As we covered in our defensive line review, the New York Giants defense significantly improved from 25th in 2019 to 12th in 2020 in terms of yards allowed. It was a remarkable achievement given the year-long personnel changes in the back seven on defense. There were no adjustments on the defensive line. The same three starters and two back-ups played in every game. The same could not be said for the linebackers and defensive backs.
In today’s 3-4 defenses, the outside linebackers are more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end, increasingly commonly referred to as “edge” players. The two Giants who won the starting edge jobs (Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines) were both lost for the season in early October with 3/4ths of the season left to play. Their primary back-up (Markus Golden) was traded to the Cardinals a few weeks later with half the season left to play. The next man up (OLB/ILB hybrid Kyler Fackrell) missed four games due to a calf injury. The Giants were forced to rely on three rookies (7th rounder Carter Coughlin, 6th rounder Cam Brown, and undrafted free agent Niko Lalos) and two retreads (Jabaal Sheard and Trent Harris).
There was chaos too at one of the inside linebacker spots. Devonta Downs started the season but was unimpressive and lost his job to rookie Tae Crowder, the very last player taken in the draft. But after starting two games, Crowder landed on Injured Reserve with a groin injury for five games. Downs was reinserted into the starting line-up, but now David Mayo, who missed the first five games of the season with a knee injury, also saw increased playing time and two starts. Crowder returned in late November and reclaimed the starting job.
Whew. Just typing that was confusing. The only constants were free agent godsend Blake Martinez and the coaching staff.
Martinez was the glue that held the defense together. He directed the defense, played virtually every defensive snap (97 percent), and was a tackling machine (team-high 151 tackles). Long story short, Martinez is the best inside linebacker the Giants have had since Antonio Pierce was cut a decade ago.
Inside Linebackers Coach Kevin Sherrer and Outside Linebackers Coach Bret Bielema did a marvelous job of mixing and matching on a week-to-week basis. Look no further than the edge position where the Giants were left scrambling. At one point, the available players to use were Sheard, Coughlin, Brown, and Lalos. Defensive Coordinator Patrick Graham, who coached linebackers with the Patriots and Packers, also employed defensive backs at linebacker in various packages. But there was a bit of chaos even in the coaching ranks when Bielema left the Giants with three games left to play to become head coach at the University of Illinois. Sherrer then handled both positions.
Aside from Martinez, what really stands out is that all four of the team’s late-round draft picks at linebacker made the team in addition to a rookie free agent. All five of these rookies played. The Giants were hammered by injuries at the outside linebacker position – down to their 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th options – and yet the coaching staff held the unit together. The biggest negative was the lack of pass rush, particularly from the edge spots. Of the team’s 40 sacks, 13.5 came from the linebackers (and four of them were from inside backers Martinez and Crowder). Fackrell led the linebacking corps with just four sacks.
The Giants signed Blake Martinez as an unrestricted free agent from the Green Bay Packers in March 2020. He had a major impact on the defense, starting all 16 games and playing in 97 percent of all defensive snaps. Martinez finished the season with a team-high 151 tackles and also accrued nine tackles for losses, three sacks, six quarterback hits, five pass defenses, one interception, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. The 6’2”, 237-pound Martinez was originally drafted in the 4th round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Packers. In four seasons with Green Bay, Martinez has played in 61 regular-season games with 57 starts, accruing 512 tackles and 10 sacks. Martinez lacks ideal size and range for the position, but he is a heady player who can make the defensive calls and gets in on lot of tackles. He is better against the run than the pass.
The Giants selected Tae Crowder in the 7th round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He surprisingly moved into the starting line-up in Week 5 and 6 before suffering a groin injury that landed him on Injured Reserve for five games. Crowder returned in late November, starting four of his final six games. In all, Crowder played in 11 games with six starts (37 percent of all defensive snaps), and was credited with 57 tackles, three tackles for losses, one sack, three quarterback hits, one pass defense, and one fumble recovery that he returned for a game-winning touchdown. The 6’3”, 235-pound Crowder was moved from running back to linebacker in college and thus is still learning the position. Only a 1-year starter in college. While Crowder lacks ideal size, he is a good athlete and seems to have good instincts for the position. He must improve his tackling consistency.
Devante Downs began the season as a starter, but saw his playing time give way to Tae Crowder. Downs played in all 16 games with eight starts (21 percent of all defensive snaps). He finished the season with 33 tackles, one pass defense, and one fumble recovery. The 6’2”, 252-pound Downs was originally drafted in the 7th round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings waived him in late September 2019 and he was then signed by the Giants to their Practice Squad and 53-man roster in October 2019. Downs played in seven games for the Giants in 2019 on special teams. Downs has good size, but he did not impress against the run or pass in 2020 despite his eight starts.
The Giants placed David Mayo on Injured Reserve in early September 2020 with a torn meniscus in his left knee that required surgery. He was activated from Injured Reserve in mid-October. Mayo ended up playing in 11 games with two starts (18 percent of all defensive snaps). He was credited with 29 tackles, two tackles for losses, and one forced fumble. The Giants signed Mayo in September 2019 after he was cut by the San Francisco 49ers. He surprisingly ended up playing in all 16 games with 13 starts, playing in 57 percent of all defensive snaps, and finishing with 82 tackles, 2 sacks, and 2 pass defenses. The 6’2”, 240-pound Mayo was originally drafted in the 5th round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers. After four seasons in Carolina, Mayo signed with the San Francisco 49ers in March 2019. Before coming to the Giants, Mayo only had started four NFL games in four seasons. Mayo lacks ideal tools which limits his ability defend the run and cover receivers, but he plays hard.
The Giants selected T.J. Brunson in the 7th round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Brunson spent most of the season on the inactive list, but he did play in five games, almost exclusively on special teams. He was credited with three tackles. The 6’1”, 230-pound Brunson is an undersized inside linebacker with decent but not ideal athleticism. He is very physical and aggressive.
