Keep ‘em or Dump ‘em: Linebackers

Up next in our “Keep ‘em or Dump ‘em” series is the linebackers.

2015 in review:  We really wanted to give the Giants linebackers the benefit of the doubt after’s Chris Wesseling labeled the Giants linebackers as the worst in the league.

Simply put, “Giants linebackers” and “worst” historically have not been a part of the same sentence, except these last few years have made it so.

That’s because in building the defense, the focus has been placed on the defensive line and the defensive secondary, leaving the scrap heap as a primary resource to staff the linebackers.

Seriously, when was the last time the Giants drafted a linebacker that made a difference? Devon Kennard? Not quite—he can’t stay on the field.

Jessie Armstead?: Now you’re talking—but you’d have to go back two general managers, to George Young and 23 years ago to a time when the NFL draft had eight rounds instead of the modern day seven. (Armstead was an eighth round pick.)

The insistence by Ernie Accorsi and Jerry Reese to not use a higher draft pick to add to a group that has underperformed for quite some time—and no, we don’t count Clint Sintim, a second round pick in 2009 who was a 3-4 defensive end that did not fit the Giants’ 4-3 defensive scheme—has been criminal.

“It is hard to imagine that great linebackers were the legacy of the Giants for many years,” wrote one voter. “The atrophy of this position is reason alone to jettison the front office.”

“Giants linebackers have been a disaster for years,” said another voter. “What a crime against the Giants history of players like Sam Huff, Brad Van Pelt, Harry Carson, LT, Carl Banks, Jessie Armstead etc.”

Amen. You get what you pay for in this league, and the linebacker play is a big part of the reason why, per Football Outsiders, that the Giants finished 27th against opposing tight ends in 2015 after finishing 25th the year prior.

And so we agree 100 percent with the voter who wrote, “It is high time to invest in linebackers who can be difference makers. … Giants fans have been calling on the front office to prioritize the linebacker unit for years, and even if the game has changed a great deal since the 1980s, many of the very good defenses today have playmaking linebackers.”

Amen to that. The 2016 draft class looks like it’s deep in quality linebackers, and there are a couple that are currently due to hit unrestricted free agency, including Denver’s Von Miller and Seattle’s Bruce Irvin.

We’ll see if 2016 finally marks the year the Giants decide to pay a little more love to this position—yes they added two new faces last year in Jonathan Casillas and J.T. Thomas, but again, they had very little to show for it in terms of production.

beasonOnce upon a time we would have been thrilled to see Jon Beason in a Giants uniform. In fact, Beason was a guy we hoped the Giants would draft in 2007—they ended up drafting cornerback Aaron Ross instead.

When the Carolina Panthers took pity on the Giants in 2013 and sent Beason to New York for a measly seventh round draft pick, that pretty much told you all you needed to know.

Yes, the Giants did get 12 solid games out of Beason that season, who by the time he got here had started to accumulate a worrisome injury history.

However, that’s all they would get from him as over the next two seasons, Beason barely made it through four games due to assorted lower body injuries that continue to eat away at whatever athletic ability he might have once had.

Now 31 years old and with a $6.566 million cap hit for 2016 that includes $2.2 million roster bonus, Beason, who during a recent interview with Sirius XM Radio said he planned to have knee surgery, and then see how his body responded, is likely done as a member of the Giants, and perhaps in the NFL.

He’s had a fine career and is everything you want in a player and a leader with the exception of the ongoing injury situation which has likely come about as a result of his hard-nosed style of play.

Personally, we’d be surprised if Beason plays again. Short of winning a Super Bowl, he’s done just about everything a linebacker can do during his career so unless he could hook up with a contender—and even that’s not guaranteed—why put himself through this all over again?

brinkley Jasper Brinkley, who was picked up off waivers before the first game of the season, stepped in for Beason last year (actually, he stepped in for Uani ‘Unga who was Beason’s backup at first), and Brinkley did a pretty good job for a guy who didn’t have the benefit of the OTAs or training camp.

