Wait. The 2014 New York Giants could actually be good at linebacker?
"I like the way this looks on paper because I think we're stronger at linebacker than we've been in the past, especially if Jon Beason returns, but I still like the backers that we have," Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said this week. "I like Jameel McClain, I like Jacquian Williams. Devon Kennard, he's been a very pleasant surprise for us. I think some of our young players, the Spencer Adkins kid has performed well. We've strengthened ourselves there and that's why I like them on paper."
Here is what linebackers coach Jim Herrmann said earlier in training camp:
"It’s a tough group. There’s a lot of tough guys in it, it’s a different mentality. I like that, if you have tough linebackers, then really the defense as a whole seems a lot different with a mentality, and to me I like that. That means good things."
The Giants? Good at linebacker? How the heck did this happen?
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Well, it happened for a lot of reasons.
- It happened because the Giants traded for Beason in the middle of the 2013 season, and he became the best middle linebacker they have had since Antonio Pierce.
- It happened because McClain is a huge upgrade over Keith Rivers. McClain's statistics in six seasons with the Baltimore Ravens might be ordinary, but his leadership, his presence, his ability to allow the Giants not to skip a beat with Beason recovering from a broken foot, are what makes him a tremendous upgrade from Rivers, who was barely seen and never heard.
- It happened because the Giants believe Williams, a good pass defender and historically awful run defender, has finally figured out how to be an every-down linebacker.
- It happened because fifth-round pick Devon Kennard is the most exciting linebacker prospect the Giants have drafted since before 2009 second-round pick Clint Sintim wrecked his knees.
Let's talk more about a couple of these players.
The Giants have generally used the 2011 sixth-round pick as more of a nickel linebacker. In each of his three seasons Williams has earned negative Pro Football Focus grades vs. the run, making him a liability there. They believe, however, that he has finally figured out that portion of the game.
"I think Jacquian Williams has made great strides since his rookie year and he's performed like he's a three-down player thus far in this camp," Fewell said. "Just confidence in his run fits, confidence in his coverage ability, his knowledge of his assignments, executing his assignments with speed, coming back with feedback, knowing the other positions, saying, ‘I know he was supposed to be here, this is what I did,' and being able to have a good football conversation about what occurred on that play."
If Williams' football acumen has indeed caught up to his above average athleticism that would undoubtedly be good for the Giants.
The fifth-round pick from USS immediately impressed the Giants during OTAs, and that has not stopped. With McClain temporarily forced into the middle, Kennard is the starting strong-side linebacker.
"I would say he exceeded my expectations from this standpoint - a young guy that played a number of different positions, really the defensive end at SC. He played a number of different positions," Fewell said. "Came in and was very mature, extremely football smart and very poised as a young rookie. You don't find that a whole lot, so yes, he did exceed my expectations."
McClain's biggest contribution has simply been his presence, his willingness and natural ability to call defensive signals and accept a leadership role with Beason down.
"I think I just continuously be myself. Whatever I feel at that moment is what I express. If I feel at the moment that isn't right, then I do not say anything," McClain said. "I don't think anywhere I have been or anything I have done, I don't structure it off of how people view me in situations rather than he can't say something because he's new or he can't say too much because he is trying to be a leader. I just try to be myself. At the end of the day it becomes something for someone else then that's what it is, but to be it is just trying to be me."
I will defer to McClain -- who played with future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis in Baltimore -- for some overall thoughts on this linebacker group:
"I know this group is good. I have been around good linebackers, and I have been around good groups, and this group has all of those things intact for it," McClain said. "I mean it is going to be strength. I don't know what the past is, but I know what the present is."
The linebackers as a defensive strength? For the Giants? Who would have ever thought that could happen?