New York Giants: Top Free-Agent Fits at Linebacker
Continuing along the vein of previewing free agency and which prospects might be a good fit for the New York Giants, today we’ll look at inside linebackers.
Ever since Antonio Pierce was forced to retire prematurely with a neck injury, the Giants have been on the lookout for a stud middle linebacker who could man the position for multiple years.
They thought they might have found the answer when they drafted Jonathan Goff in the fifth round in 2008, but a knee injury derailed his career.
Thereafter, the Giants tried Chase Blackburn, draft pick Greg Jones, undrafted free agent Mark Herzlich and veteran free agent Dan Connor. With the exception of Blackburn, who would later leave via free agency for Carolina, New York didn’t have much luck with its middle linebacker.
The Giants were so desperate for a decent middle linebacker that in 2013 they made a rare in-season trade to acquire Jon Beason from Carolina.
Once one of the top linebackers in the league, Beason fell upon hard times thanks to a string of injuries that slowly sapped him of his one-time stellar athletic ability.
In 2013, Beason managed to make it through the entire season once he was traded to the Giants, proving that he still had a lot left in his tank. Signed to a new three-year contract that following offseason, the injury bug returned to Beason’s life to the point where had he not opted to retire last month, the Giants would have sent him packing.
The Giants, remember, haven’t drafted a linebacker in the first round since Carl Banks in 1984.
It would be a surprising event if they break that streak this year. The Giants might not see the value in reaching for Alabama's Reggie Ragland, the top-ranked inside linebacker and only first round-worthy candidate post-combine by NFL Draft Scout, at No. 10 and probably can't get Myles Jack, who is ranked as the fourth-best overall player on Rob Rang's big board.
Is free agency the answer for the Giants at this critical position? It probably is, so let's look at four candidates, in no particular order, who could fit the bill in some capacity.
Danny Trevathan, Denver
When you come from the defending Super Bowl champions, it’s only natural that other teams are going to want a piece of the pie.
That will probably be the case with inside linebacker Danny Trevathan from Denver. Although he played in a 3-4 defensive front, he brought everything to the table that one might look for in a three-down inside linebacker.
Against the run, Trevathan’s 11.9 run-stop percentage as calculated by Pro Football Focus put him third among inside linebackers who took at least 60 percent of their team’s snaps. Plus, his four missed tackles last year tied him for fourth within that group of 33 inside linebackers.
Per Spotrac’s Calculated Market Value tool, Trevathan can likely expect a contract averaging $6 million per season (six years, $36.471 million). However, the Giants might find themselves in a bidding war with the Atlanta Falcons, who have him high atop their free-agent wish list, per Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com.
Jerrell Freeman, Indianapolis
Another unrestricted free agent whose name has yet to get much mention but who could well get more than just a cursory glance from the Giants is Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. The 6’0”, 240-pounder played his college ball at Mary Hardin-Baylor.
According to his Colts bio, Freeman signed with the Colts in 2012 as an undrafted free agent after beginning his career on the Tennessee Titans practice squad before jumping to the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL for three seasons (2009-2011).
Although Freeman hasn’t played in a full 16-game season the last two years—he played in 13 games in 2015 and 12 in 2014—he has started every game he’s been on the Colts’ game-day roster.
In each of his four seasons, the 29-year-old has recorded at least 95 tackles and has shown that he can rush the passer as well—he has 12.0 career sacks, having recorded at least 1.5 sacks in each year as a pro.
Per Pro Football Focus, Freeman is tops among inside linebackers who have taken at least 60 percent of their team’s snaps (33 total) with his 12.8 percent run-stoppage rate.
As a pass-rusher, he’s tied for fifth with NaVorro Bowman (San Francisco) and Luke Kuechly (Carolina) with a 15.7 pass-rush percentage. He is also third in tackling efficiency, behind Kuechly and Christian Jones (Chicago).
What about coverage? Freeman has posted a career 97.9 NFL rating, per PFF—not bad given that he has come up with four interceptions and nine pass breakups while allowing just seven touchdowns.
Want another reason why the Giants might give Freeman more than a passing glance? Whereas the Broncos free-agent linebackers are likely to command big bucks, Freeman is coming off a one-year, $2.356 million deal with the Colts in 2015.
While he’s sure to get a nice raise, Freeman might not be one of those defensive acquisitions that the Giants desperately need who is going to suck up an exorbitant amount of salary-cap space.
In a SiriusXM NFL Radio interview with Jim Miller and Pat Kirwan earlier this week, Freeman said that while he’d love to stay with the Colts, he is willing to see what’s out there in the market.
Jasper Brinkley, New York Giants
Jasper Brinkley, who stepped in for Beason last year, played well enough to be one of a very small handful of Giants' unrestricted free agents worthy of another contract. Brinkley, whom the Giants first pursued in 2013, according to Pro Football Talk, was scooped up by New York off waivers after the Dallas Cowboys cut him just before the 2015 regular-season opener.
It took Brinkley a few weeks to get the defensive concepts down, but he became the quarterback of that defense by season’s end.
Where he really paid dividends was against the run. Per Pro Football Focus, his 21 stops for zero or negative yardage ranked fourth on the team, behind Landon Collins, Jonathan Casillas and Robert Ayers.
Not surprisingly, PFF ranked Brinkley as the second-best run defender on the Giants last season behind defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins.
Coverage was a different story.
With Devon Kennard battling a foot injury that kept him sidelined, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had to choose between leaving Brinkley or Mark Herzlich (Kennard’s replacement) on the field in passing downs.
He chose Brinkley, who, by season’s end, told me that he was wearing the radio in his helmet, thus serving as the quarterback of the defense.
Per PFF, Brinkley allowed 25 of 28 pass targets to be completed for 267 yards, with 188 yards after the catch. However, he didn’t allow any touchdowns.
While the soon-to-be 31-year-old Brinkley has earned a new contract—whether he re-signs with the Giants is another story—he’s probably not the complete linebacker they envision for the middle, given his struggles in coverage. Therefore, the Giants would probably look at him as a two-down linebacker if he wins the starting job.
The upside is the Giants know what they have in Brinkley, who also knows the system well enough to where if they decide to bring in a rookie to be the long-term replacement at middle linebacker, Brinkley would no doubt be a good teacher and leader.
Derrick Johnson, Kansas City
A potential inside linebacker prospect whose name doesn’t come up much and who appears to be the longest of long shots to land with the Giants is Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson (6’3”, 242 lbs).
Johnson admittedly is a little long in the tooth—he came into the NFL in 2005 as a first round pick (15th overall), which makes him 33 years old—but he’s still been historically productive.
He has accumulated 990 tackles in his career (820 solo), 26.5 sacks, 68 passes defensed and 13 interceptions. He has also been mostly durable with the exception of 2014 when he missed 15 games due to a ruptured Achilles.
With the exception of that 2014 season, Johnson has topped the century mark in tackles dating back to 2010.
Although he is set to hit the open market, there appears to be a good chance that he’ll re-sign with the Chiefs and finish his career with the team that drafted him.
Chiefs general manager John Dorsey made it clear at last month’s combine that the club would like for Johnson to be a lifer.
“We are going to move this thing forward,” Dorsey said of Johnson, according to Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star. “Anytime you become the all-time leading tackler for the Chiefs...we’re not going to let good football players go in this thing.”
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. All quotes and information were obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced.
Follow me on Twitter @Patricia_Traina.