Jul 232014
 
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Ryan Nassib and Andre Williams, New York Giants (July 23, 2014)

Ryan Nassib and Andre Williams – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Andre Williams can’t keep the smile from spreading across his face when thinking about the start of his football career.

Before he was drafted by the New York Giants, led the nation in rushing at Boston College or dominated under the ‘Friday Night Lights’ of two high schools, there was a different field Williams stepped on.

There would be a phone call to friends — Freddy, Dorsey and Alex — before exiting the back door and stepping onto the grass of his yard. Someone would bring a football and hand it to another. Then? Well, things got interesting.

“Kill the man with the ball,” Williams said, laughing.

And little Andre always won.

Since his days running through friends under the sun in Kennesaw, Georgia, Williams has molded himself into the Giants’ own big bruising Andre the Giant. But during the early portions of his career, Williams resembled very little of the 5-11, 230-pound back the Giants selected in the fourth round this year’s draft.

Williams was always one of the ‘taller’ kids growing up, but bulky he was not. Williams described himself as ‘lanky,’ mentioning the long arms that often made him look awkward. But in the backyard, his weight meant nothing. Quickly, Williams found a way to make sure he’d never let a friend beat him in the backyard antics.

“I used to get my momentum up to the point where it would be really hard to stop me,” Williams said. “I used to explode on contact. That was really the most fun for me. I was trying to build that and shape it into something that I could use to my advantage.”

Andre Williams, Boston College Eagles (November 23, 2013)

Andre Williams led the nation in rushing last year– © USA TODAY Sports Images

Williams transitioned from the backyard to the backfield in sixth grade, but his career nearly ended before it began. At two years old, a car struck the New York native. Williams’ mother, Lancelene, forbid her son to play anymore, fearing contact sports “weren’t really for” Williams.

Williams’ response? His little brother.

“She was letting my little brother play flag football,” Williams said. “She just kinda thought, ‘I can’t let him play football and not his older brother.’ So I started playing again.”

While Williams displayed potential on the field, he never truly took the sport seriously, partially because of lack of team success. Sure, he was scoring, but the team wasn’t winning.

Then he began school at Harrison High School, played with better players and coaches introduced him to the weight room. Suddenly, everything changed.

“Those lifting programs, it was like a college program,” Williams said. “I saw football and what it was as a team sport and how raw talent could develop into something that could contribute to something bigger. It started becoming a lot of fun.”

Williams played two seasons at Harrison before moving to Allentown, Pennsylvania. As a junior, he committed to Boston College. BC gave Williams both the chance to play early, and the ability to stay close to his mom.

Andre Williams, New York Giants (May 31, 2014)

Andre Williams – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Over the ensuing four years, Williams saw his production increase each season. As a senior, the 22-year-old rushed for 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns. Williams was a Heisman Trophy finalist and holds the school record for rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns.

Despite all his accolades, scouts questioned Williams’ ability to play at the next level. Sure, he could run the ball. But could he catch? In four years, Williams recorded just eight receptions. None his senior year.

Williams says the lack of catches isn’t for lack of ability, but rather opportunity. At Boston College, running backs weren’t required to catch the ball. Now, he’s looking to make up for lost time.

“I’ve been catching a lot of balls in the offseason,” Williams said. “Just in terms of being able to build confidence in my ability to catch the ball and what steps are necessary in order to catch the ball.”

During training camp, Williams has flashed multiple times. He’s shown an extra gear and ability to move with the ball in his hands. But also, that that time spent catching is paying off.

In the Giants’ first practice, Williams made an impressive grab out of the backfield. He’s turning heads. And the right ones, too.

“He’s become more than a one-dimensional back,” Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin said. “He certainly wasn’t used that way at BC, but he’s demonstrated the ability to do that. He also hits that button and he can go.”

For Williams, he’s just looking to improve. Be that as a pass blocker, receiver or runner. As for motivation, he’s his own.

“I actually made it to the professional level. Professional football,” Williams said. “Now I have an opportunity to explore what that means for me. What am I going to develop into? What am I going to look like against the best of the best?

“That’s my motivation. To continue to sharpen myself and be the best back that he can be.”

Jul 222014
 
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John Jerry, Miami Dolphins (November 17, 2013)

John Jerry wants to move on from all that happened during his time in Miami – © USA TODAY Sports Images

John Jerry knows exactly what happened last year in Miami. He knows the details, what he did and what he didn’t do. He knows what’s accused of both himself and Richie Incongnito.

Just don’t expect him to talk about it. At least not yet.

“I don’t have a comment,” Jerry said. “I’m looking forward to the day I can open up and tell you everything about it. We’ll definitely discuss that in the future.”

In the meantime, the New York Giants’ guard is focused on getting healthy and entering the ring of a now wide-open position battle at right guard. As Chris Snee’s body failed him, Jerry is hoping to give his own a jump start to resume his career.

During the offseason, Jerry had a procedure on his knee. The condition, which has not been disclosed or released by the team, took Jerry out for the team’s entire offseason conditioning program.

Jerry has received medical clearance, but didn’t take part in the running portion of the Giants’ conditioning test Monday. Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin labeled him as ‘limited.’ Jerry is not even sure yet what he can do.

