From 2012 through 2015, the Giants selected 27 players over four NFL drafts. Exactly zero of those players were traditional, off-the-ball linebackers. Before that streak started, the Giants used two of their three sixth-round picks on linebackers and broke the trend by taking Clemson linebacker B.J. Goodson in the fourth round a year ago.
In that time, and really since the retirement of Antonio Pierce after the 2009 season, the Giants have been borderline laughable at linebacker without throwing any resources to the position. During their Super Bowl run in 2011, their starting linebacker had to choose between playing for the Giants and an offer to be a temporary 8th-grade math teacher while the regular teacher was on maternity leave. It was a move that turned out to be a highlight of their recent history at linebacker.
Yet, as they transformed from mediocre to excellent in defense an offseason ago, they still find their strength along the front four and with their secondary. The linebackers are still a collection of bargain shopping players, from converted pass rusher Devon Kennard to Kelvin Sheppard, the latter who was on three teams in four years before coming to the Giants.
For a team with so much overhaul recently, the Giants have still neglected the linebacker position. Although they went with Goodson in Round 4 a year ago, the Giants could continue to add youth and athleticism at linebacker by targeting Jayon Brown of UCLA in the middle rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft.
The senior linebacker is coming off a strong two-year stint as a starter for the Bruins, where he spent much of his time overshadowed by Myles Jack and a small arsenal of defensive linemen to play behind. However, he was able to make plays all over the field, totaling 212 tackles the past two seasons. Standing at 6-foot and just over 230 pounds, he is an athletic linebacker who should be able to make an impact against the run and the pass.
A middling combine performance has dampened some of the hype that Brown had received throughout his senior season. He ran only a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash, worse than expected for his size and play style. However, Pro Football Focus has been pushing him as a consolation prize for teams who miss on more polished linebackers earlier in the draft.
Josh Liskiewitz of PFF suggested him for the Lions back in February, citing a 50.4 quarterback rating posted by opposing passers when targeting him. That figure was the second-best mark for any linebacker with at least 250 snaps in coverage. Along with his impressive tackling ability, Brown is a modern linebacker who would make sense for the Giants.
With three interceptions and 2.5 sacks as a senior, Brown can fill up the box score and be a versatile three-down defender. The Giants don’t have much blocking him from getting on the field, yet the defense was excellent last year and would not be desperate to put him on the field regardless if he is ready.
It can be tough to figure out where exactly a prospect stands as a mid-round pick, but the Giants might be able to wait until Round 5 to scoop him up. If they are serious about improving the position, they would be smart to consider him with their late pick in round four.
Of course, even getting Brown won’t change the perception of the Giants going cheap at linebacker. Fans will clamor for the team to make a move on one of the more highly-valued prospects in the first two rounds, whether they be Zach Cunningham, Jarrad Davis or Raekwon McMillan.
But Jerry Reese has been unwilling to do so during his recent tenure as a general manager, and the team hasn’t necessarily suffered for it. Adding Goodson last year followed by Brown this year, the Giants would be showing their first real investment in that area of their defense in a long time.
Should the Giants be able to run out athletes like Brown and Goodson in the near future, they would be taking huge steps to improving the speed and versatility of their defense.