Taken in the fifth round, former USC linebacker Devon Kennard wasn't expected to contribute in a starting role during his rookie season. But depth issues at linebacker combined with flashes shown in limited playing time gave Kennard a more prominent role starting in Week 7 against Dallas (22 defensive snaps) and a starting role in Week 11 against San Francisco (55 snaps).
Kennard still wasn't fully trusted by the Giants' coaching staff, who took him off the field in sub packages in favor of Spencer Paysinger, but Kennard's work during the early downs shows his potential to take on even more of a role in coming years.
Kennard's work in the run game was very solid, to say the least. His length and strength are his biggest assets, and I think his athleticism (speed and quickness) is very underrated as well. He played a lot of strongside linebacker in New York's 4-3 Under defense, which means he was positioned right on the line of scrimmage.
This also means he often had edge-setting responsibilities against the run, which Kennard took on pretty damn well:
On the above play, Devon Kennard (59) gets wide of the blocker, forcing the play inside. But what happens next is what separates the men from the boys -- Kennard then manages to disengage from his block and get upfield himself to get in on the tackle. He plays beyond what his initial assignment is, and completely dominates his blocker.
Kennard was very consistent in his play against the run:
Same thing here. He forces the play inside to where his teammates can make the tackle, then manages to disengage and get in on the play himself.
And once more:
You get the point. Kennard's long arms are what enables him to do this so well, as he can keep blockers away from his body and disengage from them relatively easily. He is also strong and quick enough to usually control blockers and keep them from knocking his arms away.
Here's another example of Kennard's length and technique against better competition:
This is a pass rush, featuring Devon Kennard versus Joe Staley, one of the best offensive linemen in the league. Kennard works against Staley using perfect technique, using the old "long arm" trick. This employs the "one arm is longer than two" philosophy, and keeps Staley from getting his hands on Kennard.
Kennard ends up beating Staley around the edge here, and would have put pressure on Colin Kaepernick had Kaepernick not already escaped the pocket. Still, an impressive pass rush from Kennard, who proved to be a pretty good blitzer over the course of his playing time.
Later in the game, Kennard shows some good short-area burst:
He beats the crack block of Stevie Johnson and tracks down Kaepernick in the open field, which is very impressive from an athletic standpoint.
Kennard isn't the fastest linebacker in the world, which I think is something he can work on in the offseason. In today's NFL, the most valuable linebackers are the ones who never come off the field, like Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Lavonte David, guys with range who excel in coverage. Kennard was never asked to do much in coverage this year beyond dropping into short zones.
His burst and initial quickness shown above suggests he has the capacity to be pretty good in coverage, but slightly altering his body type in the offseason (a.k.a. losing some weight) might be necessary to achieve this.
One more aspect of Devon Kennard's game to touch on is his balance, which is a very underrated aspect of a player's athleticism. After all, it doesn't matter how good a player is if he's always getting knocked to the ground, right?
Balance is crucial, and has become an emphasized attribute ever since the invention of the zone blocking scheme, which relies on offensive linemen "cutting" defenders to the ground to open up running lanes. The great run-defending defenses have players who can stay on the feet and make plays, and Kennard seems to have a knack for this:
He uses that length to absorb the contact of the blocker, disengage through the cut attempt, and make the tackle.
He does a nice job of getting low, absorbing the contact and protecting his legs with his arms, and staying on his feet.
And lastly, Kennard coming in from the right side of your screen. I'll just leave this here.
Overall, Devon Kennard's rookie season looks like a success. The Giants drafted a guy in the fifth round who will probably start for them for the foreseeable future. He showed good instincts and was never a liability, but again, he was never asked to do a whole lot in coverage. Still, I think he can get even better and improve his athleticism with some dedication in the offseason.
I hate looking exclusively at statistics, but he did have 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 43 tackles in 333 defensive snaps, which is essentially about 5.5 full games of action. That's very productive.
The sign is pointing up for Kennard, who may end up being the best player from the 2014 Trojan draft class.