Commentary

Kiwi could answer Giants' LB questions

Big Blue brass banking on Kiwanuka to strengthen underperforming unit in 2011

Updated: August 10, 2011, 10:01 AM ET
By Ohm Youngmisuk | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- While the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots piled big-name players onto their rosters as if they were gorging at some free-agent buffet, the Giants took a conservative approach.

They tried to manage their salary cap for this year and the future by restructuring contracts while also adding a few players. The plan, or so it appears, is that the Giants and GM Jerry Reese are banking on their young talent to develop and complement the veteran core.

It's not nearly as sexy as the moves made by the Dream Teamers down the Turnpike. But the Giants clearly felt they didn't need a flashy makeover for a roster that won 10 games last season and should've won more if not for some maddening mistakes.

So instead of going out and purchasing a high-priced linebacker to improve an area of concern, the Giants' biggest free-agent move this summer may be the re-signing of Mathias Kiwanuka.

Linebacker was the biggest position of need entering camp and the Giants figure a healthy Kiwanuka will be the upgrade they sorely need.

Not only did the Giants keep their most versatile defender and another talented pass-rusher in case the Osi Umenyiora saga goes south on them, but they believe Kiwanuka's their answer at strongside linebacker.

"He's going to play linebacker this year," linebackers coach Jim Herrmann said. "In our base package, he's a linebacker. When we go to third down, all bets are off. We try to put the best people on the field to get pressure, to cover. When we go to third down, he has multiple positions on third-down plays and our third-down package."

Even with Umenyiora watching practices on the sideline, Kiwanuka has been first team at linebacker while Jason Pierre-Paul starts at right defensive end -- Osi's usual spot.

When Kiwanuka was lost for the season due to a herniated disk, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell lamented the loss, wondering what his defense would have looked like with the 6-4 Kiwanuka running around the field for him. There's always the risk that Kiwanuka could injure his neck again, but the Giants know what they have in Kiwanuka and what they can potentially do with him.

Kiwanuka started last year's season opener at linebacker and had two sacks to go with a forced fumble. He continued to see action at linebacker and on the defensive line in the next two games, compiling a team-leading four sacks before his season ended prematurely.

"Kiwi has great range," Herrmann said. "If you ever watch him, he could be on the numbers on one side and get to the numbers on the other in a heartbeat. To me, that's what you look for as a linebacker coach. You run to the ball and he can run all day long. Plus, he's athletic enough that he can move in and out and get around people."

Mathias Kiwanuka
AP Photo/Seth WenigExpect to see Mathias Kiwanuka making plays at linebacker this season.

The goal is to get the Giants' best players on the field all together. It's why Fewell often went with three safeties last year -- to get Deon Grant on the field -- and why the Giants can throw three or four pass-rushers out at once.

With Kiwanuka on the field at linebacker on first and second downs, the Giants have at least three legitimate pass-rushers to throw at a quarterback at any moment. Coverage will be the biggest area Kiwanuka will have to improve on, but the Giants can always move Kiwanuka up on the defensive line and put another defensive back on the field on passing situations.

"[Defensive end is] the position I came into the league playing and probably where I feel most comfortable," said Kiwanuka, who has started at both defensive end and linebacker during his career. "I feel like things are going well and regardless if [Umenyiora is] here or not, I'll be able to move in and out of positions pretty smoothly."

Herrmann said starting Kiwanuka at linebacker and not defensive end was not an indictment of Clint Sintim, the former second-round pick who has been asked to step up by Reese.

Sintim is coming off ACL surgery from last year, but has been praised by coaches. After the starting trio of Kiwanuka, Jonathan Goff and Michael Boley, the Giants have a crop of young linebackers they want to develop.

There's Sintim, Phillip Dillard, Adrian Tracy, sixth-round picks Greg Jones and Jacquian Williams, and undrafted free agents Mark Herzlich and Spencer Paysinger. And there's Kenny Ingram, a 6-4 converted safety who has potential.

Reese and the coaching staff not only hope that a few of these emerge into quality backups, but that they will make an impact on special-teams coverage.

"I like my young group," Herrmann said. "You got Greg Jones ... you can tell that he played at a high level in college, he has great instincts to the ball, picks things up fast. So he's going to be fine. He is a good young player."

"Jacquian Williams to me, he is the kind of guy you look for who played D-end in college, and you put him on two feet in pro football," Herrmann added. "He is one of those guys that can go from sideline to sideline, he's cat quick, he can cover and he's learning the game."

And then Herrmann couldn't say enough about Herzlich, who has overcome Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer found in bone or soft tissue.

"Herzlich, I love because he's one of those kids that something in his life, obviously his sickness, has really zeroed in his focus to succeed," Herrmann said. "And he's going to succeed. That is just the way he is and anything he does because of what he has been through. Pretty much he was on his death bed and now he's playing in an NFL camp with the New York Giants. That is a great story."

The start of the Giants' 2011 tale has gotten off to a rocky start with the Umenyiora contract situation and the loss of Kevin Boss to Oakland.

But the Giants feel that they have enough to contend in the NFC East once again with Kiwanuka at linebacker, center David Baas coming from San Francisco and young players like left tackle Will Beatty and defensive tackle Linval Joseph stepping into the starting lineup.

Only time will reveal whether the approach of the free-spending Eagles or the conservative Giants was better this season.

Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
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