New York Giants' fans have wondered for years why the team has not made a more concerted effort to build a dominant linebacking crew. After a disappointing season during which the team finished 31st in the league in overall defense, largely because of a porous run defense that allowed 4.6 yards per attempt, general manager Jerry Reese admitted that the linebacker position needs to improve.
"I think the unit as a whole could do better," Reese said in his season-ending press conference. "I do think we have to have better linebacker play moving forward."
As we continue our series of positional reviews for the Giants let's look at their linebackers.
Chase Blackburn -- You have to love Blackburn's effort, and the smarts and intangibles he brings to the Giants. The question, though, is whether or not Blackburn is truly a starting-caliber middle linebacker in the NFL. The truth is, he probably is not. In his eight-year career, 2012 was the first time Blackburn started more than eight games in a season. Among 53 inside linebackers who played at least 25 percent of their team's snaps, Blackburn's -10.9 Pro Football Focus score placed him 43rd. Blackburn is not a thumping presence at the line of scrimmage, and his speed in coverage is also questioned. He is an unrestricted free agent, and how seriously the Giants try to bring him back will be interesting to watch.
Michael Boley -- His playing time was severely curtailed toward the end of the season. Boley still has the quickness to cover some tight ends, but his run defense leaves something to be desired. He has one year ($4.25 million) left on his contract and is a candidate for a buyout if the Giants choose to revamp their linebacking corps.
Jacquian Williams --Williams played in only 10 games in 2012 due to a knee injury. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Williams has the speed to cover tight ends and running backs and is really the prototypical linebacker in the pass-oriented, read-option NFL. When you talk about the future of the Giants' linebacking corps, Williams is the one player they have who most agree has a role going forward.
Keith Rivers -- A five-year veteran the Giants acquired in a trade with the Cincinnati Bengals, the former first-round pick came to New York with a reputation as a good player who simply could not stay on the field. That proved to be the case in 2012 as he played in 11 games and started six, but had little real impact. He is an unrestricted free agent.
Spencer Paysinger -- Played more on defense in 2012 than he had as a rookie. It is hard to judge his future, though, because he still played only 137 snaps.
Mark Herzlich -- Many thought Herzlich would eventually push Blackburn aside for the middle linebacker job in 2012. That didn't happen, and it's difficult to say if that is a credit to Blackburn or an indictiment of Herzlich. The former Boston College star has a reputation as a run-stuffer, but had a -3.6 Pro Football Focus grade as a run defender in limited time.
NOTE: I did not include Mathias Kiwanuka. He played only about half the season at linebacker before moving to defensive end, where it seems pretty certain he will play in 2013.
Anyone who thinks they know exactly what the Giants' linebacking corps will look like in 2013 is kidding themselves. There are questions about the futures of Boley, Blackburn and Rivers. There is the question of whether the Giants believe anyone other than Williams is part of their future at the position. There is the upcoming NFL Draft, where we find out if the Giants will take a linebacker in the first round for the first time since Carl Banks in 1984. What seems certain, though, is the Giants can't simply run the same crew of linebackers out there again next season and expect real improvement. Something has to change.