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Linebacker position a priority for Giants’ new regime

Alec Ogletree, then a linebacker for the Rams,

Alec Ogletree, then a linebacker for the Rams, got into a 2014 sideline altercation with Odell Beckham Jr. Credit: AP / Mark Zaleski

The change in defensive scheme won’t only be felt on the field and in the Giants’ meeting rooms this season. In fact, it’s already created a ripple of perspective in the front office.

After years of treating linebackers as an afterthought, a position where the Giants believed they could get by with a mix of veterans on short-term deals and low-round draft picks, the new regime is already investing heavily in that area. They traded for Alec Ogletree, signed free agent Kareem Martin, and are moving one of their highest-paid players, Olivier Vernon, from defensive end to that group.

“Dave [Gettleman] and Pat [Shurmur] have addressed what they felt is a need for us on defense,” linebackers coach Bill McGovern said on Wednesday regarding the influx of talent and spending of resources on the players under his direct command. “We’re excited to get going moving forward with those guys.”

This is a team that has not used a first-round pick on a linebacker since 1983. For more than a generation the front office’s focus was on building the defense through the front four, specifically the ends. Now, all of a sudden, they’re stockpiling players at the linebacker position. Linebackers are a priority.

When he was signed, Martin, who played under defensive coordinator James Bettcher in Arizona, said his position at outside linebacker is the most important in the scheme. That, it turns out, is not hyperbole.

“I’m with Kareem a little bit,” Bettcher said of the significance of the position. “[Outside linebacker] is a guy who is part of coverage, a guy who is part of the rush. He’s part of the run front. He’s a little bit of everything at that position he plays.”

The two players at middle linebacker are significant too, Bettcher said. They’re in charge of getting everyone lined up, communicating the checks, and eventually playing both the run and the pass. In these days when NFL teams come out on first-and-10 with an empty backfield, everyone on the defense needs to be able to drop into coverage. And every linebacker, Bettcher said, needs to be a three-down player.

That makes them valuable pieces in the defense. And that’s a departure from how the Giants have seen the position in the past.

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