The former Mr. Irrelevant suddenly looks more like Mr. Irreplaceable.
As he enters his third season with the Giants, inside linebacker Tae Crowder already has beaten the initial odds to stick in the NFL given to “Mr. Irrelevant” — the nickname assigned to the last pick of each draft class. He was one of the most unlikely names on a list of each team’s leading tackler last season, keeping the company of future Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner, former top-10 draft pick Roquan Smith, First Team All-Pro De’Vondre Campbell and other established stars.
But Crowder still was seen as a placeholder until two-time captain Blake Martinez returned from injury or the Giants looked elsewhere. Well, free agency and the draft passed without any major investments at inside linebacker, and then Martinez and the Giants mutually agreed to split on Sept. 1 — just 10 days before the season opener.
So, Crowder, 25, again is left standing as the No. 1 option on a depth chart that can’t afford for him to catch the injury bug after Martinez’s surprise release and rookie Darrian Beavers’ season-ending torn ACL.
“He’s a guy that you can tell has played a lot of football,” inside linebackers coach John Egorugwu recently said. “He’s a veteran in my eyes — with the reps he’s gotten on the field — and he’s shown that. He’s continuing to get better.”
Crowder’s 23 career starts over his first two seasons — including the final 14 games last season as the defensive signal-caller after Martinez suffered a torn ACL — already put him third among Mr. Irrelevant since the draft dropped to seven rounds in 1994. Only defensive back Michael Green (48) and fullback Jim Finn (45) have more during longer careers.
On Aug. 8, the day the Giants brawled in training camp, Crowder sent the message that the defense wasn’t going to get pushed around just because tackling is off limits in practice. When he tossed running back Antonio Williams to the ground as payback for Saquon Barkley knocking over cornerback Aaron Robinson, the fuse was lit.
“Tae is a guy who is going to ride with his guys,” safety Julian Love said afterward.
Added defensive end Jihad Ward, “Tae gets it. He’s ready to turn it up, and I can’t wait for him to get loose out there. He’s running the show.”
It’s not just any show. This production was the equivalent of an Emmy winner in Baltimore.
In coordinator Wink Martindale’s system, inside linebacker was reserved previously for Ravens standouts Ray Lewis, Bart Scott, CJ Mosley and Daryl Smith. It’s the position that the aggressive blitz-happy Martindale admits he is “toughest on.”
“I knew it was going to be fun just having him as a coordinator,” Crowder said during training camp.
The Giants figure to spend lots of time in 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 formations with a nickel cornerback subbed in for an inside linebacker. When the base 3-4 package is needed, Egorugwu looks to put “the two best guys” on the field and match skill set to assignments rather than designate “middle linebacker” or a “right” and a “left.”
The other inside options are rookie Micah McFadden, journeyman Austin Calitro and two other 2020 draft picks in Carter Coughlin and Cam Brown who were drafted before Crowder but have played fewer than 235 career defensive snaps each compared to Mr. Not-So-Irrelevant’s 1,501. No wonder then that Crowder’s football IQ seems to be developing.
“I’m not sure if it’s just the difference in the defense,” Crowder said. “I feel like as you watch film and keep coming to practice every day, every year is different. You learn more each year you’re in business. … Each year as a player you should want to be better than you were last year. I know I did lead the team [with 130 tackles], but it’s in the past. I’m worried about right now.”