Inside linebacker is an area the Giants will need to upgrade this offseason if they’re going to run a 3-4 defense.
The move to make James Bettcher the new defensive coordinator has brought the idea that the New York Giants will transition from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense in 2018. The Giants have the pieces on their defensive line and at outside linebacker to fit a 3-4 scheme, but they need to make upgrades to the inside linebacker position to make the transition work.
Defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul give the Giants a luxury that most 3-4 scheme teams in the NFL don’t have, with both having the ability to play as a defensive end or outside linebacker.
Both are similar players to Chandler Jones, who thrived under Bettcher as an outside linebacker during the past two seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, recording 28 sacks, including a league-leading 17 sacks in 2017.
Vernon, who the Giants have employed as a stand up defensive end, is more of a fit for the “Chandler Jones” role, though JPP can also thrive as a 3-4 outside backer. His athleticism and quickness give him the tools to excel in both spots.
Devon Kennard is another great fit in a 3-4 outside linebacker role, if the Giants decide to re-sign him this offseason. Kennard’s biggest strength is his pass rushing ability. The USC alum recorded four sacks in the 2017 when the Giants used him as a stand-up defensive or inside as a defensive tackle in pass rushing situations.
Damon Harrison is more than capable to play nose tackle, having excelled in that role with the New York Jets. Dalvin Tomlinson and Romeo Okwara are both players on the Giants’ defensive line that can play four-technique defensive tackle type position.
The Giants have the pieces up-front for a 3-4 defensive, but in the middle, they are not even close to making the transition at the moment.
The linebacker positions for the Giants were in constant flux throughout the 2017 season.
Big Blue had no linebacker play in all 16 games, placing six on injured-reserve. As a result, the Giants were constantly scouring the free-agent market and waiver wire for players to fill in at either strong or middle linebacker.
There’s two young middle linebackers that have shown promise for the Giants.
B.J. Goodson put his name on the map from his impressive performance in Week 1 of the season against the Dallas Cowboys, tallying a team-high 18 tackles in the game. Unfortunately in that game, Goodson sustained a shin injury and that segwayed to an injury rattled second-season in the NFL for the former Clemson tiger. Goodson managed to play in seven games for the Giants in 2017, making his durability a huge question mark the G-Men going forward.
The player with the most tackles at linebacker for the Giants in 2017 was undrafted free-agent Calvin Munson. Munson started in five of 14 games he played in at middle linebacker this past season, recording a position-high 60 tackles. The San Diego State alum opened up eyes in his rookie season, but still someone the Giants can’t rely on to man the middle of their defense.
The Giants need to improve and add depth to their inside linebacker positions if they want to transition to a 3-4 defense. That means either addressing it in the NFL Draft or free agency.
Adding a veteran to man the middle of the defense feels like the appropriate move to make right now for the Giants.
It’s not a great free-agent class at the linebacker position, but there are players available for the Giants that can make a major impact.
The Tennessee Titans’ Avery Williamson and Oakland Raiders’ NaVorro Bowman top the list and both have experience playing in a 3-4 scheme.
Williamson, at age 25, is the more appealing option. His versatility to play both inside and outside linebacker is a huge plus for any defense, along with his abilities to rush the passer and play the pass in coverage.
Bowman, because of his injury history is a risk, but the eight-year pro did rack up a combine 127 tackles playing for both the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders in 2017.
Recently released players Derrick Johnson and Brian Cushing are other nice options for the Giants.
Johnson, at 35 years old, played in 15 games for the Kansas City Chiefs last season, recording 71 tackles. His age is his downside, but Johnson is still a productive player and his experience playing in a 3-4 defense for most of his career would be a big plus for the Giants.
Cushing missed most of the 2017 season because of violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug policy. He put up solid numbers for the Houston Texans the two years prior, combing for 175 tackles and helping the Texans make the playoffs each season. Great knowledge of a 3-4 scheme. He’s also from New Jersey and could come cheap for the Giants.
An interesting name out there on the market is Karlos Dansby. Dansby played under Bettcher in Arizona last year and worked with the Giants’ new defensive coordinator back in 2013 with the Cardinals, when Bettcher was the team’s outside linebackers coach.
Bettcher had high praise for Dansby during an interview with Arizona Sports 98.7 FM last year.
“I love Karlos on this defense,” Bettcher said. “He’s an outstanding leader. He can still play the game at a high level. I’ve gone out and said I think Deone is going to have an outstanding year for us, so we’re going to have some fun — and not get too cute — but finding some ways to incorporate Haason in our game plans from week to week.”
Age is also a factor with Dansby being 36, but last year he was very productive playing inside linebacker for the Cardinals, tallying 95 tackles in 2017.
Demario Davis, Anthony Hitchens, Paul Posluszny and Zach Brown are other options the Giants can explore in free agency.
The Giants have reportedly $22 million in cap space to spend as of right now.
Bottom Line: The Giants need to make upgrades at inside linebacker. If they don’t, it will be tough to make the move to a 3-4 defense in 2018.
Follow Steven Bassin on Twitter @SBassin_Sports