“I just think the main thing for me is to get into shape,” Jerry said. “I missed so much time in the spring and everything that I wasn’t able to run. The most important thing is getting in shape.”

A healthy, in-shape and motivated Jerry could be the perfect solution to the Giants’ ailing offensive line. While he had his struggles run blocking, Jerry was one of the league’s best pass-blocking guards last year.

It’s welcome news for Eli Manning, who was sacked a career-high 39 times last year.

In the Giants’ first training camp practice, Jerry received sporadic reps throughout. When he was on the field, it was primarily with the second unit as third-year guard Brandon Mosley worked with the starters.

But when Mosley left with a stomach issue, it was Weston Richburg that took over at guard.

While Jerry is not sure when he’ll be back to full strength, he’s eagerly counting the days he can step foot on the field and contribute. With all that’s happened in his career off of the field, the best remedy may be what happens on it.

“People will think what they want to think and I know that’s out of my hands,” Jerry said. “What the fans really care about is you going out there, performing and getting them some ‘W’s.’”

Jul 222014
 
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Brandon McManus, Temple Owls (September 8, 2012)

Brandon McManus is hoping to win the Giants’ kicker competition – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Brandon McManus, Temple Owls (October 27, 2012)

Brandon McManus – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Signing the contract was easy. The New York Giants didn’t have a kicker on their roster and Brandon McManus was looking for a shot.

Telling his Philadelphia Eagle fan family he was now a member of Big Blue? Eh, not so much.

“They told me they disowned me,” McManus said, laughing.

Growing up 40 miles from Philadelphia, McManus recalls many Sundays spent packed into Lincoln Financial Field with his parents to watch the Eagles play. There was the yelling, the screaming and the cheering. He, like his family, became a die hard.

McManus wanted nothing more than to mimic those that he had watched on the field since he was three years old. He started playing football in middle school and continued in high school. He excelled at kicking and turned the passion into a scholarship to Temple University.

In the four years he suited up for the Owls, McManus established himself as arguably the best kicker to play for the program. Among others, McManus set the record for points scored (338), field goals made (60), field goal percentage in a season (82.4) and extra points made in a game (9). All while dealing with the elements impacting Temple’s home stadium, Lincoln Financial Field.

After graduating, McManus signed with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent. He fought tooth-and-nail with Adam Vinatieri for a spot on the Colts’ final 53-man roster. The competition was close, but Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano elected to go with the veteran Vinatieri.

“Last year was great,” McManus said. “I kind of mold my game around Adam being a clutch performer at the end of games. That’s what he’s known for in his career is the clutch Super Bowl kicks.”

While it’s yet to be seen if McManus has a ‘clutch’ gene, what has been on display is his leg strength. McManus says he feels completely comfortable kicking from 60-yards out, comparing it to an extra point. In last year’s preseason, he kicked a 50-yard field goal with ease against the Giants.

Watching from the opposite sideline, New York was impressed. So, when Giants’ kicker Josh Brown had his contract expire at the end of last year, the team wasted no time in acting on McManus, signing him to a ‘future contract’ on Jan. 2.

“I really like McManus,” Giants’ special teams coordinator Tom Quinn said. “I liked him coming out (of Temple). He went to Indy for last training camp and preseason and I thought he was a really good kicker. He’s kicked in the northeast at a high level. I think he’s got a real big upside once it all starts clicking for him.”

McManus hopes the light has already been turned on. If he wants to be New York’s kicker, he’ll once again have to battle a veteran. Two months and 10 days after signing McManus, the Giants brought back Brown.

Brown has kicked 254 field goals in his 12-year NFL career.

Tom Quinn, Tom Coughlin, New York Giants (August 29, 2012)

Tom Quinn (left) was impressed with McManus at temple – © USA TODAY Sports Images

McManus is 1-for-1 in the preseason.

“I knew no mater what it was going to be a competition,” McManus said. “I came in here during (organized team activities) and tried to work hard every day. I tried doing my best and we both performed at such a high level this offseason. “

The Giants were one of several teams to reach out to McManus with a contract as a kicker. Two others called him with a chance to punt. Aside from the accolades McManus earned at Temple as a kicker, he holds the school’s record for punt average at 45.4 yards per kick

“It was a lot of fun punting,” McManus said. “It gave me a different dynamic of the game. It was the first time since middle school I had the ball in my hands because when I’m kicking it never is.

“With kicking I used to put so much pressure on myself and I was so critical of myself. When I went out there to punt I just relaxed and it was such a different view of the field. “

McManus admits he sees himself as a kicker first, punter second, but wouldn’t throw away an opportunity to do both. Yet before he gets too far ahead of himself, he knows there’s a roster spot that needs to be won first before double-dipping on special teams.

That doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought at all about the fact the Giants’ play his family’s beloved Eagles twice a year. Nor has it failed to cross his mind that often times the games come down to a two-to-three point difference.

“Hopefully when we play them we don’t blow them out of the water,” McManus said. “If I could set up for a game-winning kick, that would be great.”

But would there be a little hesitation from Mom knowing her son was about to single-handedly defeat her beloved Birds??

