Michael Boley was the New York Giants best linebacker in 2011. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Linebacker has seemingly been a weak spot for the New York Giants, and a position fans have begging the team to address, for years. As the defending Super Bowl champions begin preparations for the 2012 NFL season, which begins for them when training camp at UAlbany opens July 27, that no longer appears to be the case.
Linebacker is the subject today as we continue our preseason series of position-by-position profiles. What we find is that the Giants do not have one dominant player in their linebacking corps, but they do appear to have a deep, talented group of versatile players who offer defensive coordinator Perry Fewell a multitude of options in configuring his group.
Entering training camp, here is what the linebacker unit looks like:
Starters: Michael Boley (OLB), Mathias Kiwanuka (OLB), Chase Blackburn (MLB)
Returning Reserves: Mark Herzlich (MLB), Greg Jones (OLB), Jacquian Williams (OLB), Spencer Paysinger (OLB), Clint Sintim (OLB)
Newcomers: Keith Rivers, OLB (trade with Cincinnati), Jake Mausau, MLB (UDFA)
The Big Battle
That would be the knock-down, drag-out free-for-all that appears to be taking shape for the middle linebacker job. The Giants have been clear that Blackburn, who came off his couch late in the 2011 season as a free agent signee to take the starting middle linebacker job and helped stabilize the defense, is the starter. At least on Day 1 of training camp. Day 1 of of the regular season is anyone's guess.
Blackburn, a 29-year-old entering his eight season, could play well enough to keep the job. He had 26 tackles and one interception in five regular-season games and the identical totals in four post-season games.
Herzlich, the second-year undrafted free agent from Boston College who survived bone cancer to have an NFL career, could win the job. He started two games in the middle of the season before suffering a broken ankle that ended his season. The Giants appear to love his aggressiveness and run-stopping ability, but the question will be his athleticism and ability to play in pass coverage.
Rivers, a first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008, could earn the job after being acquired in a trade during the offseason. Rivers has had an injury-plagued career and missed all of last season with a wrist injury. He has played mostly on the weak side, where Boley in entrenched, but has reportedly played middle linebacker in passing situations. He could do something similar with the Giants, since neither Blackburn nor Herzlich excels in pass coverage.
Those would be Boley and Kiwanuka, the starting outside linebackers. Boley, the weak-side linebacker, had his best season as a Giant in 2011. The seven-year veteran had 94 tackles and took a leadership role, calling the Giants' defensive signals for the first time.
Kiwanuka, a reluctant linebacker with the Giants during the 2009 season, moved to that position willingly last season and played extremely well while also spending some time as a pass-rushing defensive end. Kiwanuka had 85 tackles, 3.5 sacks and an interception as a very valuable hybrid type player for Fewell and the Giants.
The duo give the Giants a pair of quality starters with differing skill sets.
The Rest Of The Story
That would be the competition for the remaining roster spots. Blackburn, Boley, Kiwanuka, Rivers and Herzlich appear to be certain to make the roster. Weak-side linebacker Jacquian Williams would also appear to be likely to make the squad. As a rookie in 2011, the sixth-round pick from South Florida had 71 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, three fumble recoveries and five passes defensed.
That leaves four players fighting for what probably will be two roster spots. Sintim missed all of last season with his second devastating knee injury. The 2009 second-round pick tries for what will probably be the last time to prove he belongs. Spencer Paysinger made the team last season as an undrafted free agent. He is a good special teams player but has Boley, Rivers and Williams ahead of him at weak-side linebacker. His path to the roster is a difficult one. Jones started five games at middle linebacker as a rookie last season, but the Giants are moving him to the strong side this season in hopes he can be a backup for Kiwanuka. Muasau is an undrafted free agent signed after rookie mini-camp out of tiny Georgia State. The Giants believe he has a chance, another reason Jones is working on the outside.
The Giants' defensive coordinator knows he has a linebacking group with a number of talented players who have differing skills sets. What he doesn't know is how the jigsaw puzzle will ultimately fit together.
"Our linebacking corps a year ago was young and inexperienced. They were talented, but there was an area of concern because there was no OTAs, mandatory mini-camp, etc. With a year under their belt, with some playing experience, they look bigger, they look stronger, they look faster, they’re more knowledgeable. I think we’re a better unit, linebacker unit, than at the end of the 2011 season," Fewell said. "I think we have depth at our linebacker unit this year. And I think there’s real competition for different roles within our linebacking unit. I’m going to have to do a good job of evaluating those guys when we get to training camp and make sure that we put them in the proper positions for them to have success."
In the middle, Herzlich eventually takes the job from Blackburn. Rivers plays the middle in many passing situations, which seems like the best way to get him on the field. Also, without Deon Grant the Giants will likely play fewer three-safety alignments, increasing the need for linebackers who can cover backs and tight ends.
Among the reserves, best guess is that Paysinger and Sintim ultimately lose out. For Paysinger, the mountain just seems too steep. There are too many players with similar skills ahead of him. For Sintim, knee injuries have sidelined him for more than a season and even when he was healthy he never really showed that he was comfortable transitioning from a 3-4 defensive end in college to a 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL. His time may have run out.