Wednesday, August 13, 2014
Checking in on the Giants linebackers
By Dan Graziano ESPN.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Never let it be said that I'm not here to serve the people. Every day of training camp, the New York Giants' media relations staff asks us for lists of players we'd like to speak to, and then they work on bringing those players out to us for interviews. Wednesday, I was struggling for ideas and therefore struggling to decide which players to request, and as this was happening I got this from Twitter follower Kevin Oakes:
So I asked to talk to some linebackers, and I got some decent stuff.
With starting middle linebacker Jon Beason still working his way back from a foot injury suffered in the spring, the most likely Week 1 starting lineup for the Giants at linebacker is Jameel McClain in the middle, Jacquian Williams on the weak side and rookie Devon Kennard on the strong side. Spencer Paysinger could overtake Williams on the weak side, but after years of using Williams as a weakside backer in nickel situations, the Giants' coaches now say they're ready to trust him on all three downs. Once Beason returns, the most likely result is that McClain moves back to the strong side, but it's not out of the question to think Kennard could hold him off. The rookie has been impressive.
So here are some thoughts from and/or about the three men likely to be the Giants' starting linebackers on Monday, Sept. 8 in Detroit.
It seems like a long time ago that Williams was one of the heroes of the Giants' NFC Championship Game victory over the 49ers in San Francisco, stripping the ball from return man Kyle Williams and setting up the game-winning possession in overtime. He missed six games the following season to injury and was a rotational player for the Giants in 2013. But he says he thinks back on that 2011-12 postseason for inspiration.
Jacquian Williams seems ready to take on more responsibility in his fourth season.
"I remember that Super Bowl," Jacquian Williams said Wednesday. "I'm a rookie, and there's two minutes left. Two minutes left! It was a big deal. And I kind of was still trying to find myself as a rookie. You know, it's the Super Bowl. Big time. And (linebackers coach Jim Hermann) says, 'Jacquian! Jacquian! Go out there!' And I'm looking like, 'Huh?' And he's like, 'Go out there!' And that there was a big moment for me as far as knowing I definitely belong here. Even though I had had my flashes and everything throughout the year as a rookie, that was a turning point."
It has taken a while to go from fun, useful rookie to NFL starter, but Williams believes he's completed the journey and he knows what the difference is between now and then.
"Trust," Williams said. "Trust from the team, and not only the coaches, but the players. My teammates are trusting me to be in that role. They speak up for me more at times. And overall, my confidence. My personal confidence for the game, for the position. And experience."
Beason said he thinks Williams and Paysinger both have made big leaps from last season to this season.
"I really feel they're ready to contribute and take that big step to where they can be dominant linebackers in this league," Beason said. "Because they have all the intangibles, and they have the experience now, which is the most important thing. You can't expect a guy to go out there in his first couple of games starting, ever, and kill it. But last year they both made splash plays, and I think this year they're ready to be consistent."
The 174th overall pick of this year's draft -- one of two fifth-rounders the Giants had this year -- Kennard didn't seem likely to be a big-splash guy this summer. But goodness, has he been the talk of the defense since OTAs.
The coaching turmoil at USC might have been a blessing in disguise for Devon Kennard.
"Great rookie. Very polished, more so than anything," Beason said. "Not just his physical attributes, but the way he prepares. As a rookie, that's kind of unheard of. You don't really see a guy come in and put the time in making calls and doing those little things. Most guys, it takes them a long time. But he's polished, and he's going to help us out a lot this year, Kennard."
Beason said he thinks Kennard benefited from all of the coaching staff turnover and turmoil that happened during his time at USC. Recruited by Pete Carroll, he played most of his USC career for Lane Kiffin after Carroll left for the Seahawks, then had three different head coaches last year after the Kiffin thing fell apart and Ed Orgeron resigned before the bowl game because he didn't get the full-time job replacing him.
"I moved around a lot," Kennard said.
He has been a standup outside linebacker, a standup inside linebacker, a pass-rusher ... you name it. And being an overall student of defense has helped him get rise quickly since the draft.
"I ask a lot of questions, and I spend a lot of time in my playbook," Kennard said. "I try to understand as much as I can, and as more and more goes in, I try to keep it organized in my mind and constantly go over things so I can play as fast as I can when it's time to practice and play in games. It's a work in progress, but I'm working every day."
At this point, if something happened to McClain before Beason returned, Kennard would be the next guy they put in at middle linebacker. They already trust him with the on-field organizational responsibilities associated with that position.
"Jameel is a proven vet, very vocal, and he's going to help us out big time, especially at that Mike position, getting guys lined up," Beason said.
They didn't bring McClain out to talk to me, so that's about all I have on him. But his presence on the roster is a sign that the Giants have changed the way they look at this position. They went for cheap solutions for years. Williams, Paysinger and Mark Herzlich, a special-teams ace and backup linebacker, were all rookies in that same 2011 season. Of the three, Williams was the only one who was drafted, and they got him in the sixth round.
But after Beason took over as a leader on defense at a critical time last season, the Giants reconsidered their view of the value of spending resources on linebackers. They re-signed Beason, drafted Kennard and signed McClain, who provides a veteran presence they need on the field as long as Beason is on the shelf.
This position group might not be a clear strength of the team the way cornerback is. But gone are the days it stands out as a clear and damaging weakness (the way, say, tight end is). If nothing else, this year's Giants linebacker group is interesting, and offers reason to hope it might be fun.