“Oh no, they’ll definitely be rooting for me,” McManus said with a smile. “My parents are all for me now.”

Jul 212014
 
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Chris Snee, New York Giants (August 22, 2012)

Chris Snee has said goodbye to the New York Giants – © USA TODAY Sports Images

He’d already given the speech to his teammates and coaches. The announcement was confirmed. After 10 years in the NFL, Chris Snee was walking away.

Chris Snee, New York Giants (December 11, 2011)

Chris Snee – © USA TODAY Sports Images

But as he climbed to the top of a podium overlooking the practice fields he’d spent countless hours on, something changed. The smile left his face as realization set in. This made it official.

Snee began to speak, got a few words out, then the Giants’ iron man broke down.

He brought his hand to the crest of his nose and rubbed his eyes, took a deep breath and attempted to speak again. A few more words, then the giant hand came right back as his eyes swelled with tears. He hung his head.

“It’s a bitter-sweet day,” Snee said between tears, “But one that I really had no choice in. It’s no secret, I’m going to retire.”

For the first time since he was drafted in 2004, Snee couldn’t do it anymore. His body had failed him. No time in the trainer’s room and no amount of ice could fix the physical tolls of a decade in a league where the average career lasts just over three years. It finally caught up to him. At 32 years old, Snee needed to hang up the cleats.

The decision to walk away was one Snee knew was coming. After struggling to play baseball with his son,  it was time. But that didn’t make this press conference any easier.

With every word Snee attempted to utter out, memories came flooding in. There were the locker room pranks he played on teammates with former Giants’ Rich Seubert, Shaun O’Hara, David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie. There were the two Super Bowl championships and four Pro Bowls, too.

Then there was also the memory of his last game as a Giant, a 38-0 defeat at the hands of the Carolina Panthers. Snee was removed from the game before its culmination and placed on injured reserve days later.

Chris Snee, New York Giants (November 25, 2012)

OG Chris Snee – © USA TODAY Sports Images

In the offseason, the former All-Pro guard had hip and elbow surgery and began rehab. Snee didn’t want that “Carolina game” to be the final time he stepped foot on the field as a member of the Giants.

“I sat down with (Giants general manager) Jerry Reese and told him my intentions,” Snee said. “I asked him if he thought I could still play and he said yes. He gave me the opportunity to work this spring and see if my body would hold up. It was doing great.”

Snee began the spring as a full participant in the Giants’ offseason conditioning program, but as the regular season neared ever close, so did the thought that his fairy tale ending would never come to fruition.

Snee’s elbow flared up, prohibiting him from working out. The one who once held the title as the strongest on the Giants saw that strength slipping away. What once made him arguably the NFL’s best guard was no long a talent in his repertoire.

Practice came and went as Snee remained stationed on the sideline. His signature No. 76 jersey was still seen on the field, but not in the huddle. The guard kept his helmet by his side as he watched practice as a spectator.

“In May it was great. I was feeling good,” Snee said. “Then it went south in a hurry. I was going to be honest like I said I would. I wouldn’t be able to play the game I would expect and wouldn’t have been proud of the product I put on the field.

“I let Jerry Reese know, probably at the end of June, what I was leaning towards doing and made it official a couple days ago.”

On Saturday, Snee took a trip to the Giants’ facilities with his family in tow. The group made their way to coach and father-in-law Tom Coughlin’s office where his son, Cooper, ran in to see his grandfather.

“I got this little tap on my back,”Coughlin said. “We visited for a couple minutes and then Chris asked if he could speak to me… and I knew.”

Chris Snee, New York Giants (February 5, 2012)

Chris Snee won two Super Bowl’s with the Giants – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Coughlin then called Reese, along with owners John Mara and Steve Tisch. Snee, meanwhile, made a call of his own.

In 2004, Snee was the Giants’ second-round pick. Their first was quarterback Eli Manning. Throughout both of their rookie years, Manning and Snee were roommates, buss-mates and plane-mates. Their relationship grew over the years and the last thing Snee wanted was for Manning to find out when he arrived at the team’s practice facility on Monday.

So, on Sunday, Snee phoned his old friend.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” Snee said. “We have a special relationship. We’ve been through a lot, two championships and just becoming great friends by the end of this. I thought he had the right to know before everyone else did.”

When Snee was placed on the injured reserve last year and struggled this spring, Manning continued to tell himself it was just a bump in the road for Snee. At the end of the day, when Manning lined up under center it would be his friend just to his right when it counted. Whenever the thought of life without Snee came into his mind, Manning quickly pushed it back out.

He didn’t want to think about it. Didn’t want to imagine it. But when his phone rang, there was something inside that told Manning this was it.

“I had a feeling that that might be what was coming,” Manning said. “You never really thought it would happen. I didn’t want to think about it happening because he’s been such a tremendous teammate and a great friend of mine.”

As Snee walks away, so too does the final piece of one of the greatest offensive lines assembled throughout the Giants’ history. Four nearly five years, O’Hara, Diehl, Seubert and McKenzie paved the way for running backs while keeping defenders off Manning.

O’Hara and Seubert retired in 2010. McKenzie hung up the cleats in 2011 and David Diehl after last year.