The Giants placed Lorenzo Carter on Injured Reserve with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon that he suffered in Week 5 in October 2020. He underwent surgery and missed the rest of the season after starting all five games and finishing with 14 tackles and one sack. The Giants drafted Carter in the 3rd round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Carter played in 15 games as a rookie with two starts, finishing the season with 43 tackles, 4 sacks, and 4 pass defenses. In 2019, Carter started 12 of the 15 games he played in, finishing the year with 45 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 5 pass defenses, and 1 forced fumble. Carter is a tall, athletic, disruptive forward mover. Carter looks the part, combining good size (6’5”, 255 pounds) and overall athletic ability. He flashes the ability to disrupt, but must do a better job of disengaging from blockers and making more plays. Versatile, he can play with his hand in the dirt.
Oshane Ximines was placed on Injured Reserve in early October 2020 with a shoulder injury that he suffered in Week 4. He returned to practice in late November, but his season ended when it was determined he would need rotator cuff surgery. Ximines started three of the four games he played in and finished the season with just four tackles. The Giants drafted Ximines in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He played at end in college. Ximines had a mixed performance in his rookie season in 2019. He received significant playing time, playing in all 16 games with two starts, playing in 45 percent of all defensive snaps, and accruing 25 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and one pass defense. Ximines has a nice combination of size (6’4”, 254 pounds) and overall athletic-ability. Ximines flashed at times as a pass rusher, but he must become a more physical run defender and more consistent, dynamic performer when rushing the passer. He also needs work in coverage.
2020 was an odd year for Markus Golden. Coming off of a superlative debut season for the Giants as a 1-year free agent rental in 2019 (career-high 72 tackles and team-high 10 sacks), Golden did not receive much interest in 2020 free agency. He re-signed with the Giants very late in the offseason in early August, but did not regain his starting position when the season started. The Giants then traded him to the Cardinals in late October. Golden ended up having a much bigger impact with the Cardinals than the Giants in 2020. With the Giants, he played in seven games with one start (16 percent of all defensive snaps) and finished with just 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Golden was originally drafted in the 2nd round of the 2015 NFL Draft by the Cardinals. After rejoining the Cardinals, Golden started the final eight games, including a 1-sack, 1-fumble recovery performance against the Giants in Week 14.
The Giants placed Kyler Fackrell on Injured Reserve in early December 2020 with a calf injury and activated him to the 53-man roster in early January 2021. In all, Fackrell played in 12 games with nine starts. He played in 56 percent of all defensive snaps and finished the season with 34 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, four sacks, 10 quarterback hits, two pass defenses, one interception that he returned for a touchdown, and one forced fumble. The 6’5”, 245-pound Fackrell was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2016 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. In four seasons with Green Bay, Fackrell played in 61 regular-season games with nine starts, compiling 111 tackles, 16.5 sacks, one pass defense, and one forced fumble. Fackrell’s best season was in 2018 when he started seven games and accrued 42 tackles and 10.5 sacks. The Giants signed Fackrell an unrestricted free agent from the Packers in March 2020. Although not a dynamic athlete, Fackrell is a big, versatile linebacker who can play outside or inside linebacker. He flashes as a pass rusher.
The Giants signed Jabaal Sheard off of the Practice Squad of the Jacksonville Jaguars in October 2020. He ended up playing in nine games for the Giants with three starts (24 percent of all defensive snaps), and finished with 19 tackles, two tackles for losses, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits, and one forced fumble. The 6’3”, 268-pound Sheard was originally drafted in the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns. He has spent time with the Browns (2011-2014), New England Patriots (2015-2016), Indianapolis Colts (2017-2019), and Jaguars (2020). Sheard has played in 144 regular-season games with 106 starts. While not a dynamic performer, Sheard is a steady, veteran presence who is solid against the run and will occasionally make some noise as a pass rusher.
The Giants selected Carter Coughlin in the 7th round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He played in 14 games as a rookie with two starts (18 percent of all defensive snaps). Coughlin finished the season with 17 tackles, two tackles for losses, one sack, and two quarterback hits. The 6’3”, 236-pound Coughlin is not a top athlete, but he is a tough, competitive, and reliable linebacker who plays hard.
The Giants selected Cam Brown in the 6th round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He played in 15 games as a rookie with no starts (8 percent of all defensive snaps). Brown finished the year with 12 tackles, three quarterback hits, and one forced fumble. The 6’5”, 233-pound Brown is a tall and lanky outside backer with long arms and decent speed. His size and solid athletic ability assist him coverage but he needs to improve his run defense at the point-of-attack and overall tackling consistency.
The Giants signed Niko Lalos as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2020 NFL Draft. Lalos spent most of the season on the Practice Squad but was elevated to the 53-man roster in December. He played in six games with no starts as a rookie (7 percent of all defensive snaps). Lalos finished the season with six tackles, one interception, one pass defense, and one fumble recovery. The 6’5”, 270-pound Lalos played defensive end in college but was moved to the outside linebacker position by the Giants. He has good size for the position, but is not a dynamic athlete. Over-achiever who plays hard.
The Giants signed Trent Harris to the Practice Squad and then the 53-man roster in October 2020; he was re-signed to the Practice Squad in December after playing in four games with two starts (6 percent of all defensive snaps). He finished they year with five tackles and 0.5 sacks. The 6’2”, 255-pound Harris was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the New England Patriots after the 2018 NFL Draft. He spent his rookie season on the Practice Squad of the Patriots. The Miami Dolphins claimed Harris off of waivers in September 2019. He played in 11 games with three starts with the Dolphins, accruing 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks. The Dolphins cut him in early September 2020.