Jeff Risdon. 12th July, 2010 - 7:42 pm
2009 record: 8-8
Turnover Ratio: -7
Sack Differential: even
Point Differential: -25
Coming In: S Antrell Rolle, QB Jim Sorgi, S Deon Grant
Going Out: QB David Carr, DT Fred Robbins, P Jeff Feagles, LB Danny Clark, S C.C. Brown, LB Antonio Pierce, CB Kevin Dockery, TE Darcy Johnson
Key Rookies: DT Linval Joseph, P Matt Dodge, DE Jason Pierre-Paul, LB Philip Dillard
QB: Eli Manning had a great 2009, greatly improving his accuracy and quickness in making the correct decision with the ball. Manning blew away his prior career highs in completion percentage and, more importantly, yards per attempt, where he improved a full yard per attempt. He showed great poise in standing behind a more porous line than he is accustomed, doing a much better job of keeping his eyes downfield and not focused on the rush. That is reflected in both his increased yardage and also his TD percentage (5.3% of passes, easily another career high). Manning also showed toughness in battling through a nagging foot injury, impressing his teammates with his tenacity and willingness to fight through pain. He has grown more comfortable in commanding the huddle and getting on his receivers for making mistakes, which I feel really helped improve his young receiving corps.
That?s not to say Eli has answered all his doubters. He still throws too many aesthetically unpleasant ducks, often at the most critical times. Wind continues to be a problem, and now he?ll have to learn new wind patterns in the new Meadowlands Stadium. Anyone who watched him struggle at Denver and at home in the elements against Arizona and Philly last year knows this is a very real problem, one that he appears destined to perpetually struggle. He?ll also never be a dominant persona, though I believe the Giants have done a good job of surrounding him with players that appreciate his style.
All the QB eggs are in Eli?s basket, because the team severely downgraded the bullpen. Gone is David Carr, replaced by longtime Colts clipboard holder Jim Sorgi. Perhaps the Giants are hoping Sorgi brings along the durability of Peyton Manning with him, because in his very limited experience on the field he?s shown poor arm strength and a nasty propensity to stare down his target from the second he breaks the huddle. I am somewhat intrigued by second-year prospect Rhett Bomar, but he has yet to be active on game day.
RB: This was expected to be the strength of the team in 2009 but instead turned into an injury-ravaged mess, a mess that looks to bleed into 2010. Big Brandon Jacobs appeared to lose both his burst and his confidence, plodding through a very subpar season. His yards per attempt declined over a yard per carry and busted off just three runs longer than 20 yards--and no runs longer than 12 yards after November 2nd. Defenses have figured out his shtick, cramming an extra safety in the box and forcing Jacobs to move laterally before he hits the hole to slow down his momentum and avoid his steamroller power. He is the type of runner that needs excellent blocking in front of him to allow him to get enough juice heading forward, and that fell off last year.
When Derrick Ward left, Ahmad Bradshaw assumed a greater role. He proved worthy, showing good burst and setting up his blocks better than Jacobs. Bradshaw has breakaway speed but also good fight in him, refusing to go down on first contact. He?s also an effective receiver out of the backfield. Bradshaw averaged more than one yard per carry more than Jacobs, a testament to his vision and also to the fact the interior OL disappointed so much. There is some concern over Bradshaw?s health, as he had three offseason surgeries on bone spurs in his feet.
Andre Brown missed his entire rookie season with a torn Achilles, but he is apparently fully recovered and set to assume the 3rd down back role. That?s a strange fit for a 230-pounder, but at NC State, Brown showed great open field skills and surprising elusiveness. Durability has been an issue for Brown, which opens the door for Gartrell Johnson. Johnson is a little quicker and has showcased a better feel for the offense in early OTAs. It?s an intriguing battle, as both were late 4th round picks last year. If either could return kicks, that would be a real advantage in his favor. D.J. Ware could figure into that mix as well.
The fullback is Madison Hedgecock, a throwback lead blocker who will be the first to tell you he has no business handling the ball. His pass protection is iffy compared to other FBs, but he rarely plays on passing downs.