“I heard from all of them,” Snee said. “That was a special group we had. One we should’ve cherished more when we were together. Those are my brothers. I thought that I would be able to hang on a little bit longer and they’re still living through me.

“Richie called me four times since midnight. He’s in California, so he’s not sleeping much. Shaun, the same, and Dave. We’ve always had each other’s back and that’s not going to change.”

In 2008, the group paved the way for two 1,000 yard running backs in the same season for the first time in Giants’ history. Brandon Jacobs rushed for 1,059 and Derrick Ward 1,025.

Chris Snee, New York Giants (July 21, 2014)

Chris Snee with son, Cooper, following his retirement press conference – Photo by Connor Hughes

“We had fun,” Snee said. “It was just a fun group to be around, but also when we hit the field, it was work.”

While Snee admitted he’ll be taking some time off and enjoying an August where he doesn’t have to “strap on a helmet,” eventually he hopes to return to football as a coach. Maybe, on one of his son’s teams.

But whether it’s back to the gridiron or another adventure, Snee will be spending more time with his family. His wife, Kate, and sons, Dylan and Cooper, were on hand for Snee’s final press conference.

When Snee stepped off the podium, Cooper ran up to his dad and gave him a hug.

“How old are you now, Dad,” Cooper asked his father.

“Same age as yesterday, Buddy,” Snee said, laughing, before pulling him close again.

Chris Snee Interviews: Transcripts, audio, and video of New York Giants offensive guard Chris Snee discussing his retirement from the NFL are available from the following sources:

John Mara and Tom Coughlin on Chris Snee: Transcripts and video clips of the following team officials discussing the retirement of Chris Snee are available from Giants.com:

 

Jun 252014
 
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John Conner, New York Giants (December 22, 2013)

John Conner thinks he has what it takes to be the Giants’ fullback – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Don’t get John Conner wrong; he loves every part of his game that led to the nickname ‘The Terminator.’

He loves blocking, knocking opponents over and being his team’s personal battering ram. But there’s a part of his game that is often omitted when his skill set is brought up. A talent that may be exactly what he needs to fend off Henry Hynoski as the Giants’ fullback on the final 53-man roster.

“I can catch the ball a little bit, too,” Conner said. “And I can run.”

Since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, Conner’s ball skills have never truly been on display. As Rex Ryan’s personal draft pick, Conner was labeled a hard-nosed fullback destined to pave the way for whomever lined up in the Jets’ backfield. But before he played a down in the NFL, he earned Hollywood fame for his role in HBO’s Hard Knocks his rookie season.

John Conner, New York Giants (June 18, 2014)

Conner wants to show he’s as a weapon with the ball in his hands – © USA TODAY Sports Images

On the show, which follows an NFL team throughout its training camp, Ryan told a story about a time he was scouting a linebacker. While watching film, a fullback from Kentucky stood out, blocking and knocking over everyone in his way. Each draft, the Jets would give Rex Ryan one pick to select anyone he liked. He fell in love with the fullback, making Conner his selection.

HBO’s cameras ate up the story, making Conner one of the spotlighted players on the series. He was nicknamed ‘The Terminator,” a name that still holds today.

“It was cool as a rookie to get all that publicity,” Conner said before being interrupted by teammates who all growled ‘Terminator,’ causing the 27-year-old to attempt to hide a smile.

Conner made the Jets roster his first two seasons, but was waived in 2012 via injury settlement. The fullback sprained his MCL and Lex Hilliard played well enough in his absence for the Jets to feel confident cutting ties.

He then signed with the Cincinnati Bengals where he once again found himself on Hard Knocks. This time, the story didn’t have a Cinderella ending. Conner was cut when the Bengals decided the team didn’t need a prototypical fullback, electing to go with former tight end Orson Charles.

John Conner, Cincinnati Bengals (July 28, 2013)

Conner failed to make the Bengals roster last year – © USA TODAY Sports Images

“I’m shocked,” Conner said on the show. “But it’s a business.”

Conner worked out for the Bills before agreeing to a two-year contract with the Giants four weeks into last season. The Ohio native filled in admirably for an injured Henry Hynoski in an offense that perfectly suited his talents. There was an abundance of two-back sets in former coordinator Kevin Gilbride’s offense.

Then the season ended, Gilbride retired and Ben McAdoo was hired. A new offense – one Conner admits doesn’t appear to use the fullback as much – is in the process of being implemented and Hynoski is back and healthy. Once again, ‘The Terminator’ finds himself in a position battle.

“I love competition, it brings out the best in people. As long as it’s fair, I love it,” said Conner, who spent noticeable time in the weight room this offseason. “Being a fullback, you kind of expect that you’re going to compete every year.

“I feel like the last few years in the NFL I’ve reached the point where I’ve become a top-tier fullback in the league. I just want to go out there and have a healthy competition, there’s nothing wrong with a healthy competition.”

Throughout OTAs and the Giants’ mandatory mini-camp, there’s been no clear indication of who exactly is atop the depth chart. At times, Hynoski is the first one out. Other times, it’s Conner.

