Why Bobby Okereke ‘checks a lot boxes’ the Giants need to upgrade their defense

Why Bobby Okereke ‘checks a lot boxes’ the Giants need to upgrade their defense

Bobby Okereke essentially hit the lottery twice this week.

Not only did the 26-year-old middle linebacker agree to a four-year, $40 million contract ($22 million guaranteed) with the Giants, he also was fortunate enough to make the move without sacrificing the luxury of playing behind a blocks-eating All-Pro defensive tackle who makes his life easier.

Just insert Dexter Lawrence to replace the Colts’ DeForest Buckner as a teammate.

“Okereke is an every-down linebacker you don’t have to replace on third downs, or in short yardage, or any situational football,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger told Post Sports+.

“That’s the big thing because they have been stop-gapping that position forever. Especially when they get Dexter re-signed, you can put Okereke in the middle of your defense and feel good for a long time. He’s been very durable and very productive.”

On what down might Okereke’s presence make the biggest difference?

Think of second-and-long — a situation in which a play is deemed an offensive success if it gains 60 percent of the needed yards, according to analytics-based Football Outsiders.

Kareem Hunt #27 of the Cleveland Browns runs with the ball while being tackled by Bobby Okereke #58 of the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on October 11, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Bobby Okereke has the speed in the middle of a defense to track down running backs as well as drop back into pass coverage.Getty Images

“This guy is 235 pounds, but he’s fast enough that he’s going to make the tackles where he is supposed to make them,” said Baldinger, whose #BaldysBreakdowns film segments are a Twitter sensation. “So, second-and-7 becomes third-and-5, not third-and-1.

“The difference is where he makes the tackles. He is not going to get knocked back. There is nothing worse than second-and-7 becomes third-and-2 and run it again, especially against [short-yardage conversion masters] Philadelphia.”

The Giants ranked second-to-last in the NFL in yards per carry allowed and yielded the fifth-most first downs gained on the ground last season.

Their best defensive performances shared a common thread: Coordinator Wink Martindale out-schemed the opposing offensive play-caller.

“It’s the beginning of rebuilding this Giants offense,” Baldinger said. “Maybe this year it won’t be that every time the Giants defense plays well, it starts with Wink Martindale as the reason why. Sometimes your players have to play better than the other side. Okereke is still young enough, he’s earned this contract with his performance, so I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”

So, why did Okereke hit the open market?

Bobby Okereke tracks downa a running play against the Jaguars.

As one Colts source explained, Shaq Leonard is signed to a five-year, $98 million contract through 2026, and inside linebacker is the kind of non-premium position where smart salary-cap budgeting allows for only one big contract.

“Bobby checks a lot of boxes, including great locker-room guy,” the source said. “He is immediately [the Giants’] best linebacker.”

Inside linebacker contracts have been all over the map during the start to free agency, from the high end of Tremaine Edmunds capitalizing on the Bears’ salary-cap surplus to secure a four-year, $72 million deal, to David Long Jr.’s two-year, $11 million deal with the Dolphins that league sources see as one of the most team-friendly bargains of the offseason.

Okereke’s deal is the second-largest signed by an inside linebacker thus far, but Long was not deemed a scheme fit for the Giants.

Leonard’s neck, hand and concussion issues sidelined him for 14 games last season, allowing Okereke to showcase himself out of the All-Pro’s shadow.

His 17 tackles (out of the 151 total he made last season) in Week 17 stood out as one of the few max-effort performances the Colts got in a 38-10 rout by the Giants.

Daniel Jones #8 of the New York Giants in action against Bobby Okereke #58 of the Indianapolis Colts at MetLife Stadium on January 01, 2023 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Giants defeated the Colts 38-10.
Okereke and Daniel Jones, who became acquainted in the Giants’ Week 17 win over the Colts, now won’t be looking to run into each other on Sunday afternoons.Getty Images

“Linebacker is a position where you can’t always find these guys in the draft,” Baldinger said. “If you go to free agency, you’ll probably overspend, but you’ll fix the position. You just have to get it right. It probably helped that Shaq got hurt this year and Okereke had to pick up the slack.

“Watching him, no matter who else he was playing next to, they got a real good look at, he can be that guy. He takes good angles, he gets to the football and he’s pretty easy to find on film.”

It was only three years ago that the Giants made a similar splash in free agency by signing Blake Martinez to a three-year, $30 million contract. Martinez was a 151-tackle machine in Year 1 before a career-changing torn ACL limited him to three games in 2021 and contributed to his release last summer.

The biggest difference between the two might be in pass coverage.

Martinez arrived with the (somewhat overstated) label as a liability whereas Okereke allowed -2.3 receptions over expected as the most-targeted linebacker in the league (78) last season, per NextGenStats. He ranked seventh among linebackers with at least 60 targets by allowing just 5.7 yards per catch over his two seasons as a full-time starter (2,058 snaps).

Okereke was ranked as the No. 22 inside linebacker by Pro Football Focus.

Giants defensive coordinator Wink Martindale looks on in the fourth quarter.
Much of the Giants’ success on defense last season was a result of Wink Martindale’s schemes.Bill Kostroun for the NY Post

“When Wink does his blitzing, you are going to have to line up and take on tight ends and running backs man to man,” Baldinger said. “It starts with taking good angles.

“A lot of the routes are going to happen behind you. You can’t turn your body. He has the experience to do that. Getting everything underneath you, but you are getting proper depth in zone coverage to get in the passing lanes for what’s behind you. There’s a certain amount you have to understand just by the formation, to know where the route combination is going. There’s an old saying for linebackers: If you know the formation, you know the play.”

