Jason Pierre-Paul is not the first New York Giant player to lose a digit during an off-season, non-football-related accident.
In the summer of 1954, the Giants signed what they thought was a promising young end named Haldo Norman to their roster. Norman was a highly-regarded end coming out of Gustavus Adolphus College in 1951, where he finished among the nation’s leaders in pass receiving. After being drafted by San Francisco, Norman suffered a broken collar bone during training camp and spent the next two seasons on the taxi squad.
The 49ers released Norman after the 1953 season, which ultimately led to a lawsuit against San Francisco and a $4,500 settlement. The Giants, who were under a new regime following a disastrous 1953 campaign where everything went wrong, desperately needed help to revive their passing game.
Among the numerous changes head coach Jim Lee Howell and offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi had in mind were completely abandoning Single Wing football and converting to the modern T-Formation. Because of that, the roster needed quality receivers. In addition, Norman was also a talented place kicker, meaning he would save New York a roster spot by multi-tasking.
Unfortunately, shortly before training camp started, Norman severed a toe while mowing his lawn. The injury not only forced the Giants to scramble for added depth at the end position, New York also now needed a place kicker. The Giants signed Ben Agajanian who had been released by the Los Angeles Rams.
Norman did play in two preseason games after the injury as a kicker, and converted four PATs and a field goal. However, he never appeared in a regular season game. The Giants carried him on their roster and he appeared in full uniform in the team photo that was taken at the Polo Grounds in October.
Norman retired after the 1954 season and went into private business and also coached high school football.
The New York Giants are the NFL’s most successful cursed franchise. Does that sound oxymoronic? Certainly. But no one will convince me otherwise.
In their 90-year history, the New York Giants have won eight NFL titles, the third most in the NFL. The team has appeared in 19 NFL championship games. Four of the NFL titles and five of the NFL championship game appearances have occurred in the last 30 years. The Giants are the only NFL team to win two NFL titles in the last eight seasons. How can the team possibly be considered “cursed”? You want to talk about “cursed”, talk to fans of the Lions or Eagles or Browns.
This article isn’t about the lost decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s or the many catastrophic game collapses such as “The Fumble” in 1978, the 1997 playoff game against the Vikings, and the 2002 playoff game against the 49ers. It’s about how the Giants have been slammed by a series of mind-numbing, career-impacting injuries to many of their best players in the last 10 years, including bizarre off-the-field accidents.
As Football Outsiders notes, “This is the fifth year in a row the Giants ranked 22nd or worse, and they have missed the playoffs in four of those seasons… Then we have the Giants, looking to put together an injury dynasty. After setting the benchmark with 141.3 AGL in 2013, the 2014 club has the second-worst AGL on record at 137.1.”
All Giants fans know that the team has been terribly impacted by injuries in recent years. The stats compiled by Football Outsiders clearly prove that no team has been more affected by injuries over an extended period of time. But what the stats don’t show is that many of these injuries have been career-ending or career-impacting to many of the team’s best players and high draft picks at relatively young ages.
Let’s look at some of the most egregious examples:
WR Plaxico Burress: One of the best receivers in team history. In 2008, the Giants were 10-1, including having already beaten both eventual Super Bowl participants at their stadiums, when Burress accidentally shoots himself in a nightclub. The event ended his season and career with the Giants at the age of 31. New York faded down the stretch and was knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.
WR Steve Smith: A former 2007 2nd-round draft pick, in 2009, Smith became the first Giants receiver to be voted to the Pro Bowl since Homer Jones in 1968. The following year, Smith suffered a knee injury that basically ended his career at the age of 25. He left the Giants after the season and retired in 2013.
TE Kevin Boss: A very solid two-way tight end, Boss saw his career with the Giants prematurely end after the 2010 season at the age of 26 when he signed a free agent contract with the Oakland Raiders. As subsequent events proved correct, the Giants were concerned about Boss’ repeated concussion history and chose not to match the Raiders’ contract offer.
