EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- So much is new around the New York Giants this summer that it can be easy to forget the furniture that has been here forever. But when I saw Mathias Kiwanuka working after practice Tuesday night with second-year safety Cooper Taylor on punt-protection technique, it struck me that Kiwanuka has quietly been one of the best and most important performers in this year's training camp.
If you watched the preseason game Sunday night, you saw Kiwanuka linger behind the line and bat down an EJ Manuel pass. He had a strong game, and he has had strong practices. The Giants have moved him around the line, having him and fellow defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul switch sides and sometimes moving Kiwanuka inside to defensive tackle on passing downs. Kiwanuka is always a quiet guy, and that hasn't changed, but he seems somehow more charged-up on the field than I remember him. Maybe it's the fact that he is being used strictly as a pass-rusher now, with no more linebacker duties. Maybe it's that Justin Tuck is gone and he sees it as his responsibility to slide into that leadership role on the defense.
"I think just being in these halls for a long time, and everybody that comes in, the longer they stay, the more they understand it," Kiwanuka said earlier in camp. "Having a lot of new guys around here adds an increased role I have to play in terms of letting people know about the history. It's not just a mystique thing from the outside. It's a true way we approach the game and life. Myself and a lot of other guys who have been here are taking the lead and just going out there and showing people how to work."
Kiwanuka enters his ninth NFL season this year, all with the Giants and in a variety of roles. Three seasons ago, because they were flush at defensive end and short at linebacker, they moved him to linebacker, where he happily played all season en route to the Giants fourth Super Bowl title (and his second). Last season, they moved him back to defensive end, but kind of kept him in a backup role at both spots until Pierre-Paul got hurt and they needed him more up front. Kiwanuka one of these guys who doesn't just talk the team-first mantra but lives it and believes in it deeply. He truly will do whatever is best for the Giants.
"We've always counted on him, and we'll continue to do that," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Wednesday. "He's done everything we've asked him to do and then some."
We don't know whether Kiwanuka will hold his starting defensive end job all season or lose it to Robert Ayers or Damontre Moore in camp. What we do know is that, whatever happens along those lines, it will be fine with Kiwanuka. If Moore comes quickly enough to overtake him, it will be at least in part because of the help Kiwanuka is offering Moore in his development. If Ayers overtakes him, it will be at least in part because of how Kiwanuka helped Ayers assimilate into his new team. And Kiwanuka will continue to do whatever the Giants ask -- play special teams, help the young guys, step in as a starter if they need him to.
He might not be as dominating a player as a Pierre-Paul or a Tuck when they are at their best. But whatever Kiwanuka has to offer this team, he will offer it wholeheartedly. And for that reason, he might turn out to be as important a piece as the 2014 Giants have.