Between once-discarded veteran Chase Blackburn and green cancer-survivor Mark Herzlich, the New York Giants had two very likeable middle linebackers on the 2012 roster. Both men are former undrafted free agents who had to overcome unbelievable adversity to get to where they are today.
It’s difficult for New York fans to not feel a natural inclination to pull for underdogs like Blackburn and Herzlich. But as the 2013 offseason dawns on those left pining for the playoffs, the Giants’ middle linebacker situation remains unsettled.
Chase Blackburn, the team’s starting middle linebacker for 23 of the last 25 games (including playoffs), will reach free agency for the third time in as many years. The former middle school math teacher will turn 30 before the 2013 season starts.
But if Blackburn is not re-signed, then Herzlich, who will be serving the final year of his rookie minimum contract in 2013, will become the most experienced middle linebacker on New York’s roster. The largely untested Boston College product nabbed only two starts in 2012, as his mainstay teammate Michael Boley’s snap count inexplicably dropped off late in the season.
Hall of Famer Harry Carson, a college D-lineman turned linebacker by the Giants in 1976, was New York’s last dominant force at the inside linebacker position. Carson played his first three seasons as a middle linebacker, but seven of his eight Pro Bowl seasons came as an inside linebacker in the Giants’ feared 3-4 base defense of the 1980s.
However, in 1993, New York’s defensive philosophy began to shift. All-time great Lawrence Taylor was in the final season of an historic career, and then-rookie Michael Strahan provided record-breaking potential at defensive end. The following season, under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Giants switched their base defense to a 4-3.
From then on, the Giants interest shifted from impact linebackers toward difference-making defensive linemen. Underrated value players started to fill the gaps behind New York’s pedigreed pass-rushers throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
During that time, despite the waning influence of the linebacking unit, players like Jessie Armstead (a five-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl XXXV participant), Michael Barrow (Super Bowl XXXV participant) and Antonio Pierce (‘06 Pro-Bowler, Super Bowl XLII victor) prospered in the Giants' defensive system.
While impressive in their own capacity, Armstead, Barrow and Pierce still pale in comparison to the legendary members of the “Big Blue Wrecking Crew.” The slippage of talent at the linebacker position has become remarkably noticeable in recent years.
Jacquian Williams, a second-year player from the University South Florida, was the only true linebacker on the Giants' 2012 roster who was even drafted by the team (sixth round, 202nd overall in 2011). Mathias Kiwanuka, a hybrid linebacker, was originally drafted as a defensive end in 2006 (first round, 32nd overall).
Boley, the former Atlanta Falcon, was a free agent acquisition in 2009; Keith Rivers was a Cincinnati Bengal until the Giants exchanged a fifth-round draft pick for the rights to his contract last April. Former UDFAs Blackburn, Herzlich and special teams standout Spencer Paysinger rounded out a ragtag cast of New York linebackers in 2012.
The Giants’ linebacker unit anchored a defense that finished the season ranked 31st in the NFL (6,134 yards allowed). In spite of its advertised versatility, the unit had subpar showings against both the pass (254.3 yards per game, 28th in the NFL) and the run (129.1 yards per game, 25th) in 2012. Those performances are destined to repeat themselves until New York upgrades its talent at linebacker.
What better way to attack that deficiency than to bring in an impact middle linebacker during the 2013 offseason?
So far, the urgency to upgrade the talent appears to be minimal; the only linebacker that was offered a reserve/futures contract this winter was Jake Muasau, an UDFA who was cut in training camp. However, that could change when the draft and free agency come about in the spring.
How should the Giants improve linebacker play in 2013?
A few recognizable names appear on 2013’s list of soon-to-be free-agent linebackers, such as Chicago’s Brian Urlacher (1,323 career tackles), Jacksonville’s Daryl Smith (678 career tackles) and former Minnesota Viking E.J. Henderson (752 career tackles). And there are also a few intriguing youngsters, such as Minnesota’s Jasper Brinkley and Baltimore’s Dannell Ellerbe.
But if the Giants really want to tackle the issue, they need to spend a draft pick on a long-term option at middle linebacker. As noted earlier, a move like that would be atypical of the post-LT Giants, but it should be considered in 2013.
Notre Dame’s Manti T’eo, the runner-up for the 2012 Heisman Trophy, will probably be off the board by the time the Giants pick at 19, but high-profile prospects like Georgia’s Alec Ogletree and LSU’s Kevin Minter are expected to be available throughout the first round and possibly the second round.
Blackburn and Herzlich are hard workers, but Giants fans deserve more than just settling on the best available option. The talent will be there for the taking in 2013.
Will New York capitalize?