TE Jake Ballard: Boss’ replacement, Ballard surprised everyone by quickly turning into a very solid two-way tight end in 2011, being an important part of the 2011 championship team. However, Ballard’s career ended at the Super Bowl when he wrecked his left knee. 24 years old, Ballard never played for the Giants again.
S Kenny Phillips: A former 2008 1st-round draft pick, injuries to both knees (one in 2009 and the other in 2012) negatively impacted and prematurely ended Phillips’ promising career with the Giants after the 2012 season at the age of 26. Phillips is now attempting a comeback with the Saints.
RB Ahmad Bradshaw: The sixth-leading rusher in team history saw his career with the Giants prematurely end at the age of 26 after the 2012 season due to chronic foot issues.
CB Terrell Thomas: A former 2008 2nd-round draft pick, Thomas suffered ACL tears to the same knee in 2011 and 2012. Although he played in all 16 games in 2013, he was never the same promising player and was out of football at the age of 28.
WR Hakeem Nicks: A former 2009 1st-round draft pick, Nicks’ extremely promising career with the Giants ended in 2013 at the age of 25 after suffering compartment syndrome (swelling in the lower leg that compresses nerves and blood vessels, possibly causing permanent damage). Before the injury, Nicks looked primed to be a franchise all-time great.
RB David Wilson: A former 2012 1st-round draft pick, Wilson’s career ended at the age of 22 in his second season due spinal stenosis. Wilson proved to be an extremely dangerous kick returner and may have been particularly well suited to Ben McAdoo’s offense as a runner and receiver.
WR Victor Cruz: One of the most productive players in franchise history and a Pro Bowl receiver, Cruz suffered a potentially career-altering patellar tendon knee injury in 2014 at the age of 27. Cruz is expected to play in 2015 but it remains to be seen if he will be the same dynamic football player.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul: A former 2010 first-round draft pick, Pierre Paul had a breakout season in 2011 when he dominated as the game’s best two-way defensive end. Injuries caused him to regress in 2012-13 before a bounce-back season in 2014. A fireworks accident in July 2015 caused severe damage to his right hand, including an amputated finger. Pierre-Paul’s best days may already be behind him at the age of 26. There is also a good chance he won’t be a New York Giants after 2015.
There are many other Giants who saw their already-excellent careers prematurely end or affected by major injuries recently including DE Justin Tuck (shoulder and neck), OG Chris Snee (hips and elbow), OG/OC Rich Seubert (knee), OC David Baas (neck and knee), DE Mathias Kiwanuka (knee and neck), and RB Brandon Jacobs (knee). This is not to mention all of the “could-have-beens” such as DT Jay Alford (knee), LB Jonathan Goff (knee), and OL Adam Koets (knee).
So it’s not just the sheer volume of the injuries, but the quality of the players impacted at relatively early ages. Many of the players lost were key cogs in the two recent championship runs and they were expected to remain important parts of the team for many more years. Giants fans thought Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks would be favorite targets for Eli Manning for 10 years. The Giants lose Kevin Boss and his replacement is done one year later. The secondary takes a big hit with the losses of Kenny Phillips and Terrell Thomas. Ahmad Bradshaw and David Wilson still should be in the backfield. Who knows how long Victor Cruz and Jason Pierre-Paul will now remain Giants?
In addition, the off-the-field accidents exacerbate the “cursed” feeling. Burress shoots himself in the leg and ends up in prison. Wilson’s neck was an unknown issue before the team drafted him. Offensive tackle Will Beatty tears his pectoral muscle lifting weights. Pierre-Paul mutilates himself setting off fireworks. 2010 3rd-round draft pick safety Chad Jones suffers career-ending injuries in a traffic accident. That event recalled terrible memories of defensive end Troy Archer dying in a car accident in 1979 and center Kevin Belcher’s career ending due a traffic accident in 1985.
The sum total of all of these unfortunate events is that fans feel shell shocked by all of the bad news. We’re tired of it. Despite the team’s undeniable success, many are left wondering about a missing ring or two because of departure of much of the team’s top talent in its prime. No team can keep losing its best players and remain competitive. Are the “Football Gods” exacting their tribute for the two magical runs in 2007 and 2011? Perhaps. Regardless, all of this leaves a bad taste. Enough is enough. Pick on some other team for a while.
