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Markus Golden: From unwanted to critical part of Giants’ defense

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Markus Golden was the forgotten man for the New York Giants. Until he wasn’t.

It seems par for the course for the outside linebacker who led the team with 10 sacks last season, but wasn’t expected to return in free agency. The Giants seemed fine with that too, until Golden continued to sit around unsigned for weeks. That’s when they realized having him return under the rarely utilized May 5 tender was realistic.

He eventually returned at 110% of his previous year’s salary (just over $4 million) and spent the first four weeks of this season lost in the Giants’ outside linebacker rotation under a new regime. He was playing 16 snaps per game, after averaging 55 last season.

Now, with Lorenzo Carter out for the season (ruptured Achilles tendon) and Oshane Ximines on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, the Giants need Golden to play a significant role as a starter again. It’s a long way from late March, when they expected him to land a free-agent deal elsewhere.

“I probably wouldn’t have believed you man,” Golden said of what he would’ve thought before free agency if told this was the way it would work out. “Because that is how I am anyway. You have to understand, I have been through free agency. I have been playing this game my whole life. It usually never works out how you think it will work out in your head.”

Golden is expected to start opposite Kyler Fackrell on Sunday against Washington (1 p.m. ET, Fox). Rookies Carter Coughlin and Cam Brown also could contribute, but the Giants are going to lean heavily on Golden and Fackrell. They played 100% of the outside linebacker snaps once Carter went down in Week 5 against the Dallas Cowboys.

For Fackrell, it’s earned. He’s tied for third in the NFL with six tackles for a loss, tied for the team lead with a pair of sacks and has an interception returned for a touchdown that came in Sunday’s 37-34 loss to Dallas.

The former Green Bay Packers outside linebacker knows a bigger role is expected after splitting snaps with Ximines early this season.

“It’s huge, I feel for Zo. We’ve had him in our thoughts and prayers,” Fackrell said of losing Carter for the season. “It’s rough, we’re a little thin at outside ‘backer right now. … I think I ended up playing every snap on Sunday. I think that will be the plan moving forward, at least that’s what I’m preparing for. I don’t mind it. I would prefer to be on the field. We’re definitely light, we’ll miss Zo and we’re missing [Ximines].”

Regardless, it means significantly more opportunities for Golden, who was “champing at the bit to get in there more,” according to Giants outside linebackers coach Bret Bielema.

This wasn’t an ideal situation for Golden, who was being used almost exclusively as a pass-rush specialist. But the coaches insist he never complained and prepared with the precision that earned him rave reviews from the previous regime. Having been signed late in the process and arriving late to training camp as he attended to personal matters, Golden should have known what to expect.

“We’re very clear explaining to our players really on a weekly basis what their role in the game is, what the game plan may call for and what they have to be ready for,” Giants coach Joe Judge said. “But I’d say this, there hasn’t been much talking necessary to get Markus going. He works hard every day. This guy is a tremendous team guy. He’s come in with a positive attitude on a daily basis. He does whatever we ask him to.”

After playing 65 defensive snaps the first four weeks, Golden played 55 on Sunday.

“I try not to take anything personal and be about business. Do my job,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, only thing I want for the team is to win. Whether I get one play or whether I get 100 plays.”

‘He has a great opportunity’

The Giants weren’t exactly clamoring to get Golden back in the mix under this new regime. Listed at 6-foot-3, 259 pounds, he’s not the ideal fit with Patrick Graham’s scheme favoring long, tall outside linebackers who have the versatility to be used regularly in coverage and in different spots on the field.

Carter (6-5, 255) was playing 89% of the defensive snaps on one side and Fackrell (6-5, 245) and Ximines (6-4, 254) were essentially splitting time opposite him. Golden was being sprinkled in on pass-rush downs, a far cry from the full-time role he had last season when he led the Giants in sacks, quarterback hits (27) and tackles for a loss (13).

He has a $1 million bonus available if he reaches double-digit sacks, but has a lot of work left to get there with a half-sack through five games.

“I said it a few weeks ago. Give it time. The process will play out and the reps will come,” Graham said Thursday. “Right now, he has a great opportunity. It was going to come regardless, because he’s a good player.”

It’s not as if the Giants had been struggling to get to the quarterback without Golden being a key factor this season. They are 11th in the league with a pressure rate of 26%, per NFL Next Gen Stats. They have been able to create pressure — and sacks — without a dominant rusher.

Graham has used a variety of looks and blitzes to get defenders near the quarterback. No Giant has more than two sacks, but they’ve managed at least two sacks in each of their five games this season. All five of their defensive linemen, a nickel cornerback and middle linebacker have contributed. The Giants are tied for 12th in the NFL with 12 sacks.

It certainly shouldn’t hurt to have Golden back in the middle of it all. Despite the limited playing time, he has a team-leading 10 pressures, with many more seemingly in his future after the way this all unfolded.

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