With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com (BBI) breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Linebackers
2022 YEAR IN REVIEW: Injuries and disappointing performances significantly impacted both the inside and outside linebacker positions for the New York Giants in 2022. Heading into last year’s training camp, it appeared that Blake Martinez and Tae Crowder would be the starting inside linebackers with top pick Kayvon Thibodeaux and second-year Azeez Ojulari manning the outside spots. The Giants had also drafted Micah McFadden and Darrian Beavers to compete inside. The team signed Jihad Ward in free agency for the outside spot, where they also hoped Elerson Smith would justify his selection in the 4th round of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Martinez, who was coming off an ACL injury, never really seemed to connect with the defensive coaching staff and was cut before the season started. Wink Martindale talked up Crowder to the press, but continued disappointing play led to his benching after the bye week and being cut in December. Beavers was a pleasant surprise in training camp and the 6th rounder was quickly elevated to the first team. However, he tore his ACL in the second preseason game and was lost for the year.
All of this left the team scrambling for inside linebackers. Austin Calitro was signed in late July. He started a couple of games in September and was then benched, being inactive or not playing until he was cut in November. After choosing not to re-sign him in free agency, the Giants re-signed Jaylon Smith to the Practice Squad in late September and the 53-man roster in early October. He soon entrenched himself as a starter, playing in 13 regular-season games with 11 starts (72 percent of defensive snaps in those games). Landon Collins, who the team converted from safety to inside linebacker, was signed to the Practice Squad in October and the 53-man roster in December. Collins played in six regular-season games with one start. Also in late December, the team signed Jarrad Davis off of the Practice Squad of the Lions. Davis was pressed into service immediately, starting the regular-season finale and the two playoff games at inside linebacker.
Somewhat tellingly, the defensive staff never turned to 2020 late-round draft picks Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin. But they did with rookie 5th-rounder Micah McFadden. He played in all 17 regular-season games with seven starts (39 percent of defensive snaps). However, McFadden was inconsistent and a healthy scratch for both playoff games.
Outside, the Giants got a huge scare early with Thibodeaux, the fifth overall player selected in the Draft. He suffered an MCL knee sprain, which originally looked far worse, in the second preseason game and missed the final preseason and first two regular-season games. The good news was that he returned, but it did take him time to get back up to speed and he started slowly. In all, Thibodeaux started 14 regular-season games, being credited with 49 tackles, six tackles for losses, four sacks, 13 quarterback hits, five pass defenses, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. The high-point of his season was his “Defensive Player of the Week” performance against the Washington Commanders in Week 15 when he caused a sack/forced fumble/recovery defensive score.
When Ojulari played, he performed well, actually having the most effective pass-rush rate of any player on the roster. The problem was he wasn’t available for most of the year. Ojulari missed the first three weeks of training camp with a hamstring injury. He then hurt his right calf in training camp and missed the first two regular-season games of the season. Then in Week 4, Ojulari injured his left calf. After waiting for three weeks for it to improve, the Giants finally put him on Injured Reserve. Ojulari did not return to the active roster until early December, missing two full months. He then left the Week 16 game early with an ankle injury and barely played the following week. He was held out of the regular-season finale and then came out of the playoff game against the Vikings with a quad contusion. In all, Ojulari played in seven regular-season games with five starts. While he was only credited with 14 tackles, he flashed in his limited playing time with 5.5 sacks, the second-most on the team in 2022. He also caused three fumbles.
As bad as that was, Elerson Smith managed to top it. In his first two seasons with the Giants, Smith has been placed on Injured Reserve four times. In 2021, it was hamstring and neck injuries. Last year, the Giants placed Smith on IR in late August with a foot injury. He was activated off of IR in late October, but then went back to IR in December with an Achilles’ injury. He played in five games in 2022, accruing just three tackles. He also blocked a punt.
On the other hand, Ward ended up being a far more important defensive cog and locker-room presence than realized when he signed a 1-year contract with the Giants in March. He played in all 17 regular-season games with 11 starts (58 percent of defensive snaps), finishing the year with 43 tackles, seven tackles for losses, three sacks, 13 quarterback hits, four pass defenses, and two forced fumbles. It was the most-productive season in Ward’s seven-year NFL career as he offered both outside linebacker and defensive line versatility.