2014 YEAR IN REVIEW:The overall play of the New York Giants offensive line improved in 2014 from its dreadful performance in 2013 but the unit was still sub par. The Giants were tied for 28th in the NFL with only 3.6 yards per rushing attempt. Pass protection was better as the Giants gave up 30 sacks on the season, which was 9th-best in the NFL. But that figure is a bit misleading given the offense’s new emphasis on getting rid of the ball quickly (West Coast Offense) and quarterback Eli Manning’s long-established tendency to get rid of the ball quickly and not take the sack (which he probably actually should do more often when under duress).
The improvement that did take place not only had to do with the individual components playing better, but the Giants had greater cohesion up front due to far fewer injuries. In 2013, the Giants used seven different starting offensive line combinations, the second-highest total in the NFL that season. In 2014, the same players started all 16 games at left tackle (Will Beatty), center (J.D. Walton), and right guard (John Jerry). Weston Richburg started 15 games at left guard and Justin Pugh started 14 games at right tackle.
That all said, it is widely-recognized that the offensive line was once again a sore spot in 2014. Chris Snee retired before training camp. The Giants counted on high-priced free agent acquisition Geoff Schwartz to be a major building block, but Schwartz only played in two games due to injuries. Beatty had a decent year, but Walton and Jerry really struggled at times. Pugh regressed after a strong rookie season and Richburg experienced the expected growing pains, especially since he was playing out of position. Overall, the line was more finesse than power, which usually is not good for any offense, but especially so for one predicated on balance and the ability to run the football.
Another issue was the overall poor depth situation. James Brewer, Brandon Mosley, Eric Herman, Dallas Reynolds, and Adam Snyder were complete non factors and did not push the weaker links on the line. Adam Gettis was signed late in the season from the Steelers practice squad and ex-Eagle Michael Bamiro was signed to the Giants practice squad.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants released center J.D. Walton in March. Tackle James Brewer signed with the Jets in free agency and the Giants have made no effort to re-sign guard Adam Snyder. The Giants signed CFL All-Star center Brett Jones and street free agent tackle Emmett Cleary early in the offseason and then signed unrestricted free agent tackle Marshall Newhouse from the Bengals.The Giants drafted tackle Ereck Flowers in the first round and guard Bobby Hart in the seventh round. The team also signed rookie free agent tackle Sean Donnelly.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: The Giants will enter training camp with no 2014 starter remaining at the same position. Will Beatty tore his pectoral muscle in an offseason weight-lifting accident and will probably miss at least half of the regular season. Because of that, the Giants are starting Ereck Flowers at left tackle at least one year sooner than they anticipated (post-draft comments by Giants officials made it clear that they saw Flowers as Beatty’s eventual replacement). Flowers had been penciled in at right tackle but now Marshall Newhouse – a player benched by the Packers and Bengals – gets first crack at the position. Weston Richburg moves to his more natural position of center. Justin Pugh has shifted from right tackle to left guard. Geoff Schwartz moves from left guard to his more natural right guard position.
The Giants have now invested two first-round draft picks (Pugh and Flowers), two second-round draft picks (Beatty and Richburg), and a high-priced free agent (Schwartz) on the offensive line. Even though Beatty is out, much improvement is expected. On paper, the Giants look strong inside (Pugh-Richburg-Schwartz) with significant question marks at tackle (Flowers and Newhouse). Flowers should eventually excel, but growing pains should be expected. Newhouse’s track record during the last few years has not been good and he appears to be the obvious weak link. The Giants may be forced to move Schwartz to right tackle and start John Jerry at right guard if Newhouse can’t handle the position. The situation should improve when Beatty returns mid-season, but long-term, Beatty may have sealed his fate with the team, especially if Flowers shows steady improvement at left tackle.
