Fixing a now long-standing weakness at linebacker is the clear offseason priority for the New York Giants defense, but it remains to be seen if they have done enough to upgrade the position.
A trade with the Cincinnati Bengals brought in 2008's ninth-overall draft pick Keith Rivers. The 26-year-old is the only addition to the ranks, while 2010 starter Jonathan Goff has departed to NFC East rival the Washington Redskins.
Finding a middle linebacker athletic and savvy enough to call the signals for Perry Fewell's multiple defense is a necessity. Earlier in the offseason, Jerry Reese indicated that veteran outside linebacker Michael Boley could shift into the middle, according to the New York Post.
Despite a seeming physical incompatibility, Boley might be a nice fit. The 6'3", 230-pound eight-year veteran has the athleticism and range to be an asset in the Giants' zone coverage concepts.
Although he mixed in a lot more man coverage looks during the playoffs, Fewell still relies on a lot of zones, particularly underneath. Boley has the lateral quickness and instincts to be effective shadowing tight ends and slot receivers over the middle.
The Giants don't really favour a bulky plugger in the middle, and have the defensive tackle rotation to keep blockers away from Boley. Inserting 350-pound veteran Shaun Rogers into the starting lineup, for example, would be a good way to create favourable matchups for a lighter middle linebacker.
However, Big Blue would miss Boley's coverage and blitz skills out on the edge. As a weakside 'backer, Boley can be an asset patrolling the flats and the short hook and curl zones.
That means the Giants may opt for a bigger body to solidify the middle of their 4-3 front. NFL.com recently reported that Chase Blackburn has emerged as a prime candidate to win the starting job in the middle.
The 6'3", 247-pounder certainly has the size to plug the gaps and be a force against the run. What he lacks athletically, Blackburn compensates for with excellent read skills and scheme knowledge.
On the outside, Boley would have one spot nailed down. Meanwhile, the other side would see an intriguing competition between Rivers and Jacquian Williams. The 23-year-old is an accomplished coverage linebacker.
However, Williams' lack of size at 224 pounds could see him lose out to the more physical Rivers. The former Bengal would likely take the strongside spot where he could lock up with tight ends like Jason Witten, Fred Davis and Brent Celek and occasionally operate as a blitzer.
Inserting Rivers on the strongside would free Mathias Kiwanuka to take more snaps at defensive end and also help improve 2011's 19th-ranked run defense. The G-Men gave up 4.5 yards per carry last season and the presence of a more traditional linebacker like Rivers would give the defense more athleticism on the edge.
In Fewell's scheme, the linebackers aren't asked to do a great deal, as multiple line combinations dictate the defense. That being said, reducing the 121 rushing yards surrendered per game in 2011 has to be a priority this season.
Starting both Blackburn and Rivers gives the Giants the best chance to do that. Kiwanuka remains something of a wild card in the mix. However, the free-agency departure of Dave Tollefson should see Kiwanuka eventually get more snaps on the line as the season progresses, increasing the number of pressure combinations the Giants can unleash up front.
The Giants need to show more three-linebacker base looks this season. Fewell can be guilty of indulging his fondness for multiple fronts a little too much at times.
A starting trio of Boley on the weakside, Blackburn in the middle and Rivers on the strongside gives the Giants a group of more natural 4-3 linebackers to work with.