New York Giants General Manager Jerry Reese has created a defense built to effectively defend the high octane passing offenses that many NFL teams currently possess. By having incredible depth at defensive line and a talented secondary, the idea is that the Giants should be able to defend today's modern offensive schemes.
Over the last few decades, the NFL has transformed into a league that no longer represents an "old school" ground and pound style of play; but rather it encourages a high powered passing offense, with a complimentary rushing attack. The league's transition into this fast-paced style of play has caused the value of the traditional run-stopping linebacker to depreciate over time. The responsibilities of the linebacker position in the basic 4-3 defense have changed to include complex pass coverage schemes. This requires today's NFL linebacker to possess a more complete skill-set and higher football IQ than those of past generations.
To execute these packages, the Giants have invested heavily in elite pass rushers and cover corners; however the team is relying on low-risk/ high-reward players with unproven talent, but considerable upside to fill the depth chart at linebacker. That being said, an effective defense has eleven players all working together on the same page. If the linebackers are not doing their job, it can cause the middle of the field to be wide open for tight ends and slot receivers. For the Giants to have a formidable defense this season, it is imperative that their linebackers improve. Below, we will take a look at who Big Blue will rely upon to contribute to their linebacker core for the 2012 season.
Mathias Kiwanuka – After signing a contract extension this offseason that will enable him to earn $21 million over the next four seasons, Kiwanuka is looking to improve at the strong-side linebacker position after getting a year of experience under his belt in 2011. When evaluating Kiwanuka's performance during OTA's, Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell stated:
It was good to see him show off, though, because he’s gained more knowledge and experience at the linebacker position, and his pass coverage has gotten better in the third session. He’s improved each session, but it got better in the third session. As he told me last week, he said "I’ve seen it a year now. I’m getting more comfortable. I’m going through an OTA now. I’m going to be better."
If Mathias Kiwanuka can stay healthy, he is the team's most versatile player on the defensive side of the ball. He has the ability to play strong-side linebacker and also play as a down linemen in the team's famous "NASCAR" set. Talent has never been the question for him. The issue is that the team has had problems finding a role for him to utilize his talent. After getting a year of experience at outside linebacker, look for an even more improved Mathias Kiwanuka in 2012.
Michael Boley - Boley was arguably the team's best player at the linebacker position last season. He served as the "defensive quarterback" by wearing the headset and communicating the play calls to his teammates. Furthermore, Boley led all Giants linebackers with 93 regular season tackles last year. He also proved to be instrumental in covering athletic tight ends throughout the season.
Boley's role this season is currently undetermined. Although Chase Blackburn is slotted to start at middle linebacker, if he has a bad preseason, then the Giants could move Boley to middle linebacker and put Keith Rivers on the weak side. It will be interesting to see how this plays out during training camp.
Chase Blackburn - For the majority of last season, Chase Blackburn was out of the NFL and working as a substitute teacher in Dublin, Ohio. It was not until Week 11 against Green Bay that the Giants brought him back to start at middle linebacker. Blackburn played relatively well after his return, and even made the interception that led to the Giants winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
However, the team recently acquired former first round pick Keith Rivers from the Bengals for a fifth-round draft pick. If Blackburn has a bad preseason, the team could once again decide to move in another direction.
Keith Rivers - The ninth overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft missed all of last season due to a wrist injury. Although Rivers had star potential coming out of college, injuries have prevented him from fulfilling his full potential. When talking about how Rivers looked in OTA's, Perrey Fewell stated the following:
It’s still a work in progress but he is an athletic guy. He can move, he can flip his hip. I want to push it quicker. He’s playing the Will linebacker for us. At some point in time, he’ll play some Mike linebacker for us as we continue in our OTAs. It’s how much can he digest and how much he can execute for us at this point in time. Coach Herrmann is doing a nice job at bringing him along, but at some point in time, we’re going to move him around a little bit more.
If Rivers can master the Giants defensive schemes, his athleticism should enable him to become a starter at some point this season. Look for Chase Blackburn to start this year at middle linebacker, but do not be surprised if Rivers takes over either that role or weak side linebacker (with Boley moving to the middle) at some point during the season.
Jaquian Williams – Williams served primarily as the nickel linebacker last season. He has great speed, and proved effective in pass coverage against athletic tight ends. Although the log-jam ahead of him at the weak side linebacker position will make it difficult for him to become a starter in his second season, he will be extremely useful in passing situations. If he can improve his play against the run, he will be able to become more of an every down player as opposed to a situational one. Furthermore, look for Williams to be a major contributor on special teams as well.
Mark Herzlich – The former ACC Defensive Player of the Year should add depth to the middle linebacker position. Herzlich is a longshot possibility to start at middle linebacker if he can outplay Chase Blackburn and Keith Rivers in the preseason. However, the Giants signed him knowing he would be a project. If Herzlich can stay healthy, look for him to improve this season and maybe even become a major contributor.
Greg Jones - The second year player out of Michigan State started eleven games at middle linebacker last season for Big Blue. However, the team replaced him with Chase Blackburn and never looked back. Perry Fewell had this to say about Jones:
We’re going to try him on the outside. We like the young kid that we have, Jake Muasau, playing middle backer. We’ll probably split the time with Greg a little bit there. If we try to expand Greg more, we think we can get a little more out of him in what he can do, so it’s a little bit of an experiment with us now. We’ll play him on the outside, and then probably later on in camp move him on the inside.
Fewell did not exactly give Jones a ringing endorsement when he said Jones is going to split time with an undrafted rookie in Jake Muasau during OTA's. If Jones can not learn to play both middle and outside linebacker, the team could decide to move on from him.
Jake Muasau, Clint Sintim, and Spencer Paysinger will also compete for roster spots. However, the team can not keep ten linebackers on the final roster. The major determining factor in who will fill out the bottom of the linebacker depth chart will depend heavily on who can contribute the most to special teams.
Although the New York Giants won the Super Bowl last season, they finished 25th in the league in points allowed and 27th in the league in total yards allowed. The inconsistent play from the linebacker position was a major contributing factor to those statistics. There are several questions that the team must answer throughout the duration of training camp in terms of who will make the team and what position they will play. However, with no more rookies being expected to contribute significantly, look for improved linebacker play from the New York Giants in 2012.
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