Another area of focus is the depth situation and if one of the younger players could possibly surprise and push for a starting job. Brandon Mosley apparently had a good spring as he received some first-team reps during OTAs. The Giants have some very big, young tackles including Michael Bamiro (6’8”, 340lbs), Emmett Cleary (6’7”, 324lbs), and Sean Donnelly (6’7”, 333lbs). The team drafted guard Bobby Hart (6’4”, 334lbs). Brett Jones was a CFL All-Star who is now adjusting to the NFL game.
Overall, the Giants need the line to become a much more physical and intimidating presence. Flowers has a reputation as a bad ass and should help. Pugh and Richburg worked hard in the offseason to get bigger and stronger. The Giants need Schwartz to rebound from a serious ankle injury and be a tough veteran inside.
ON THE BUBBLE:The Giants will probably carry nine offensive linemen. Beatty will probably start the season on the Physically-Unable-to-Perform (PUP) List and not count against the 53-man roster limit. Flowers, Pugh, Richburg, and Schwartz are the locks. Newhouse and Jerry are on shaky ground, but one will likely start and the other will likely provide veteran depth. The other nine offensive linemen will probably be fighting for three spots. Those linemen include Mosley, Bamiro, Cleary, Donnelly, Hart, Jones, Dallas Reynolds, Eric Herman, and Adam Gettis. Troy Kropog is also currently on a PUP List.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Pat Flaherty on Weston Richburg: “Right now the progress is good, it really is. He learned an awful lot last year but I knew that he was going to be a player for a very long time and I know I’m using that, but I believe it because he likes the game of football. He really has embraced the center position because you are the voice of everybody to start out and the quarterback may change things, but you are telling everyone what to do. I think that Weston has a little bit of bossman in him and he likes that.”
Flaherty on Michael Bamiro: “I’ll tell you he is the Kevin Garnett of the football players, that guy is huge. He is a good worker, he really is. He has some position versatility from being a tackle to a guard and we worked out with him. We have to really find out a little more about him when we get on pads, but I like his attitude.”
Flaherty on Justin Pugh: “I think that he likes playing and I love guys who like playing. I think any position that you put him at, he would play it. He would like to be a guy that is settled in one position. Most guys are that way. I think you probably get that feeling from him more than anything. He would only get better at the tackle position for us. Is he a better guard than tackle? He is going to be a good football player…Justin has very good feet, he is a very good athlete, has tremendous lower body strength and when you get closer to the ball at the guard position, you are going to be blocking bigger people, so I think that is going to be an advantage for us. He will be able to block those people.”
Flaherty on Geoff Schwartz: “Geoff wants to do it and he has worked awful hard to get back from his injury and he just needs to have the good luck charm on his side for once. Once he is able to do that, here is a guy that can be in the next half dozen years and have a tremendous finish to his career.”
PREDICTIONS: While there will be growing pains with Ereck Flowers, 4/5ths of the Giants offensive line could be set for a few years provided there are no more injuries and Schwartz recovers well from his ankle injury. Flowers will bring much-needed toughness and physicality to the line. Richburg seems primed to develop into a good one at center and the Giants seem to think Pugh will excel at left guard. In fact, these three players could not only be solid, but very good.
“We like (Flowers) as a future left tackle of the New York Giants. I am very comfortable with him being out there right now,” said Offensive Coordinator Ben McAdoo during the mini-camp.
“(Pugh) is a football-smart guy,” said McAdoo. “He is a hard worker. He brings a nice level of physicality that we like. Some grit to the position right there. It is probably a position that doesn’t get as much glamor as a tackle, but when you are on the left side, it is important position to protect the backside of the quarterback away from his vision. The left guard position is especially important because a lot goes on there on the inside. When one becomes two and two becomes three and when zero becomes one and all the movement happens, you have to make quick decisions and we feel Justin can do that.”
“Weston is a natural center,” said McAdoo. “I am excited for him. I am excited for the offense. I think he brings some energy to the position and to the offense. He’s a guy who likes to have control of things and likes to have his hand on the football. He works very hard at it. I like Weston.”
The obvious question mark is Newhouse at right tackle. He could be the Achilles’ heel for the entire line. Given his struggles in the league the last few years, it’s hard to imagine him being the answer. If he has problems early, the Giants may have to pull the plug and scramble to fill the position. While fans knock John Jerry, he may be an important piece of the short-term puzzle. The pie-in-the-sky hope is that someone like Mosley or Bamiro presses for starting time.
