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Starters: Jameel McClain (SLB), Jon Beason (MLB), Jacquian Williams (WLB)
Backups: Spencer Paysinger (OLB), Devon Kennard (ILB)
Because I have the Giants keeping three quarterbacks and six receivers, I’m only going with five linebackers.
Jon Beason is a lock as a starter if he’s healthy. Last season following his arrival from Carolina via trade, Beason helped to stabilize a defense that, as Jordan Raanan of NJ.com noted, allowed an average of 36.4 points in the first five games prior to his arrival and 18.3 points per game the rest of the way once he stabilized the defense.
I think the training-camp battle between Spencer Paysinger and Jacquian Williams for the weak-side linebacker spot will be a close one, but Williams will just barely edge out Paysinger for the starting job.
However, I fully believe that Paysinger will see a good number of snaps in various sub-packages regardless if he’s a starter.
If Jameel McClain’s health holds up, he should be the strong-side linebacker, a position that in the past has been primarily used on running downs but which comes off the field on passing downs.
McClain is probably going to see the least amount of snaps of the three projected starting linebackers as I suspect the Giants are going to use a lot of sub-packages this year.
However, if my belief that defensive coordinator Perry Fewell might revisit the use of multiple fronts, which would include some 3-4 looks, then don’t be surprised to see McClain move inside, where he played as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, in those packages.
I think rookie draft pick Devon Kennard, who is versatile enough to play inside and outside, will get the bulk of his work inside behind Beason.
You’ll notice that I don’t have Mark Herzlich in my initial projection. As I said, I had to cut a number down somewhere, and I chose linebackers because I think both Paysinger and the Kennard are versatile enough to play both inside and outside, while Herzlich is best-suited for the inside.
For as good as Herzlich was on special teams last year—he led the Giants with 14 special teams tackles—he's not indispensable.
For whatever the reason, Herzlich has been unable to grab onto the starting inside linebacker job after three seasons.
As a rookie in 2011, he didn’t see the field on defense until Week 11, when Chase Blackburn was unable to play.
Herzlich started two games before suffering a broken ankle in Week 12 and was never heard from again the rest of the season on defense, finishing with a minus-1.6 overall grade, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In 2012, Blackburn again won the starting job, though Herzlich did get two starts that season. However, he graded out in the red, per PFF, finishing with a minus-4.3 grade based on his 176 defensive snaps.
In 2013 after Blackburn left via free agency to join the Carolina Panthers, the starting job was Herzlich’s to lose, even after the team acquired free agent Dan Connor.
A tough four-game stretch saw Herzlich given two starts. In that four-game stretch, he consistently graded out in the red, his best grade of that stretch being a minus-0.1 in Week 2 against Denver, a game in which he only played 26 snaps by the way.
Herzlich has been a solid ambassador for the Giants in the community, and his fight against cancer is something of which he should be very proud.
At the end of the day, however, his inspiring story isn’t going to help the Giants win football games, which is why it wasn’t surprising that his one-year, $1 million contract, per Over the Cap, provides up to $200,000 in roster bonuses if he’s active for all 16 games instead of a traditional signing bonus.
If Herzlich doesn’t make the team, he’ll count for a mere $25,000 against the 2014 salary cap, his workout bonus, per Spotrac.