Linebackers have Giants feeling good

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jon Beason is still working his way back from a broken foot and unable to practice, but he's still a major presence at New York Giants training camp practices. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell says Beason is everywhere.

"He is present," Fewell said before Thursday's practice. "He is listening to every call. He's like a microphone in my ear all the time. He's in my ear and I'm in his ear. I hear things on the field, calls on the field, and I go to him and say, 'I wish we could change that. How can we make this better?' So we're communicating all the time."

Beason's arrival by trade from Carolina last season completely altered the way the Giants viewed their linebacker situation. After basically neglecting it for years, Beason's impact as a leader and a middle linebacker convinced them to invest in the position this offseason, and re-signing Beason was a top priority. They also brought in veteran Jameel McClain (who's taking Beason's spot in the middle while Beason heals) and spent a fifth-round pick on USC's Devon Kennard. Add that to holdovers Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger, and linebacker has gone from a position no one around here wanted to talk about to a reason for optimism.

"I think we look good on paper because I think we're stronger at linebacker than we've been in the past," Fewell said. "Especially if Jon Beason returns, but I still like the 'backers that we have. I like Jameel McClain. I like Jacquian Williams. Devon Kennard, he's been a very pleasant surprise for us. Some of our young players, the Spencer Adkins kid has performed well. So we've strengthened ourselves there."

Beason has been doing more running on a side field during practice the last couple of nights, and he believes he's on track to return by Week 1. Assuming he does, he mans the middle with either McClain or rookie Kennard on the strong side. And Williams, who in the past has been a weakside linebacker in the nickel defense only because of his coverage skills, is now projected as the weakside linebacker in the base defense as well.

"I've worked hard, trained hard, studied hard, and the opportunity as a professional was there, so it's for me to take advantage of it," Williams said. "The goal is to be an every-down linebacker. I belong there, I worked for it, and it's my time."

Williams was a star for the Giants on special teams and in coverage as a linebacker on passing downs during their victory over the 49ers in the NFC championship game three seasons ago. That was his rookie season, and health issues have held him back over the past two. But he says he's healthy now, and his speed and coverage ability should allow the Giants to keep their defensive backs in their regular roles more reliably.

"I think Jacquian Williams has made great strides since his rookie year, and he's performed like he's a three-down player thus far in this camp," Fewell said. "His run fits and his confidence in his coverage ability, his knowledge of his assignments, executing his assignments with speed, coming back with feedback, knowing the other position, saying 'I knew he was supposed to be here and this was what I did,' being able to have a good football conversation about what happened on that particular play."

Such advancements by Williams have taken time, but they're a huge boost. As is the surprising performance of fifth-round pick Kennard out of USC.

"I would say he's exceeded my expectations from this standpoint," Fewell said. "Young guy who played a number of different positions at SC. Came in very mature, extremely football-smart and very poised as a young rookie. We really don't find that a whole lot. So yes, he exceeded my expectations."

Kennard could push McClain for the starting strongside job once Beason returns, or he could serve as a valuable backup at a couple of spots. It has been a long time since the Giants have felt they had depth and quality at linebacker, but they have reason to feel that way going into 2014.