“Marshall has played a little bit of everywhere,” said McAdoo. “I was with him in the past when he first got into the league. He has played just about every position. I believe he even snapped the ball at one point. He is a smart guy. He gets the game. He is very nimble-footed. We need to get some pads on and get out there and get a look at him with the defense moving and be physical. He has done it before and he has done it at a high level before and he will have an opportunity to be a major contributor this year.”
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Flowers, Pugh, Richburg, Schwartz, Newhouse, Jerry, Mosley, Hart, and Jones.
2014 YEAR IN REVIEW:Ever since the New York Giants transitioned to the 4-3 defense from the 3-4 in 1994, the defensive line has been the heart of a New York Giants defense. But for the third time in the last four seasons, the defense gave up over 6,000 yards (the only times in franchise history the defense has done so). Everyone is to blame, including the defensive ends.
The headliner up front, Jason Pierre-Paul (JPP) started the season off slowly and didn’t really impact games the way he should until the Giants were already out of playoff contention. Mathias Kiwanuka started 11 games at left defensive end, but did not play well and finished the season on Injured Reserve. Free agent acquisition Robert Ayers flashed as a pass rusher at both defensive tackle and end, but was inconsistent against the run and also finished the season on IR. The coaching staff did not appear to trust Damontre Moore, who did not start a game. By year’s end, he was surprisingly passed on the depth chart by undrafted rookie Kerry Wynn. Jordan Stanton was a rookie free agent who spent a couple of stints on the Practice Squad.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants waived Mathias Kiwanuka in February. The team signed George Selvie (1-year, $1.2 million) in free agency. The Giants drafted Owamagbe Odighizuwa in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft and signed Brad Harrah as a rookie free agent after the draft.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Even before the July 4th fireworks accident that caused severe burns to one of his hands, Pierre-Paul was going to be the main focus given that it was likely (now certain) that he was going to play out the season on his $14.813 million Franchise tender. JPP had a bounce-back year in 2014 but everyone is still looking for the 2011 version of the player who dominated. The Giants are most likely concerned about his inconsistency, previous back injury issues, dedication and focus, and now judgement if he signs a huge, multi-year contract. At this time, it is unknown how Pierre-Paul’s hand injuries will impact his availability and performance in training camp, the preseason, and the regular season. ESPN is reporting that JPP may not return to the line-up until after the beginning of the regular season.
That all said, Pierre-Paul is still one of the very best defensive ends in the NFL, the best player on the Giants defense, and one of the few impact players on the team. How well he plays in 2015 will most likely determine if he remains a New York Giant after the season.
“If you just watch tape with JPP out there, it is evident to me that he is an elite defensive end and fits a 4-3 system, which is exciting,” said Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in June.
The other big issue is who starts at left defensive end opposite of Pierre-Paul? Mathias Kiwanuka is no longer in the picture. Though he has bulked up to about 255 pounds, Damontre Moore appears to lack the size and strength to anchor the strongside. So unless Steve Spagnuolo moves JPP to left end, Moore will probably be relegated to a situational pass rusher when JPP returns to the starting lineup. Moore does believe his pass rushing skill set is better suited to Spagnuolo’s system.
Robert Ayers was arguably the team’s best pass rusher until he got hurt and JPP improved down the stretch, but he was up and down in run defense in 2014.
George Selvie was a solid strongside run defender in Dallas who occasionally flashed on the pass rush. “George is going to fill in that gap that we have on that other side,” said Pierre-Paul, who played with Selvie in college. “He is going to fight for that starting spot. That’s a good thing. That will make everybody work harder.”
The dark horse could be Kerry Wynn, the 2014 rookie free agent with a nice combination of size, strength, and athletic ability. He received significant playing time in the final month of the 2014 season. The initial impression of his overall game is that he is a better run defender than pass rusher.
