2011 Giants' Position Battles: Let's Talk Linebackers

New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin is beginning to get an idea what his final 53-man roster might look like. "I'm starting to see some guys that look to me like they can really help the team," Coughlin said Wednesday.

That, however, does not mean any decisions have been made. There are still plenty of roster spots to be decided, and several intriguing position battles to watch during the final three preseason games.

None of those is more intriguing, or more hotly-contested, than the donnybrook that has developed for the backup linebacker positions. The move of Mathias Kiwanuka to strong-side linebacker, and the arrival via the draft and signings of undrafted free agents of several exciting youngsters, has created a training camp log-jam at this long-ignored position.

The Giants currently have 11 linebackers on their 90-man training camp roster. A season ago they kept six on the active roster. Working under the assumption that they will keep a similar number, six or maybe seven, this season let's break down the fight for roster spots.

The Starters

We know that Kiwanuka will start on the strong side, Michael Boley on the weak side and Jonathan Goff in the middle. Watching Kiwanuka handle linebacker responsibilities will be interesting, but at least in the preseason not nearly as interesting as watching the Giants' horde of talented, young linebackers fight for spots on the 53-man roster.

The Backup Candidates

Let's go through the eight players trying to earn reserve linebacker jobs one-by-one.

Clint Sintim -- Until learning that Kiwanuka was being moved back to linebacker, the logical thought was that the 2009 second-round pick was finally going to get a shot at full-time duty. Now, to be honest, I am wondering if Sintim will even make the season-opener roster. He has just one sack and 23 tackles in two seasons. He has been slowed in camp at times by his surgically-repaired knee. He still looks like a misfit in a 4-3 without the instincts to make impact plays. GM Jerry Reese hates to give up on his early draft picks, but Sintim needs to get on the field the next three games and make some plays. There are a lot of youngsters behind him banging on his door and trying to shove him out the window, or at least off the roster.

Phillip Dillard -- Here is another player who might be getting pushed for his roster spot. The 2010 fourth-round pick is a middle linebacker, and that job belongs firmly to Goff at this point. Dillard has reportedly had a decent camp, but he doesn't look like an impact linebacker and in 2010 he did not look like a player who could really get down the field and make plays on special teams.

Greg Jones -- The sixth-round pick out of Michigan State has had an impressive camp thus far. In the preseason opener he made two tackles, including one ion special teams. "He's done a great job. You can tell he played at a high level in college," said linebackers coach Jim Herrmann. "He has great instincts to the ball. He picks things up fast. He's going to be fine. He's a good, young player."

Spencer Paysinger -- All you need to know about what the Giants think of the 6-foot-2, 236-pound undrafted free agent from Oregon is that he played with the first team Tuesday and Wednesday while Boley sat out to nurse a sore back. "He's been very impressive," said Coughlin. "He's been all around. He's been very good with special teams. He's been good with coverage opportunities. He's been athletic in all the drills." Paysinger had two tackles against Carolina.

Adrian Tracy -- The 2010 sixth-round pick was impressive last preseason before suffereing a season-ending knee injury. A defensive end in college, Tracy has shown flashes again during this training camp. Tracy, playing the strong side, actually seems to find his way into the backfield more often than Sintim. Let's see if he can make a real push for a spot on the roster over the next three games.

Jacquian Williams -- Selected in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Giants, which was a surprise to some draft analysts. Williams, a 6-3, 224-pounder, would seem to be fighting with Paysinger and Kenny Ingram -- who we will get to in a minute -- for a spot as a backup on the weak side behind Boley. "He's one of those guys that can go from sideline to sideline. He can catch quick, he can cover and he's learning the game," said Herrmann. "If I just say okay go cover that guy, the guy will be covered now."

Kenny Ingram -- Ingram is actually a converted safety who is 6-4 and now weighs 238 pounds. He has spent time on the Giants' practice squad each of the past two seasons, and the Giants are clearly intrigued by his athleticism. Herrmann said Ingram "provides you the type of guy that can cover like a safety." He showed that against Carolina with a pass defensed.

Mark Herzlich -- Clearly everyone's sentimental favorite. The NFL, though, is not a sentimental place. The former Boston College linebacker and cancer survivor will have to earn a spot with the Giants. He has been impressive thus far, working at all the linebacker spots. "He can play strong, he can play the middle, he can play the weak side, he can reach the passer," GM Jerry Reese said when camp opened. "If he is at his form which was 2008 when he was a monster at that time, and we are hoping that we can catch lightening in a bottle and he can be that kind of player for us." The Giants are going to give Herzlich every chance to prove he can play.

Prediction

I honestly have no idea how the final linebacker spots will shake out. What I will say is that it won't surprise me if all of the linebackers the Giants eventually have to release wind up on the rosters of other NFL teams this fall. If I had to choose today I would guess the Giants would keep Sintim, Jones and Paysinger. My other guess is that they try to stash at least a couple of these guys on the practice squad. Don't hold me to that, though. All eight of these guys, maybe with the exception of Ingram, probably has a legitimate shot at a roster spot.

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