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
2018 YEAR IN REVIEW: It’s both ironic and tragic that the team so closely associated with a great linebacking legacy has become so incompetent at addressing the position. Worse, with the shift to the 3-4 defense, the importance of the position was elevated in the overall scheme of the defense. In the 3-4, the linebackers are the play-makers, the pass rushers, and the active run defenders. Despite spending assets on the position: $17 million for Olivier Vernon, $15 million for Kareem Martin, $5 million for Connor Barwin, two draft picks for Alec Olgretree, a 3rd rounder for Lorenzo Carter, and a 4th rounder for B.J. Goodson, the returns were not good. As a team, the Giants had 30 sacks, tied for 30th in the league. Only the Raiders had fewer. And of those 30 sacks, 17 came from the linebackers. Only two linebackers on the team picked off a pass. Most startlingly, Giants linebackers only forced ONE fumble all year. Overall, the run defense wasn’t good (20th), with players often being out-of-position or being successfully blocked out of position. And pass coverage against tight ends and backs remained a sore spot for yet another year.
In terms of specific players. Vernon was an injured tease (again). Barwin was invisible. Martin was one-dimensional. Ogletree alternated between being beaten like a drum in coverage to making some spectacular interceptions. Carter flashed some potential as a pass rusher. Goodson flashed as a run defender, but wasn’t consistent. Rookie free agent Tae Davis had some rough moments both against the run and the pass. Nate Stupar was a core player on an improving special teams unit.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants traded Olivier Vernon to the Cleveland Browns. Connor Barwin was cut in February and Ukeme Eligwe was cut in May. The Giants did not re-sign Jordan Williams, who spent the year on Injured Reserve. Nate Stupar was re-signed, as was Avery Moss, the team’s 2017 5th rounder who spent the year on the Practice Squad.
In free agency, the Giants added Markus Golden from the Cardinals and “street” free agents Jonathan Anderson and Keion Adams. The Giants drafted Oshane Ximines in the 3rd round, Ryan Connelly in the 5th round, and signed rookie free agent Josiah Tauaefa after the draft. The Giants also signed rookie free agent Nate Harvey after the draft, but he was placed on Injured Reserve in May with a season-ending knee injury.
The Giants have also been playing rookie free agent collegiate safety Mark McLaurin at their “money backer” position during Spring practices. Rookie free agent Jake Carlock is another hybrid linebacker/safety type, who can also long snap.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Perhaps the biggest question mark the entire team faces is the pass rush. The Giants were near dead last in the NFL rushing the passer in 2018 and traded away arguably their best pass rusher. Many wanted the team to select a pass rusher over Daniel Jones with the 6th overall pick in the draft. In the 3-4 defense, you need your outside linebackers to be good pass rushers. The Giants are hoping Markus Golden can rebound from his torn ACL and regain his 2016 form (12.5 sacks). Also, based on the pecking order during Spring practices, it appears the coaches are giving Lorenzo Carter (4 sacks as a reserve in 2018) every opportunity to supplant Kareem Martin as starter. Lurking in the wings is rookie Oshane Ximines. Most believe the Giants are screwed here as they lack the talent to get after the quarterback. It’s up to Golden, Carter, Martin, and Ximines to prove them wrong.
Inside, the problems remain the same. The team has been inconsistent stopping the run and atrocious covering tight ends for years. The Rams most likely traded Alec Ogletree to the Giants because of the same inconsistencies he demonstrated last season, both against the run and the pass. B.J. Goodson has to take the bull by the horns and prove to the coaches he’s an asset on the field. Tae Davis, a former collegiate safety, has been splitting time with Goodson with the first unit. Like Ximines outside, rookie Ryan Connelly is lurking in the wings.
ON THE BUBBLE: There are 13 linebackers on the roster (15 if you count Mark McLaurin and Jake Carlock) and the Giants are likely to keep eight, possibly nine. The obvious players on the bubble are Avery Moss, Keion Adams, Jonathan Anderson, Josiah Tauaefa, McLaurin, and Carlock. The tough decision will be Nate Stupar because of his special teams play.
FROM THE COACHES: Defensive Coordinator James Bettcher on Lorenzo Carter: “He is rushing with a plan. When you see him rush, a year ago he was trying to get off the ball as quick as he could and use his hands when he could. Now, you see a guy that is aware of how he wants to rush, aware of techniques that he wants to rush with. Guys that get in there as pass rushers, I have been in there and have coached them before personally, you see their best growth in the two and three years. You start to figure out what they are as rushers. Whether you are Chandler Jones and a really bloody rusher or a speed counter guy. He is really starting to figure that out. He is building his pass rush toolbox right now. The second thing, he is practicing as hard as anyone on the field right now. He is running around and has been a great example that we have been able to show defensively of just straining and effort, finish.”