Physically-speaking, Owa Odighizuwa may be the most talented of the group. It would be difficult for a rookie to win the starting job, but Odighizuwa has the tools to become a very good two-way defensive end. He could surprise early.
ON THE BUBBLE:There will be some extremely tough decisions at defensive end. Normally the Giants would only carry four or five defensive ends. Barring injury, the only sure bets to make the roster are Pierre-Paul and Odighizuwa. Complicating matters is that JPP may not be on the active roster early in the season. It would be difficult to see the Giants giving up on Moore and Wynn just yet. Ayers is on the bubble, but he is a very good situational pass rusher. If Selvie plays in camp like he did with Dallas in 2013, he will be difficult to cut. Jordan Stanton has talent, but he and Harrah are extreme long shots.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Robert Nunn on Jason Pierre-Paul: “You would hope (JPP starts 2015 like he finished 2014). His numbers increased there at the end. I thought he did some good things throughout but just didn’t have the numbers to show for it, and I have said that over and over, sacks are a little overrated, but his quarterback hits and his pressures, he was doing some good things. They were counting for him in a lot of different ways and he took advantage of some opportunities there at the end and got his numbers up. His tackles had to be up there in the top of the league. I don’t know where he was, but he had to be top two or three as far as the production and as far as in the run game and his pass production there at the end. I think it is just coming in healthy and in the right frame of mind and getting ready to start, he is going to be behind (due to missing the spring offseason work) but that is where we will start.”
Nunn on George Selvie: “Selvie is solid, he is a solid pro. He played well last year in Dallas and he has been steady.”
PREDICTIONS: With the signing of George Selvie, the drafting of Owa Odighizuwa, and the likelihood that Jason Pierre-Paul will miss training camp, I am guessing that Pierre-Paul will stay at right defensive end. Because of that, I have a hard time seeing Damontre Moore starting once Pierre-Paul returns to the starting line-up. Ultimately, Owa Odighizuwa will start at left defensive end, but I doubt it happens early in the 2015 season and may not happen until 2016. Unless Ayers dramatically improves his consistency against the run or Odighizuwa really surprises early, I think the starting left defensive end job will be between George Selvie and Kerry Wynn.
JPP was in great shape and looked primed for a big season before the July 4th accident. Now it remains to be seen how the hand injuries will impact his game. Even if he is ready physically for the season opener, the time he missed with the team in the spring and now potentially in the summer will set him back in the new defense. Another question is will the Giants get a solid consistent pass rush on first and second down from the player opposite Pierre-Paul? Selvie and Wynn have flashed in that area but their overall pass-rush ability remains a question mark. Situationally, Ayers proved to be a disruptive pass rusher particularly from the defensive tackle position and I think Spagnuolo will use Moore far better than Perry Fewell did.
If the Giants can get opposing teams into a lot of third-and-long situations, they will present problems with pass rushers like JPP, Moore, Ayers, and Odighizuwa, not to mention Devon Kennard and possibly Jay Bromley. But first and second down could be a problem. All three NFC East rivals like to run the football.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Even before Pierre-Paul’s accident, I was going to go out on a limb and say the Giants would keep six defensive ends: Pierre-Paul, Odighizuwa, Moore, Wynn, Ayers, and Selvie. Now I’m even more convinced. All six can have important roles on the team. Ayers is too good of an inside pass rusher to cut. The Giants were really high on Wynn when they signed him as a rookie last year and thus far he hasn’t disappointed. Selvie could be vulnerable if he does not flash in the preseason and Wynn does, but my guess is the coaches will be more comfortable with his veteran presence in the line-up on opening night. I’m really hoping things work out for Pierre-Paul and the Giants long term because replacing JPP in 2016 would be extremely difficult.