Two other players surprised. Most fans had written off Oshane Ximines, the team’s 3rd rounder from the 2019 NFL Draft. Ximines had a good summer, made the team, and contributed as a reserve and sometimes starter. In the end, Ximines played in 15 regular-season games with four starts (51 percent of defensive snaps). Rookie free agent Tomon Fox made the team and played in 16 regular-season games. He played in 30 percent of defensive snaps.
Quincy Roche, who spent most of the season on the Practice Squad, was promoted to the 53-man roster for a month.
Overall, very little went as planned in 2022 and the front office and coaching staff seemed like they were trying to plug new leaks all season. Injuries really impacted the outside pass rush and the inside linebacker position was never stable.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Inside, while the team re-signed Jarrad Davis, it did not pursue re-signing Jaylon Smith and Landon Collins. Both remain unsigned by any team. By far, the team’s most expensive free agent move was signing Bobby Okereke from the Colts (4-years, $40 million). The Giants also signed Dyontae Johnson and Troy Brown as undrafted rookie free agents.
Outside, the team re-signed Jihad Ward and Oshane Ximines, though somewhat tellingly the latter did not come until after the Draft. The team also signed Habakkuk Baldonado as an undrafted rookie free agent. Quincy Roche signed with the Steelers in January.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: If the Giants’ defense takes a big leap forward in 2023, it will likely be due to their linebackers. For a variety of reasons, the position was not a team strength in 2022. But big things are expected from Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari as pass rushers, provided they can stay on the field. Bobby Okereke is a significant addition as a quality 3-down inside linebacker at a position crying for help. The Giants have a history of making important free agent signings at inside linebacker (Michael Brooks, Micheal Barrow, Antonio Pierce).
While the importance of the second inside linebacker is diminished in today’s NFL with so many extra defensive back packages, one of battles to watch is who nails down the position next to Okereke. Jarrad Davis was re-signed. Darrian Beavers has to prove he hasn’t lost anything coming off of an ACL injury. The coaches and players have singled out Micah McFadden this spring. Dyontae Johnson received the second-most guaranteed money of the nine rookie free agents signed. Can Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin survive another year solely as special teams players?
Outside, a real concern is depth. Ward offers value as a veteran presence and edge-setter, but he is no replacement for the starters as a consistent pass rusher. Elerson Smith simply hasn’t been able to stay healthy. One wonders if Oshane Ximines would have even been re-signed had the team selected an outside linebacker in the draft. His chief competition are two undrafted players, Tomon Fox and Habakkuk Baldonado.
ON THE BUBBLE: There are currently 15 linebackers on the 90-man roster. The Giants usually had 10 linebackers on the 53-man roster in 2022. They will probably go with 8-10 in 2023. The locks are Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari, Jihad Ward, and Bobby Okereke. It’s also likely the team will retain Darrian Beavers and Micah McFadden. That leaves 2-4 spots for the other nine players.
FROM COACHES AND PLAYERS: Head Coach Brian Daboll on Darrian Beavers, who was still rehabbing this spring: “He’s been in here working hard. He’ll be one of the guys on the rehab (field). Once we get out to training camp and preseason games, that’s really when the evaluation part comes in. He’s done a great job, everything we’ve asked him to do, so whenever he gets back, look forward to working with him.”
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale on Bobby Okereke: “It’s fun to watch him play because of his size, his strength, but most of all, he’s a good guy. He’s a really intelligent kid that knows football, and it’s not hard to talk football with him. So, all those things have been great.”
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale on Darrian Beavers: “What you like about him is his physicality. He was different than others out there (last year). That’s what jumped out at me. He really is going to play his rookie year this year, redshirt rookie if you will. I think there is going to be a battle there with him and J.D. (Jarrad Davis)… We’ll see. It’s all a competition right now with he and J.D., and I’ll tell you, Micah (McFadden) has really improved.”
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale on his outside linebackers: “I’m really happy with that room, and where they’re going led by Kayvon. We got Haddy (Jihad Ward) back, which I was happy about, and I told the whole defense wherever I’m at, Haddy will have a job. If he’s done playing, he can hang out with me as a coach. But I really like that room. I like its personality. Drew Wilkins does a great job with them. They’re leaders in their own right. I just think that if you’ve seen Zeez (Azeez Ojulari) and are around him all the time you can see that he’s, the best way I could describe it, a lot more sturdy this year. We’ll see how that translates because it’s a crazy league. We’ll see how that translates.”
