Antrel Rolle was the leader of the Giants defense for the past 5 seasons. Dependable, having not missed a game in this time with the Giants, vocal, and hard nosed, Rolle was the voice heard in the locker room on the field, and off of it. When he signed as a free agent with the Bears last week, a void was created, one that’s left the Giants faithful wondering who will take over Rolle’s roll. Some went as far to say the eleven year veteran should have been re-signed just for his leadership alone.
Why did the Giants let him leave? Examining the Pro Football Focus data over the past two three seasons provides insight into the thought process. Rolle ranked 81st among safeties in 2014, and had an especially negative rating in run support. His coverage skills also slipped. There was a time when NFL teams rewarded veteran leaders with a final contract to keep their voice in the the locker room, but that was before the salary cap forced teams to examine their roster annually and make hard decisions. Letting Rolle leave as a free agent was a hard decision, but given his poor play in 2014, the right one.
New leaders emerge to fill the void, new voices rise above the crowd, and there are several suitable candidates on the Giants to take over as the voice of the defense. Who will it be? Giants360 takes a look at the most likely men to step up.
Jon Beason came over from Carolina in the middle of the 2013 season and immediately stabilized the Giants run defense. His take charge demeanor made him a leader in the locker room immediately upon his arrival, as did his position of middle linebacker, often called the quarterback of the defense, a rarity for a player arriving mid-season.
Beason re-signed before last season, but missed most of the year with a toe injury and while remaining active with the team, it’s challenging to lead from the sideline. Taking a pay cut to remain a Giant only helped his reputation in the locker room, but if Beason remains healthy in 2014, he will undoubtedly fill the leadership void. What are the odds that he will be on the field for a full 16 games, something Beason hasn’t been able to accomplish since 2010?
Three years ago, Prince Amukamara was dumped into a cold tub as part of a prank executed by teammates including Jason Pierre-Paul and Steve Weatherford. It was said to have been done to help toughen up the then second year player to help him assimilate to playing cornerback at the professional level. Amukamara has also struggled with injuries throughout his career. He’s not as outgoing as Rolle, but a leader doesn’t have to be overtly vocal.
George Martin and Harry Carson were the undisputed leaders of the great 1980’s Giants defenses, and neither man is as gregarious as the affable Rolle, but when one of the spoke, everyone listened. Including Bill Parcells, who respected both men and often sought out their advice when dealing with locker room matters.
Free agent acquisition Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie arrived last season to solidify the Giants secondary. He is known for being outspoken and would seem to be a natural to take over for Rolle as a spokesperson for the defense. But his history of changing teams on whim with a mercenary attitude will not inspire players to follow him. The locker room will look elsewhere for its leadership.
One of the young players who have made a big impact might emerge as a leader, and two potential candidates are Jonathan Hankins and Devon Kennard. Hankins took over as a starting defensive tackle, had a stellar season, and is entering his third season in the league. Leaders are often the top play makers on the field, and Hankins surely qualifies. Kennard came out of nowhere as a fifth round pick last season to secure a starting job at outside linebacker. He’s flashy and articulate, and if he remains healthy, has the personality to eventually become a team leader. While Young players sometimes elevate early when there’s a void left by veteran departures, it may be a bit too soon for these men.
When Jason Pierre-Paul was franchise tagged before free agency opened on March 10th, it assured his return for the 2015 season. He’s played through injuries the the past three seasons, missing only 5 games despite neck, back, and shoulder ailments that would have sent many to the sideline. That brand of toughness inspires loyalty in the NFL. In order to cement himself as a leader on the field, two things must happen.
First, Pierre-Paul needs to have a bounce back season under Steve Spanguolo. His scheme favors pass rushing success by the defensive ends, and Pierre-Paul should thrive in it. Getting off to a quick start will bode well for the fifth year defensive end. Second, a long term contract must be negotiated. If the other players think Pierre-Paul could be leaving at the end of the season, they will be less inclined to follow him.
Who will step up to fill the void left by Antrel Rolle? The most likely candidate is Beason, if he can stay on the field. If not, the players will gravitate to Pierre-Paul, a process that can be accelerated by a contract keeping him in Giants blue for, at least, the next five years. The name of the next defensive leader may not be on this list, but someone will emerge, and become the new voice. The signing of Kenrick Ellis, the talented, but under utilized, run stuffing defensive tackle formerly of the New York Jets is another step in the remaking of the Giants defense. It’s evolving, and with it, the leadership evolves as well.
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