Giants' hidden treasure: Linebackers

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

A year ago, an honest assessment of the New York Giants' linebacker position would have labeled it as one of the weak links of the team. They appeared thin at the position, and they didn't appear to have top-line starters there, either. Linebacker was an apparent need position the Giants seemed to consistently overlook in the draft while they focused on building their defense on a strong pass rush and secondary. A year later, though, the Giants have so much depth at linebacker that newly acquired veteran Keith Rivers doesn't look as though he can crack the starting lineup.

Many things went into the surprising and rapid transformation. They moved Mathias Kiwanuka to linebacker on early downs last year in training camp and he took to the change. Michael Boley re-established himself as a very good player with his 2011 performance. Chase Blackburn came off the scrap heap in November to become a Super Bowl hero. A quartet of rookies gained various levels of experience as the coaches found intelligent ways to deploy them throughout the year. And then they traded for Rivers. The result is a deep, varied group that allows defensive coordinator Perry Fewell a number of interesting options.

Boley, Blackburn and Kiwanuka project as the starters, but they'll look for ways to use Rivers. He's one of the candidates, along with second-year guys Mark Herzlich and Greg Jones, to eventually wrest the middle linebacker spot away from Blackburn if Blackburn tails off. Jacquian Williams was enough of an asset in coverage last year that the Giants may not have to use as many three-safety looks as they've been using in recent years. This is a group that could make Fewell's job fun. And while the emphasis in New York remains and always will remain on the front line and the back end, the Giants' defense has more options in the middle of the field than we've come to expect.