“Henry and John have both done a nice job,” McAdoo said. “We mix, we’re in and out of personnel groups and those types of things at this point. You like to use the fullback. The way I was raised, a fullback’s a big part of the things you do.”

While the fullback will be guaranteed to have a role in the new offense, what exactly it will be asked to do is anyone’s guess. McAdoo has never called plays in his NFL coaching career. Neither Hynoski nor Conner has been asked in their career to be a ‘weapon’ on offense.

John Conner, New York Giants (December 22, 2013)

John Conner – © USA TODAY Sports Images

No matter what is asked of the position, Conner believes he can do it.

“I absolutely think I can be a weapon,” Conner said. “A lot of people just don’t get a chance to see that part of my game because I’ve always been seen as a lumberer.”

Unlike Conner’s past competitions, no matter how this one shapes up, HBO won’t be there to document it. While the Giants were one of eight teams that could potentially be ‘forced’ to do the show, the Atlanta Falcons stepped up and volunteered.

Conner was well aware New York was eligible to be featured. In fact, he was almost preparing for it.

“It seemed like they just followed me around,” Conner said, laughing. “I kept thinking like, man, three times? That would have been crazy.”

Jun 242014
 
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Jacquian Williams (57) and Larry Donnell (84), New York Giants (June 18, 2014)

Jacquian Williams and Larry Donnell – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Larry Donnell thought back to the first time he got his hands on Giants’ new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s playbook. It didn’t take long for the tight end’s eyes to begin to grow.

Excitement almost instantly set in. Gone were the days of blocking and outlet routes. No longer would the tight end position be a ‘safety valve.’ Its role now? Well, Donnell couldn’t talk without an ear-to-ear smile forming across his face.

“There’s plenty of reads where we’re the first read,” Donnell said “We’re the first option.”

Larry Donnell, New York Giants (June 18, 2014)

Larry Donnell has flashed throughout OTAs and mini-camp – © USA TODAY Sports Images

The fact the Giants have new plans for the position is hardly a shock. From the first time this year’s corps of tight ends met the media, each gushed about how much more “moving” they would be doing. The tight end wouldn’t just be lining up outside the tackle; it could be anywhere.

During the team’s OTAs and mini-camp, the early talk was put on display. There were formations where three tight ends lined up on the field at once, one that had the tight end split out wide as a receiver, and even in the backfield. It was anyone’s guess as to where the position would be found.

“It’s fun when we put all of those tight ends in the game,” Donnell said. “It’s fun lining up in different spots. They can’t really ‘key’ on any one of us because you don’t know what we’re gonna give you.”

Labeled a ‘position of need’ this offseason, New York did very little to add to the tight end meeting room. Daniel Fells and Kellen Davis were signed as free agents while Xavier Grimble was added as an undrafted rookie. Donnell and former fourth-round pick Adrien Robinson returned.

General Manager Jerry Reese and head coach Tom Coughlin both proclaimed it would be an open competition with each player getting their shot to earn a spot atop the depth chart. Early on, it’s looking like nothing could be more true.

Maybe a bigger question as to where the tight end will be lining up is whom exactly will be the player taking the field?

Larry Donnell, New York Giants (September 15, 2013)

Larry Donnell – © USA TODAY Sports Images

“Everyone is getting a chance to go out there and make plays. Everyone is getting a chance to play,” Donnell said. “Right now everyone is rotating in and that’s how it’s going.”

One day it’ll be Robinson. The next? Davis. Or Grimble, or Donnell, or Fells. There’s no set order. No sign of a front runner. Each player has flashed.

“I think we have a nice group there,” McAdoo said. “We have big men in that room. I like the way they think about the game and I like the way they’re moving around on the field.”

Donnell is the living definition of a ‘physical specimen.’ He has the size (6-6, 269-pounds) to overpower defenders and possesses deceptive quickness. A near identical description to position-mate Adrien Robinson, who was once famously dubbed the ‘JPP of tight ends’ by Reese.

In a recent interview with WFAN, Reese hinted the team had high expectations for the duo last year before injures marred both their seasons. If Robinson and Donnell stay healthy, the ‘position of need’ may already be filled.

“We have some athletic, big guys who can run and catch the football,” Reese said. “(Robinson and Donnell) can be dynamic if we can get them going.”

While the coaching staff and front office have their questions, Donnell is counting down the days until he can put on pads and supply an answer. He knows what he’s capable of. Finally, he has an opportunity to show it.

“I can do all the things they ask. I think I’m versatile,” Donnell said. “I can line up in the backfield and play that role, then I can split out wide and play there.

“I’m learning the game more each day and becoming a better student. I understand the game better than when I first entered the league and have a good grasp on it. I’m learning, I’m growing and I’m becoming a better player.”

Jun 212014
 
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Prince Amukamara, New York Giants (August 18, 2013)

Prince Amukamara is ready to breakout in 2014 – © USA TODAY Sports Images

It’s been a good time to be Prince Amukamara.

Over the last 12 months, the former first-round pick proposed to his now-wife Pillar Davis while dressed as a member of the dance group Jabbawockeez, got married and then had his fifth-year option on his rookie contract picked up.

He’s quite literally a ‘Prince’ of a village in Nigeria and is a key component to a defensive secondary that is boasting claims as potentially the league’s best.

