The New York Giants have had great linebackers throughout their history. Sam Huff, Harry Carson, and Lawrence Taylor are perhaps the most well-known but they’ve had plenty of solid linebackers who haven’t made it to Canton. Nonetheless, the Giants defense is at its best when they get great play from their linebackers.
In 2018, defensive coordinator James Bettcher switched from a 4-3 base alignment to a 3-4. The Giants did not have all of the personnel needed to make this change. General manager Dave Gettleman’s mission was clear: find linebackers who can fit into Bettcher’s defensive scheme.
Ogletree arrived via a trade with the Los Angeles Rams. He was brought in to be the captain of the defense. Ogletree calls the defensive signals and gets everyone lined up before the snap. He was also brought in to be a run stopper. His numbers were decent enough with 93 combined tackles (58 solo) but went a little under the team’s expectations. However, he led the team with five interceptions with two returned for touchdowns.
Goodson was a 2016 fourth-round (109th overall) draft pick. He has shown some occasional flashes but has only improved in small steps. For example, he had his best season in ’18 with 61 combined tackles (44 solo), four tackles for a loss, and three quarterback hits in 15 games with 13 starts. However, Goodson amassed 53 combined tackles (37 solo) and three tackles for a loss in just seven starts in ’17. He is not considered to be a strong coverage player and was often removed in passing situations. Goodson will play in early downs and short-yardage situations. This is the final year of his rookie deal. He will not only be playing for a spot in the Giants rotation but also auditioning should he enter free agency.
Tae Davis is entering his second season after signing with the Giants as an undrafted free agent. Davis made an almost immediate name for himself. His ascent began on special teams, working his way up the depth chart. He played in 14 games last season with four starts when Ogletree and Goodson were down with injuries. Davis had 33 combined tackles (26 solo) and two tackles for a loss. In 2019, he is expected to take the next step and compete with Goodson for a starting spot. He took a majority of snaps on passing downs throughout the spring. Curiously, he was the go-to-guy when the Giants used an inside linebacker blitz, a role Goodson was expected to fill. Davis has the most versatility of anyone in the linebacking corps. The Giants have had difficulty defending against tight ends and running backs coming out of the backfield…something Davis does well and will give him an edge this summer.
The other player who will push for an inside linebacker spot is Ryan Connolly. Connolly walked-on at Wisconsin and outworked everyone until he became a Third-team All-Big Ten selection in his senior season. He impressed the Giants coaching staff with his ability to rush the ball carrier in the run game as well as his intelligence. Connolly was so good he forced Bettcher to break his own mandate about allowing the veterans to see a rookie too early. However, he is not particularly athletic and struggles in pass coverage. He is projected to fill a role similar to Davis and play on special teams.
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The Giants had Olivier Vernon and Kareem Martin as the starters on the outside a season ago. Vernon was limited to just 11 games but lead the team with seven sacks. Of course, the Giants will not have his services in 2019. Martin was brought in mostly for his familiarity with Bettcher’s scheme. He will shift between the linebacker and defensive end positions.
The team will look to 2018 third-round (66th overall) selection Lorenzo Carter. Carter was solid in his first NFL season with 43 combined tackles (30 solo), seven tackles for a loss, and 10 quarterback hits. In addition, his four sacks were third on the team. Carter wants to be, in his own words, the defense’s “alpha”. He impressed the coaching staff throughout the spring with Bettcher giving him props for the technical improvements he made to his game. Carter also wants to play the game at a faster pace than he did in ’18. The coaching staff expects Carter to take a big leap this upcoming season…and he does too.
The Giants signed Markus Golden in the offseason after three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. Golden is not cut from the same physical cloth as Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, or Jason Pierre-Paul. However, he showed flashes of the dominance that made Strahan, Tuck, and Pierre-Paul all-time Giants greats. In 2016, he was in a three-way for third in the NFL in sacks with 12.5. Golden tore his ACL in 2017 and missed the final 12 games. He played defensive end in ’18, limited to 2.5 sacks in just 11 games. Golden signed a one-year with the Giants and knows this is a make-it-or-break-it season. If he has a great training camp and preseason, Golden could start on the other side of Carter.
There is also Oshane Ximines, a 2019 third-round (95th overall). The Giants are expecting him to get a grasp of Bettcher’s defense in short order and become an immediate contributor. Josiah Tauaefa has the necessary size, strength, power, and athleticism as well as great instincts but doesn’t have lightning-fast speed and is entering just his second season as an outside linebacker. Mark McLaurin could become a “Moneybacker”: a safety that converts to a linebacker. Jake Carlock is a long shot but could see time as a long snapper. Speaking of long snappers, Zak DeOssie is listed as a linebacker but would only see action in emergency situations.
The linebacking corps is of the utmost importance to the Giants. They desperately need to generate sacks. In 2018, the Giants only managed 30 sacks as a team good enough (or bad enough) for 31st in the NFL. Despite the pressing need for quality linebacker play, the Giants didn’t do as much to restock as much as they did with other positions. They are betting the youth and versatility of the group will help the defense get back to being one of the NFL’s most formidable.