Sunday, April 19, 2009

Strong-side is the Weak Side: Draft Preview 4, LB

(This is Part 4 of 5 in a series of articles on Giants’ Steps that will examine some positions of interest for the Giants as they approach this year's draft. Part 4 looks at the Giants’ needs at linebacker.)

Packing on the LBs

With a deep LB class in this year’s draft, the Giants will probably look to continue to develop what is arguably the defense’s weakest link. Last year, the Giants selected two linebackers in the middle rounds: ILB Jonathon Goff from Vanderbilt and OLB Bryan Kehl from BYU. Both struggled with injuries their rookie seasons and saw limited playing time. When they did find the field, they showed flashes of play-making ability, particularly Kehl, but their long-term value to the team remains a mystery.

To address their inconsistency at the OLB position, the Giants signed free agent LB Michael Boley to a five-year deal in February. Boley will be inserted into the starting weak-side spot and will inject some speed and pass rushing ability into the unit, qualities it has been lacking as of late.

Boley will be starting alongside team captain Antonio Pierce and veteran Danny Clark. Pierce is a fixture in the middle and the glue that holds the defense together, but he is not getting younger. With Goff’s development uncertain, the Giants may look to pick up another ILB-of-the-future this weekend.

Clark joined the Giants last season, and following Kiwanuka’s move back to DE, moved from the weak-side to the strong-side. While he did make some impressive plays early last year, and is a great addition in the locker room, upgrading the strong-side LB position with youth and speed could elevate this defense to an elite level.

There is no shortage of talent in this year’s draft to help Big Blue meet both of those needs.

OLB: Top of the Heap

At the top of this year’s outside linebacker class, and arguably the entire draft class, is Wake Forest’s Aaron Curry. The latest draft boards project this manimal to go anywhere from first overall to tenth. This man is such an impressive player that when he won the Butkus Award for best college linebacker in 2008, it was personally awarded to him by Dick Butkus. Curry should be a beast in the NFL…sadly it will not be with the Giants.

The next guys on the board are a pair of players from USC: Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews. Both will probably go somewhere in the mid-to-late first round. Cushing fits the mold of a strong-side LB as he can shed blocks and get through a crowd. He is a strong tackler and has good range, and also plays well on Special Teams. One issue with him is that he looks a lot more impressive in workouts than he does on film.

Matthews seems to be more of a coverage and pass rush LB. His stock shot up after his senior season, but throughout his college career he was a fixture on Special Teams. One NFL analyst described him as “the best Special Teams player in the country.” If his family tree grew a fruit, it would be footballs. His father played in the NFL for 18 years and his uncle is in the Hall of Fame after a 19 year NFL career. Both of his brothers also play/played college ball.

The Boley signing makes it doubtful the Giants would consider Matthews, but in the unlikely event that one of these guys falls to 29, I think the Big Blue would be hard-pressed to pass them over.

OLB: Middle Rounds

With WR a more pressing need, and the first pick potentially part of a trade, it is far more likely that the Giants would pick up an LB beyond round 1. In rounds 2, 3 and 4, I think Jerry Reese’s “value equation” will yield a few appealing candidates for the Giants to consider with their 5 picks.

One candidate for day 1 might be Virginia’s Clint Sintim. He combines the requisite block-shedding ability and physicality of a strong-side LB with great pass rushing ability. He is a solid athlete and possesses all of the intangibles to be a successful player in the NFL. He could be a great pick-up for Big Blue in the second round.

Virginia LB Clint Sintim

Another prospect projected for the second round is converted Tight End from Cinciniatti Connor Barwin. Barwin is in many ways the Clay Matthews of the second/third round. He’s an outstanding Special Teams player who plays very well in space and can track down targets. Again though, the Boley signing for me makes him an unlikely target for Jerry Reese’s team.

If the Giants want to find a linebacker on Day 2, in the third round OSU’s Marcus Freeman is an appealing prospect. Although probably better suited to play on the weak-side, he is versatile enough to play all three spots in a 4-3 defense. He’s a tremendous athlete who was very productive in college and has the speed, range and tackling ability to be successful in the pros.

Finally, a few sleepers to keep your eyes on late on Sunday are Kevin Atkins from BC and Cody Glen from Nebraska. Both are suited to play strong-side and can contribute on Special Teams.

ILB: Top of the Heap

If the Giants do decide to pick up another inside linebacker, chances are they would do so in the later rounds. There is some marquis talent projected to come off the board on day one, including USC’s Ray Maualuga and OSU’s John Lauranaitis, however it is unlikely either wear the Big Blue at the conclusion of the weekend. Maualuga is slated to go in the middle of the first round, and as I alluded to before, Lauranaitis would not fill the team’s most pressing needs if available at 29, unless the Giants land a WR in a trade. Should he be on the table though, he possesses the physical tools and intangibles to be very productive in the league and very productive with the Giants.

OSU LB James Lauranaitis

ILB: Middle Rounds

The remainder of the ILB class probably won’t start coming off the board until the third round, however beyond the big two at the top, I don’t know that there are any prospects with more to offer than Jon Goff. If I’m wrong, some names to watch out for are Darry Beckwith (LSU), Dannell Ellerbe (Georgia) and Jason Phillips (TCU).

Beckwith is an intelligent, hard-working player with toughness, tackling ability and good range from sideline to sideline. He plays the run very well and brings many intangible qualities to the table, including work ethic and leadership. He lacks size and struggles to shed blockers. He is also not known for delivering the big hit. He is coming off a somewhat disappointing senior season at LSU…

Ellerbe has the physical tools to be successful in the NFL. He’s a solid athlete with good speed and range. He performs well in coverage and against the pass, and also plays well against the run. He has struggled however with injuries and some off-the-field issues.

Phillips is a tough, smart player with great instincts and reaction time. He moves well in traffic and does a sound job in coverage. He possesses some great intangibles and is an excellent Special Teams player. He was very productive in college. Phillips is not the most athletic guy however, and he struggles to change direction and lacks range. He can also have difficulty shedding blockers. ..

Finally, if the Giants are looking for a developmental ILB in the late rounds, Wake Forest’s Stanley Arnoux could be an option. He is quick and physical and has a lot of experience. He could contribute on Special Teams right away.

Drafting an LB: Who and When?

Big Blue’s LB corps is pretty crowded following the signing of Michael Boley. Upgrading the starting strong-side spot is the most pressing need in the unit. Virignia’s Clint Sintim at the 45th pick stands out as the best and most plausible option for addressing that need sooner rather than later. OSU’s Marcus Freeman could develop into a sound strong-side LB but seems to be better suited for the WIL. If the Giants choose to pursue a slower approach, picking up Kevin Atkins or Cody Glenn in the later rounds is another promising alternative.

As for the inside, I think Jonathon Goff will retain his spot as ILB-of-the-future for at least one more season. If Lauranaitis is still available at the 29th pick, and circumstances evolve such that he presents the best value for the Giants at that position, I think Big Blue will take him and try to use him – or Goff – at strong-side, building a young next generation of LBs to take the reigns when AP’s motor runs out of gas.

I look for the Giants to pick up an LB prospect to play the SAM spot on Day one. I don’t think they will spend more than one pick this year on a backer though…

Click here to read draft previews 1 (OL), 2 (DB) & 3 (WR)

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