Reiterating: It’s a good time to be Prince Amukamara.

“It’s been really good,” Amukamara said. “Marriage is amazing, especially with my wife, she makes it easy. It can be a lot of work, but right now I’m definitely enjoying it.”

Since being selected with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Amukamara’s play on the field hasn’t necessarily matched his life off of it. He’s flashed the ability to be considered one of the league’s best, but has yet to do it on a consistent basis.

Injuries have marred the promising career. In his first practice his rookie year, he broke his foot. In year two, a hamstring injury cost him time. After finally remaining healthy last season, reports surfaced the Giants were ‘unsure’ if they’d exercise their option on his rookie contract.

Per the new collective bargaining agreement, each first-round pick is signed to a four-year contract with a team option for a fifth. If the team sees enough in a player and wants him back, they can have him for the fifth year. If not, the player enters free agency.

In Amukamara’s mind, the Giants’ hesitation was warranted.

“I felt I was kind of in the gray area,” Amukamara said. “I didn’t do enough like a Patrick Peterson to assure that option, but I haven’t done so small that they can count me out. I thought I was in the middle, but I’m glad they picked it up.”

Now, Amukamara hopes to pay back the Giants’ faith with his play on the field.

Tom Coughlin, Prince Amukamara, New York Giants (December 22, 2013)

Tom Coughlin hopes Amukamara can be the ball-hawking cornerback they envisioned coming out of the 2011 draft – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Since hauling in an interception on his first defensive snap of his career, Amukamara’s ball-hawking capabilities haven’t necessarily been displayed. He’s recorded just one interception in each of his three seasons. The goal this year is simple: change that.

“I just want to make more plays on the ball,” Amukamara said. “What I’ve been averaging is consistent, but not consistent enough.”

Cornerbacks’ coach Peter Giunta saw a monumental jump from Amukamara last year and sees no reason why it won’t continue this season. The fourth-year player is beginning to take gambles that he hadn’t in years past. Those risks are paying off.

Giunta said he’s seen Amukamara develop a confidence in himself throughout mini-camp and OTAs. During a two-minute drill practice, Amukamara jumped a route causing quarterback Eli Manning to throw to another target. Antrel Rolle intercepted the pass.

“He read the combination, saw it and jumped inside,” Giunta said. “Antrel intercepted it because Prince cut the route off. He knew it was coming because he felt it.”

In the past, the Giants have put an emphasis on the defensive line, rendering the secondary an after thought. In the front office and coaching staff’s minds, if the line could get to the quarterback before he could release the ball, weaknesses in the secondary could be masked.

The theory worked exceptionally well in both of the Giants’ two Super Bowl runs. But then offenses adjusted. Quarterbacks started getting rid of the ball faster, quicker. The holes in the secondary were no longer hidden.

This offseason, the philosophy changed. Gone were the second-tier secondary players; in came big name, after big name. Amukamara joins Antrel Rolle as the lone starter returning in the secondary.

Prince Amukamara, New York Giants (June 12, 2014)

Prince Amukamara – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Free-agent signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will play opposite Amukamara. Walter Thurmond III will be in the nickel. Stevie Brown steps in for the recently departed Will Hill.

“We’re trying to be the No. 1 secondary, just like every secondary, in the league,” Amukamara said. “I think we have a good chance of doing that.”

Helping prepare the team for what they’ll face on Sunday are the Giants’ own group of wide receivers. A corps that has Amukamara impressed. The new offense is up-tempo, fast paced and different than in recent history. Gone are the big bodies. In their place? Speed.

“They’re all fast,” Amukamara said. “It’s like we have six different Cruzs out there. They’re just being fast and they’re able to take the top off of defenses. It’s been great working against them.”

Jun 202014
 
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Dan Fox, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (March 20, 2014)

Dan Fox – © USA TODAY Sports Images

It’s been a game of “Where’s Waldo” throughout the Giants’ offseason conditioning program. It’s not that undrafted linebacker Dan Fox has been hidden, but where exactly he lines up is anyone’s guess.

“I’ve worked at MIKE, WILL and SAM,” Fox said. “I work all over.”

Versatility is nothing new for the Notre Dame alum. Last year, the senior saw significant time at both the middle and weak side linebacker positions in the Fighting Irish’s 3-4 defense. The Giants – as most know – operate out of the 4-3 defense.

Fox admitted the change in scheme is different. Having been used to playing with just three defensive linemen in front of him, the 6-3, 233-pound Fox got used to taking on offensive linemen.

“You don’t have to be so aggressive,” Fox said. “You can wait and see where your fit is. Some plays it has its advantages, some plays its disadvantages. I honestly like both defenses.”

Fox admitted there’s a difficulty in learning a brand new concept, but it’s not nearly as tough as the season he endured last year. As a senior, Fox suffered a knee injury that forced him to wear a donjoy knee brace, a brace normally worn by offensive linemen.

While the brace prevented him from further injuring his knee, it also kept him from extending his leg. The linebacker that once roamed sideline-to-sideline suddenly couldn’t “open up his stride.” The way Fox described it, he was simply “pitter-pattering around.”

