With Chase Blackburn departing for the Carolina Panthers this off-season, the Giants have a big hole to replace at the middle linebacker position.
Blackburn led the Giants with 98 total tackles, deflected six passes, forced four fumbles, recorded his fourth career interception, and sacked opposing quarterbacks three times in a career year in 2012.
General Manager Jerry Reese has attempted to replace Blackburn’s production by bringing in inexpensive veteran players like Dan Connor (signed for 1 year/$715k) and Aaron Curry (1 year/$780k) to compete with the already existing options Mark Herzlich and Keith Rivers.
These low-risk, high-reward signings combined with Herzlich’s continued development and a healthy season from Rivers should not only replace Blackburn, but has the potential to be even better depending on how Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell uses them in the different packages.
But of course, the question of who steps up during training camp and the preseason and is named the starter needs to be answered.
The most likely option to open up the season as the starting Inside Linebacker is former Panther and Cowboy Dan Connor. Entering his sixth season in the NFL, the 2007 Chuck Bednarik Award winner comes off a disappointing 2012 season in Dallas, where he played in 14 games and recorded 56 tackles. While he struggled early on in the season, Connor finished strong, making six, 12, and nine tackles in the Cowboys’ final three games. Connor’s best season tackles-wise came in 2011 while a member of the Carolina Panthers where he racked up 75.
The problem with Connor is he seems to be largely a one-dimensional player. For his career, he has no interceptions, two deflected passes and one sack. If Connor is going to be the starter, it certainly looks like he is a guy who is going to have to come off the field in passing situations.
Then there’s Aaron Curry. After being drafted fourth overall in the 2009 draft, Curry had two decent seasons for Seattle, but diminished performance and injuries in the past two seasons have led to the “bust” tag being used on him.
The Giants are obviously hedging their bets that he can return to the form that made him the fourth pick and be the player he was in his first two seasons in Seattle. Curry is superior to Connor when it comes to playing the pass, recording six deflected passes his rookie year, one the next and five in 2011, where he split time between Seattle and Oakland.
Curry can also serve as a capable pass rusher, having recorded 5.5 career sacks, including a career high 3.5 in 2010.
Last season, Curry spent all but two weeks on the physically unable to perform list and was cut by the Raiders on November 20th.
Keith Rivers, entering his second season as a Giant, had some good seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, but last year he struggled with injuries en route to a disappointing first season in New York.
11 games, 44 tackles, one deflected pass, no sacks. Yawn.
Finally, while Mark Herzlich is a great story and a guy that you really can’t root against, the fact remains that he is not a starting-caliber linebacker in the National Football League.
He was an absolute beast in college, but his well-publicized bout with Ewing Sarcoma sapped him of a good deal of his abilities.
Amazingly, Herzlich is good enough to come off the bench to spell the starter every once in a while and play on special teams, but a starting job is pretty much out of the question for him barring vast improvements.
That being said, he has been much better in his first two seasons then I ever thought he would be, so perhaps he can continue to surprise and take the reins at the middle linebacker position this year.
As things stand right now, the competition for starter is wide open. All four options have their pros and cons, and it will likely come down to who performs the best in training camp. For now Dan Connor is the favorite to win, but it is by no means his position to lose.
Joe Vasile is a play-by-play announcer and radio host. Follow him on Twitter and check out his website.