This has been a sore spot for a while now with the fans. The quality of linebacker play has been substandard and a reason the Giants have had some issues with their defense over the years. They just have not spent many high draft picks on linebackers. Reese has had some success with signing castoffs, free agents and UDFAs, overall the quality has been poor. The highest was a first round pick for Kiwi but he was a defensive end, next was a second round pick for Sintim who has been decimated by knee injuries. Other than that some mid to late picks of which some where wasted picks to me, the Giants have nothing to show for their attempts at drafting linebackers so far. For instance Sintim and what I thought was a total waste in a weak 2010 draft, 4th round pick Philip Dillard have not produced anything.
There’s also 2008 draft picks Brian Kehl and Jonathan Goff who showed some promise but was not re-signed. He signed with the Redskins and reinjured the same knee, I’m wondering if these teams just do not understand how long it takes for those repaired knees to heal. Kehl could not make it with the Giants, he was with the Rams and Spags and now is taking Goff’s place as a backup ILB with the Skins. Phillip Dillard was just not a NFL quality player, he’s on the Panthers practice squad. The 2011 draft brought two 6th round picks in Jones and Williams that might contribute as well as UDFA Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger. They all look better than anything the Giants had in the past, especially Herzlich and Williams. The trade for Kieth Rivers is like the Giants having used a #1 pick in 2008 for a linebacker, hopefully when acclimated to playing for a winning organization he shows why he was a #1 pick.
This season the Giants will have its best set of linebackers in a while and some depth too. It has a lot to do with the health of some players. Last season some of these players showed signs of being able to play but where not yet ready, hopefully this season they are. Unless you’re new to my writing I have mentioned this many times, college football does not prepare their linebackers for the NFL. Many are playing out of position or are not required to do the same things on the field. In the NFL there are two distinct schemes for defense, a 4-3 and a 3-4, the linebackers have different responsibilities and many cannot play both schemes. The ones that can are usually extremely talented, but even those have difficulty in some cases.
Because of this it’s a real crapshoot drafting linebackers, you just never know if they will be able to adjust to the NFL game. Also it may take a few season of hard work to learn the more complex assignments required for NFL defenses. It’s possible to find a stud linebacker in the 5th round as well as the first. Or as with Mark Herzlich a UDFA (undrafted free agent) who was a potential first round pick until he was devastated with cancer in his leg. He is an amazing example of determination and luck that he is even playing in the NFL and now competing for the starting middle linebacker position for the Giants. So let’s look at the linebacking corps of the New York Giants, once the brightest spot of the defense has become a much maligned group of underachievers.
SAM – Mathias Kiwanuka – 6’5” 267 6yrs – Originally drafted by Ernie Accorsi in the first round to be a defensive end. Due to injuries he was moved to the strong side linebacker position. Then because of injuries moved back to the DE position. This really hurt his development and it’s just now that he is showing what he could do as a linebacker. I thought he was best suited for the middle linebacker position with his long arms and lineman mentality but in a Tampa 2 type defense he is best suited for the SAM role. He could be an outstanding linebacker if just left there and not moved, last season he flashed some of those abilities. This reminds me of another Giants linebacker who had some issues about where he would play, Brad Van Pelt, he turned out to be one of the all-time best SAMs in the NFL. I think Kiwi will have a great year and if he had NOT been moved around would have made a probowl by now. Because of his abilities to rush the passer he will be moved to DE on some downs, but he has enough talent and time in the NFL playing both positions to switch back and forth without having any lapses.
MIKE – Chase Blackburn – 6’4” 242 8yrs – Chase was a UDFA signed in 2005 by the Giants. I remember his rookie year during the preseason, he stood out as a special teams player. You could see what he lacked in physical ability he made up for in desire and hard work. He’s one of the players that made up the heart of the Giants team since his first year. Last season he was let go because of injuries, the Giants were thin at linebacker so they called him back to make a super bowl run, he was pretty much sitting on his couch. With fresh legs and a healed body he played outstanding helping the Giants win another super bowl. Right now he is penciled in as the starting middle linebacker but the intense Herzlich is gaining on him.
WILL – Michael Boley – 6’3” 230(looks more like 240+) 8yrs – I always liked Boley when he was with the Falcons, originally a 5th round pick in 2005. He made plays but lacked the physicality I prefer in a linebacker, I admired his cover skills and overall play though. I was happy Reese signed him, although he does have some injury issues now. Since coming to the Giants he has added size and has become a much more physical and aggressive player. There is always a health concern and by carrying him as your starting WILL you better have a good backup, he will probably miss time because of injury, that has been his history. When healthy he is a top notch linebacker who is at his peak of playing right now. His original deal will allow him to be a Giants player until the 2013 season after that he’ll be a free agent.
MLB – Mark Herzlich – 6’4” 246 2yrs – I think everybody pretty much knows his story as I mentioned before. He had cancer in his leg and once completely well he dedicated himself to becoming the player who was destined to be a first round pick and even surpassed that. He played well last season when he got the chance but was injured. Now healthy again he is making a move for the starting middle linebacker position by not only being a run stopper, he is showing above average cover skills which is so important in Fewell’s Tampa 2 based defense. I like Chase but the future is now with Herzlich.
