With the New York Giants reporting to training camp in just a couple weeks, BigBlueInteractive.com is breaking down each of the team’s positional groups from now until July 21. Today, let’s take a look at the linebackers.
2013 YEAR IN REVIEW: In a year of mostly downs, the Giants’ linebackers were one of the team’s few bright spots in 2013. After acquiring Jon Beason via trade from the Carolina Panthers, the middle linebacker established himself as a force in the middle of the Giants’ defense. Beason finished with 93 tackles and an interception in 11 games. Outside Beason, Keith Rivers and Spencer Paysinger were solid in the team’s base 4-3 set while Jacquian Williams continued to establish himself as one of the better coverage linebackers in the game.
In 2012, the Giants defense was one of the worst against the run, finishing 25th in the NFL, but rebounded nicely last year. Coupled with a rebuilt interior defensive unit, the Giants rushed allowed an average of 108.9 rushing yards per game, good for 14th in the NFL.
Against some of the league’s best, the Giants played their strongest. New York held Jamaal Charles (KC) to 65 yards rushing, Matt Forte (CHI) to 67, Adrien Peterson (MIN) to 28, LeSean McCoy (PHI) to 94 in two games, Eddie Lacey (GB) to 27 and Marshawn Lynch (SEA) to 47.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS:Not much has changed at the linebacker position for the Giants. Beason was re-signed and Rivers was allowed to walk. The lone notable addition via free agency was that of ex-Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain. Devon Kennard was drafted in the fifth round out of USC and has earned early praise from the coaching staff.
TRAINING CAMP STORYLINES: Little disclaimer early on: not going to count the health/return of Jon Beason (broken bone/torn ligament in foot) as a ‘training camp storyline’ simply because it doesn’t involve camp. If and when he returns will be well after the team breaks on Aug. 14.
Devon Kennard is easily one of the biggest camp storylines this year. Throughout the offseason conditioning program, Giants’ coaches ranted and raved about the progress of the rookie USC linebacker. While words are often meaningless, their faith in the 23-year-old was put on display when Kennard was inserted in as starting linebacker after Beason went down in OTAs.
Injuries have stunted the growth of Jacquian Williams, but it appears he’s ready for a breakout. The former sixth-round pick is no longer a situational player as the Giants have named him their full-time starting WILL. Williams progression, and ability to stay healthy, will be worth following during the summer.
ON THE BUBBLE: It looks like the premier camp battle will be between undrafted linebacker Dan Fox and formerly undrafted Mark Herzlich. In the early stages of his career, Herzlich was all but given the keys to the Giants’ MIKE linebacker position, but never capitalized and struggled mightily on defense. When Beason went down during OTAs, it was Kennard that filled in at the middle…not Herzlich. If Dan Fox can match what Herzlich can do on special teams, there’s a chance he’s given the spot on the final 53. Fox has good speed, is very intelligent and versatile.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Linebackers coach Jim Herrmann on Kennard: “His college career he played everywhere. He had like I think three different coordinators at USC. When he was there with Monte Kiffin he was a MIKE. He played in that system. So for him, he’s played all over so he’s got multiple talents and he’s a smart guy so it’s not anything new for him. And he gives us a lot of flexibility. He has some rush ability so on third down he could actually be a rush-type guy. The flexibility helps us. As you go into the season there are 46 guys out there, normally the linebackers get maybe five guys so somebody has to know dual roles and we’ve always had guys that could do that. He’ll give us that ability.”
On progression of Jacquian Williams: “This OTA and mini-camp he did a great job in our base stuff as a WILL. He’s a natural WILL in nickel, he did a great job with our WILL stuff in base. To me he made a big jump and big improvement this spring.”
On UDFA Dan Fox: “To me he’s another guy, one of the young guys who’s got a lot of intelligence. He can play multiple roles. He actually played all three spots this spring, MIKE, SAM, WILL, he plays in our sub. Any time you’ve got a smart guy like that who football just comes natural to him, that gives him a chance. He’s got to make the team on special teams, obviously, that will be his biggest deal when he comes back. For me, as a position coach, being able to say, ‘Hey look, he has multiple roles on defense, he can play a lot of positions,’ that helps his chances. To me, that’s what you want.”
