Somebody is going to have to play middle linebacker for the Giants in 2010. And while we can’t be sure who at this moment, what we can do is throw a bunch of names up on this blog and, when the decision is made sometime between now and September, refer back to it and proudly say: “See, I told you he was in the running.”
So here is a look at more than a few possible candidates, separated into three categories: In-house, free agents, and draft picks.
Goff played sparingly for his first year and a half and then stepped into the role of starter a few weeks after Pierce’s season ended with that bulging disc. When he was drafted in 2008, the Giants saw him as their middle linebacker of the future and according to more than a few people in the know were anticipating him taking over the job in 2010 even before the Pierce injury. So how did he play in the final few weeks of 2009? Meh. He had 18 tackles in the last five games of the season, one sack and one interception. Dynamic he was not. But if the Giants want someone who can be steady and not spectacular and put a premium on intelligence and instinct (as they clearly did with Pierce, whose brainwaves always moved faster than his feet), then they might decide to stick with the heady Goff.
Blackburn is one of those players who will likely be a restricted free agent thanks to the expiration of the CBA and the uncapped year. Bummer for him, good for the Giants who can use him to help with the post-Pierce transition. Blackburn played the weakside linebacker spot for most of 2008 and filled in there when Michael Boley was injured in ’09, but his trade is middle linebacker. Can he start? Sure, he’s proven that he can step in and be a solid player. Will he start? Probably not. He’s not a full-time starter. If the Giants wind up going into the 2010 season with Blackburn as their starting middle linebacker, something has gone horribly wrong.
He’s played outside linebacker for his entire NFL career, but the Giants might be able to adapt his athleticism to the middle. When Pierce went out late last year, it was Boley who assumed the leadership role on defense, wearing the radio that connected him with the sideline and calling the plays in the huddle. He was under a constant siege from injuries last season, but if he can have a healthy offseason to learn the position, the Giants might have themselves a strong and fast player for the middle of their defense who can drop back into coverage or come up through the line of scrimmage to make plays. It’s a longshot that they’ll make that move, but Boley could wind up being a Jonathan Vilma-type of linebacker for the Giants.
The Arizona Republic reported last week that Dansby and the Cardinals have begun discussions on a contract, so if they reach an agreement before free agency begins in a few weeks he’ll be off the market. Dansby played under a franchise tag in 2008 and ’09, so the Cardinals can’t use that on him again. Dansby is believed to be looking for a deal similar to the one former Cardinals linebacker Calvin Pace got when he left the team for the Jets as a free agent: six years, $42 million. Maybe, like Pace, he’ll find that in New York. He’s 28 years old, will be 29 in the middle of next season. In five seasons with the Cardinals he’s had 24.5 sacks and nine interceptions. And if he comes to the Giants, he could even keep his jersey number. He wears 58 for the Cardinals and could just slide right into Pierce’s old number.
He’s 30, so he’s not that much younger than Pierce, but he’s been a tackling machine for the Colts and one of the few unrestricted free agents at the position this offseason. He doesn’t sparkle and doesn’t dominate, but he makes steady plays. The Colts are certainly interested in keeping him and could use the franchise tag on him or tag him as they continue to negotiate a longer-term deal (like what the Giants did a year ago with Brandon Jacobs). And like Dansby, he’s a 58-wearer so the jersey number is available.
Another 30-year-old, Fujita has played most of his career (and this past season with the Super Bowl-winning Saints) as an outside linebacker. But he can play inside as well. The trouble may be tearing him away from New Orleans, where he was the first player to sign as a free agent after Katrina and has developed a bond with the city and the team.
The Restricted Group
Assuming that the CBA is not extended, many of the top linebackers on the market will be restricted free agents. Will the Giants decide that they can part with some hefty draft picks to add someone like DeMeco Ryans of the Texans or Barrett Ruud of the Bucs? Maybe not. But there could be some wiggle room in terms of tenders when it comes to guys like D’Quell Jackson of the Browns or Derrick Johnson of the Chiefs. Both of them are 27 and impact players who don’t get the headlines because they are on lousy teams. The Giants may wonder what Jackson or Johnson would be able to do surrounded by the talent that they already have on their roster.
True middle linebackers usually aren't taken in the first round of the NFL draft. But there seems to be at least two in this year’s draft who are first-round possibilities, and the Giants might want to either wait it out or jump up a few rungs to grab either. From the rumblings I've been hearing, they are leaning more towards drafting a replacement than buying one in free agency. We'll only focus on those two right now and, assuming we get past the first big free agency wave without a big addition, go much deeper as the draft approaches in the spring.
A big, fast playmaker at Florida, Spikes could become a monster in the middle of some team’s defense for the next decade. But he does need some NFL coaching as he can be sloppy in his pass coverage technique and is sometimes overly aggressive against the run, allowing for cutbacks that NFL backs will be able to take advantage of more than college players did. He also carries some baggage. He was caught eye-gouging a Georgia player last season, resulting in a half-game suspension that he extended to a full game. And his older brother is serving a life sentence in prison for murder in a drug deal gone bad in 2001. If the Giants are interested in him, they’ll likely have a long, detailed chat during the combine or at some other time.
He’s 6-4, 258 pounds and was a big reason why Alabama won a national championship. He didn’t attend any of the all-star games and bowls after the season because he is leaving after his junior season, but he is currently training in Florida for the combine. At Bama, he was the Antonio Pierce of their defense, running it from the field and understanding every detail of both the defense and the offense he was facing. He doesn’t have blazing speed, but he’s not slow and he makes up for the fraction of a step with his smarts.