Spencer Paysinger has been a Giant for four years, which means he's been around long enough to know what people think about his position group. For almost every game of his career, the linebackers have been an afterthought, considered a weak link in the defense. Even when the team won a Super Bowl his rookie year, it was without a dominant player at the position.
"We've definitely heard it," Paysinger said at Giants training camp this week. "We've been undervalued for the past three years. Now is the year for that to not happen anymore."
While much of the defensive focus in the offseason was on the big-name additions to the secondary and the turnover on the defensive line, the guys sandwiched between them have been trying to remake their image. That's particularly the case for young veterans such as Paysinger, Mark Herzlich and Jacquian Williams, who have borne the brunt of the low expectations. Linebackers coach Jim Herrmann said he thinks this group has added toughness that might have been missing in the past.
"They enjoy the contact," Herrmann said. "They enjoy listening to the air go out of the other man's body, and to me, that's what you want."
The Giants are certainly talking tough. Paysinger spoke about being ready to "impose our will." Jon Beason called the group "scary." Newly acquired linebacker Jameel McClain said he senses the hunger in the position.
"When you have that much hunger and that many big bodies," he said, "it becomes damage on the other side."
Beason is spending training camp on the sideline as he recovers from a foot injury in the spring, which necessitated McClain's move from the outside to the middle. That's also opened the door for rookie Devon Kennard to step into a starting role. Rookies rarely have been given opportunities like that this early in the season under Tom Coughlin, but Kennard so far has looked ready.
"Pittsburgh, I think, started Jack Lambert right away," Herrmann said of the idea of starting a rookie, making a bold Hall of Fame comparison. "He turned out pretty good. So if he can handle it, and get everyone lined up and understand the nuances and where he belongs, he's a pretty thick kid, he can hit people, so that's good."
Paysinger has added about 10 pounds of muscle since he showed up as a rookie weighing a "soaking-wet 236." He's also evolved into a different role, that of a run stopper last season when he made 11 starts, instead of the finesse linebacker he was coming out of Oregon. But Paysinger also spoke about the mental toughness he has accrued, being able to not only know the playbook but "manipulate" it to his advantage.
"We've been here long enough," he said. "We know what the city expects from us and it's time to perform."
Beason said he has heard the derogatory remarks about his position, but McClain, who was signed in March, said he was unaware of the knock against Giants linebackers. Even when he was enlightened, though, it didn't seem to matter to him.
"It's going to be a strength," he said of the position. "I don't know what the past is, but I know what the present is. That's what we are going to do."