Giants linebackers corps undergoing complete overhaul

Mark Herzlich could step into a starting role for the first time in his career. Credit: Getty Images
Mark Herzlich could step into a starting role for the first time in his career.
Credit: Getty Images

The Giants have undergone an overhaul at multiple positions this offseason, but none more than the linebackers unit, in which Big Blue will look to replace two-thirds of the starting positions.

Last season’s unit that featured Chase Blackburn in the middle (MIKE), Michael Boley on the weak side (WILL) and Mathias Kiwanuka on the strong side (SAM) is gone and in their places will be younger, cheaper veterans. Of the aforementioned three linebackers, only Kiwanuka is still on the roster — with the veteran moving to his more natural defensive end position.

The leading contenders on the depth chart seem to be Mark Herzlich in the middle, with Spencer Paysinger and Keith Rivers flanking him at the WILL and SAM spots, respectively.

Paysinger has risen up the depth chart the old-fashioned way — first as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2011 who was mainly a camp body, to special teams ace, to his current camp battle as a starter.

“It’s kind of surreal, the overall process of the past two and a half years. But it’s been great just coming into the unknown and working my way up to a potential starting role. I love the process,” said Paysinger, who currently holds a slight advantage on the weakside ahead of good friend Jacquian Williams.

Paysinger, formerly a standout at Oregon before going undrafted mainly due to his then-thin frame, has worked diligently over the past couple of seasons to maintain the necessary weight and bulk to play the physical position.

He credited his position coach, Jim Herrmann, for building him up both physically and mentally.

“Little by little since I got here I’ve been trying to get stronger. I came in about 235 [pounds] but decided to get myself up to an NFL playing weight so I wouldn’t get pushed around by these NFL linemen. And now I’m hovering around 240, 245, but I don’t think I’ve lost a step,” said Paysinger. “Coach Herrmann has gotten on me over the years, saying I was too quiet, too shy and didn’t talk [communicate with teammates] on the field. I kept to myself, but I’ve gotten more vocal and I’ve now come into my own on that aspect. … Just getting more reps with the ones [starters] and the twos [backups], building that camaraderie and coming off the OTAs [organized team activities], which were great. That’s all helped me learn to raise my voice and communicate better.”

Communication off the field is a non-issue for Paysinger and the rest of the linebackers, even though this positional battle is one of the team’s most hotly contested.

Paysinger insisted friendships haven’t waned and feelings have not been hurt, even when a guy is having a great practice, while the other isn’t.

“Honestly, we never talk about [the competition]. Myself, Mark [Herzlich] and Jacquian, we all came in at the same time and me and Jacquian have been playing the same position for the past two years, flipping between SAM and WILL. But they’re both my boys and there’s no hard feelings when one starts over the other,” Paysinger said. “We don’t let the coaches or anyone get between that [bond]. At the end of the day if Jacquian has a good day and I have a bad day, you can’t let that get you down. You just want to come back and have a better day, the next day. … We try to keep all that [drama] out of the [linebackers’ meeting] room, because there’s already enough pressure on us, so you might as well be friends.”

Williams agreed, saying he’ll be happy for his friend when he takes the field as the starting weakside linebacker on Saturday night. Williams, though, added that just because Paysinger is starting now, it doesn’t mean his spot can’t be overtaken by the time the Giants play for real, Week 1 in Dallas on Sept. 8.

“Paysinger’s been working, been playing his spot, been practicing it [and] he’s been doing a good job at it. He’s a good athlete who has put the time in,” Williams said. “It’s not disappointing [that he’s not starting right now]. It’s just this time. All I can do is continue to keep pushing forward, [and] my opportunity will come.”

Herzlich believes his time has come, and even though he’s technically in a battle with veteran Dan Connor, the former Boston College star said he’s not thinking of it that way.

“I’m not preparing to beat Dan every practice. I’m preparing to be the best middle linebacker that our team needs. That’s more my philosophy on it and competition is good,” said Herzlich, adding he often envisions the day when he’s atop the final depth chart. “It’s been my dream my whole life to be a starting linebacker in the NFL and tasting it here and there [during his first two seasons] gets you really excited for this opportunity. When we come into the sport, all we really want is an opportunity and when we get that opportunity to make the most of it and get better every day.”

Big Blue notes …

» Safety Deon Grant wore four different uniforms in his 11-year NFL career, most notably with the Giants and Panthers, but when asked what team really represents him, he notes it’s Big Blue — which is why the veteran wanted to officially announce his retirement as a member of the Giants.

“I want to retire as a Giant, because I want to be a Giant for the rest of my life,” Grant said.

Grant, who didn’t play in 2012 due to multiple surgeries to his shoulder, ankle, and hand, played his last game in the Super Bowl XLVI win over the New England Patriots two seasons ago. He joined the Giants in 2010 and in two years played in all 36 games, starting eight his first season and 12 (including three in the postseason) in 2011. Though it was his shortest tenure with any team, Grant said he enjoyed his time with the Giants more than he did at any of his three previous stops that also included Jacksonville and Seattle:

“I understood the game a lot more at that stage [with the Giants],” Grant said. “When I went to the Super Bowl in Carolina [2003] I was so young. But once I got to the point that I was at when I got to the Giants, I was a lot more comfortable, more serious. I knew how to enjoy the game instead of just taking it play-by-play or day-by-day. I really knew what to look forward to and I knew what my main focus and my main goal was.”

» Defensive end Justin Tuck wasn’t at practice on Wednesday due to a tight back.

» Veteran linebacker Aaron Curry said don’t count him out of the strongside linebacker competition, as he feels he’s finally getting a good feel for what the coaches want. The Giants represent Curry’s third franchise in the last three seasons, so he’s relishing the chance to show what he can do at actual game speed.

“I’m relaxed. I’m just going to go out there and have fun,” Curry said. “My only concern is just to have fun, do all of the right things and do what they ask me to do. But if I’m not having fun, I’m kind of wasting time.”

Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.


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