Position series: Giants linebackers

June, 1, 2012
6/01/12
4:45
PM ET
Our position-by-position assessment of each team in the NFC East takes a look at the New York Giants' linebacker situation.

Projected starters: OLB Michael Boley, OLB Mathias Kiwanuka, MLB Chase Blackburn

Reserves: Keith Rivers, Mark Herzlich, Greg Jones, Jacquian Williams, Clint Sintim, Spencer Paysinger, Adrian Tracy

Potential strength: Kiwanuka is a converted defensive end who still plays up front on passing downs, but seemed to take to his new role as a first- and second-down linebacker in 2011. He has the speed and athleticism to play all over the field, and as he got more comfortable in his hybrid position, he seemed to play better as the season went along. His second year in that role should see continued to development and allow the Giants to do even more with Kiwanuka, who still loves to get after the passer when that's his assignment, but seems to have enjoyed playing linebacker more than he might have expected to.

[+] EnlargeChase Blackburn
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireThe Giants' Chase Blackburn is part of a linebacking unit that features depth and versatility.
Potential weakness: The middle, where they really still don't seem to have an established starter. There's been talk of playing Boley there, but they don't seem to want to do that. Blackburn played it fine in December and January, but the team isn't convinced he's a permanent solution. Herzlich and Jones were rookies last year who showed some ability, but likely aren't ready to take over the middle linebacker role full-time. It's certainly possible that one of those second-year guys supplants Blackburn, either before or soon after the start of the regular season. For now the job appears to be Blackburn's by default, and in part as a reward for the way he played in the latter part of 2011, the playoffs and, of course, the Super Bowl.

Keep an eye on: Variety. The Giants traded for Rivers in spite of not having an open spot for him. He's not really a middle linebacker, and they're set on the outside with Boley and Kiwanuka. So the plan appears to be to move a lot of people around to a lot of different spots depending on the situation. Williams, for example, was an asset in coverage last season and could get on the field in situations in which they need that. They still haven't re-signed veteran safety Deon Grant or anyone to replace him, so it's possible they could be planning to use fewer three-safety looks and go with more linebackers on the field in passing downs. My sense is that the key to finding playing time as a Giants linebacker this year will be versatility. If the Giants' defensive coaches see guys who can fill multiple roles, those guys are likely to find the field more. If Rivers can play some in the middle, for example, or if Williams shows more in run support. Otherwise you're going to see a lot of situation-specific substitutions at linebacker, and a lot of different arrangements of the position group within the course of games.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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