2014 YEAR IN REVIEW:Although the brightest spot on the New York Giants defense in 2014 was the emergency of defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, the unit was an overall disappointment. The defensive ends, linebackers, and defensive backs all share a significant portion of the blame for the team’s 30th-ranked run defense (dead last in terms of yards-per-carry allowed), but the defensive tackles were obviously a big part of that failure too. Cullen Jenkins was bothered by a nagging calf issue and was barely noticeable. Mike Patterson and Markus Kuhn were easily blocked and rarely made any plays. Jay Bromley saw more action down the stretch, but his rookie season was a wash.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants decided not to re-sign Mike Patterson in free agency. Kenrick Ellis (1-Year, $1.475 million) was signed from the Jets and the Giants signed rookie free agent tryout Carlif Taylor after the rookie mini-camp.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Barring injury and any unforeseen setbacks, Johnathan Hankins is expected to start at one tackle position and excel. The big question is who will be the primary starter at the other tackle position? The main candidates are Jenkins, Ellis, Kuhn, and Bromley. 2014 practice squader Dominique Hamilton and rookie free agent Carlif Taylor are long shots.
Whomever starts, the obvious goal is dramatically upgrade the middle of the defense, especially against the run. Ellis comes to the Giants with a reputation as a good run defender. After Ellis was signed, Tom Coughlin said, “Ellis is a big human. The young man on our practice squad, Hamilton, is a big human, so I am looking forward to seeing what they can do, too… We realized that big dominating guy in the middle is a good starting point for the D-Line.”
“Right now I’m just trying to work my butt off to prove I’m qualified to call myself a Giant,’’ Ellis said. “It’s gonna be a beautiful thing.”
Jenkins is looking to bounce back from the calf injury. He is also helped by his positional flexibility as the Giants will play him at defensive end as well. “I’m appreciative of another chance to play another year, go out there and try to prove myself again and that I’m not too old while helping the team get back on track to its winning ways,” said Jenkins.
Both Kuhn and Bromley have worked hard this offseason. It’s interesting to note when General Manager Jerry Reese was asked last month who three lesser known players to watch were, Bromley was one of those mentioned.
“I don’t want to give the coaches a reason to take me off the field,” said Bromley. “I don’t want to give nobody an out. There should be no excuse why I don’t play…If your goal isn’t to start, you’re not aiming high enough. If you’re not aiming to start, you’re aiming for second place and I’m not aiming for second place…I strived to not purposely be seen, but work hard enough to the point where you can’t miss me.”
But to earn more playing time and potentially start, Bromley will have to improve his run defense. Kuhn was starting with the first team alongside Hankins during OTAs and the mini-camp. He has bulked up to around 320 pounds.
“The big guys set the tone,” said Kuhn “We have to push back the offensive line. We have to set the new line of scrimmage. Being stronger, being bigger will help with that. (The added weight) feels really good. I’ve been running real well, my conditioning is on par, my body fat is pretty much as low as it has ever been.”
ON THE BUBBLE:The Giants will keep four or five defensive tackles. The only real lock is Hankins. That said, it would be difficult to see the Giants parting ways with 2014 3rd-round pick Bromley after just one season. So Jenkins, Ellis, Kuhn, Hamilton, and Taylor are probably competing for two or three spots.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Robert Nunn on Cullen Jenkins: “I think he can help us in a lot of different (ways), it all depends. We are letting him work more at (defensive) end (during spring workouts) for one reason, because of numbers, but I can see him doing some more work for us out there. At his age and stage in his career, we have to take care of him and move him around a little bit. I have been very impressed with him at this point. He got the calf last year and was off to a good start but he never was the same after the calf injury. He has come in here healthy, good frame of mind and we have moved him around a little bit. We will try to take care of him during training camp and get ready to go.”
Nunn on Jay Bromley and Kenrick Ellis: “Jay Bromley has got to continue to improve with technique, Kenrick Ellis has got to continue to improve and I think they have made the effort to do that and we have to continue that.”
Nunn on Markus Kuhn and who will earn playing time: “(Kuhn) has got to continue to do what he is doing. He has given us some quality reps last year and I have been very impressed with him during the OTAs. The thing he has got to do is produce when we get in pads and that is the same way with Jay (Bromley), Kenrick (Ellis) and that group right there. When we get in pads and, like I said earlier, when the live bullets start being fired, production is going to tell us a lot about who is going to be playing and how the rotation is going to work…(Kuhn) needs to increase his production but we all need to do that. He is a steady hand and a very good leader in the classroom, very good leader in our room. He is a quality guy and he has got it in front of him this year, this will be a big year for him.”