PREDICTIONS: Connor Hughes - I believe this linebacking unit may be the best (when healthy) that the Giants have had in quite some time. Jameel McClain is a force against the run, intelligent, savvy and a vocal leader. Jacquian Williams (when healthy) has proven he has the raw and natural athletic ability that few at his position possess. Beason (again, when healthy) showed last year he’s an every down linebacker in the NFL and arguably the best in the middle the Giants have had since Antonio Pierce.
Despite all the above, the one player that most intrigues me is the one no one has seen in pads yet: Devon Kennard. The amount of praise Kennard has been given from the coaching staff is noticeable. Everyone from Tom Coughlin, to Perry Fewell, to Jim Herrmann has raved about the rookie. The fact the coaching staff already seems to have locked him in as a starter if McClain is forced to the middle with Beason out is telling. To get Kennard on the field – in pads – against the speed and talent level of the NFL will be a true tell if the Giants snagged a steal in the draft.
Eric Kennedy – Maybe it’s more wishful thinking than a realistic scenario, but I expect Jon Beason to be back by the opener. But obviously, the Giants need him back soon and they need him close to 100 percent. The way he impacted the overall defense with his presence last season was a pretty serious indictment on the Giants’ organization on their de-emphasis of the linebacker spot. If Beason is OK, the good news for the Giants is they now have two confident, cerebral leaders at the position in Beason and Jameel McClain. I’m curious to see McClain on the field. The Ravens said nice things about McClain, but they didn’t make a big effort to keep him. I wasn’t overly impressed in the limited 2013 film I’ve seen of McClain. But he was coming off of a serious neck injury so he may do better a couple of years removed from the injury.
Jacquian Williams has excellent tools but he has to stay healthy and play more physically than he has in the past against the run to prove he is an every-down linebacker. I actually like Spencer Paysinger more than most; at the very least, he is a very good special teams player.
The linebacker position on the Giants has been unsettled for quite some time. For the older fans, who had the pleasure to watch players such as Sam Huff, Harry Carson, Brad Van Pelt, Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, and Jessie Armstead, it has been frustrating.
When the Giants shifted from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense in the 1990s, the personnel emphasis naturally shifted from spending premium resources on linebackers to defensive linemen. And that trend has continued under General Manager Jerry Reese.
Since Reese became general manager of the Giants in 2007, in seven drafts, the Giants have drafted seven linebackers, including players in the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds. Only two remain on the roster – sixth-rounders Adrian Tracy and Jacquian Williams. Tracy, a defensive end in college, was drafted as a linebacker and has since been moved back to defensive end. Gone by the wayside are Bryan Kehl, Jonathan Goff, Clint Sintim, Phillip Dillard, and Greg Jones.
In free agency under Reese, the Giants have signed Kawika Mitchell, Danny Clark, Michael Boley, Keith Bulluck, Dan Connor, Aaron Curry, and Kyle Bosworth. The latter three were signed this offseason.
The Giants also traded away their fifth round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft for Keith Rivers.
It’s obviously too early to comment on Connor, Curry, and Bosworth, but of all of the rest, since 2007, only Boley became an established, multi-year starter for the Giants. (After four seasons as a starter, Boley was released this offseason). If we’re being honest, to date, Reese’s track record in addressing the linebacking position has not been good.
With Boley and free agent departure Chase Blackburn no longer on the roster, and Mathias Kiwanuka moving back to defensive end, the Giants will have three new starters at linebacker in 2013. That’s quite a turnover. And it is conceivable that the three new starters in 2013 will be castoffs Rivers, Connor, and Curry. In fact, if you could turn back the clock and tell a Giants fan in April 2008 that the Rivers, Connor, and Curry would be starting for Big Blue in few years, the response would have been, “How the hell did Reese pull that off?” We’ll have to see if they can turn their careers around and regain former collegiate glory.
The Giants currently have nine linebackers on the roster. They will probably keep seven on the 53-man roster, especially since linebackers usually make good special teams players. But it is possible that they could keep as few as six.
“(Our linebackers) actually had a good spring,” said Head Coach Tom Coughlin at the end of mini-camp. “And the good thing about them, they are very unselfish. They work hard; they study hard. If I called for a one hour meeting, those guys were probably going to meet for an hour and a half to two. It is just the way that group is. They have been good. So we’ll see. I have seen some growth and I have seen a lot of good things happen out here. They are going to have to. It’s going to have to happen.”
