Herzlich among early leaders in LB stakes

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Giants' starting defensive line, even without the injured Jason Pierre-Paul, is essentially set in stone. Same goes for the secondary.

The linebacker corps is a whole 'nother story. All three jobs appear up for grabs, as we reach the end of OTAs and look forward to next week's mandatory minicamp.

We've spent more time on newcomers with interesting backstories the past couple of weeks -- Aaron Curry, a former first-round draft pick, and Kyle Bosworth, a nephew of Brian Bosworth.

But it's Keith Rivers, Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger who are serving as the Giants' first-team linebackers right now.

That's a pretty inexperienced group. Rivers just joined the Giants last season, and Herzlich and Paysinger each have just two NFL seasons under their belts (with only seven starts between them). But head coach Tom Coughlin sounded excited about his linebackers following Thursday's practice.

"Well it’s a good thing," Coughlin said. "There’s real good competition."

Herzlich, playing the middle, had an interception of Eli Manning during seven-on-seven drills Thursday -- the only day reporters were allowed to watch this week. Turns out it wasn't the only big play of the week.

"The other day, Keith Rivers made a heck of a play in a two-minute drill," Coughlin said. "Herzlich’s made some plays -- two days in a row now he’s intercepted balls.

"I think the guys, they’re anxious to make the contribution. They know the position is open, and I think that’s motivated them in a very positive way to have a good spring and to give us strong feelings about where we are."

Herzlich is trying to go from being just a feel-good story -- the former Boston College star has overcome cancer -- to being an impact player in the NFL. Paysinger is a fellow undrafted free agent who started three games last season, including in Week 15 and Week 16, and is trying to make the same leap.

The Giants have asked Paysinger to learn both the strong-side and weak-side positions.

"Me and Mark, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to learn the defense in and out, studying together. Buying dry erase boards to take home and just draw up plays," Paysinger said. "Pretty much internalizing the playbook to where it becomes second nature -- cause if you know your stuff, you can play that much better."

Linebackers coach Jim Hermann spoke positively about Paysinger on Thursday.

"The biggest thing I’ve seen is his maturity level," Hermann said. "He’s comfortable with the information now, and now he can go out and take the next step forward because he’s anticipating plays faster and faster."

But Hermann also said that "every single guy has done a good job," and made it sound like the starting jobs will remain up for grabs. Herzlich and Paysinger may be the front-runners to replace Chase Blackburn and Michael Boley, but the Giants do have lots of other options -- including free agent acquisition Dan Conner, and Jacquian Williams, who is recovering from a knee injury and did limited work Thursday for the first time this spring.

"This is basically a new group of guys. I think the biggest thing right now is, we’re going out and learning what to do, and competing," Hermann said. "And to me the competition is going to keep going and keep going and keep going, which is gonna make us all better."

It'll be a position to watch, from now until the regular season opener on Sept. 8. Can the young linebackers do the job?

"It’s a great feeling," Paysinger said. "Just because you’re building a relationship with the guys on the field -- you’re talking to the DBs, the safeties, the D-linemen, trying to pretty much earn their trust.

"A lot of those guys have been on this team for years, and they’ve earned their stripes. I feel like it's my time, Mark’s time, even Keith’s time to step up and show we can handle this."