An overhyped inside linebacker is a rite of summer at Giants training camp.
In 2019, Tae Davis stole a job away from returning starter B.J. Goodson — and then slipped fast enough to be cut by Halloween. In 2020, Devante Downs burst onto the scene, but he gradually lost snaps and now is a third-teamer behind two others in the spotlight.
High-motor, versatile second-year pro Carter Coughlin (sack, forced fumble) and physical, thick-bodied veteran Reggie Ragland (pass defended on a third-and-1) combined for nine tackles Saturday in the preseason opener against the Jets. Maybe there finally is a recipe for success around tempered expectations because both linebackers could fill specialized roles and be viable temporary injury fill-ins.
“It’s awesome that they’re moving me around and allowing me to try out different things,” said Coughlin, who was drafted as an outside linebacker in 2020 but moved to the inside in the Giants’ 3-4 base defense. “It was a challenge, but the coaches and the other inside linebackers have been helping me a lot, and that allows me to play fast and pick up on different things.”
Tae Crowder is penciled in as the starter next to cemented co-captain Blake Martinez, but Coughlin could steal snaps from Crowder in pass-rushing situations because the Giants are impressed with his combination of athleticism, strength and instincts. Coughlin had one sack as a rookie after 22.5 in 47 college games for Minnesota.
“The inside is new to him, so there’s a lot of things that he’s experiencing for the first time, but I’d say he’s flashed positively throughout camp,” coach Joe Judge said. “He’s one of the guys that we wanted to see how he responded to some different game situations — both on defense and the kicking game — and he was a positive for us.”
Not much is new to Ragland, who has 38 starts in 58 career games with stops in Buffalo, Kansas City and Detroit. He starred at Alabama for Nick Saban, who is on the same Bill Belichick coaching tree as Judge, Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and assistants Jeremy Pruitt and Kevin Sherrer. Ragland, who signed a one-year free-agent contract, handled the defensive headset with Martinez sidelined with an illness against the Jets.
“I knew this defense was pretty good last year and I just wanted to come in and keep making it better,” Ragland said. “A lot of the verbiage I’ve known since college with the scheme. But anything you haven’t done in a while, you always have to keep refreshing your memory. I think I’m getting better every day, and that’s what I’m going to keep doing to put myself in the best position possible and help my teammates, too.”
Sherrer’s message in particular sunk in with Coughlin.
“He talks a lot about using our hands, especially when we have offensive linemen in space,” Coughlin said. “When you’re playing outside linebacker, it’s all about hands. When you pass rush, it’s all about hands. So, I think that’s one of those tools that helps out with inside linebacker.”
Ragland missed the first week of training camp on the non-football injury list. He appears to be generously listed on the roster at 252 pounds.
“I feel like I can always fit in this game because you’re always going to need somebody that can play the run and then drop in coverage,” Ragland said. “The smaller the linebackers get, it seems the bigger the running backs get, like [Tennessee’s] Derrick Henry and Chris Carson in Seattle.”
Surrounded by youth and veterans who have endured a lot of losing over the last five years with the Giants, Ragland brings credibility as a College Football Playoff national champion and Super Bowl winner.
“He’s got a lot of fire to him, and Reggie is fun to have around,” Judge said. “He’s a real straight-shooter and he’ll tell you what’s on his mind, which is good to have around the building. He’s not afraid to have a tough conversation with you.”
For once, the “tough conversation” with the Giants could be how to best deploy multiple linebackers instead of forcing starters.
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