Young LBs ready to rise to the top

Who's Losing A Step? A year after breaking Jessie Armstead's all-time Giants tackle mark with 135, Micheal Barrow finished '02 with 133 stops. He now has more than 1,000 career hits.

Sure the Giants are going to start training camp and even likely the regular season with the same trio of starting linebackers as they did last year. However, exactly how long the trifecta of Brandon Short, Micheal Barrow and Dhani Jones remain starters is another question entirely.

Short is safe, although his contract is up at the end of the season. As for Barrow and Jones, they've got two young, eager athletic youngsters nipping at their heels. And we didn't even mention super-sub 'backer Kevin Lewis, whose versatility (he can play all three LB spots) and value led the Giants to reward him with a three-year contract extension this off-season.

GM Ernie Accorsi said New York drafted three LBs in 2002 to eventually become the starting unit - Nick Greisen, Wes Mallard and Quincy Monk. That certainly may not pan out, but figure Greisen and/or Mallard to rise to the top before not too long.

When will the changing of the middle guard occur? Of the talented youthful trio, no one's star is rising faster than Greisen. The former Wisconsin standout has everyone excited about his ability. A hard-nosed run-stuffer who's plenty fleet afoot in coverage, his rookie season was marred by a foot injury that limited him to only eight games and one start. His one start was a beauty, however. Subbing for an injured Barrow, Greisen displayed the playmaking ability that New York has long been seeking from its MLB when he recorded his first career sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery all on the same play in Washington.

The Giants so desperately want Greisen on the field that they discussed scenarios that included moving Barrow to the weak side just to ensure Greisen playing time. But Barrow hasn't exactly been in a slump. He recorded a team-high 133 tackles in '02 and still is viewed as one of the defense's instrumental emotional leaders. He really showed he still has it when he put up 14 tackles against the Falcons.

Greisen has been a regular at Giants Stadium all off-season, working out multiple hours a day. Barrow is famous for his preparation and film study time. Barrow has the early edge but Greisen is charging hard. This will certainly be one heck of a battle to watch.

Who's weaker?
Dhani Jones did a better job of replacing Jessie Armstead than many figured he could or would, posting 101 tackles last season. And he chipped in a bunch of big plays in the process. Yet when the Packers expressed interest in the restricted free agent this off-season, no one associated with the Giants seemed all that upset over the prospect of losing Jones. He may freelance a little too much for the taste of some, but he sure was effective at Will.

Perhaps it's because the Giants believe they have a future star in Wes Mallard waiting in the wings. Mallard shot out of the gate during last year's camp, grabbing everyone's attention in the process. He certainly was a victim of hitting the rookie wall down the stretch last season, but New York still believes the speedster could be the goods.

Or perhaps it's because of Lewis. New York's Jack and Master of All Trades is actually most comfortable at the Will position. Since Jones will most likely not be re-signed after the season, why wait until then to make a move? Big Blue could start Mallard and have Lewis around for insurance or let Lewis keep the seat warm until Mallard's ready to go. Hey, it's just an idea, but certainly one the Giants coaches have considered.

Short long on experience
Brandon Short will also be a free agent at the end of the season. Entering his third season as a starter, it appears the Giants would like to ink Short long-term. He's been effective and has grown into much more of a natural leadership role. He neared the 100-tackle plateau (96), which is no small feat on the strong side, where plays aren't exactly handed to you. Short's success and ability and the fact that there really isn't anyone challenging him lead one to believe that number 53 will be in Giants blue for years to come.

The third member of New York's sophomore trio is Quincy Monk, who played in situational packages only. It's believed that he's going to have quite a difficult time holding off rookie free agent Eddie Strong for the final LB spot this camp.

BREAKOUT BOX
Strength of Unit: When all three starters are near or well over 100 tackles, they must be doing something right.

Weakness of Unit: The Giants have been looking for more 'plays' - i.e. INTs, forced fumbles, batted passes - for years. They're still looking.

Key additions: Eddie Strong isn't exactly key, but he's the only addition from last season. A healthy Greisen could work his way into the starting lineup.

Key losses: None.

Darkhorse: Josh Hotchkiss is currently ninth on a seven-man LB unit.

On the hotseat: Micheal Barrow has responded well to challenges in the past. This time he has Nick Greisen trying to take his place.

KEY STATS
Who's Losing A Step? A year after breaking Jessie Armstead's all-time Giants tackle mark with 135, Micheal Barrow finished '02 with 133 stops. He now has more than 1,000 career hits.

Doing The Job. For all the knocks on New York's linebackers, they were a key reason the club finished ninth overall in defense.

Wanna Bet? Those who were correct in predicting that Dhani Jones would reach 100 tackles last season probably cashed in pretty nicely.


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