When the Giants made Devon Kennard their second fifth round pick, a compensatory selection, in last May’s draft, Giants360 was less than impressed. It turned out, we were wrong, as Kennard went on to have a good rookie season, registering 4.5 sacks, 36 tackles, and earned a spot on Pro Football Focus’s All NFL 1st Team.
Opening training camp as the starting strong side, or SAM linebacker, Kennard was an instant hit, making play after play in camp, often tackling runners in the backfield and registering “sacks” on the quarterbacks. In camp, of course, hitting the quarterback is strictly prohibited, and a sack rings up when the coaches believe one would be made in a game. As the season opened in Detroit, great things were expected, and then a hamstring injury struck down the rookie.
He ironically returned the same game as fellow hamstrung rookie Odell Beckham, jr, for the October 5th match up with the Atlanta Falcons, but was not back to full speed. That didn’t happen until mid-November, when Kennard has a big game against the San Francisco Forty-Niners, making 7 total tackles, with two unassisted.
His sacks then came in consecutive weeks, with 2 each in the Jacksonville and Tennessee. The Titans game was Kennard’s finest, as he was named the NFC defensive player of the week, with two sacks and a forced fumble. The fumble was returned for a touchdown by teammate Markus Kuhn. Kennard has another strong game against the Washington Redskins in December, before injuring his toe against the Rams, an injury that forced him to miss the season finale against the Philadelphia Eagles.
With 6 starts and appearances in 12 games, Kennard was one of the bright spots on a bruised and battered Giants defense in 2014. With collegiate experience at defensive end and middle linebacker, he gives new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo multiple options on how to deploy the talented second year player.
Kennard rated well for a rookie on PFF, with positive ratings across the board and an especially positive rating as a pass rusher. With the Spagnuolo scheme one that richly favors the blitz, expect to see Kennard flying into the backfield utilizing his 4.6 speed in the 40 yard dash. This also gives him the speed to stay with running backs out of the backfield, something that Mark Herzlich struggled to do when he played at the SAM position last season.
It’s possible that Kennard will have to compete for playing time with Jameel McClain, the 2014 injury replacement middle linebacker in 2014, but given his performance, expect him to open the 2015 season as the starter. On a unit that lacks impact players, Kennard offers an upside that can’t be ignored.
The weak side linebacker, or WILL, position, is up for grabs. Tom Coughlin indicated at today’s NFC Coaches Breakfast at the NFL Annual Meeting in Arizona that free agent acquisitions Jonathan Casillas and J.T. Thomas will have the opportunity to compete for the starting WILL spot. McClain may also be tried out on the weak side. Pairing him with a healthy Beason and Kennard would be their best set of starting linebackers, but adding a high drafted rookie would give this unit a much needed boost.
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