was an adequate fill in, but did not conjure fear in opponents, and would best be returned to compete for one of the outside spots on the defense.

Given Beason’s proclivity for injury and the lack of depth on the roster, it would make sense for the team to look at free agent inside linebackers to add some depth, with an eye towards competition with Beason for the starting spot and adding his eventual replacement to the team. That idea was sound until Giants360 closely examined and analyzed the list of soon-to-be free agents at the position, and concluded that Beason needs to stay healthy, and depth needs to be added in the draft.

There are a few players that could be considered, but given the increase in the salary cap and the scant few quality players available, competition will be fierce, driving up the price and making it unwise to sign the players at his higher asking price. That’s the recipe for a high price free agent bust and a problematic salary cap situation in the future. Just ask Daniel Snyder or Jerry Jones.

As with free agents at other positions, we are breaking them down by category, only some are a category of one, as there are no other free agents worth considering. No current Giants are impending free agents at middle linebacker. Mark Herzlich has played the position in the past, but started 8 games in 2014 at outside linebacker and is therefore categorized at that position.

When looking at a middle linebacker, the ability to stop the run is most important, and without that skill, ratings in the other categories, pass rush and pass coverage, are superfluous. If a defense is not strong against the run up the middle, it will make for many long afternoons. The ratings, as always, come from, the site that analyzes player performance and is a good resource for making impartial comparisons.

Premier Option

Spikes run stopping ability makes him the top free agent middle LB
Spikes run stopping ability makes him the top free agent middle LB

Brandon Spikes, 26, 6’3″, 250 lbs, 6th Season, Buffalo: Spikes completed his first season in Buffalo after spending his four in New England, therefore missing out on a Super Bowl ring. He is far and away the highest rated run defender of this free agent group, but is just average to below average in pass coverage. Spikes is not much of a pass rushing threat, having registered just two career sacks, and tallying just one quarterback hit and one quarterback hurry in 2014. Having signed a one year, $1,250,000 contract with Buffalo last season, Spikes could be signed to a reasonable contract and brought in to compete with Beason for the starting job in the middle of the Giants defense. He would be a solid backup if Beason were to retain is position and sustain another injury during the season. Spikes would also be valuable in short yardage and goal line packages.

Improving Player/Limited Snap Options

Akeem Dent, 27, 6’1″, 242 lbs, 5th season, Houston: Dent has played both middle and weak side linebacker in his 4 years NFL career. He signed with the Texans for the veteran minimum in 2014 after three season with the Falcons and improved both against the run and in pass coverage. Dent is also a capable special teams player that would be an asset to the Giants in that capacity. Having started 7 of his 15 games in 2014 and 27 of 62 career games, Dent would compete for a starting job if he continues to improve as a run defender. He would also come at a bargain price.

Sheppard would provide quality depth
Sheppard would provide quality depth

Kelvin Sheppard, 27, 6’2″, 246 lbs, 5th season, Miami: Sheppard is a player who improved across the board in 2014 after bouncing around in his first three NFL seasons. With just 1 start in 16 games, and 32 in his first 61, Sheppard has already played for 3 different NFL teams. He is an average special teams players, but has shown that his play is still improving. While not likely NFL starter material, Sheppard is a bargain basement option, who could be signed for the veteran minimum and become a key backup and core special teams player for the Giants.

Chris A. White, 26, 6’2″, 241 lbs, 5th season, New England: A very limited snap option, White has performed well on those rare occasions when he has seen the field on defense. He is also a solid special teams performer who has not started any of his career 51 games with both the Patriots and Bills. One of the areas where the Giants need to improve in 2015 is special teams, and bringing in players like Chris White for the veteran minimum would be a step in the right direction. If he earns some playing time on defense, it should be considered a bonus.

Veteran Option

Trusnik could compete for the starting job
Trusnik could compete for the starting job

Jason Trusnik, 30, 6’4″, 241 lbs, 9th season, Miami: Having started just 25 games in a career that includes 109, Trusnik would bring relatively fresh legs along with solid run defense to the Giants. He can hold his own in pass coverage, but is no threat to rush the passer, having failed to log a sack since the 2010 season. His special teams play has improved of late, and if he is unable to unseat Jon Beason for the starting job, would need to continue to do so in order to earn the backup job. He earned the veteran minimum in 2014 and would not be worth signing for a much higher salary.

On the list of approximately two dozen impending free agents, the above five are the cream of the crop and the only middle linebackers worth signing, if they will agree to a reasonable contract with the Giants. One name not on the list, despite his impressive 2014, is Cowboys free agent Rolando McClain, who is to be fined 4 game checks for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy and still faces a potential suspension. McClain rehabilitated his career last season and performed very well in Rod Marinelli’s defense. His latest incident will limit his ability to cash in on his rehabilitated career. He should, however, get to spend some time and cash in rehab.

Given the state of the free agent market, the Giants need Beason to stay healthy
Given the state of the free agent market, the Giants need Beason to stay healthy

The Giants will need to rely on Beason to rebound from his lost 2014 season and show the leadership and tenacity demonstrated in 2013. While one of the above options would provide quality depth, at least one draft choice will need to be spent on a middle linebacker who can be developed to replace the injury prone and now 30 year old Beason.

Many of you saw the list of players Giants360 tweeted out (@Giants360) of the players we expect to be cut to save salary cap money for 2015. One player has already met that fate, David Wilson, and more will surely follow as the team makes room for franchise tagging Jason Pierre-Paul before next Monday’s deadline and to sign free agents when the market opens on March 10th. We plan to take another look at these players, add a few more potentials to the list, and provide our reasoning in the next article in our off season Free Agency series.

Giants360. All Giants. All Year Round.


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