Let’s look at each of these nine players:
Dan Connor: A highly-regarded Penn State linebacker coming out of the 2008 NFL Draft, Connor was originally selected in the 3rd round by the Carolina Panthers. He signed with the Cowboys as a free agent in March 2012. Connor was then signed by the Giants in March 2013 after he was released by the Dallas. In five NFL seasons, Connor has played in 56 regular-season games with 27 starts. In 2012, Connor started eight games for the Cowboys and finished the season with 56 tackles and one pass defense. Connor has decent size, but lacks athleticism. He is more of a tough, blue-collar, two-down run defender who sometimes struggles in pass coverage. Connor is not overly physical at the point-of-attack, but he is quick to locate the ball, avoids blocks well, and is a good, solid tackler. He can play inside or outside, but he definitely is more comfortable in a 4-3 scheme. Connor’s biggest problem has been staying healthy.
“I think (middle linebacker is my best) position,” Connor said. “That’s the position where I’m comfortable. I played it in college, I was in the middle of a 4-3 in Carolina. So I feel most comfortable in the middle. But I do have some experience on the outside.”
“It’s all about being technique-perfect and being able to call the defense, make the checks and be spot on,” Connor said. “As a new guy in the locker room, that’s how I’m going to earn respect – by knowing not only my position but everyone else’s position. So studying is big for me right now, being vocal on the field, and basically earn the respect of guys who I met (only recently).”
Connor’s chief competition at middle linebacker, Mark Herzlich, has been impressed by Connor. “Dan is a very intelligent player,” said Herzlich. “He’s very good with his reads and his fits. He’s very precise.”
“Run fits have been a point of emphasis, making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time,” said Connor. “The coaches have done a great job teaching us the mistakes that were made last season.”
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” said Connor. “We have a lot of young guys. They’re hungry. Each one of us feels like we want to put our name on the map. I really like this defense. It lets you play fast and play aggressive.”
Aaron Curry: In the 2009 NFL Draft, Curry was widely-regarded as one of the best linebacking prospects in years and “the safest pick” in the draft. The Seattle Seahawks made him the fourth player selected overall in that draft, but Curry never lived up to his draft hype and was traded to the Raiders during the 2011 season for a 7th round pick and conditional 5th round pick. Curry played better in Oakland, but he was hampered by chronic knee issues and was cut.
Physically, Curry has excellent size and strength. Although he lacks ideal lateral agility, when healthy, he is a very good athlete who runs well. For some reason, it hasn’t come together for Curry at the pro level. Critics have pointed to the lack of big plays, inconsistency, poor coverage, and too often being out of position.
Curry says his problem in Seattle was that he was not focused on football. “Early in my career, I was just selfish and self-centered,” said Curry. “I was more about me than I was about the Seahawks. It was immaturity, and I’m glad I got past that stage…It was like I knew I could do it and I knew I would do it. I just don’t think at the time I was interested in doing it. I think I was interested in other things and at the time football just wasn’t my top priority, just to be honest…(Now) I approach everything differently. I see details now. Football is important now. It has a priority in my life that I’m willing to do whatever it takes that’s going to help the Giants be successful and I’m not so selfish…Now I’m more about finding a way to just put out a lot of effort and a lot of energy and just cause havoc.”
Curry’s biggest issue now may be the health of his knees. Curry underwent stem-cell therapy on both of his knees during the 2012 offseason. He only played two games before he was cut in November. He then underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in December.
Curry’s former linebacker coach in Seattle, Ken Norton, is still a believer if Curry is healthy. “He was a 4-3 linebacker playing off the ball and you’re not going to get sacks,” Norton said. “He’s probably the best linebacker I’ve ever had to play over the tight end and just dominate him. There were a whole lot of expectations. You don’t see the sack numbers and people say this guy isn’t doing what he’s supposed to be doing. At the end, his legs and knees were hurting a lot and he was unable to stop on a dime. He couldn’t do all the things he was supposed to do.”
“If Aaron’s health isn’t an issue, if he can run and stop and hit, I mean, this kid hasn’t scratched the surface,” Norton said. “He can do a lot of amazing things. He does things that Carl Banks used to do on the tight end. Once he gets his mind set on something, he can do it. The only issue with him has been what’s going on between the ears. If everything is in order and he’s to the point where he has something to prove, the Giants might have caught him at the right time.”
“I hope to be able to offer some positive energy (to the defense),” said Curry. “I just want to run around and hit things that are moving and I want my teammates to get excited. I want the defense to be excited at all times and I hope to be able to just uplift everybody and do what’s asked of me and do it full speed…My job and my only motivation is to go out there, play hard, play fast, be physical and get my teammates to just be fired up with me and just bring a positive energy every day.”
