Secret Superstars: New York Giants
Our Secret Superstar series continues with a look at the New York Giants and a player who made an impact as a rookie in 2014. Of course Odell Beckham had an outstanding debut season, making one spectacular play after another, however there is nothing secret about Beckham. Instead we turn our attention to another member of the Giants 2014 draft class, fifth round linebacker, Devon Kennard. Kennard didn’t garner the same level of attention as Beckham, few could, but he did have a solid debut of his own.
Position of Woe
The New York Giants seem to have been engaged in a perennial search for their next top linebacker. They haven’t had a all-pro linebacker since Jesse Armstead in 1997, nor sent one to the pro bowl since Antonio Pierce after the 2006 season. It’s not like the lack has always hurt them either, winning Super Bowl’s XLII and XLVI shows that they are doing something right. Even so, each year they go into the offseason with fans calling for help at the position, but the team have generally seemed unwilling to commit premium resources to the position.
Instead the Giants seem content to seek veteran help, which has meant that the likes of Danny Clark, Michael Boley, Keith Bulluck, Keith Rivers, Jon Beason and Jameel McClain have held down the fort for a while, with varying degrees of success. Only three Giants linebackers have graded in the Top 10 at their position in the eight years of PFF data; Kiwanuka was seventh among 4-3 OLBS in 2011, while Bulluck and Clark were 10th in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Of the 10 linebackers currently on the roster, only one (Beason) was drafted in the first three rounds, and only Kennard was originally drafted by the Giants.
Up Steps Kennard
A highly touted defensive end prospect coming out of high school, Kennard opted to attend USC. He was part of the Trojans’ defensive end rotation right from the start, but had moved to linebacker before the end of his freshman year, and flitted between the two positions for the rest of his collegiate career. That mixed skill-set served Kennard well as a rookie, helping him to a positive grade in all three facets of play, with his greatest impact coming as a pass rusher.
Kennard made enough of an impression in OTAs and preseason to force his way into the linebacker rotation for the Giants Week 1 game in Detroit. However a hamstring injury cut short his debut after just two snaps, and he wouldn’t return to the defensive rotation until Week 7. From that point on his role grew; only one linebacker, McClain, saw the field more often than Kennard in the final 10 weeks of the season.
Pass Rushing Presence
Kennard led the way statistically at outside linebacker for the Giants. He registered five sacks, and eight total pressures for a 19.1 Pass Rushing Productivity score. His 8.9 Run Stop Percentage topped the unit, as did his 0.65 Yards per Cover Snap, though that may be misleading as he was only targeted nine times. His 23 total stops to one missed tackle (when he fell victim to a DeMarco Murray stiff arm) gave him a 38.0 Combined Tackling Efficiency, which not only topped the team, but ranked third in league among 4-3 OLBs.
Kennard was at his best coming downfield with force, whether to fill a gap, take on a lead blocker or pulling lineman, or rush the passer, it’s something he tended to do well. The Giants used that to good effect, deploying him as a pass rusher on 27.3% of his passing snaps, the highest rate among the teams LBs. Some sacks came unblocked, others came against backs who struggled to cope with the mismatch. Against the Jaguars in Week 13, Kennard was left one-on-one with Denard Robinson after coming off the edge, and simply overpowered him to sack Blake Bortles. A week later in Tennessee, he got the edge against fullback Jackie Battle, and turned the corner for the sack.
Against the Redskins in Week 15, Kennard caught the eye with a batted pass and a strip sack against Robert Griffin III. However it is two plays against the run that show why he is much more than a blitzing linebacker. With 12:32 on the clock in the first, Kennard set the edge on the left against Logan Paulsen, before peeling off the tight ends block to tackle Alfred Morris for a loss. Then with five minutes remaining in the third, Kennard repeated the trick on the opposite side of the field. He met the Niles Paul’s block head on, drove the tight end back two yards to disrupt the point of attack, then came inside of the block to claim another tackle for loss against Morris.
Kennard isn’t the finished article by any means, for a start he still needs to show his coverage can hold up under sterner testing. Of the nine passes thrown into his coverage, eight have been completed for a total of 66 yards. While a difficult day dealing with the Cowboys offensive line in Week 7, when he found Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and Ronald Leary too much to handle at times, shows that he has room to improve when it comes to taking on blockers. Even so, the Giants appear to have found one piece of the puzzle at linebacker in Kennard, a forceful outside linebacker, and auxiliary pass rusher.