Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, Harry Carson, Brad Van Pelt, Sam Huff, Pepper Johnson, Jessie Armstead, and Gary Reasons are just a few of the names that roll off the tongue when discussing the rich history that is New York Giants Linebackers. The position group for 2015 will not have anyone approaching those hallowed names, but rather is the biggest mystery on the current roster. As with tight end in 2014, media and fans alike have started to panic when looking at this position, and one can rest assured that players will emerge. To find the athletes that will see playing time starting on September 13th in Dallas, Tom Coughlin and Steve Spagnuolo will have to solve several mysteries, as discussed below:
Giants Linebackers Mystery 1: Jon Beason’s Health
When Jon Beason was traded to the Giants from the Carolina Panthers in October 2013, his leadership and tackling prowess immediately stabilized a shaky defense. Expected to lead a continued resurgence last season, a toe injury limited Beason to just four games, and saw the Giants defense finish in the bottom half of the NFL rankings. Such has been the NFL life for Beason, who has not enjoyed a full 16 game season since 2010, having suffered Achilles and knee injuries in addition to the freak toe injury, suffered when he stepped on an in ground sprinkler during practice. The middle linebacker making adjustments is a key component to Spagnuolo’s defense, and an area where Beason will excel, if he’s on the field.
But should the Giants count on him? Jameel McClain saw the most playing time last season in Beason’s absence, and Devon Kennard has also played middle linebacker during his collegiate career at USC. Expect Spagnuolo to give both players some snaps in the middle during training camp as he tries out different linebacker configurations to see which one best suits his scheme.
Giants Linebackers Mystery 2: Devon Kennard’s Continued Ascent
Selected in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, Kennard was a pleasant surprise when he began making plays all over the field during training camp practices last August. He continued to show impact play making ability in the preseason games, but suffered a hamstring injury in the season opener in Detroit that kept him out of action for most of the first half of the season. When he was healthy and on the field, Kennard proved to be a play maker in the Giants linebacker tradition and if he remains healthy, should be a key component in Spagnuolo’s defense. NFL players make their biggest leaps forward from their first season to their second, so expect to see even better play from Kennard in 2015. Of all the players on the current roster, he has the best chance of joining those listed in the opening paragraph.
Giants Linebackers Mystery 3: The WILL
While Beason appears locked into the Middle, or MIKE linebacker spot, and Kennard the Strong side, or SAM, the identity of the Weak side linebacker, or Will, remains open to competition. While the SAM linebacker set up off the side of the offense where the tight end lines up, the WILL does not have that responsibility and is free to blitz more frequently and is primarily tasked with stopping the run. The SAM has to read the tight end and has more pass coverage responsibilities.
The Giants signed two linebackers on the opening day of free agency, J.T. Thomas from the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Jonathan Casillas from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Initially thought to be special teams players and depth signings, it was made clear that both men are competing for starting jobs on the base defense. Thomas appears to have the inside track on the WILL spot on the Giants defense and in reviewing his ratings on Pro Football Focus, his best games have come when he’s played that position. In his free agency press conference, Coughlin maintained that Thomas was signed because he was a good fit for Spagnuolo’s scheme, and further research supports that assertion.
Casillas is a journeyman who has spent time with the Buccaneers, New England Patriots, and New Orleans Saints in his five NFL seasons. With experience playing all three linebacker positions, he has the versatility the Giants coaching staff covets, and is also a good special teams player. While Coughlin also said he will compete for a starting position, Casillas best role appears to be that of versatile backup and core special teamer.
Mark Herzlich was quietly shifted from middle linebacker to outside linebacker during the 2014 season. He is a lights our run defender who cannot cover backs or tight ends with any measure of certainty. There was multiple plays last season where Giants360 provided video clips of Herzlich appearing out of position or turned the wrong way in pass coverage, but he also made highlight reel run stuffing tackles in the backfield. This Jekyll and Hyde play making ability would seem to make Herzlich best suited to a run package role if he shows his historical special teams excellence, which was diminished as his base defense responsibilities increased.
McClain is also a consideration for the WILL position, which brings is to…
Giants Linebackers Mystery 4: Jameel McClain’s Role
McClain was brought in as a free agent from the Baltimore Ravens last season and was slotted to play strong side linebacker until Beason’s injury forced him to move to middle linebacker. He was a 3-4 scheme inside linebacker with the Ravens, and appeared to have difficulty adjusting to the Giants 4-3 defense. Another versatile linebacker, McClain played all positions for the Ravens and might be best suited as the fourth man up in the Giants scheme.
While his best position is the SAM spot, that is occupied by up and coming star Kennard, who at 24 is five years younger than McClain and on the upside of his career. McClain has played will on special teams when called upon and may need to do so more regularly in 2015 as he will not be a starter unless there is an injury on the defense. There is a chance he could beat out Thomas for the starting WILL position, but Thomas appears to have the advantage in scheme fit and played well in Organized Team Activities and Mini Camp.
Giants Linebackers Mystery 5: The Backups
The Giants will keep 6 or 7 linebackers on their final 53, and five of the spots are guaranteed to go to Beason, Kennard, Thomas, McClain, and Casillas, assuming all remain healthy. The finals spots will be a competition between Herzlich, veteran Victor Butler, and rookies/first year players Devin Unga, Cole Farrand, and Tony Johnson. Special teams play will determine the final few roster spots, and versatility on defense will provide an additional edge. Non-linebackers who can shift into those roles in packages include Owa Odighizuwa, Landon Collins, and Nat Berhe, with the latter two players able to play in the box in nickel packages. Odighizuwa played some linebacker at UCLA, however, the coaching staff may not want to overwhelm him with too many responsibilities as a rookie.
As the Giants lead defensive detective, Spagnuolo, continues to gather evidence when training camp opens on July 30th, he will unravel these mysteries and solve the Giants Linebackers enigma for the 2015 season. The talent may appear thin, but with some luck, and better health than least season, these men will play a vital role in a Giants defensive resurgence.