Also on the wrong side of 30, Brinkley at least has a better health history and the smarts to play this game.

He’s obviously not the long-term answer at the position, but we think that he’s one of the Giants unrestricted free agents who needs to be re-signed, especially if the Giants plan to draft a middle linebacker of the future.

This is a plan we had hoped for last year—that the Giants draft a youngster to learn under Beason before taking over the following season. There is a good possibility we’ll get our wish this year.

casillasWe had mixed feelings about Jonathan Casillas, who was one of the linebackers signed last offseason. On the plus side, we love his athleticism and that he can turn and run with the best of them.

However, we just didn’t see enough of that from him (we should note that Casillas had a neck issue that cut into some of his practice time this year).

We also weren’t blown away by his blitzing ability or his coverage, and saw him as nothing more than a slight upgrade over Jacquian Williams, who was the team’s nickel linebacker.

To be fair, the surrounding talent on defense this year wasn’t much to write home about, so there is a question as to how much of what defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo planned to do that had to be scrapped.

Regardless, expect some new faces to be added to the linebacker group while we also remain interested to see how well this unit does in year two of the new system.

JT3J.T. Thomas’ first season as a Giants was pretty much a washout thanks to a high ankle sprain he suffered midway through the year, an injury that clearly affected him, even after he returned to action.

Before then, Thomas wasn’t ever going to be one to generate gaudy stats, though we did like how he was quick enough to influence the ball carriers inside to where help was waiting.

Thomas, when healthy, was probably the best blitzer the giants had at the position. Again, he didn’t prove himself to be a difference maker, but how much of that as a result of his injury is a valid question.

Hopefully 2016 will see a healthier Thomas deliver the goods the Giants were no doubt expecting when they signed this free agent from Jacksonville last year.

kennardDevon Kennard is starting to become a frustrating player. In only his second season, injuries again kept him from completing a full year, an alarming trend. Whether it’s just bad luck or a result of his hard-hitting style, we can’t say, but let’s be honest here.

Given his injuries to his lower body, we’re not sure that we can say Kennard is an every down linebacker that the team can count on every week. That’s not good, and at least one voter agrees with us.

“I’m starting to wonder about keeping Kennard because he’s played only 21 games in his two years in the NFL. That’s not going to cut it.”

No it’s not.

As for Kennard, we wouldn’t be stunned if a move inside might be in the cards for him. Don’t get us wrong—we think the strong side is his best position because he has the power and athleticism to consistently set the edge, and because he plays a physical game.

However, if he’s going to constantly be beaten up at that position, we question if he has what it takes to hold up there.

herzlichMark Herzlich, signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011, has hung around this team despite not progressing to a starting role.

In Herzlich, we see a poor man’s Chase Blackburn—a smart player with a solid football IQ who is a difference-maker on special teams, but who otherwise has limited ability.

The story with Herzlich is the same—he is ineffective in coverage, where he lacks the foot speed and does not blitz very well, again lacking the speed to get home.

He didn’t quite build off of the 20`4 season, his best as a pro, but again, he brought value as a backup and special teams ace, a position that he’ll probably continue in through the upcoming season, the last of his current contract.

ungaFor a short while, it looked as though Uani ‘Unga, an undrafted free agent who made the team as an underdog, might have a future at middle linebacker for this team.

The more ‘Unga played, the more reality set in. Instead of getting a thumper, they got a rookie who couldn’t adjust to the speed and complexity of the game, especially in his roles in the nickel and dime packages.

‘Unga also struggled in coverage, taking poor angles in running to the ball. His best traits were his ability to play the run, but even there, he wasn’t much of a difference maker, as he too often got caught up in the wash.

To be fair, we suspect the coaches had no choice but to play ‘Unga as much as they did due the injuries to Beason, but to be blunt, there was a noticeable drop-off between the starters and the backups, a drop-off which is a big reason for this unit once again underperforming.

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