While the injuries and a sluggish offense have defined the Giants this season, one of their few bright spots has come with a defensive unit that’s improved as the season has carried on. Since their Week 6 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Giants have the eighth-best EPA/Play (-0.078) and are allowing just 19.9 points per game. Kayvon Thibodeaux’s 11 sacks and a strong year from Dexter Lawrence have certainly helped Wink Martindale’s unit, but their linebacking group has seen a big boost from Micah McFadden and Bobby Okereke.
With Okereke in just his first season of a four-year deal signed this past offseason and McFadden in just year two in the NFL, the Giants could have an electric duo forming in their linebacker group that could help anchor the team’s defense.
Linebacking Unit Has Become a Strength for Giants’ Defense
When the Giants inked Bobby Okereke to a four-year deal, it was with the hopes that his veteran leadership would help anchor a linebacking core that was subpar the year prior. To say he’s lived up to the expectations would undersell the season he’s having, as the 27-year-old has forced a career-high four fumbles with two interceptions and 83 tackles. PFF grades Okereke as the 11th best-qualified linebacker (82.2), and it’s a career-best grade for him as well.
A versatile defender, Okereke does a strong job bringing much-needed physicality while also making strong decisions in coverage, and the NFL has shifted more towards defensive versatility at the position. Gone are the days when linebackers could be considered highly valuable defenders without displaying competence in coverage, and the Giants might have landed a player who can continue to anchor that position for the near future in the long-time Colt.
Bobby Okereke’s play since Week 6 could be considered the leading factor in the Giants’ improved defensive play, as his 86.7 Defensive Grade on PFF is the fifth-best mark for any linebacker with at least 200 snaps in that timespan. He isn’t the only linebacker with improving play, as McFadden ranks 10th (80.3) in Defensive Grades amongst linebackers in the previously stated conditions, and the Giants have seen massive strides from the second-year player.
The 23-year-old has emerged after making just seven starts last season, and it’s clear that the Giants really like what he brings to the table. Entering the season, defensive coordinator Wink Martindale mentioned that he had felt McFadden greatly improved, and his pre-season play has translated well into his sophomore season in the NFL. With some comfort and NFL experience under his belt, the Giants’ 5th Round Pick in the 2022 NFL Draft has a 69.2 PFF Grade on the year while collecting 52 solo tackles of his own.
His coverage skills have improved since last season; passers could pick on McFadden for a 120.5 Passer Rating, which has been reduced this season to a more palatable 89.9. Part of this is how well he’s limited yards after the catch, as YAC damage in 2022 (7.2 Yards per Target) has been nearly sliced in half in 2023 (4.2 Yards per Target), and as a result, the Giants have been able to lean on him as their LB2, a role he could fill for the near future as well.
As the Giants look to build through the draft, shoring up positions like their linebacking unit with later picks is crucial, and if McFadden can continue his rise, they’ll have a stout defense heading into 2024. McFadden hopes to form an improving defensive core that includes Cor’Dale Flott, Deonte Banks, Kayvon Thibodeaux, and others who could build a formidable defense in New York for years to come.
If veterans like Bobby Okereke and Dexter Lawrence can continue to be game-changers on the defensive side of the ball, developing younger players is made significantly easier. Bobby Okereke and Micah McFadden are massive parts of the Giants’ ability to focus on other position groups (such as their offense) as they enter another pivotal offseason for the front office, especially given the Giants’ issues at quarterback.
While the season has been disappointing for the Giants and their fanbase, they have at least found a solution to their linebacking issues from the year prior, and it looks like Okereke and McFadden could be a formidable duo for years to come.