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Giants' return to prominence hinges squarely on the defense

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As the Giants took the practice field on the opening day of minicamp Tuesday, defensive end Osi Umenyiora was with the second unit, the linebacker corps was barely recognizable, and safeties Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant manned the deep secondary that, last season, was as vulnerable as a porterhouse steak in a lion's cage.

With all these moving parts being conducted by new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, it's hard not to think the Giants could be one of the NFL's swing teams: They can swing well to the positive side of the win column or to the depths of defeat. And in New York, the medium point where the pendulum landed last season -- going 8-8 after a hot 5-0 start -- was a major disappointment.

The defense could determine whether this perennial threat in the NFC East gets back to the playoffs. Fewell and head coach Tom Coughlin sent a message right away that they're going with players who they feel can turn around the 30th-ranked scoring defense from 2009. That includes Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka as the starting ends -- not Umenyiora, a former Pro Bowler.

Umenyiora, who rotated in with the first unit at times at minicamp, has to earn his spot back from Kiwanuka. Umenyiora said he's OK with it and that he won't be a distraction, but it's clear he's not thrilled that his reputation hasn't preceeded him.

"I feel like I am still one of the best defensive ends in the league in my head, and that is pretty much all that counts," Umenyiora said. "I am with the (second unit); it is what it is. If I really decide to start to thinking about that, man, it is not going to be good for this team at all. A lot of these young guys look up to me and the way I behave. I tend to see it rubbing off on a lot of people. So I can't have any negative energy, and I can't be thinking negatively at all. I must maintain a positive outlook no matter what happens.

"I truly, truly believe that this year in particular, the best players must play because we need to win."

While Umenyiora is without question an outspoken individual, it's time for him to simply handle his business in training camp. If he's good enough, he'll start. If not, he'll be a situational pass rusher, along with first-round pick Jason Pierre-Paul. Though Umenyiora might not be happy about things, the Giants can feel pretty comfortable that they have tremendous talent and depth at defensive end.

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That can't be said about linebacker.

With longtime starting middle linebacker Antonio Pierce gone and possibly headed for retirement because of a neck condition, Jonathan Goff, Phillip Dillard and Gerris Wilkinson have been working inside, with Goff getting much of the work with the starters. Second-year outside linebacker Clint Sintim, who struggled as a rookie in 2009, replaces Danny Clark as the starter on one side, and Michael Boley, a big free-agent signing last summer, hopes to improve on an injury-plagued season in which he played just 11 games.

That Boley was second on the team last season with 84 tackles says all you need to know about the precarious state of the Giants' linebackers.

"As far as the middle goes, the three guys they've got battling are at the same pace, as far as the learning curve," said Boley, who is going through his first minicamp after missing last year's with a hip injury. "Clint, he's got to come into his own. It's time for him to step up. It's one of those things, to him, he has to look at it as 'It's my spot to lose.'"

Boley also has to be better, especially more stout against the run. It's been a knock on him for years, but he's got to change things up with this young unit to prevent it from being targeted.

With Terrell Thomas and Corey Webster at cornerback and injury-plagued Aaron Ross as the nickel back, the Giants feel pretty good about that part of the secondary. They feel even better about things on the back end at safety, where free-agent signees Grant and Rolle have generated immediate chemistry with each other and have been astute communicators with others. The level of experience and knowledge and the communicative skills each brings has been a huge benefit to the still-developing linebackers and to the overall unit, which last season witnessed disastrous safety play.

The Giants allowed 31 touchdown passes as injuries decimated the safety spot, leaving it an easy mark for just about any quarterback.

"If you never knew that 'Trel and I had never played a down in our careers together and just came here, you'd think we'd played together our whole careers because our chemistry is so tight," said Grant, who came to New York from Seattle. "We understand the game, and we know how to play off one another. With that, it makes the defensive coordinator's job easier, the defensive backs' coach job easier, and it makes it easier for the young guys to see what's going on."

Grant's status as the starter could change should third-year player Kenny Phillips recover from knee surgery that sidelined him last season and started the problems in the secondary. Phillips has not been cleared for team activities, but Coughlin said he's steadily recovering. Phillips said he thinks he'll back in time for training camp.

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