Apr 172012
New York Giants 2012 NFL Draft Needs

There is no better pre-draft feeling than basking in the glow that the Giants are the NFL Champions. Every team has their holes – including the Giants – but let’s all fully appreciate the Giants are the envy of the football world at this moment. They have won two Championships in five seasons, and four in the last 26 seasons.

The Giants will be Super Bowl contenders as long as Eli Manning is their quarterback. He’s 31 years old and in the prime of his career. Hopefully, he continues to play at a high level for the Giants for the next 5-7 years. Can the Giants squeeze out another NFL Championship during that timeframe?

It is important to recognize why the Giants won the Championship in 2011. They did it because of their quarterback, trio of wide receivers, defensive line, and kicking game. There seem to be two successful models in the NFL right now: (1) the 5,000-yard passing club that can overcome inconsistent or shoddy defense, and (2) the defense-first club that lacks a dynamic passing attack but has a good ground game. Examples of the former include the Packers, Saints, and Patriots while examples of the latter include the 49ers and Ravens. Whether you like it or not, the Giants are more modeled on the first. And personally, I think that approach is the best given the state of play in today’s NFL and the Giants’ overall talent level. It would be a waste of talent to pull in the reins on Eli Manning, Hakeem Nicks, and Victor Cruz. Plus, if recent playoff history proved anything again, it is that good teams can take away an opponent’s ground game. Big plays (and Championships) come out of the passing game.

Given the pass-happy nature of the NFL, on the defensive side of the ball, if you can’t rush the passer, you’re in trouble. Passing offenses are too sophisticated. There are too many really good quarterbacks. And the rules favor the passing game. You can have the best secondary in the world, but if you can’t get to the passer, you’re in trouble. What set the Giants apart from the Packers and Patriots in the 2011 playoffs is that the Giants could rush the passer. On the other hand, the team that gave the Giants the most trouble was a 49ers team that beat the hell out of Eli Manning.

So as you look at the Giants’ roster and look at this hole or that hole, ask yourself these questions: How many Super Bowl teams in recent years have had great running backs? Or great offensive lines? How many 4-3 teams had great linebackers? Or who had a great secondary? I’m not saying these positions are not important. They are. But are they difference makers in today’s game?

The Giants’ winning formula is ELITE QUARTERBACK + DANGEROUS RECEIVERS + PASS RUSHERS = CHAMPIONSHIP. Don’t forget that formula because there are some cracks appearing in a couple of those areas that must be addressed.

As I cover the team needs below, you may think I’m being overly pessimistic. Keep in mind that every team has a bunch of needs, including the Giants. I strive for roster perfection – which is impossible.  But also keep in mind that this team was 9-7 and a play here or there from missing the playoffs. The Giants can get better and they need to get better if it wants to repeat.

Lastly, don’t equate my needs with what positions I think the Giants will pick in a certain order. The Giants draft for value and need. If the value is not there, they usually don’t reach. At the same time, if there is super value at position that is not a big need, they will take that player.

Defensive End: The Giants have the best defensive end in football in Jason Pierre-Paul. When Justin Tuck is healthy, he is one of the best too. Despite missing half the season, Osi Umenyiora proved he’s a difference-maker in the pass rush department. Without Umenyiora, the Giants probably don’t win the Super Bowl. Mathias Kiwanuka is a more natural defensive end and can be moved back to that spot to replace Dave Tollefson’s snaps. So the Giants are in great shape, right? I would argue no. Both Umenyiora and Kiwanuka are in the final years of their current contracts and I think there is a good chance that neither will be back. Umenyiora not only wants more money, but he wants to start. He’s not going to do that with JPP on the roster. So he’s likely here one more season at best. Kiwanuka can start at defensive end for any other team in the NFL. And keep in mind that Tuck is an injury-prone player. He was limited most of last season. Until he came on a bit late, and until Umenyiora returned, the Giants’ defense was dreadful. The 2012 NFL Draft is not about the 2012 NFL season. It’s about the 2013 season and beyond. Now is the time to groom Umenyiora’s replacement, not next year.

