At this point last year, the New York Giants were scrambling to find answers at middle linebacker. Jon Beason, the oft-injured veteran and captain, was penciled in as the starter with veteran Jameel McClain serving as the primary backup.
Beason played just five games in 2015, plagued by a multitude of leg ailments and a concussion. McClain was among the team's final cuts in training camp. The Giants ended up using the untested Uani 'Unga early on as Beason missed the first few games. After Beason was placed on injured reserve midway through, the club used Jasper Brinkley in the middle of their patchwork defense that was one of the worst-performing in team history.
The Giants re-signed Brinkley, brought in veterans Keenan Robinson and Kelvin Sheppard, and selected Clemson tackling machine B.J. Goodson in the fourth round of the draft.
The team plans to run with Brinkley in the middle early on in training camp, but he has been slowed by a hamstring issue. The competition for the starting job is wide open, according to first-year linebackers coach Bill McGovern.
"It is an open competition," McGovern told reporters on Tuesday. "We have a lot of guys in there with some experience. Obviously we have added B.J. Goodson to the mix, so there are a number of guys competing for playing time right now. Obviously we have three guys primarily that we are looking at, but all those guys will have opportunities to play going forward. Again, this is really the first time where we have shoulder pads on. We will start to find out once we get in and watch the tape a little bit. We will start to learn more about the guys."
Head coach Ben McAdoo said Robinson has looked good against but pass, but is eager to witness his work against the run. Brinkley's hamstring had him running on the side yesterday. Goodson has been playing mostly in the middle with a few reps on the outside.
Sheppard was not mentioned, so it could be safe to assume he will be used as depth on the outside where Devon Kennard is expected to play the strong side and either J.T. Thomas and Jonathan Casillas will start on the weak side.
McGovern said he is not favoring any one player at the time but did reveal some traits and requirements he expects from his players.
"I'm looking for a guy at all three positions who can play all three downs," McGovern said. "We will take any of those guys and I think that is what we are looking for. We are kind of studying to find out what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are and then trying to play to their strengths and minimize their weaknesses."
The linemen and linebackers rarely get to strut their stuff during the offseason. It is when they strap on the pads that will seperate the competition. At this point in training camp, no one is allowed to be brought to the ground intentionally, so the hitting portion of camp has yet to transpire.
"Obviously we have three guys primarily that we are looking at, but all those guys will have opportunities to play going forward," McGovern said. "Again, this is really the first time where we have shoulder pads on. We will start to find out once we get in and watch the tape a little bit. We will start to learn more about the guys."
Monetary concerns are minimal and will not factor into the decision. Robinson has the largest cap hit ($2.5 million) followed by Brinkley ($1.8 million). Goodson signed a traditional rookie deal before camp and is on the books for $582,000.
But Goodson could end up being the team's middle linebacker of the future -- at least that is what the Giants hope for, but McGovern is not conceding anyhting at the moment.
"He is going to have to perform," he said of Goodson. "He is going to have to show up. It is not just assignment football anymore where you just kind of have shorts and T-shirts. Now it is going to be, okay, what is my technique, how is my -- what can I produce, and when he starts going against better competition, does he produce."
Regardless of the outcome, the competition should breed more sharpness and productivity. Once a middle linebacker emerges from this scrum, the next question will be who will wear the defensive headset and call the signals. That could end up being Kennard, who is a strong candidate for defensive captain.