Jeff Risdon. 5th August, 2009 - 9:45 am
2008 record: 12-4, lost in divisional round.
Key Stats: Turnover Ratio: +9, Sack Differential: +14, Point Differential: +133
Coming In: LB Michael Boley, DL Chris Canty, S CC Brown, DT Rocky Bernard
Going Out: WR Plaxico Burress, RB Derrick Ward, S James Butler, K John Carney, WR Amani Toomer, S Sammy Knight, DB/RS RW McQuarters, OL Grey Ruegamer
Key Rookies: WR Hakeem Nicks, LB Clint Sintim, RB Andre Brown, T William Beatty
QB: Perhaps no other Super Bowl-winning quarterback has ever faced as much chronic lack of enthusiasm from the fans and (most) media as Eli Manning. While at times proving capable of being a very good starting quarterback, Eli's struggles with his accuracy and propensity to make the wrong decision with the ball keep him from ever being fully embraced. Manning has particularly struggled in the cold and wind (see last Dec./Jan.), and he lost both his top wide receiver (Burress) and his security blanket receiver (Toomer). He must take the next step in terms of consistency and reliability if this offense is to reach its potential. At least he has solidified his presence in the huddle and projects a more confident persona.
David Carr comes back as the top reserve, after impressing in very limited duty (he threw just 12 passes, completing 9) last year. The former #1 overall draft pick appears to have finally found a home, though it could just be that not having to worry about getting pummeled on every throw was what the doctor ordered. The Giants should be in capable hands should anything happen to Manning for a game or two. There is an intriguing battle for the #3 spot between Andre Woodson and Rhett Bomar. Expect Bomar's stronger arm and concise delivery to win out, and he has lots of developmental upside worth fostering.
RB: Earth, Wind, and Fire is history, with "wind" (Derrick Ward) being replaced by "brimstone" in rookie Andre Brown. Earth is Brandon Jacobs, a basketball power forward playing running back. Jacobs is a great fit with the Giants offensive line and blocking scheme. He's a pounder that needs some space to get moving, but once he finds a hole he chugs through with authority, often delivering a bigger hit on the tackler than he absorbs. That kind of style really wears on a defense, particularly behind a physical line like the Giants have.
It also sets up the speedy "fire" Ahmad Bradshaw as a more effective change of pace back. Bradshaw has great vision and hits the seam hard, but his pass protection is lacking and he has a checkered personal history, an issue to which the Giants are more acutely sensitive these days. That leaves the door open for Danny Ware, universally regarded as "highly thought of by the Giants" despite two career carries in three seasons. Ware's more disciplined style on and off the field give him a real chance to seize the "wind" role and douse the "fire" of Bradshaw. And then there's rookie Andre Brown, a back whose style readily drew comparisons to Jacobs in pre-draft discussion. Brown isn't as big but runs with the same high-cut power and broad-shouldered attack. His soft hands are a nice bonus, though he's had serious issues staying healthy. As part of a committee, Brown should be a real asset and at worst provides good insurance in case Jacobs gets injured or gets complacent with his new contract. In Madison Hedgecock, New York has a solid, selfless lead blocker, though he really only helps Jacobs because the faster backs often beat him to the point of attack. The elements are all in place for the Giants to remain an elite rushing offense.
WR/TE: This offense struggled without Plaxico Burress and his ability to stretch the field, but they have a bevy of options that should mitigate that problem with an offseason of retooling. Still, there is no clear-cut #1 option or dynamic weapon readily evident. Steve Smith figures to pick up a lot of the slack, though he's not a real deep threat and lacks Plax's great size and leaping ability. He's built like a slot guy but isn't real shifty or slippery with the ball, though he catches everything near him and is a very good blocker for his size. Domenik Hixon looked the part at times, but was just as likely to juggle the catch away or make the wrong read and break a different direction from where Manning expected. He has the speed but doesn't get consistent separation. Rookie Hakeem Nicks was a big-time playmaker at North Carolina, and he has the most physical potential to ease the loss. He has Plax's physical style and strength and tended to play better as the spotlight grew brighter, and he certainly does not lack for confidence. Keeping his head straight, adapting to zone coverage, and getting separation from better defensive backs are all potential roadblocks that young Nicks must overcome. Mario Manningham flopped as a rookie and has more exacerbated personal issues, though as any Ohio State fan can tell you he can get open deep and make difficult catches. Sinorice Moss has the physical attributes of an effective slot receiver, but a combination of injuries and lack of concentration has stalled his development. This is his last shot with the Giants, and observers tell me he's finally playing close to expectations.
