The New York Giants will have an interesting position battle at one of the inside linebacker spots between Ryan Connelly and David Mayo.
Throughout the duration of this offseason, the New York Giants have added a number of players to help bolster their struggling defense, including 26-year-old inside linebacker Blake Martinez.
The talented run-stopper spent the first four years of his NFL career with the Green Bay Packers, notching 144, 144, and 155 total tackles respectively from 2017-19. His 2017 total co-led the league.
The Giants thus threw a significant amount of money his way, providing him with a three-year, $30.75 million deal that includes a potential out after the 2021 season.
Judging by that investment, it’s clear the Giants will look to place Martinez in the starting lineup. But with the team likely performing in a 3-4 defensive set a decent amount, who will coordinator Patrick Graham choose to be the other inside linebacker?
Big Blue used three of its final five draft picks this year on guys who could play at one of the off-ball spots — Penn State’s Cam Brown, South Carolina’s T.J. Brunson, and Georgia’s Tae Crowder. Nonetheless, these young individuals will likely be depth pieces and/or find time on special teams if they even make the active roster.
Realistically, there are two options here in David Mayo and Ryan Connelly, with arguments accompanying either.
Mayo has the edge in overall experience, having played in 75 career games (17 starts) to Connelly’s four games (three starts). Last year, Mayo appeared in all 16 games for the Giants with 13 starts. He portrayed decent run-stopping abilities en route to notching 82 total tackles with a 10.9% missed tackle percentage.
He also simply possesses more on-field experience with his defensive counterparts than Connelly does, having spent more time alongside guys like Markus Golden and Lorenzo Carter. Both could be back next year, as the Giants placed the unrestricted free agent tender on the former.
It’s clear the organization believes in Mayo, considering they rewarded him with a new three-year extension worth $8.4 million in March.
But to me, the advantage in experience shouldn’t give Mayo the final edge in a position battle against Connelly. Prior to his season-ending torn ACL in Week 4 last year, Ryan was looking like someone who could be a talented asset on this defense for his rookie campaign and beyond.
In four games (three starts), the 2019 fifth-rounder racked up 20 combined tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, two picks, and two passes defended.
Not every single one of the stats was better, on average, than Mayo. Nonetheless, that stat line in the first four games of his career proves Connelly can pick up a defense right away. If he can display that ability with Graham like he did with former defensive coordinator James Bettcher, it will certainly catch the eyes of the coaching staff.
On average, Connelly was additionally better than Mayo last year when it came to pass coverage. His two picks and two pass breakups in four games overcame Mayo’s zero picks and two pass breakups through the 14 games in which he earned defensive reps.
Although a significantly lower sample size, Connelly allowed quarterbacks to complete 57.1% of throws when targeting him. Mayo, on the other hand, allowed quarterbacks to complete 65.5% of throws. It’s worth mentioning that with the Carolina Panthers in 2018, Mayo allowed quarterbacks to complete six of seven throws (85.7%) when targeting him.
Success in pass coverage will help Connelly become a better fit for this defense. The Giants need that athletic linebacker to drop back and defend the pass with Martinez taking on more duties near the line of scrimmage and Golden, if he’s in blue, rushing the passer. Judging by how the defensive backfield performed last year (28th in the league with 264.1 passing yards allowed per game), New York will need as many reliable bodies clogging the secondary as it can get.
Connelly could be that extra guy to help the defense truly succeed on passing downs.
This is why Isaiah Simmons would’ve been a great fit for this defense, regardless of your draft-related opinions. Prior to the Giants selecting offensive tackle Andrew Thomas in this year’s first round and the Arizona Cardinals taking the Clemson standout, many fans argued that Simmons’ coverage skills would’ve been beneficial alongside Martinez and potentially Golden.
Although nowhere near as talented or athletic (it’s really unfair to compare the two considering Simmons might be a generational player), Connelly could fill the coverage role that Simmons would’ve performed in and really help improve this overall defensive unit.
I understand he’s coming off the injury and will be playing catch-up during the training camp and preseason periods. But with his intelligence, athleticism, and versatility, I believe if Connelly can just stay healthy, he could be the better option. Not to mention, Joe Judge preaches versatility, so the former Wisconsin Badger utilizing and improving his wide skill set would end up intriguing the first-year head coach.