The injury forced Fox to endure the most frustrating time of his career. At one point, he lost his starting position. When the year ended, his draft stock had plummeted despite finishing with a team-high 95 tackles. Fox wasn’t invited to participate in the NFL Combine.

The Indianapolis snub was enough to motivate Fox. The Cleveland native ran a 4.59 40-yard dash time at his pro day, gaining the attention of several pro scouts, but he still went undrafted.

Dan Fox, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (November 12, 2011)

Dan Fox – © USA TODAY Sports Images

“I definitely think the injury affected me when it came to the draft,” Fox said. “First of all, it affected my performance on the field. I gave everything I had, but I wasn’t even close to being 100 percent.”

Once the draft concluded, Fox’s phone began to light up with teams interested in signing him. The Giants were one of the first to call. Fox weighed his options, knowing throughout his career he had played in a 3-4 defense and the Giants ran a 4-3. Was the change in scheme worth the risk?

Others reached out letting Fox know about the reputation the Giants’ organization held. Shortly thereafter, he signed on the dotted line. Then, he got another call, this time from former teammate and Giants sixth-round pick cornerback Bennett Jackson.

“He was really excited about it,” Fox said. “We were both excited to be on the same team again.”

How long that remains is now the question. Jon Beason’s 12-week injury helps Fox’s chances, at least in the short term. He’s gained valuable extra reps and earned praise from the coaching staff.

Perry Fewell, New York Giants (June 19, 2014)

Perry Fewell talked in length about Dan Fox – Photo by Connor Hughes

Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell:

“He’s a smart football player. I think he’ll be good on special teams for us and just a solid player that you can develop and build on.”

Linebackers coach Jim Hermann:

“Anytime you have a smart guy like that who football just comes natural to, that gives him a chance. He’s got to make the team on special teams, obviously, that will be his biggest deal when he comes back. For me, as a position coach, to be able to say, ‘Hey look, he has multiple roles on defense, he can play a lot of positions,’ that helps his chances.”

History favors Fox. The Giants have long found spots on their roster for undrafted rookies. Spencer Paysinger, who is splitting time with the starting unit, went undrafted in 2011. Mark Herzlich, too.

Chase Blackburn, who signed with the Carolina Panthers last offseason, played eight years with the Giants after going undrafted in 2005.

“I was so excited to choose the Giants,” Fox said. “I know there are opportunities. If you give good effort and make plays, you’ll make the team. That’s really all you can ask for as an undrafted guy.”

Jun 192014
 
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Charles James, New York Giants (August 24, 2013)

Charles James – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Charles James sat at his locker, fielding question, after question, after question.

The second-year corner gave his opinion on new teammate Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the changes from a year ago and his expectations for 2014. Then, a voice chirped in from a few feet away.

“You’ve gotten a lot better at this from last year,” running back David Wilson said, laughing.

James flashed his signature smile and let out a chuckle before continuing his prognosis of the Giants. The truth is the 23-year-old’s media relations aren’t the only part of his game that has taken a step to the next level.

On the field, James has flashed throughout the Giants’ offseason program. Last year’s undrafted long shot from Charleston Southern has recorded two interceptions and impressed with blanket coverage. When his play isn’t getting him noticed, his voice is. James is one of the more vocal players on the Giants’ roster, often times seen jumping, running and yelling his way across the practice fields.

“You’ve gotta have fun with the game, man,” James said. “It’s a serious game, but if you don’t have fun with it, I don’t think you’re living. This is a dream come true for me and I enjoy being around these guys.”

This year’s boisterous, bubbly James is a bit different than the one that showed up in East Rutherford last year as little known undersized corner from Florida.

Standing at 5-9 and weighing in at 179-pounds, James hardly fit the ideal build of an NFL corner. At his pro day, he ran a 4.49 in the 40-yard dash and was given a 6th-7th round grade by scouts. He went undrafted.

After weighing his options, he signed with the Giants. He flashed in the preseason, but was cut on the final cut-down day. He went unclaimed before the Giants signed him to their practice squad. Despite not being active, James credits the time spent practicing against the likes of Rueben Randle, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks as the cause for monumental strides in his progression.

Sure, he wasn’t suiting up on game days, but he was matching up against some of the better wideouts in the league on a day-in, day-out basis.

Charles James, Tom Coughlin, New York Giants (December 8, 2013)

Charles James and Tom Coughlin – © USA TODAY Sports Images

“To be able to go up against guys like that last year, it helped slow the game down for me,” James said. “It got to the point where I could play fast.”

Prior to the Giants’ game versus the Eagles in early October, James was promoted to the active roster following a slew of injuries to the team’s secondary. He finished out the season on the active 53, seeing action in 12 games, primarily on special teams. James finished with four combined tackles.

During the offseason, the Giants wasted no time bringing in bodies to occupy the same meeting room as James. Rodgers-Cromartie is a corner, Walter Thurmond III, too. Zack Bowman has value both as a defender and on special teams. Trumaine McBride was re-signed.

And you know what? That’s perfectly fine with James.

“It’s a business, I expect them to do things like that,” James said. “The cornerback position doesn’t just stop with me. I mean, I just see it as motivation for everybody. We’re all working here to get a spot.