Losing veteran Amani Toomer takes away a reliable possession option and route runner. He will be missed for those attributes but also for his steady hand and presence in the locker room and huddle. Super Bowl hero David Tyree is the most logical candidate to fill that void, but even then he was a fourth receiver with limited ability. He might never fully recover from a neck injury that ruined his 2008 campaign. Rookie Ramses Barden has Burress-like height and can fill the role of red zone jump-ball target, but temper expectations for a receiver who struggled to get separation at the D-II level in college. Mel Kiper Jr. pre-draft favorite Derek Hagan is in camp as well, though he's never met Mel's expectations in three seasons.
The Giants have five tight ends in camp, and all five could end up on active rosters this season. Seeing as how offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is likely to keep no more than two (assuming they keep four running backs and six wide receivers), there is some serious competition. Kevin Boss will be one of the keepers. He is a solid all-around end with good hands and solid blocking skills, though he plods up the field. Rookie Travis Beckum is the complete opposite, a very fast receiving-only tight end with nice hands and quick feet. He has struggled with injuries and was mocked by his Wisconsin teammates and coaches for his softness, however. Darcy Johnson has fared well in limited duty as a blocking tight end with nice hands as a last-resort receiver. The coaches love Michael Matthews' potential, and undrafted rookie Lee Vickers turned heads in OTAs and the first week of camp. Assuming one sticks on the practice squad (or Beckum is an IR stash), that leaves two viable trading chips for general manager Floyd Reese to play with.
OL: The starting five are as sound as any line in the league, but they must pull off the impossible and go a third season in a row without losing a game to injury. The two tackles, David Diehl on the left and Kareem McKenzie on the right, are the relative weak points on the line but also the most important. There is zero depth at tackle, with finessing rookie William Beatty being the primary reserve. Diehl is a former guard who brought that scrappy mentality with him outside. He is very good on the move and locks up defenders at the second level quite well, though he can be slow to kick out in blitz pickup. He will get caught with his feet too wide in pass protection, a very vulnerable pose against rushers who can use more than one move. McKenzie is a solid jack-of-all, master-of-none veterans. He rarely needs help in pass protection, which frees up the tight ends to get downfield quicker, though McKenzie's creaky back and slow feet don't offer much run blocking surge.
The interior offensive line is fantastic, led by right guard Chris Snee. A deserving Pro Bowler and a nasty handful of powerful energy, Snee is an elite talent at an underappreciated position. Center Shaun O'Hara also made the Pro Bowl, and his athleticism allows the Giants to run very effectively up the gut. Left guard Rich Seubert fits well between the athletic O'Hara and the pugnacious Diehl, and he has the strength to handle the bigger defensive tackles. The depth inside is also completely unproven, and the team might regret letting Grey Ruegamer depart. While the starters have proven extremely durable, it's unfathomable that at least one of them will not miss at least a few games for the third year in a row. How well the unproven, underwhelming backups perform could be the difference between playoff wins or an early vacation. That should scare the Giant faithful; perhaps having five tight ends and eight wide receivers on a run-based team instead of finding an experienced, serviceable backup lineman is not such a good idea.