Wanted: Versatile pass-catchers

A few weeks before joking with the media at the NFL Combine about the outside “obsession with the receiver position,” general manager Joe Schoen was acknowledging to his scouting staff that the Giants “are pretty thin” at the position, as seen on a recent episode of the team-produced “Giants Life” documentary.

“The versatility to play multiple spots will be important,” Schoen said during a meeting. “You have to be smart to play in our offense. To do what we want to do, you have to be able to move the guys around, and they have to be able to learn.”

To begin with, Jeff Smith is expected to sign with the Giants after spending the last four seasons with the Jets, mostly as a No. 4 or No. 5 receiver (34 catches for 426 yards in 36 games). 

Which more prominent remaining free agents fit the versatility mold? Here’s a short list with snap-count splits from last season provided by Pro Football Focus.

Mecole Hardman #17 of the Kansas City Chiefs runs after a fourth quarter pass catch against the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium on November 6, 2022 in Kansas City, Missouri.
Mecole Hardman was limited to eight games last season, but managed to catch a career-best 73.5 percent of the passes on which he was targeted.Getty Images

Mecole Hardman, Chiefs, (155 wide, 155 slot, 7 backfield, 1 in-line): Speedster overlapped with Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka in Kansas City (where Kafka was quarterbacks coach). Played in only eight games last season, but also would be the long-missing punt return threat.

D.J. Chark, Lions (421 wide, 113 slot): Deep threat averaging 14.3 yards per touch over his five-year career, including 16.7 in 11 games last season. Giants have fared pretty well with receivers from LSU.

Parris Campbell, Colts (756 wide, 218 wide, 3 in-line): Former gadget player established himself as a true playmaker last season with more targets (91), catches (63), yards (983) and touchdowns (3) than the previous three years combined.

Life and football

NFL player, Darren Waller embraces Kelsey Plum #10 of the Las Vegas Aces after Round 1 Game 1 of the 2022 WNBA Playoffs on August 17, 2022 at Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Kelsey Plum and new Giants tight end Darren Waller returned from their recent honeymoon to the news that they would no longer both be playing in the same city.NBAE via Getty Images

It’s easy to forget sometimes that athletes have real-life responsibilities, too.

So, imagine the strain that Giants tight end Darren Waller — acquired Tuesday in a trade from the Raiders — and Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum face now that they no longer will be playing in the same city. Waller and Plum, a WNBA star, were married earlier this month.

“It’s a bit of a curveball coming back one day from the honeymoon,” Waller said. “She supports me and wants me to shine to my ultimate potential as a player while I still have the opportunity. We are going to do whatever it takes to remain strong together whatever the distance looks like, the timing of it. I’m grateful to have somebody who understands how things work in an industry like this, and we just go forward and make the best of it that we can.”

Asked and answered

Here are two questions that have come up recently that we will attempt to answer as accurately as possible:

What impact will the recent running back developments have on Saquon Barkley’s extension negotiations?

The Chargers granted Austin Ekeler (due to make $6.25 million in 2023 after leading the NFL in touchdowns from scrimmage each of the past two years) permission to seek a trade after extension negotiations stalled, the Cowboys are about to free up $10.9 million in salary-cap space by cutting Ezekiel Elliott and going with franchise-tagged Tony Pollard and the Lions moved on from Jamaal Williams’ NFL-leading 17 rushing touchdowns by signing David Montgomery for $18 million over three years. The Eagles let Miles Sanders walk to the Panthers on a four-year, $25.4 million deal.

The Giants will not use any of these situations to pull or lower their offer and risk bad blood with Barkley. They believe in his play, leadership and off-field value.

But just like using the franchise tag shifted leverage from Barkley’s favor toward the Giants, each of these examples could be further used by the Giants to not budge from what sources say is an offer with an average value of about $13 million per year.

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley #26 is all smiles after he runs the ball during the third quarter.
Saquon Barkley may face a tough decision about whether he wants to take a below-market deal or play on the franchise tag and try to negotiate a long-term deal next year?Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The long-term deal would lower his 2023 salary-cap hit from the $10.1 million that comes with the franchise tag.

That’s why it was crucial for him to get a deal done before reaching this point.

Barkley, 26, ultimately might have to decide whether he wants to sign for below-market value guarantees — compared to the contracts given to Aaron Jones, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb and Joe Mixon — or bet on himself to have another big season and return to the negotiation table one year older.

What does it mean when the Giants’ contingent appears at a college prospect’s Pro Day?

Smokescreens often get too much credit. Sure, there is some deception involved in an NFL Draft, but head coach Brian Daboll, coordinators Mike Kafka and Wink Martindale and position coaches are not going to waste time appearing at a place when a decision is already made.

Sometimes an appearance is a sign of interest. Sometimes an appearance is due diligence in ruling out a player. A report that Martindale spent the most time talking to versatile linebacker Trenton Simpson at Clemson’s Pro Day on Tuesday could mean either. But it certainly says the Giants expect Simpson to be picked within range of their selection (No. 25) and something in his profile required extra eyes and ears beyond what a scout can offer.

Last year, general manager Joe Schoen and Daboll were at Kayvon Thibodeaux’s Pro Day in Oregon, but not at Evan Neal’s in Alabama. They were picked No. 5 and No. 7, respectively.

Schoen errs on the side of having players too high on the draft board initially because it is easier to move them down than up.