Keith Rivers: If Curry was supposed to be a “sure thing”, then Rivers was pretty damn close. Rivers was the ninth player taken in the 2008 NFL Draft. But the injury-prone linebacker was traded by the Bengals to the Giants in 2012 for a 5th round draft pick.
While Rivers never lived up to his draft hype in Cincinnati, he was a solid player for the Bengals when he played. The problem was that he couldn’t stay healthy and that trend continued with the Giants in 2012. Last season, hamstring and calf injuries caused him to miss five games and limited his playing time and effectiveness. Rivers finished the season with six starts and accrued 44 tackles. In four seasons in Cincinnati, Rivers started 33-of-35 regular-season games he played in. But he missed 29 regular-season games with injuries – including nine games in 2008 with a broken jaw and all of the 2011 season with a wrist injury that required surgery. Rivers also missed time in 2009 with a calf injury and in 2010 with plantar fasciitis. Rivers is an athletic, three-down linebacker. He is more of the run-and-hit type than physical presence at the point-of-attack against the run. Rivers has the overall athletic ability and range to do well in coverage, but he needs to become more consistent in that area of his game. He only has two career sacks.
Interestingly, Giants’ beat reporter Paul Dottino, who also does some work for the Giants, says Rivers was clearly the best linebacker in training camp last year. During spring workouts, Rivers was starting at weakside linebacker in Mathias Kiwanuka’s old position. (Note: In Perry Fewell’s system, the weakside linebacker is called the strongside linebacker).
During OTAs, Coughlin said, “The other day Keith Rivers made a heck of a play.” Rivers has the ability to be a very steady performer for New York if he can just stay on the football field.
Mark Herzlich: Herzlich was regarded as one of the better collegiate linebackers in the country before missing the 2009 season at Boston College with bone cancer. Because of the illness, a titanium rod was inserted into Herzlich’s left femur. Herzlich has very good size, but the key question is whether Herzlich now has the overall athletic ability to excel at the pro level. Last year, it was anticipated that Herzlich would provide more of a serious challenge to Chase Blackburn for the starting middle linebacker position, but Herzlich underwhelmed.
Herzlich has had a very good spring. It was Herzlich, not Dan Connor, who started at middle linebacker during spring workouts and the coaches appear to have come away impressed.
“Very commanding,” said Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell. “He’s taken a leadership role out there and I think he has some good respect from his teammates in some of the things he’s done in the OTAs. Obviously, we want to find out what happens when the pads come on.”
“After the first OTA, (Spencer Paysinger and I) always go and watch the films,” said Herzlich. “Me and Spence were watching film, and we’re like, ‘We’re gonna know this defense better than the coaches.’ So we went to Costco that day, got dry erase boards. I was on the dry erase board all day, just reviewing everything from OTAs, getting ready for mini-camp. That way, when you eliminate the mental mistakes, you can play faster and more physical.”
“As linebackers, you never want to be called ‘soft,’” said Herzlich. “There were some people saying that we were playing soft last year. So we have a mentality to change that this season…We’ve talked about how we couldn’t stop the run when we needed to last season. People say, ‘It’s the defensive line.’ But it starts with the linebackers. We have to fill our gaps and play downhill.”
Connor may overtake Herzlich in training camp and the preseason, but right now, it’s Herzlich’s job to lose.
Spencer Paysinger: Paysinger was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2011 NFL Draft. While serving primarily as one of the Giants’ best special teams players, Paysinger has seen his playing time on the defense increase. He actually started three games in 2012 and finished the season with 39 tackles and one forced fumble. Paysinger has a nice combination of size and athleticism.
Paysinger appears to be flying under the radar scope of many fans. In spring workouts, Paysinger has been starting in Michael Boley’s old strongside linebacker spot. If Paysinger fails, it will not be for lack of hard work. In the offseason, he initiated an intense workout program that not only included weight training, but hot yoga, acupuncture, stretching, and martial arts.
“I came into the league two years ago at 233 pounds and now I’m about 245 pounds and I feel like I haven’t lost a step,” said Paysinger. “When you get heavier, bigger, and bulkier, it’s natural for you to lose a step or two when it comes to agility. By doing yoga and acupuncture and revving up my on-field work, it’s allowed me to counteract any lost steps.”