DL: Already one of the best overall units in the league, the Giants' defensive line this year will be significantly deeper and almost certainly better. The return of dynamic pass rushing end Osi Umenyiora gives new coordinator Bill Sheridan an All-Pro shot in the arm. Umenyiora plays as if every last muscle twitch is the difference between life and death, a relentless nightmare to block. He has the complete package of moves to get to the quarterback and knows how to finish under control. Using an unorthodox technique hurt his draft stock years ago, but it has turned him into a special weapon. Justin Tuck starts on the other side, and I don't designate sides for a reason; former coach Steve Spagnuolo frequently moved his linemen all over the formation, and that figures to continue. Tuck bagged 12 sacks and contributed over 20 quarterback hurries -- not bad for a guy better noted as a run stuffer. He was a legit Defensive MVP candidate through mid-November, when he (and the rest of the line) fell off due. With Umenyiora's return, Tuck's pass rushing numbers figure to regress, but that will not be indicative of a decline in his play. His versatility -- he slides inside effortlessly -- and high motor leave Tuck poised as a breakout star this season. Matthias Kiwanuka is the primary backup, though he is talented and effective enough to start for most teams. He dramatically improved his run recognition and better harnessed his speed, taking fewer false steps and closing under control instead of sprinting wildly at anything that moved. Dave Tollefson has looked very impressive in preseason games and limited snaps, but he rarely sees the field because of the logjam of talent in front of him.
The inside rotation is similarly deep and revamped. Fred Robbins was a stud until Halloween, when his weight caught up to him and he tailed off badly. That was not lost on GM Reese, who brought in Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard to build a five-man tackle rotation. With Jay Alford and Barry Cofield, this group should remain fresh and put major pressure on opposing offensive lines. Canty is a classic three-technique tackle with good slipperiness to get into the backfield. He was out of place in Dallas playing 3-4 defensive end and should thrive as part of the interior rotation here, though he could stand to bulk up a bit. Expect he and Cofield to swap regularly, with Canty in on passing downs and the stouter Cofield manning the base run defense. Bernard isn't as dynamic as Robbins but he can be a strong interior disruptor. His initial punch is a devastating weapon. This front four can snuff out a rushing attack quickly, even though they are best known for their ability to get to the quarterback and wreak havoc on the passing game. It's the best defensive line in the league and the players are fiercely proud and competitive about that.
LB: This can best be summed up as Extreme Makeover, Giants Edition. While two of the three starters (Antonio Pierce and Danny Clark) figure to remain in place, the revamped unit features a couple of new faces that will play major roles. Michael Boley will start on the weak side, and he specializes in rushing the passer. Once he serves his one-game suspension, he will also become the Giants' best linebacker in coverage, an area in which they've struggled for years. Boley struggled in Atlanta last year, but that falls as much on the Falcons' coaches as it does Boley, though his inadequacies against the run are not overhyped. The hope is that with all the talent around him, they can hide his soft run defense. Bryan Kehl wasn't bad in that capacity as a rookie last year, so the Giants should have a nice situational rotation on the strong side.
The man in the middle remains Antonio Pierce. A lightning rod (and he'd have it no other way), Pierce exudes maximum effort and translates exhaustive film study into on-field effectiveness as well as anyone. A hard hitter who takes great angles to the ball, Pierce has made himself into a very solid field general. He will give up his contain area too readily and tends to hit too high at times, but the Giants admire his tenacity. On the strong side, Danny Clark is the nominal starter but will be pushed by rookie Clint Sintim. Clark isn't bad but doesn't really offer anything special, whereas the bigger, younger, faster Sintim has great potential as a rush linebacker. He also showed he can drop into coverage, something which Clark has long struggled. His role looks similar to the role Matthias Kiwanuka played as a rookie, a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker used in the passing packages. With all the depth up front, it wouldn't shock anyone to see Kiwanuka get some snaps as a rush outside linebacker either, and that brings even more versatile depth along the front seven. Chase Blackburn is a capable backup at both the Mike and Sam spots, and Gerris Wilkinson has not looked out of place in his limited snaps, though he might not make the team. For a team that is paper-thin on the offensive line, New York sure has an abundance of defensive line/linebacker talent, probably the deepest group in the NFL.