WR/TE: There is a lot more certainty and confidence in the wide receivers this year compared to last summer. Steve Smith continues to grow into a prolific NFL receiver. He runs great routes, creates space for himself nicely, and catches anything thrown near him. Manning clearly trusts Smith, sending 107 receptions his way last year for over 1200 yards. A lot of those catches are on shorter and intermediate routes, where he effortlessly finds the holes in coverage. He?s the ideal complement to a big-play threat, and the G-Men just might have themselves one of those too.
That would be Hakeem Nicks, who burst onto the scene with a robust 16.8 yards per catch average on 47 receptions as a rookie in 2009. Blessed with a great blend of size, speed, and confidence in his game, Nicks has drawn comparisons to Michael Irvin for his ability and style of play. Those aren?t unfounded, as Nicks is a dynamic vertical threat but also a creative bulldog with the ball after the catch. He is a legit playmaker that defenses must account for, and that helps free up Smith to do what he does best.
The Giants are hopeful that Mario Manningham can build upon a strong 2009 to provide an effective #3 option. Manningham has been wildly inconsistent, still battling bouts of the dropsies and the occasional wrong route, but when he?s playing well Manningham can be a very solid third banana. New York needs him to produce consistently, because beyond Manningham the cupboard is not exactly brimming with options. Domenik Hixon is already lost for the year, though that hurts the special teams more. Ramses Barden has great size and hands but simply cannot get separation, lacking quickness and sharpness to his movement. He has some potential as a red zone and possession receiver. Derek Hagan caught just 8 balls last year and suffers from similar issues as Barden despite being a few inches shorter. Sinorice Moss is the cockroach the Giants just can?t eradicate, entering his 5th year with the club even though they?ve spent each of the last 3 offseasons trying to replace him. His quickness and creativity just have not translated to the NFL.
Kevin Boss remains the top tight end. I find Boss almost exactly the same player as Jeff King of the Panthers, a reliable target with average athleticism and generally adequate blocking but nothing special. Boss is a little faster, but the Giants offense seldom asks him to use that speed.
Travis Beckum is the #2 TE, though he?s more of an oversized wideout. The Giants like to use him as the motion tight end, almost as an H-back. His blocking is subpar (I?m being kind here) and he has yet to shake the reputation of being soft. His antithesis is Bear Pascoe, a former rodeo pro that looks and plays precisely how you think someone named ?Bear? would perform: hard-nosed, tenacious blocker, not real agile. His role could expand in 2010, as several team observers and teammates singled him out after OTAs for his noted improvement.
OL: This group fell off badly in 2009 after being a bulwark for several years. Center Shaun O?Hara remains an above-average pivot, durable and tenacious. He?s a strong line commander that doesn?t miss many calls or adjustments, and his pass protection is still very good. But both he and highly regarded RG Chris Snee slumped in run blocking, especially against 3-4 fronts. Snee had a lousy season, often appearing stone-footed and really struggling to engage targets at the second level. He was also vulnerable to inside rushes, something unthinkable in watching Snee the previous couple of seasons. A lot of the woes are healed if Snee bounces back, but if 2009 was not an aberration but rather a true decline in his skills, the line becomes a major problem.
That?s because the tackles are marginal and appear on the decline. Right tackle Kareem McKenzie had all sorts of problems in both run blocking as pass protection, looking stiff and lumbering. He will be challenged by William Beatty, a 2nd round pick a year ago that still lacks lower body strength and any sort of menace to his game. That would seem to make him a better fit at LT, but that almost certainly means another year of McKenzie on the right side, as incumbent LT David Diehl would slide inside to LG if he?s not the LT. Diehl had a very poor 2009, showing stiffness and really struggling with the speed of the game. The returning LG is Rich Seubert, who is far better served as the 6th lineman and is eminently replaceable.
There is almost zero depth up front. Rookie G Mitch Petrus is the top interior reserve as a 5th rounder. The team has largely ignored the OL in recent drafts and could really pay the price in 2010 as a result.
DL: What was once a great strength quickly degenerated into an injury-ravaged liability in 2009. The potential for a return to form is here, but a full-scale rebound to what Giants fans are accustomed is probably a pipe dream.