LB – Keith Rivers – 6’2” 235 4yrs – A great college linebacker drafted 9th in the first round in 2008 by the Bungles, I mean the Bengals. At USC linebacker coach Ken Norton Jr. called Rivers the shark for his aggressive play. In his rookie year Hines Ward blindsided Rivers with a helmet to the jaw shattering it. The once promising Rivers just could not catch a break and fought through injuries and playing for a terrible organization. In 2012 the Giants traded for Rivers giving up a 5th round pick for a possible star player. The Giants know how to develop players, Rivers is still young and does not have a lot of wear and tear on his lower body. This is about the time when it’s make or break for a linebacker in the NFL, if they have what it takes it will show around his fourth year. So far he has shown the physical abilities it’s about learning the defense and applying it. It may take time as Rivers is playing multiple positions, he will be a big contributor to the defense later in the season when he gets comfortable with the players around him and the schemes. Rivers has a lot to prove being such a high draft pick. He is still young at 26 years old and has not reached his peak yet.
LB – Greg Jones – 6’ 248 2yrs – Greg was a 6th round draft pick in 2011 and showed some signs that he was a player. He had a good career at Michigan State and can play all three linebacker positions. He had trouble adjusting to the NFL but the Giants are giving him time, he is a strong player and fits the typical Tampa 2 type MIKE well. This was even mentioned at his combine analysis, he’s just a little slow footed and that can be worked on with training. He was given a chance and looked lost, he just wasn’t ready. Jones is a good football player and will make the Giants roster. He’ll eventually be pushing for that starting MIKE spot, although it looks like Herzlich is the man right now.
LB – Jake Muasau – 6’1’ 240 R – An unknown Jake showed some promise at his proday running a 4.74 40 plus having good size and ability. The Giants signed him as a UDFA and he has not disappointed them, he is a very aggressive player. He’ll have a tough time making the roster with all the linebackers in camp unless there are injuries but might stick on the practice squad.
LB – Spencer Paysinger – 6’2” 236 2yrs – A good linebacker at Oregon he’s a little light and slow, but can play football. He belongs in the NFL so far, in my opinion Paysinger really needs to add a little bulk and develop his technique as all young players do. I don’t think he will ever be a starting linebacker but might have a long enough career as a competent backup to fill in. I think he should take a note from Williams playbook and put more work into his body if he wants to compete for a starter spot.
LB – Jaquian Williams – 6’2” 240 2yrs – Drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 draft along with Greg Jones, Williams is known for his athlecism, he ran a 4.55 40. He did not really have the bulk necessary to play the backer position at 220 pounds, he has gained 20 pounds and has not lost his speed. He could always cover and now he has the added strength. He might just be pushing Boley for that WILL spot.
LB/DE – Adrian Tracy – 6’2” 245 3yrs – A 6th round pick in 2010, originally a defensive end he has been switched to linebacker and now switched back to DE with the Giants being thin at DE with Tollefson gone. I just don’t think he has the ability to play in the NFL, maybe he will be a better DE than linebacker, he might play either at times. I think the only way for Tracy to make the roster is to play outstanding special teams.
LB – Clint Sintim – 6’3” 247 4yrs – Originally a second round pick in 2009, he was a good college player who had an NFL body, frame and physical ability. His problem like so many others was his inability to cover on passing downs. One issue Sintim had was his over developed and bulked out legs. Even in a college all-star game one coach had mentioned this, he said Sintim had the legs of a 300 pound lineman. Not good for covering tightends and running backs out of the backfield, great for taking on offensive lineman though. It was a matter of developing his body to be more suited for the NFL game and learning his position. The Giants had hoped this would be a quick and easy transition, they were wrong. Clint had one injury after another and just when it looked like he was going to show what he could do he tore his knee up, twice. There is still some hope he will be available in 2013, but by then his services will probably not be needed as the Giants have been developing some good looking young players. He’s a good guy and I wish the best for him, can he come back and play at a high level after these injuries, I doubt it.
LB/LS – Zak DeOssie – 6’4” 250 6yrs – Zak does not play linebacker anymore due to back problems. He was drafted as a linebacker and long snapper in 4th round of the 2007 draft. You might wonder why the 4th round for a long snapper, people forget he was a very good linebacker who ran a 4.6 40 at his size. During his early days after snapping most times he was down field making the tackle. He was fast and a hard hitter so he was usually the first one down there along with Chase. There was hope that he would become a great SAM, but the back injury slowed him down and his only way to stay in football was to be a fulltime long snapper which he does very well. Too bad people forget some of the hits he made covering punts earlier in his career.
Right now the Giants have more talent at linebacker than they have had in years. Kiwi, Chase, Boley, Rivers, Herzlich, Jones, Williams and Paysinger all have experience and talent. I’m sure they will all see playing time during the season to keep people fresh and try to match up at times with certain teams better. No longer will there be the need to find creative ways to cover up the lack of quality linebacker play like having to use 3 safeties.
The addition of Rivers and the maturation of the now second year players should provide enough firepower and depth to take some pressure off the rest of the defense. Having good linebacking will allow the defensive line to be more aggressive, they can try to shoot gaps and get into the backfield more often. An already dominate defensive line can gamble more, take some chances and make some big plays which means more turnovers.
The secondary can double more on top receivers without worrying about the short zones. In the past tightends have made Swiss cheese of the Giants defense and had big games. By having a better and deeper linebacking corps all the other aspects to the defense improves. It’s going to be a tough season and one of the hardest the Giants have had to face due to the schedule, they will be playing so many top teams.