Leading into the July 27 opening of Giants training camp, The Post will analyze 11 position groups based on personnel, strengths, weaknesses and key depth chart battles. Today’s look-in: Inside linebackers.
Every defense needs a man in the middle to run the show, and the Giants have that man in Blake Martinez. His debut season in blue, after four years with the Packers, was nothing short of sensational. After playing with such zeal in front of empty seats, Martinez figures to emerge as a fan favorite this season. Otherwise, this is a spot where the Giants figure to mix and match depending on the matchup that particular week. They play a 3-4 defensive front and more often than not only have two (and sometimes one) inside ’backer on the field.
Blake Martinez, Reggie Ragland, T.J. Brunson, Tae Crowder, Devante Downs, Cale Garrett
This is as close to a one-man position as there is on the roster. Martinez upon arrival thrust himself into a prominent role, on the field and off it. He started all 16 games (the fourth consecutive season he has done that). playing 1,063 (97 percent) of the snaps on defense. He is the brains of the front seven and has the brawn to stick his nose in wherever the ball is headed. His 151 tackles (86 solo) put him third in the NFL, behind only Zach Cunningham (164) of the Texans and Jaylon Smith (154) of the Cowboys.
Martinez also had three sacks and one interception and made sure his teammates were lined up as per defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s machinations. The second starter, whether it was Downs (21 percent of the snaps), rookie Tae Crowder (37 percent) or David Mayo (18 percent) evolved into a part-time performer, used on early downs in run-defense situations before getting subbed out on second and third down, as Graham often flooded the field with defensive backs.
Downs had his ups and downs in 2020, but the Giants decided to re-sign him as a depth piece. Crowder’s speed was a welcome ingredient and he provided a few splash moments (43-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery and an impressive sack of Russell Wilson), proving he can be more than the Mr. Irrelevant label as the last player taken in the draft. The newcomer here is Ragland, a classic run-stopping inside linebacker. Ragland was a 2016 second-round pick of the Bills out of Alabama and won a Super Bowl as a starter with the Chiefs.
Martinez, in his second year in the defensive system, needs to stay healthy this summer. That’s it. The starting job alongside Martinez is up for grabs. Ragland has 38 NFL starts on his résumé and should be able to secure a spot with the first team, as long as he shows he can be a reliable run-stuffer and work in concert with Martinez.
He does not offer much dropping back in pass coverage, and the Giants will not ask him to do that on a regular basis. Crowder missed five consecutive games (weeks 7-12) with a strained hamstring and is unlike the others competing for a spot in that he is rangier at 235 pounds, giving him more versatility but perhaps not the bulk to hang in against the pounding in the run game. Carving out a place on the team at this position is always about special teams value. Martinez did plenty of that with the Packers but virtually none of it (two snaps) last season with the Giants. So, the second starter and backups have got to be special teams contributors and that could help Downs and Crowder.
As long as Martinez is healthy and calling the shots, this position is in good hands. He is the take-charge leader every defense needs. The development of a complementary piece to go along with Martinez could take this defense to another level. How likely is that? Not very likely. This was not a priority whatsoever in the draft, and Ragland was the only veteran addition. If Crowder, in his second year, takes a big step forward, he could provide the most versatility at a spot that is up for grabs.
Next up: Running backs