The ends are the primary attackers, but injuries dramatically slowed Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck. Umenyiora is now two years removed from knee surgery and should be quicker and stronger, but he has become a major liability against the run and the quickness around the corner is unlikely to fully return. Coach Coughlin benched him for his apathy against the run, and trade rumors and residual bad blood both tainted the offseason. Tuck battled a bum shoulder and played like it, consistently losing leverage and letting the O-linemen take control of the point of attack. He still had a decent early season and excels at quickly shedding the block and exploding to make the tackle, but Tuck wore out as the season wore on. He is a far safer bet to return to form than Osi.
The G-Men do have options here. Mathias Kiwanuka is a former 1st round pick that was seen as a rising star before a subpar 2009, where he netted just 3 sacks and still has no concept of backside containment against the run. He?s got great quickness for his tall/thick build and closes with authority. He?s a player on the spot in 2010, because GM Jerry Reese saw fit to draft Jason Pierre-Paul in the 1st round last April. A physical freak amongst physical freaks, JPP is incredibly raw but has amazing potential. He?ll likely be spoon fed playing time, but the coaches won?t hold him back if he?s ready. With just 6 college starts the slate is very clean, and Giants fans would be wise to hold back their expectations for a couple of seasons, even though I admire the pick and think he?ll develop into a very good player.
The interior line has some questions as well. Rocky Bernard and Chris Canty were both major free agent busts in 2009, battling minor injuries and poor schematic fits. Getting Jay Alford back should be a nice boost, as he was missed at the RDT spot. Massive Linval Joseph was taken in the 2nd round and could start if he?s physical enough inside. He needs to learn to play lower and extend his arms better, but Joseph is a great fit for a defense that needs his beef and athleticism. With run stuffer Barry Cofield still around, the makings of a nice DT rotation are in place, but everyone must play to form--which none did a year ago. Additionally, Alford had a recent setback in his rehab and Bernard is not progressing well from shoulder surgery. It?s hard to see so many injuries happening again, but it?s also hard to see all those injuries fully healing and veteran players returning to full form.
LB: This unit has transformed and will look different; whether it will be improved remains to be seen. Stalwart leader Antonio Pierce is gone from the middle, and his void is a lot larger than the moderate numbers he consistently posted. Pierce was the unquestioned field general and quarterback of the defense, and the unit was flat-out terrible without him for the final two months of 2009. Jonathan Goff struggled to replace Pierce, missing tackles and getting caught in the wash too readily. He also struggled in coverage, a surprise for a converted safety. 4th round draft pick Philip Dillard will be given every opportunity to win the MLB job. Compactly athletic, Dillard racked up tackles at Nebraska and showed some fluidity in coverage during pre-draft workouts. But it?s a big jump from playing in the Big 12 North to the NFC East.
Michael Boley had a lost debut season in New York, unable to stay on the field and not doing much when he was in the lineup. He has good speed and offers some blitzing potential from the weak side, but he will overrun plays and miss tackles. He?s also very small at 220 pounds, even on a defense that emphasizes speed. Clint Sintim certainly doesn?t lack for size at 6?3? and 260 pounds, and he should benefit from his rookie experience...which was not very impressive. He struggled with the speed of the game and (proving the pre-draft rap) appears to lack instincts, not reacting fast enough or sniffing out developments early. He?ll be better, but a radical jump is unlikely. Matthias Kiwanuka is another option as a nickel outside rushing LB, though the team seems sold on him at DE after toying with a move in the past.
They do have functional depth at LB. Bryan Kehl played quite a bit and doesn?t miss tackles, though he isn?t as aggressive or assertive as the team would like. Gerris Wilkinson can fly and is the best cover LB on the team, though he is best used in small doses. Injuries have hampered his development. Chase Blackburn is versatile enough to competently fill in at any LB spot for a half and was the only LB worth his salt down the stretch last year. All three bench LBs are valuable special teams contributors.