“(Paysinger) is doing a good job,” said Linebackers Coach Jim Herrmann. “He has a great opportunity to get snaps. And he is competing for the job. He has matured over the last two years. To me, the biggest thing I have seen was his maturity level, because he is comfortable with the formation. Now he is going to go out and take the next step forward because he is anticipating the plays faster and faster. He’s not worried about ‘What do I do in this defense – What do I do in that defense?’ It is, ‘Okay, I know what I am doing – now what is the offense going to do?’ And he is anticipating. And all of those guys have done a much better job of that.”
“Me and Mark (Herzlich), we’ve taken it upon ourselves to learn the defense in and out, studying together,” said Paysinger. “Buying dry erase boards to take home and just draw up plays. Pretty much internalizing the playbook to where it becomes second nature – cause if you know your stuff, you can play that much better.”
“I feel like it’s my time, Mark’s time, even Keith (Rivers’) time to step up and show we can handle this,” said Paysinger.
Jacquian Williams: Williams was drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Giants. He was a very raw player coming out of the University of South Florida, having started only one season. Williams lacks bulk, but he is extremely athletic, fast, and quick for the position. However, Williams is not very physical and due to his size, he can get mauled at the point-of-attack against the run. Williams flashes as a blitzer and he could develop into a good coverage linebacker with added experience.
Williams’ 2012 season was sabotaged by a PCL knee injury he suffered in October that caused him to miss six games. He finished the year with just 30 tackles, down from the 78 he accrued in 2011. Though Williams returned to the playing field in December 2012, the PCL injury surprisingly limited him in the spring workouts this year. Hopefully, he will be closer to 100 percent when training camp starts.
Kyle Bosworth: The nephew of former Seahawks’ linebacker Brian Bosworth, Kyle was signed by the Giants as an unrestricted free agent from the Jaguars in May 2013. Eligible to be a restricted free agent, Bosworth was not tendered by Jacksonville. Bosworth was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Jaguars after the 2010 NFL Draft. He spent his rookie season on Injured Reserve with a hamstring injury. He also missed much of 2011 after being placed on Injured Reserve in November with a broken hand. In 2012, Bosworth played in all 16 games. He started five games but was later benched. He finished 2012 with 37 tackles and one interception.
Bosworth is smart, hard-working, and versatile – he can play all three linebacking spots. However, despite having decent size, strength, and some speed, Bosworth is a limited athlete who struggles in space. Bosworth is a very good special teams player and that – combined with his versatility and intelligence – may give him a leg up in the competition for backup spots.
“We felt like he would make a nice fit as a linebacker and a special-teamer,” said Coughlin after Bosworth was signed.
“I can definitely play all the (linebacker) positions,” Bosworth said. “I’ve still got to do a lot of learning in the playbook, but I’m able to fit in with the (weakside, middle, and strongside linebacker). I’m very versatile. I’ve played and started. I’ve been on every single special team, so basically wherever they need me I’ll be able to do it. Whatever they ask and I’ll be ready to go.”
Jake Muasau: Muasau was originally signed by the Giants as a rookie free agent after the May 2012 rookie mini-camp. The Giants waived him in late August, but decided to give him another shot in training camp this year and re-signed him in January 2013. Muasau was voted Georgia State University’s most valuable defensive player by his teammates in 2010 and 2011 when he played the “bandit” DE/LB hybrid position. Muasau has good size and plays with good intensity.
Etienne Sabino: Sabino was signed by the Giants as a rookie free agent after the 2013 NFL Draft. Sabino was a highly-recruited high school linebacker who had a disappointing overall career at Ohio State, but he started to come on as a senior despite breaking his leg. He could project to either middle or outside linebacker. Sabino is a well-built athlete with good agility, quickness, and speed. He flashes ability to run-and-hit as well as take-on-and-shed. There are conflicting scouting reports on his instincts. Sabino should do well on special teams. He supposedly has good intangibles – mature and coachable.
Summary: The starters heading into training camp are Rivers, Herzlich, and Paysinger. But they will be challenged by Curry, Connor, and Williams. It will be interesting to see if there are three viable starters and play-makers within this group, and if the three new starters can integrate themselves with each other and the other eight members of the defense quickly. Not many teams completely revamp their starting linebacking corps in one offseason. For a defense that finished 31st in 2012 and was equally bad against the run and the pass, it is imperative that the linebacking play improve.