The New York Giants will reportedly be without linebacker Jarrad Davis for an extended period afterward Detroit Lions‘ former first-round pick had surgery on an undisclosed injury. Davis’ absence is magnified by the Giants’ lack of depth at the linebacker position.
[UPDATE: The New York Post is now reporting that Davis suffered a knee injury. He is expected to be out for “a prolonged period of time.]
The Giants re-signed Davis to a one-year, $1.8 million contract for a chance to start alongside newly signed linebacker Bobby Okereke in 2023. Davis’ main competition — second-year linebackers Micah McFadden and Darrian Beavers — are the likely beneficiaries of Davis’ misfortune .
New York did not draft a linebacker in 2023 NFL Draft, and now the depth for linebackers coach John Egorugwu is questionable, a situation the second-year position coach is familiar with. Nevertheless, there will be a vacancy.
Unfortunately for the Giants, their cap situation is a concern. With all $14.7 million of Kenny Golladay’s dead cap on the books for 2023, the Giants have little maneuverability as currently constructed. Processes to create cap space still exist, but are not ubiquitous.
Before we talk about the five linebackers that could interest the Giants, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge one possible loss to Davis’ adversity — cornerback Darnay Holmes. The Giants could save $2.7 million against the cap with less than $200,000 in dead cap space, according to OverTheCap.com.
Similar to last season, every penny counts and unfortunately this is the first major injury the Giants have to deal with and we’re still two weeks away from training camp. GM Joe Schoen already drafted a possible replacement for Holmes in Cor’Dale Flott and added Tre Hawkins III in the sixth round of this year’s draft.
Holmes’ primary contribution is as a nickel defender, and safeties like Nick McCloud and Bobby McCain can handle that role as well. I want to make this clear; I am not in favor of his release; I happen to appreciate Holmes and think he is pound-for-pound one of the better tackle defensive backs when operating around the line, though he could improve in coverage.
Still, this Davis injury — and the subsequent move likely to follow — could be it canary in the coal mine for Holmes’ place on the 53-man roster. However, wide receiver Darius Slayton found himself in a similar situation last year after the Giants drafted Wan’Dale Robinson in the second round. Not only did Slayton stick around, but he was the leading receiver and was awarded another contract with the team, so anything is certainly possible.
Anyway, here are five linebackers the Giants could take a closer look at, despite their cap situation.
Deion Jones, CLE
The 2016 second-round pick of the Falcons played six respectable seasons for Atlanta before Cleveland Browns acquired him early last season in a late-round trade. Jones played more than 900 snaps in five of seven seasons as an NFL linebacker, and the 28-year-old played 422 for the Browns last year.
The 6-foot-1, 227-pounder is known for his speed and athletic ability. However, Pro Football Focus graded him poorly over the last two seasons. Jones has been productive throughout his career, totaling 696 tackles with 46 for a loss, 11 sacks, 12 interceptions, five forced fumbles and 64 pressures. Jones missed 14.9 percent of his tackles in 2022 and has only been in the single digits in missed tackles once in his career (2017, according to PFF).
He recorded 44 tackles, 2.5 sacks, six tackles for a loss, three passes defensed, one interception and one forced fumble in eleven games, with five starts, last season with Cleveland. The Giants expressed interest in Jones in early April. A deal was never made, but perhaps Jones was always the contingency plan if a situation like this arose.
Myles Jack, PIT
Like Jones, Myles Jack was also a second-round pick in 2016; only Jack was named Jacksonville Jaguars and also spent six respectable seasons with the team that drafted him. Jack spent the 2022 season with Pittsburgh Steelerswhere the 27-year-old played 692 snaps.
Jack produced well in those snaps, recording 104 tackles (61 solo), three tackles for a loss, three passes defensed, with five pressures. The 6-1, 255-pound linebacker is a little bulkier than Jones, but is still solid as an athlete operating at the second level. Jack’s missed tackle rate was just 7.5 percent last season; he has only been in double digits in missed tackles twice in his career (2018 and 2019). He is a young player who should be an option for the Giants heading into training camp.
Jaylon Smith, NYG
It may not be ideal, but Smith knows the defense and was the de facto LB1 last season for the Giants. Was he always in the right position? No. Did he look like he drank five Red Bulls before every game? Yes. Despite that, he was far and away the Giants’ top linebacker option last season.
Adding Okereke eases the burden of responsibility placed on Smith’s shoulders. Still only 29 years old, Smith was coming off a season in which he had 88 tackles, three for a loss, with one sack, eight pressures and just a 6.1% missed tackle rate. That last statistic may not paint the full portrait of Smith’s game from 2022, but the Giants could do worse than Smith, and the cap situation remains an issue.
PS Smith was also a 2016 second round pick of the Dallas Cowboys.
Zach Cunningham, TEN
Cunningham spent most of the 2022 season with an elbow injury that landed him on Injured Reserve before the Titans ultimately released the one-time Vanderbilt Commodore for a failed physical in February. Before his return to Nashville, Cunningham spent five and a half seasons in Houston after being drafted in the second round.
He has amassed 620 career tackles, 29 for a loss, 19 passes defensed, five forced fumbles and an interception through 4,555 defensive snaps. His career missed tackle rate is 11.7 percent. There’s one primary reason the 6-3, 230-pound linebacker intrigues me — length.
Cunningham’s arm length is in the 96th percentile for linebackers at 34⅜ inches. Imagine Cunningham playing next to Okereke, whose arms are 34½-inches (97th percentile) with a 98th percentile wingspan as well. Throwing windows would be close to second level. Couple their presence with Cam Brown, whose arms are in the 95th percentile, and the second level of Wink Martindale’s defense would look like a Banyan forest (willfully ignores the fact that Brown only played three defensive snaps last year).
The new linebacker addition may have to account for special teams as well, and Cunningham has played 595 career snaps during his career. Still, prioritizing length without sacrificing skill would lead to plenty of interesting personnel packages from a mastermind like Martindale, and that could prove difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
Kwon Alexander, NYJ
I don’t know if the Giants could make this work financially even though he signed a cheap contract with the Jets before last season, but a veteran like Alexander could make a huge difference. The 28-year-old jumped around from Buccaneers to 49ers and Saints, and spent the 2022 season locally with New York Jets.
Alexander had 69 tackles, six for a loss, a forced fumble, half a sack and 17 pressures in 17 games with the Jets after following his former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh to the Big Apple. Alexander has suffered several injuries in recent seasons. His 2018 campaign ended with a torn ACL; he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in 2019 but returned for the playoffs and then tore his Achilles at the end of the 2020 season.
He spent a month at IIR in 2021 with an elbow injury. Despite the hardships, the 6-1, 227-pound Alexander still played respectable defense for the Jets last season.