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Can Mark Herzlich Fix The Middle Of The Giants Defense?

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New York Giants LB Mark Herzlich has an opportunity to flourish as the team's starting middle linebacker. Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images.
New York Giants LB Mark Herzlich has an opportunity to flourish as the team's starting middle linebacker. Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images.

Earlier this offseason, the New York Giants parted ways with two key linebackers who have played big roles in the team's success in the last few years in Michael Boley and Chase Blackburn. Their absence, along with Mathias Kiwanuka likely moving back to the defensive line, has left a few rather noticeable holes at the linebacker position for Big Blue. The team has tried to fill those holes with mostly under-the-radar free agent signings like Dan Connor, Keith Rivers and Aaron Curry — unproven guys with potential that the Giants hope can add some depth to a dangerously thin position.

However, it's not the free-agent signings that will likely have the most impact on the linebacker position this season — it's the young guys waiting in the wings that the Giants hope will step up this season and play a larger role. One man in particular, Mark Herzlich, realizes that his opportunity is now, and he's working hard to make the most of it.

The Giants signed Herzlich as a rookie free agent in the spring of 2011 after he went undrafted out of Boston College, and in two seasons in New York, he's played in 27 games while starting four of them. The experience he's gained in his two seasons has been invaluable, and now the door is finally open for Herzlich to earn himself a starting spot at middle linebacker. Although the depth chart currently lists Dan Connor as the starting middle linebacker, all reports from camp thus far suggest that the job is Herzlich's to lose, and he's not going to let the opportunity slip away.

Herzlich is no stranger to adversity and certainly not to fighting difficult battles. Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, before his senior season at Boston College. Six months later, Herzlich announced he was cancer-free and he was back on the field shortly thereafter. His resiliency and determination to get back on the field capped off what was already an impressive college career: he won Freshman All-American honors after starting all 13 games in his freshman season, and was later named first-team All-American and ACC Defensive Player of the Year in his junior season.

Herzlich has shown brief glimpses of that potential for stardom in his two years with the Giants, and he now has the opportunity to be a starting middle linebacker at the NFL level and serve as an anchor for a linebacker corps that is in desperate need for one. Along with Spencer Paysinger and Jacquian Williams, two more 24-year-olds who have been waiting in the wings for their opportunities, the linebacker position is poised for a new era. It's an era of youth and one that the Giants hope will bring some stability to the position.

Aside from his obvious talent and his ability to play the linebacker position, it's Herzlich's hard work and determination that he hopes will bring him success on the field in 2013. In fact, it's his relentless determination to seize this opportunity that led him and Paysinger to buy their own dry-erase boards and review everything from OTAs until they know the defense inside-and-out. The preparation and the mental edge seems to be there for Herzlich, but now the only pieces left to the puzzle are how he can perform when put into that starting role and what kind of an impact he can have on the defense over the course of a full season at the position. If he and the rest of the young squad can embrace their new roles and step up, the Giants can go into the future with a core of talented young linebackers to build around.