Bettcher on Marcus Golden: “Markus unfortunately somewhere around 18 months ago had a pretty significant knee injury. Don’t ever forget that before that he was one of the best pass rushers in this league. People had to plan for him. I know that because I was one of the guys calling the plays for him on defense. I saw what he was able to do when he was healthy and running around. I love how he is moving right now and I love his work. He is a guy that is going to play exceptionally hard. As I sat here a year ago and talked to you about one of the identifying qualities we needed our defense to look like was it took relentless, work relentless and play relentless. I think that is probably the epitome of Markus.”
Bettcher on Alec Ogletree: “This is his second year in the system. You get a guy like AB (Antoine Bethea) who has been in the system before who really can get in the conversations of how we are doing it and what we should expect in certain coverages, that is where Tree is at now. He is in his second year. He is really working on his core fundamentals, but the other side of it, how are we going to attack this coverage? Where is the soft spot in coverage and how can we defend it? I think that is really what happens when guys come into the second year.”
Bettcher on Oshane Ximines: “X-man coming off the tape, I loved the way he played. Saw a guy that could flip and had athleticism to move in space. If you are picking a prototypical outside linebacker, he has some of both of those skills. He has the rush skills and has skills in his hips to open, change in space and change who the rusher is.”
Bettcher on Ryan Connelly: “Connelly is really smart. It is funny because today I was showing a cut-up to the vets and you try not to do that. You try not to show a rookie to the vets too early, but I was showing the cut-up to the vets. This is a guy from the rookie mini-camp and it was a concept and a route and he played it exactly the right way. It was a great example. Smart and tough.”
Linebackers Coach Bill McGovern on Ryan Connelly: “A guy who is smart and intelligent. He plays fast and shows good instincts. We are excited to have him… We are excited that Ryan is a quick study and he has brought things to the practice field so we are excited about that.”
McGovern on Alec Ogletree: “I think you saw him develop as the year went along. As he was getting into the system, he has been in a few different systems. As the season went along, I think he got even better and started making even more and more plays. No matter where he has been, he is a productive player. We have been seeing the ball thrown a little bit more against us and he ended up showing up and making plays in the pass game. He has always been good against the run. He sells out on everything. Again, his leadership and everything else is something that we love having him out there for. We appreciate everything he does on the field.”
McGovern on B.J. Goodson: “Just keep improving. Get better. He has his package and has to work through it. In the run game, there are things that he can use to get better.”
PREDICTIONS: This is the one area of the defense that makes a lot of people nervous. Changes are being made. Olivier Vernon was traded. It appears Kareem Martin will now be more of a role player. The early favorites to start outside and rush the quarterback are Markus Golden and Lorenzo Carter. It is possible to see these two combine for 20 sacks. It’s also possible to see both underwhelm and finish with a total of just 10. With Golden, it’s all about his knee. With Carter, he has to prove he is more than a straight-line athlete. Reading between the lines, the Giants also appear to be pleased with what they’ve seen so far from Oshane Ximines. But until the pads come on, we really won’t know a thing. Going out on a limb here, I’m going to predict that Golden, Lorenzo, Ximines, and Martin are more productive pass rushers than anticipated.
Inside, it appears the Giants are well aware of their issues covering the middle of the field. Hence you see linebacker/safety hybrids like Tae Davis, Mark McLaurin, and Jake Carlock being added to the roster. It’s also telling that Davis saw quite a bit of time with the first unit during Spring practices. I’m not sure what to make of Alec Ogletree yet. Just when I had written him off as a trade bust last year, he started making game-changing interceptions. The coaches seem to think he will be more consistent in his second year in the system, but we shall see. The Rams got rid of him for a reason. I expected more from Goodson last year. I think this is a critical training camp for him. The real wild card here is Ryan Connelly, a very smart player who is a better athlete than advertised.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Markus Golden, Lorenzo Carter, Oshane Ximines, Kareem Martin, Alec Ogletree, B.J. Goodson, Tae Davis, and Ryan Connelly.
(The tough call here is Nate Stupar due to his special teams value. It’s also tough to predict if a guy like Mark McLaurin or Jake Carlock do enough to stick on the 53-man roster. Special teams play will be a huge factor in determining the final numbers).