DB: The hope here is that a free agent infusion will help mitigate what was a complete train wreck a year ago. Bringing in Antrell Rolle and Deon Grant at safety can only help, because during 2009 it often looked as if the Giants would have been better off yanking their safeties in favor of extra defensive ends. Rolle is a better playmaker than they?ve had in a long time, a fearless aggressor with the ball in the air. A converted CB, he often played man coverage in the slot in Arizona, a role in which he thrived and in which the Giants have had nobody close to his skill level. Because they are so thin at safety he might not get a lot of chances to do that, but he will certainly help in coverage against bigger receivers. Grant is more of a run stuffer, though his best days are behind him. He is around more for insurance against Kenny Phillips, a rising star who may or may not be able to play again with a debilitating knee injury that cost him 14 games in 2009. Phillips brings great size and linebacker-like instincts, and he understood his role well. I?ve talked to team insiders about his return and the mood is very cautiously optimistic, which I read as ?We love him and hope for the best but...? Rookie Chad Jones figured to contribute right away, but his career is likely over before it started thanks to a gruesome car accident that nearly cost him a leg. Michael Johnson will likely keep a roster spot because of that, and only because of that.
There is more reason for hope at corner, where a healthy return from Aaron Ross and continued growth from Terrell Thomas should ease some of the pain. Thomas played well when thrust into a prominent role as a rookie, and his attitude and solid technique offer real promise. He actually led the Giants in tackles with 85 (70 solo) and in INTs with 5. Ross is seemingly always fighting with his hamstring and has not shown the toughness, either physical or mental, that the team would like. He flopped miserably at safety last year and could be relegated to nickel back. Corey Webster had a steadily declining 2009 but has the skills to turn in a strong rebound campaign. His size and footwork are his best assets. Speedy youngster Bruce Johnson will have to make more of a dent on special teams to merit increased playing time.
The secondary as a whole would greatly benefit from an improved pass rush, but they must gel quickly as a unit, something that never happened a year ago. A healthy Phillips and Ross make them good enough to handle most offenses, but that?s a big ?if?.
Special Teams: Here?s something you never want to read in a season preview: The Giants are waging camp battles for all the primary special teams spots (P, PK, RS). Rookie Matt Dodge figures to land the punting job with his big leg and incredible hang time, but 40-something Jeff Feagles will be missed for his directional kicking and reliability. Lawrence Tynes did a solid job on field goals in 2009 but the team was very disappointed with his kickoffs. Sam Swank could earn a position as a kickoff specialist, though the team is loathe to burn a roster spot there.
Domenik Hixon had a breakout campaign as a return man, but he?s out for the year already. The G-Men have a host of candidates to replace him, but none have ever seized the opportunity before. Aaron Ross and Ahmad Bradshaw are the most likely candidates, but Sinorice Moss could earn his roster spot here as well. Hixon will also be missed on coverage units, though the Giants are still fairly solid in that regard.
3 Keys to the season
1. The return of the injured. A major factor in the horrific finish, so many key players are coming back from injuries, especially on defense. There is little margin for anything other than full recoveries from a whole host of players, unless some unexpected young depth rises up. Keeping the top 30 players healthy is both a requisite and a challenge.
2. The running game. Both the OL and Brandon Jacobs had subpar seasons. Is that a fluke off year or a sign of impending doom? The passing offense should be special but they need the balance to make the team special.
3. Handling the pressure. Expectations are high with the high-profile roster, the shiny new stadium, and the great start followed by the terrible finish. Coach Coughlin has thrived in this spot before, but this roster lacks the leadership he had back then.
It?s hard to ignore the injury-fed collapse in 2009, where a 5-0 start turned into an 8-8 debacle. This could still be a playoff team, but for that to happen a lot of variables have to go their way. I?m not sold that the overrated, wafer-thin OL is up to the task, and I think Brandon Jacobs is on the steep decline, which detracts from what could be one of the best passing games in the league. I also simply cannot trust a return to full form by the defense, particularly the back 7, which was the worst in the league after Halloween a year ago. The schedule isn?t especially tough outside the division, which should allow the G-Men to hang around .500 all season and keep hope alive. But in the end, a brutal 4-game finishing stretch (@MIN, PHI, @GB, @WAS) will prove too much and saddle the New York Giants with a 7-9 finish.