Blake Martinez will be an every-down player, and reasonably so. But who will earn the majority of the reps alongside him in a 3-4 scheme?
Everyone will play; everyone will get reps.
Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham runs a situational, matchup-based defense, meaning multiple individuals will see the field regardless of the position.
However, there are a few guys who must be on the field at all times — Blake Martinez is one of them. The tackling machine of an inside linebacker is a leader within this unit and proved during his first season in East Rutherford that he was worth the three-year, $30.75 million contract the Giants provided him in March 2020.
But in a 3-4 scheme, the man who resides at the other inside linebacker spot the majority of the time remains a mystery.
The Giants possessing a number of options for the significant role is obviously beneficial, and there’s still a great deal of time to make the decision.
But what does each choice bring to the table?
There were certainly some who didn’t think Tae Crowder would even make the team following his 2020 draft selection. That year’s “Mr. Irrelevant” had to put in the work to earn a spot on the 53/55-man roster past training camp and obviously did that and then some — the former Georgia Bulldog was starting by Week 5 and recorded the go-ahead scoop-and-score late in the victory over Washington the following week.
However, injuries took a toll on the young defensive weapon and caused him to miss four straight games after his huge play over the Football Team. From then on, he didn’t consistently earn the level of playing time he did in the Week 5 and 6 games against Dallas and Washington.
It’s clear Graham and head coach Joe Judge see something in Crowder that they like — it’s not common to see the final pick in the draft earning the reps that Tae earned prior to the injury.
He’s likely more reliable on a consistent basis than both Trent Harris and Devante Downs (both of whom we’ll discuss) and is definitely capable of producing — Crowder experienced multiple games during his rookie campaign in which he notched double-digit combined tackles.
While Devante Downs doesn’t portray superb talent, the Giants seemingly like him considering they brought him back on a one-year deal this offseason.
However, it’s not like Downs was an integral component of this unit last year, having only experienced three games in which he was on the field for more than half of the team’s defensive snaps.
He’s not around the ball carrier as much as Crowder might be, he’s not a premier pass rusher to the point where he could take on a role as an outside linebacker/edge rusher in a 3-4, and he’s not a versatile playmaker like Martinez.
But Downs provides depth and can be a special teams weapon — that’s how the Giants mostly saw him last year. Downs earned time on over half the special teams reps in all but four games.
The Giants acquired Reggie Ragland in free agency this offseason and inked him to a one-year deal. While he could just be a depth piece, he’ll attempt to give the other potential starters on this list a run for their money during the training camp and preseason periods.
Ragland surely can stop the run. This is someone who racked up 86 combined tackles in 2018 and then 52 with Detroit last year. It’s not like he’s useless — he could add reliable depth to the position group, which is why New York used some of its limited cap space on him this offseason.
Ragland’s 2021 status with Big Blue, at least initially, will be based on his performance prior to the regular season. He could either impress the coaching staff en route to a noteworthy role or he could be cut, and it wouldn’t be expensive to take the latter route (Ragland’s contract carries a 2021 dead cap charge of $137,500).
Trent Harris and Reggie Ragland are in similar situations — the preseason and training camp periods should tell a lot about what they could truly bring to the table in 2021.
Unlike Ragland, Harris won’t need to learn a new system led by Patrick Graham. Trent took part in four regular-season games for Big Blue in 2020, albeit not playing a whole lot in three of them.
As of right now, it would be a total surprise if Harris was to earn more playing time than someone like Crowder — he’ll likely be more of a special teams component and depth piece if he makes the final roster ahead of the regular season’s commencement.
He may also be a casualty when it comes to making cuts at the conclusion of the preseason. His dead cap charge would only be $2,000, so it’s not like the organization would be putting itself in dire straits from a financial standpoint by parting ways with him.