When asked about the New York Giants' collection of linebackers, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has been positive, even a little gushing.
Giants' fans, on the other hand, have been more than a little skeptical. It is understandable, given how the linebackers performed from 2009 through 2012. After Antonio Pierce retired, "Average" was a good day for the Giants' linebackers. With some off-season additions and some health, that could be changing.
There aren't any Names, nobody outside of Jon Beason, that fans around the league will instantly recognize. However we've all seen time and again that it doesn't matter how you get on the field. What matters is what you do once you get out there.
With the Giants having played in two preseason games (or perhaps the first game twice), we can start to get an idea of how the linebackers are coming together.
Jameel McClain (MLB/SLB)
In Jon Beason's absence the free agent from Baltimore has become the veteran leader of the linebackers. His greatest asset right now is getting the front seven lined up and in position to make plays.
That isn't to say that McClain has simply been an extension of the defensive coordinator. He has hasn't been as flashy as Devon Kennard or Jacquian Williams, McClain has looked quick and very physical going down hill. His closing burst on the ball is impressive.
Devon Kennard (SLB)
When the Giants used the 174th pick to select Devon Kennard out of USC, most Giants fans hailed him as a future... JAG.
Since arriving in the Giants' facilities, however, Kennard has been getting nothing but rave reviews. First his intelligence and work ethic impressed his coaches and new teammates. Then his physical play and knack for splashy plays made him a star in camp.
Against the Steelers Kennard played the strong side (SAM) linebacker position, and played it very close to the line of scrimmage. The power he showed in practice is translating well to the field, where he is dealing with NFL blockers very well. Kennard has looked explosive blitzing or defending the run. He is capable in shallow coverage, where his intelligence can help to get him in the position quickly.
Jacquian Williams (WLB)
The young linebacker, and three time teammate of JPP, has been one of the better coverage linebackers in the NFL since his rookie year in 2011. However his development has been slowed by a few nagging injuries.
This year the Giants are expecting Williams to make the leap from good nickel linebacker to a true three down linebacker.
And early indications have been promising. Williams has been impressive his first two preseason games. He has had near-interceptions, delivered crushing hits in the run game, and showed good backside pursuit. Where Williams was hesitant in the past, he is now playing much faster and decisively. It's still early but Williams might be the Giants' best linebacker, and given how McClain and Kennard are playing, that isn't a slight.
Spencer Paysinger (SLB/MLB)
Coming in to the league with Jacquian Williams, Paysinger has always had a leg up on the depth chart. The Giants' coaches have preferred Paysinger's steady dependability over Williams untapped athletic upside. And so far the Giants are seeing more of the same.
Against the Steelers Paysinger was reading plays quickly and acting decisively. Paysinger looked good going down hill and in shallow coverages. He struggled when asked to cover a lot of ground in coverage though. Paysinger also showed his versatility in playing outside linebacker in base packages, then sliding inside to middle linebacker in nickel packages.
Mark Herzlich (MLB)
Everyone knows Herzlich's story by now. And by now most people care less about his battle with cancer and more about his battles with offenses.
Unfortunately for both Herzlich and the Giants, the range and athleticism he showed as the best linebacker in college football back at Boston College is no more. However, what Herzlich did show against the Steelers was a ton of power and some surprising quickness. Several times he quickly diagnosed the play and was the first defender moving toward the ball.
But what really stood out was Herzlich's power. There were several plays where he not only shed his blocker, but drove him backward (once so violently that the former blocker wound up cutting off the backside pursuit).
Dan Fox (OLB)
The undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame was very productive in college and generated a decent amount of hype in OTA's and Mini-camp.
He has yet to flash that level of play since the pads came on and preseason began. Against the Steelers Fox primarily played the Weakside linebacker position. He has generally looked comfortable and fluid in space, however the 233 pound linebacker has struggled when asked to take on blockers.
Adkins has flashed some throughout training camp. Against the Bills he looked solid in coverage, nearly coming up with an interception. Against the Steelers Adkins didn't get much work. Not because he wasn't on the field, but mostly because when he was on the field the Steelers found themselves lacking answers for the Giants' defensive line.
Manning is another free agent linebacker brought in by the New York Giants this offseason. And much like Adkins, while he got his share of snaps, evaluating him was difficult. He did, however, look quick and very active in coverage over the middle.
So, will the linebackers be a strength of the Giants' defense? Well, that remains to be seen.
However so far they have been playing well. There have been a couple big runs given up, however those have (mostly) been due to defensive line gaffes than failures by the linebackers. There is still a lot of pre-season left to go, but as it stands now, Paysinger and Herzlich, two linebackers who were recently starters for the Giants look to be 5th and 6th on the depth chart.