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale on Kavyon Thibodeaux: “I love the kid. He has no ceiling. I believe that because he can do whatever he puts his mind to. After the season was over, I said I think you need to get stronger in your legs and your core. And that was his focus this year in the offseason. He’s going to get better and better every game that he plays here… Unbelievable (football IQ)… He’s an old soul guy who has a lot of aspirations and dreams, and he’s going to chase them. And that’s good for the Giants.”
Defensive Coordinator Wink Martindale on Azeez Ojulari being on the field with Kayvon Thibodeaux: “I think that it’s going to be good for both of them because there is not one way in which you can slide the protections. Azeez has taken care of his body. To me, he looks bigger than what he did last year and I’m exited to see him get going.”
Outside Linebackers Coach Drew Wilkins on Azeez Ojulari: “I think Azeez is moving around really well right now. He’s worked really hard in the offseason. We have a really great strength program, really great trainers. He put together a great plan, here’s areas he can attack things differently. He had one of the highest in the League sacks per rush. Making sure he’s out there and he’s rolling because when he is, he can be a problem… Right now, he’s healthy and we’re excited where he is going to take this thing.”
Outside Linebackers Coach Drew Wilkins on Kayvon Thibodeaux: “I think he is so self-motivated and he studies so much tape on his own, like all the great players around this League do, they study themselves… for him to dig deep and say ‘how can I do this better?’… that really shows he is conscientious and he really wants to get better… Whatever the tackle is giving you, you need to develop the tools to counter that and take the next move off your first move. And I think he’s done a great job with that.”
Bobby Okereke on his pass coverage strengths: “My athleticism. I’m big, I’m fast and long. But then just from a mental processing standpoint, understanding how offenses are trying to attack you and where I fit in coverage with my teammates.”
Bobby Okereke on who has impressed him: “I love Micah McFadden. I think he’s a technician, great player, smart guy. Obviously Jarrad Davis is a great leader. And Darrian Beavers is a guy who has a lot of potential.”
Kayvon Thibodeaux on what he needs to improve: “Getting sacks, finishing, there were a lot of times when I had a good pass rush that I didn’t finish. You realize the guy on the other side of the line is paid a lot of money. They’re not going to let him get touched. Continuing to sharpen the end of my rush, that third phase and make sure I start to finish.”
PREDICTIONS/CLOSING THOUGHTS: If the New York Giants are going to become serious Super Bowl contenders, they probably need their two top-seven 2022 NFL Draft picks to play like All-Pro/Pro Bowl-type players. Kayvon Thibodeaux wasn’t just drafted to be a starter. He was drafted to become a difference maker. The good news is that he flashed signs of that ability late last season. Now he has to build upon that and deliver that kind of productivity on a consistent basis.
Azeez Ojulari was actually the team’s best pass rusher when he played in 2022, but his injury situation bordered on the absurd. Point blank, this defense becomes a much different animal if Thibodeaux and Ojulari are 10-sack players. That’s not some pie-in-the-sky pipe dream. Both are capable of doubling last year’s sack totals. There is a quiet confidence with this coaching staff about Thibodeaux, like they know something is about to be unleashed.
The concern here is depth. In an ideal world, the Giants would have drafted another outside linebacker. But they only had so many picks after moving up twice in the draft. I would not discount another roster move here: a signing, a waiver-wire pick-up, or even a trade.
One of my questions is what is the true upside of Tomon Fox? The dream scenario would be for Elerson Smith to prove all doubters wrong, but I’m not counting on that.
The Giants have been scrambling for an inside linebacker ever since Antonio Pierce was released in early 2010. They got a couple of good years out of Blake Martinez but there hasn’t been much other than that. The only big ticket free agent the team signed in the offseason was Bobby Okereke. No one else was even close to the $40 million he got, either in 2022 or 2023 with Joe Schoen at the helm. Wink got his start in the NFL coaching inside linebackers. He wanted this guy.
Ideally, Darrian Beavers recovers fully from his ACL and Micah McFadden shows us why he’s been receiving praise this spring. A name to watch is Dyontae Johnson. The coaches have him calling the defense (green dot) with the backups.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari, Jihad Ward, Tomon Fox, Oshane Ximines, Bobby Okereke, Jarrad Davis, Micah McFadden, Darrian Beavers
I would not be shocked to see someone not on the roster take the spot of Ximines or Fox.
Look for the team to attempt to sign Habakkuk Baldonado and Dyontae Johnson to the Practice Squad.