“I see it as nobody is safe. If you think you’re safe, you’re wrong.”

James spent the offseason working to improve better himself from a year ago. The corner called himself a “student of the game,” has dedicated himself to the film room and soaked up every bit of knowledge from the veterans on the team.

This year, he’s playing more with his instincts than thoughts. The game is no longer fast, he is. James is flashing, ball-hawking.

“You either get better, or you get worse. You never stay the same,” James said. “For me as a player, I want to continue to get better and put myself in a position to make this team and help the team win.”

So far, he’s off to a pretty good start.

Jun 182014
 
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Amani Toomer, New York Giants (December 15, 2013)

Amani Toomer – © USA TODAY Sports Images

When Amani Toomer graduated the University of Michigan and was drafted by the New York Giants, there was a thought that he shoved towards the back of his mind.

The second-round pick had dreams of making it big in the NFL, but when it was time to hang up the cleats, maybe he’d put that degree in communications to good use. Broadcasting? Public Speaking? Possibly, but it was a discussion for another day.

Then, several years later, Toomer saw what ex-Giants teammate Jessie Palmer accomplished with ESPN. The thought he had pushed to the back of his mind came quickly to the forefront. Toomer wanted to do that.

“I just thought, if he can do it, I can do it,” Toomer said following a panel discussion for aspiring sports broadcasters in Atlantic City. “After learning what it actually took to do the job, I got hooked.”

Following his retirement in 2009 after playing 13 seasons in the NFL, Toomer mulled putting claim to practice. He enjoyed retirement, never straying too far from the game before jump-starting his broadcasting career with MSG Varsity in 2011. The initial step was the interest, the next, Toomer said, was actually doing it.

The California native watched ex-Giants’ Tiki Barber, Michael Strahan, Antonio Pierce and others all jump into the ‘media’ world following their careers. Now, it was his turn.

Toomer joined Roman Oben on “Friday Night Football,” began contributing to NBC SportsTalk and was part of NBC Sports Radio Network’s launch lineup in 2012.

Today, Toomer co-hosts an NFL show on Sirus XM Radio, along with the “Amani and Eytan” show on NBC Sports Radio. Sirus XM allows him to stick with the game he made a career out of, NBC Sports lets him rekindle a past love.

“Being able to do a show on all sports gets me back to where I was before I became an NFL player,” Toomer said. “I was always an all-sports guy. The only sport I cared about was the one that was in season.

“I would go out and play soccer, baseball during baseball season, and basketball. So now you kind of round out the whole career, going full circle, going back to just being an all-around sports fan.”

While Toomer admitted there were the initial bumps when he began his media career – such as the first time he stepped foot in a locker room without pads – the overall experience was easy enough to pick up on. It was “fun” for Toomer, especially when he got to speak his mind without having to bite his tongue. No more would a coach or general manager call him into their office for questioning a call.

Toomer developed every trait a great sportscaster needs. He’s honest and straightforward, critical and intelligent. Biased? A homer? Those he is not.

When asked who the best quarterback in the NFC East was back in 2012, Toomer said Dallas Cowboy’s quarterback Tony Romo. When asked yesterday how good the Giants’ new set of wide receivers can be, he admitted that’s still in the air. Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham Jr. have the “talent” to be some of the best, but “talent” only gets you so far.

“Talent gets you in the door, talent gets you on the field,” Toomer said. “Talent doesn’t make you great. You have to have talent, along with work ethic, along with the desire to be great, along with the will to be great to have all those things come together.”

Amani Toomer, New York Giants (January 8, 2012)

Amani Toomer – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Toomer also didn’t hesitate when diagnosing exactly what went wrong for the Giants’ offense last year. When Toomer spent Sunday’s donning blue, the Giants offense was explosive and Kevin Gilbride was calling the shots.

Gilbride, who called the plays for the Giants from 2006-2013, retired last year.

So what exactly happened? Did Eli Manning digress? Was it injuries? Defenses figuring out what the Giants were attempting to do? In Toomer’s opinion, it’s none of the above.

“If that offense is run by some inexperienced wideouts who don’t really understand defensive concepts, they aren’t gonna be able to play as fast as they should,” Toomer said. “It takes awhile for people to learn that and I think the (Jerrel) Jernigan experience was the reason Gilbride retired.

“It took them three years to figure out if (Jernigan) could play. In the old days, that would be normal, that’s how things went. Now you have to get younger players on the field quicker.”

Toomer said the salary cap has constricted the time teams have to let rookies develop. With quarterback’s contracts skyrocketing, the need for third, fourth and fifth round picks to step up in their first two years is needed. In order to get those players on the field, the offenses need to be simplified.

“You have to dumb down the offenses,” Toomer said. “That’s the new NFL. Are we gonna see better offenses? Are we gonna see crisper play? I don’t know, but that’s the salary cap era we live in.”

No matter the outcome, Toomer’s role in it will be the same. For the first time since he hung up his cleats, Toomer’s doing what he loves.

“Some players once they get done they want to get as far away from football as they possibly can,” Toomer said. “I just felt like, I like sports, I’ve always liked sports, I never really wanted to do anything else.

“So, here I am.”