August 27, 2008
SI's 2008 NFL Scouting Reports
New York Giants
Projected Finish: 3rd in NFC East
Kiwanuka has emerged from his injury with a better feel for his role.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
2008 Schedule

During the title run, linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka was left watching -- and burning for a chance to get back. It's here.

As the Giants have discovered, there are at least two ways a star player canreact when he's forced by injury to miss his team's championship run. One is tospend his time off the field compiling a list of grievances about everythingfrom his role in his unit's scheme to the fact that his team didn't pay for hisplane ticket to the Super Bowl -- and to become so embittered that the club is leftwith little choice but to trade him for two draft picks just before the start oftraining camp. Call it the Shockey way.

Then there's the Kiwanuka way. Linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka fractured his leftfibula last Nov. 18, one month before tight end Jeremy Shockey, who's now aSaint, suffered an identical injury. Like Shockey, Kiwanuka struggled to come toterms with the fact that the Giants won Super Bowl XLII without him. "It was avery emotional experience," Kiwanuka says. "I couldn't have been more proud ofbeing a part of this team, but it was heartbreaking not being out there for whatwould have been the biggest game of my career."

Unlike his former teammate, however, Kiwanuka, 25, channeled that emotiontoward something constructive. The Giants had converted the 6' 5",265-pound defensive end into a strongside linebacker before the 2007 season, andboth he and general manager Jerry Reese admit he struggled at first. "Whenyou've played with your hand on the ground your whole career, then you back upand stand up, it's a tough adjustment," says Reese. "Early on you could see himway out of position, overrunning things." Kiwanuka -- whom teammates call simplyKiwi -- was just beginning to get the hang of his new position when his leg snappedin a game against the Lions. Rather than sulking, Kiwanuka exploited hisrecovery time to master the intricacies of his new position. "I watched all thefilm I could," he says. "I wasn't walking. I wasn't doing anything [else].There's no doubt I've improved."

That was readily apparent at Giants camp in Albany, N.Y., particularly inpass coverage. Sharpened by film-room study, Kiwanuka's awareness of where heshould position himself is now allowing him to use what coach Tom Coughlinjokingly calls his "27-foot arms" to knock down passes as far as 35 yardsdownfield. Coughlin singled Kiwanuka out for praise after several sessions.

The pass-rushing skills that made Kiwanuka the final pick of the 2006 firstround looked as formidable as ever in camp -- and his contribution on that frontwill be essential now, with the retirement of Michael Strahan and theseason-ending knee injury suffered by Osi Umenyiora on Aug. 23; those twodefensive ends combined for 22 sacks in 2007. On passing downs Kiwanuka willmost likely join defensive end Justin Tuck on the line in coordinator SteveSpagnuolo's attacking system.

As the line brings the pressure, the secondary should be waiting to takeadvantage. There, Spagnuolo has a new toy to play with in rookie Kenny Phillips,the Miami product who looks poised to continue the school's tradition ofproducing game-changing, Pro Bowl safeties (see: Ed Reed and the late SeanTaylor). The Giants felt like Ralphie Parker on Christmas morning when Phillipsfell to them at the end of the first round. He looks significantly bigger thanhis listed 6'­ 2" and 210 pounds, and he drew nothing but raves in campfor his play in pass coverage and run support. While he might not startWeek 1, Reese says, "he should be a big-timer for us."

The Giants won one of the most improbable championships in NFL history lastseason, when a host of formerly unheralded players became big-timers. They'llneed more of the same in 2008, from the likes of Kiwanuka and Phillips. Aschedule that's fairly soft through the first two months of the season shouldhelp propel New York to a wild-card spot. And as the Giants showed last season,after that anything can happen. -- Ben Reiter


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