DB: All that depth does not extend to the secondary, however. After the starters, this group falls off quickly in terms of proven NFL ability, though it's far from a bare cupboard. The two starting corners, Corey Webster and Aaron Ross, are both young, fluid athletes with high football IQs. Both can handle man-on coverage with most wideouts they face, and both understand positional geometry. Webster generally handles the bigger wideouts while Ross takes the deeper threats, an arrangement that has fared well in their two years together in New York. Ross will get caught jumping routes at times, and can be slow to react to moves, but his recovery speed often bails him out. Terrell Thomas will handle nickel slot duties, something he gradually grew into as a rookie last year. He lacks speed but has learned how to compensate, and his tackling steadily improved. Kevin Dockery is a barely-adequate dime back who is safe thanks to his strong special teams play. Rashad Barksdale enters camp as the fifth back, but Coach Coughlin isn't shy about giving legit chances to lowly-regarded rookies. They have a pair of them in sixth rounder Deandre Wright and seventh rounder Stoney Woodson. May the best man win, because he will be one false step by someone above him from seeing the field a lot against a pass-heavy schedule.
The staring safeties are also a young, dynamic duo. Michael Johnson is an emerging star at strong safety, a rock in run support who closes quickly and under control. Johnson has great timing with his hits and is a great fundamental tackler -- head up, shoulder through the chest, legs driving, feet chopping. Deep coverage help is not his strong suit, and that's what makes second year free safety Kenny Phillips so important. Phillips showed great range last year and made strides as the season progressed in field awareness, enough that they let trusty vet James Butler leave via free agency. He has a nasty habit of arm tackling that goes back to college (it was the primary pre-draft knock on him), but he lived up to the billing of a rangy, playmaking ballhawk. The health of the starters is more important here than anywhere else on defense, as the primary reserve is Texans castoff CC Brown. Consider that the Texans have had the worst secondary in NFL history over the last four years, and they made no effort to bring him back, and you'll understand why Johnson and Phillips must be on the field as much as possible.
Special Teams: These units are the picture of consistency and quiet effectiveness. There is little flash to 40-something punter Jeff Feagles, but he made the Pro Bowl because he is the master of the directional kick and almost never surrenders any return yardage. When he doesn't pin the ball or draw a fair catch, standout cover men Zak DeOssie (the long snapper) and Chase Blackburn are quick to clean up. They were severely tested by the weak leg of John Carney last year as the placekicker. Carney was great at short field goals, but brutal on kickoffs in relief of injured Lawrence Tynes, who is welcomed back with open arms despite not being the most accurate kicker around. The return units got consistent yardage but were little threat to break a big one, which is surprising considering Ahmad Bradshaw and Domenik Hixon, both electrifying athletes, were the primary returners. A new return blocking scheme must be implemented as well, as the old wedge is no longer legal. There could be an intriguing camp battle for a precious roster spot between Bradshaw and Sinorice Moss, with the winner being decided by kick returner prowess.
3 Keys To The Season:
1. They must assert themselves quickly and dispel the notion that their collapse from 11-1 to 12-4 and playoff disappointment is not the true direction of the team. The first two games are critical division games against rivals Washington and Dallas. If they're not 1-1 or better, this team could be in real trouble.
2. All the questions on special teams must be answered with positive certainty.
3. Who will step up to fill the major void at wide receiver, and how quickly does Eli Manning get comfortable with a shuffled deck?
Forecast: There is certainly enough talent here to win the Super Bowl. It's more a question of all the key pieces staying healthy and hungry, though there are some imperatives to playoff success. Eli Manning must improve, not by leaps and bounds, but in terms of consistency and chemistry with his new wide receiver corps. The offensive line and safeties must stay healthy and sharp. The placekicking and return units must be good. Coach Coughlin must keep the respect in the locker room -- which is why a strong start is so critical. This is probably the safest pick of any NFC team to make the playoffs, but that will not determine whether the Giants have a successful season. They get back into the dance, winning the NFC East at 11-5 and will have a good a chance as anyone to win the Super Bowl, if they're healthy.
- Jeff Risdon is RealGM's senior football writer. He may be reached at Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com.