The big question is will the value be there at defensive end for the Giants in the first or second rounds? There are a number of prospects who flash pass rushing talent, but each has his own warts. These include Andre Branch, Whitney Mercilus, Nick Perry, Vinny Curry, and Chandler Jones. Do the Giants like one better than other teams? One thing is clear – pass rushers go fast. You had better get one early.

Wide Receiver: If defensive end is 1a on the Giants’ draft priority list, then wide receiver is a very close 1b. Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are studs who hopefully will team with Eli Manning for the foreseeable future. But the 5,000-yard passing clubs depend on multiple receiving threats. Look at the Packers and Saints. Look at how many big plays Mario Manningham made for the Giants in the regular and post seasons. Remember Bill Belichick’s last final plea: “Cover Nicks and Cruz… Make Mario Manningham and Bear Pascoe beat us.” Well Manningham is gone. Is his replacement on the current roster? I don’t know. Jerrel Jernigan is small receiver with a lot of quickness. He has yet to catch his first NFL pass. Ramses Barden is a big, athletic talent who can’t seem to get on track in the NFL. Domenik Hixon is coming off of back-to-back ACL tears on the same knee. After that you have Dan DePalma and Isiah Stanback… who? Keep scenarios like this in mind… NFC Championship… 49ers double Nicks and Cruz… is Manning’s go-to third wide receiver on 3rd-and-15 on this roster? Unless the Giants replace Manningham’s productivity, Eli is going to have problems duplicating last season’s success. Keep an eye on potential prospects such as Stephen Hill, Alshon Jeffery, Rueben Randle, Kendall Wright, and Mohamed Sanu.

Tight End: Jake Ballard blew out his left knee in the Super Bowl. Not only was the ACL torn but he had to undergo microfracture surgery to repair damaged cartilage. I doubt he returns in 2012. It’s a huge loss for the Giants. Many fans forget how important and clutch Ballard was in the passing game especially during the 6-2 start and before he was limited with a right knee injury. He made game-saving, super-athletic and clutch catches against the Cardinals and Patriots. Eli not only has lost Manningham, but he has lost Jake Ballard.

Martellus Bennett is a very athletic tight end who was a very good blocker in Dallas, but a very disappointing receiver. And it wasn’t just because he was stuck behind Jason Witten or the Cowboys didn’t know how to use him. The Giants are counting on him to improve the running game as a blocker, but they can only hope he will finally turn his career around in the passing game.

The “wild card” in the “replace Manningham” debate is Coby Fleener. He’s one of the new-age tight ends who is more down-the-field threat than traditional two-way tight end. If the Giants drafted someone like Fleener, you would hope Tom Coughlin and Kevin Gilbride would adjust the offense to take into account his unique skills. The Giants never did really seem to find a way to get Travis Beckum (who also is coming off of a Super Bowl ACL tear) involved much in the passing game. Was that because Beckum wasn’t all that good? Or was it because Coughlin/Gilbride wouldn’t adjust?

Behind Bennett, you have Bear Pascoe (versatile but doesn’t stand out in any area), Christian Hopkins (ex-UFL player), Ryan Purvis (cut loose by Buccaneers), and Larry Donnell (undrafted and unsigned in 2011). Ughhh. Bottom line… Eli needs someone reliable to throw to.

Running Back: The position of fullback is being phased out by more and more college and pro teams. The Giants are probably set at fullback with Henry Hynoski.

At halfback, Brandon Jacobs is gone. The Giants will miss his fiery temperament, but to be honest, not his declining productivity (which wasn’t all on the blockers up front). He was the back-up running back on the 32nd rushing team in the NFL. Ahmad Bradshaw was injured and somewhat inconsistent in 2011 too. I look for him to rebound with a better season, but he has had multiple feet/ankle injuries over his career. The Giants can’t count on him for a full season. Behind Ahmad, there is the uninspiring D.J. Ware, the completely unproven Da’Rel Scott, and the much traveled Andre Brown. Since the Giants have added no veterans in free agency thus far, one gets the sense this may be the year when the team takes a running back relatively high, possibly as high as the first round (Doug Martin).

