As training camp approaches, we’re starting a countdown to camp by taking a look at the defending champions position-by-position.
Projected starters: OLB Michael Boley, MLB Chase Blackburn, OLB Mathias Kiwanuka.
Projected reserves: OLB Keith Rivers, OLB Jacquian Williams, MLB Mark Herzlich, MLB Greg Jones, OLB Spencer Paysinger.
New faces: Rivers, MLB Jake Muasau.
Going, going, gone: None.
Player to watch: Rivers. The Giants acquired Rivers for a fifth-round pick hoping that the former ninth-overall pick can stay injury-free and show his talent with a fresh start. Rivers enters camp behind Boley, Kiwanuka and Blackburn but could eventually emerge as a starter. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said he plans to see how versatile Rivers is and could try him at MLB for some snaps in practice during camp. Rivers is still learning the defense but the Giants hope Rivers gives them another athletic, quick and versatile linebacker capable of playing the run and pass.
Potential strength: The linebacker unit is deep and more versatile than in recent years. It should be one of the most competitive positions in camp as players like veteran Clint Sintim, who is making his way back from a second serious knee injury in as many years, will fight for a roster spot. Fewell has more options at linebacker and says he feels more comfortable with playing three linebackers on the field –- as opposed to three safeties -- than he has in the past two seasons. Boley and Blackburn have become extensions of Fewell and can direct the defense on the field, helping improve the defense's communication which also was problematic at times last season. Kiwanuka is more comfortable with his linebacker/pass rusher hybrid role. Williams impressed during his rookie season and showed he can cover and be an asset on passing downs. The Giants hope Rivers will realize his potential and become a difference maker. Herzlich and Jones provide depth at middle linebacker and can help stop the run when called upon. Fewell has also tried Jones at outside linebacker in OTAs and minicamp as well. Those two and Paysinger are contributors on special teams.
Potential weakness: The Giants had trouble against the run last season and stopping the run will be a point of emphasis again this season. For the past two seasons, Fewell has often employed three safeties on the field. With Deon Grant unsigned and plenty of options at linebacker, Fewell says he is comfortable using three linebackers more often but it remains to be seen how much he will employ three linebackers on the field. Fewell could use Kiwanuka, Boley and Blackburn on running downs. He could also throw Rivers or Herzlich out there to combat the run. Rivers might be able to join Boley and Williams on passing situations. Fewell will try to figure out the right combination in training camp. The linebackers should and likely need to play a much more pivotal role in the defensive scheme than in the past two seasons.
Wild card: Kiwanuka. Jerry Reese likes to refer to Kiwanuka as a “joker” who can play multiple positions. He has improved in his pass coverage and can rush the quarterback from the linebacker position or defensive end. Kiwanuka is more comfortable in his hybrid role and could be used more as a rusher this season with the departure of Dave Tollefson. His versatility can make the Giants defense even harder for opposing offenses to deal with.