Offensive Line: As they do EVERY year, the Giants will address the offensive line. And if there is a really good prospect at #32 for the Giants, I can easily see them drafting a lineman first. But I don’t think this area is as pressing a need as many fans think. The offensive line is in transition. It began last year when the team cut loose Rich Seubert and Shaun O’Hara. Now Kareem McKenzie is gone. Will Beatty will likely start again at left tackle. David Baas will be the center and Chris Snee the right guard. David Diehl will likely compete with James Brewer at right tackle. Brewer is a huge, athletic lineman who the Giants have high hopes for, but don’t discount the veteran Diehl for one more year. Diehl should do better in pass protection on the right side. Left guard will likely come down to Kevin Boothe or Mitch Petrus. Boothe played well last season and Petrus is similar in style to Rich Seubert.

What the Giants need to do is add more competition and depth. They did add a veteran swing tackle in Sean Locklear, but look for at least one draft pick. Like I said, if a stud lineman falls to #32, he could be the pick. I’ve daydreamed about David DeCastro somehow slipping. Peter Konz, Cordy Glenn, Mike Adams, Jonathan Martin, and Bobbie Massie are others to watch.

Cornerback: If Terrell Thomas is really on the road to recovery, the Giants are in good shape here with him, Corey Webster, and Prince Amukamara. But Thomas is coming off of two ACL tears in the same knee and Webster is getting older. Like defensive ends, you can never have too many quality corners. The good news is there is already a lot of competition for the #4 and #5 cornerback spots in Justin Tryon, Antwaun Molden, Michael Coe, Bruce Johnson, Brian Witherspoon, and Brandon Bing.

Safety: Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips will return as starters. With Deon Grant unlikely to return, the question is a matter of depth. Is Tyler Sash athletic enough to play safety in the NFL? Newcomers Chris Horton and Stevie Brown are more safety/linebacker ‘tweener types who should excel on special teams. The “wild card” is Chad Jones. It would be a medical miracle if can play at a high level again. There is a need for another athlete in this group.

Defensive Tackle: Barring injury, the Giants top three defensive tackles will be Chris Canty, Linval Joseph, and Marvin Austin. But a fourth defensive tackle is needed. Will that be a cheap veteran, someone like Rocky Bernard? The Giants could also look to the draft, especially since this is a really good defensive tackle class. You can never go wrong strengthening your lines. What if the Giants have a chance to draft Kendall Reyes, Jerel Worthy, Devon Still, Jared Crick, or Brandon Thompson?

Linebacker: There are a lot of bodies here. It’s up to the coaching staff to determine who plays where. I suggest fans don’t get too concerned with starting position labels. The linebacker who plays on the weakside in one set may play the middle spot in another, or visa versa. And the third linebacker will often come off the field in today’s pass-happy league.

Michael Boley and Keith Rivers figure to be fixtures in base and sub packages. But youngsters Jacquian Williams, Mark Herzlich, Greg Jones, and Spencer Paysinger will push for playing time. Mathias Kiwanuka may still start at linebacker and Chase Blackburn returns. If the value is there, the Giants will look at athletic linebackers who can cover.

Quarterback: The Giants are in good shape with Eli Manning and David Carr. Ryan Perrilloux remains the developmental prospect.

Special Teams: The Giants are set with their kickers. Domenik Hixon could re-energize the disappointing return game if he makes the team. The Giants should keep an eye on other potential return candidates.

Summary: I think the Giants can go in a lot of directions. They need a quality running back. They could upgrade the offensive line. There doesn’t appear to be much talent at tight end. You can always add corners, safeties, defensive tackles, and linebackers. But when I look at this roster and think about what the Giants really need in order to remain one of the game’s best, to me, it always comes back to defensive ends and receivers. The Giants have some of the game’s best players already at these two positions, but keep your strength a real strength! It’s a winning formula.

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Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy is Editor-in-Chief of BigBlueInteractive.com, a publication of Big Blue Interactive, LLC. Follow @BigBlueInteract on Twitter.

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