Nunn on Johnathan Hankins: “He really surprised a lot of people with his pass rush. Everybody thought that he was a run stopper coming out but those sacks were legit. He had some legit numbers and a lot of quarterback hits and pressures, came up big in some key situations and I really like where Hank is. He has got to continue to improve with technique. That is where his big improvement has got to be going into training camp but I think that it is a very good situation. He has got a chance to be a solid player for a very long time in this league…I think that people underestimate him as a pass rusher. He wasn’t a great pass rusher coming out but he has really worked on a few things that have really made him effective. When they left him one on one the guy took advantage of it. When those guards have to block him one on one, he is powerful and deceivingly quick. He has got better speed and quickness than what people thing he does.”
PREDICTIONS: Barring injury, Hankins may press for a Pro Bowl spot this year. Obviously, the Giants will rotate their tackles, but the most interesting battle will be to see who starts alongside Hankins. Most fans have discounted Kuhn, but the coaches seem to like him. Reese has talked up Bromley. Ellis comes to the Giants with the reputation as the big run stuffer, which the team seems to need. Jenkins may be at the end of his career, but he’s the type of veteran who is tough to cut.
My guess is that Jenkins starts the season, but Ellis and Bromley both start pushing for serious playing time. The coaches may like Kuhn, but he has to do more to justify snaps and perhaps even making the team.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Barring injury, Hankins, Jenkins, Bromley, and Ellis. I think the Giants would prefer to keep Kuhn too, but there is a numbers issue at defensive end and I can’t see the Giants carrying more than 10 defensive linemen. If Jenkins shows that he is fading, he could be the odd man out.
2014 YEAR IN REVIEW:As was the case with every other area of the defense, the linebackers were a disappointment in 2014. It was expected that Jon Beason would headline and lead an improved linebacking corps. But Beason broke his foot during June OTA’s and never recovered. The 2011 rookie class of linebackers – Jacquian Williams, Spencer Paysinger, and Mark Herzlich – continued to largely disappoint in their fourth season together. Jameel McClain was a decent free agent addition and led the team in tackles. Rookie 5th round draft pick Devon Kennard flashed in the second-half of the season. In the end, the Giants finished 30th in the NFL against the run and dead-last in the NFL in yards-per-rush defense.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: There were significant changes made at linebacker. The Giants said good-bye to Jacquian Williams (still unsigned) and Spencer Paysinger (signed with Dolphins) in free agency. The team signed J.T. Thomas (3-years, $10 million) from the Jaguars and Jonathan Casillas (3-years, $8 million) from the Patriots. The Giants also signed street free agent Victor Butler and rookie free agents Cole Farrand and Tony Johnson.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: The primary focus at linebacker in training camp is can Jon Beason stay healthy? Beason was a major shot in the arm for the entire defense when he joined the team during the 2013 season, but the injury-prone linebacker missed almost all of the 2014 season with a foot injury. Not only is Beason a good run defender, he is an intelligent, inspirational leader who is needed to help orchestrate Steve Spagnulo’s new complicated defense on the field. The complexion of the entire defense changes with Beason in or out of the lineup. The good news? Beason made it through the OTAs and mini-camp this year, something he didn’t do last year.
Assuming Beason can stay healthy, the main story lines will be who mans the two outside linebacker spots, and how well do they perform? It is assumed J.T. Thomas will start at one position. But Devon Kennard and Jonathan Casillas may split snaps at the other spot depending on the opponent, in-game down-and-distance situations, and who has the hot hand. Kennard’s strength is attacking the line of scrimage and rushing the passer while Casillas is better in pass coverage. The Giants seem to be higher on Thomas and Casillas than their former teams, whose coaching staffs saw them more as back-up types. It remains to be seen if the Giants made the right decision to spend $18 million over three years on both. Where Jameel McClain – a respected team leader but castoff from the Ravens – fits in remains to be seen as well.
It’s important to note that Linebackers Coach Jim Herrmann says this is the most talented group of linebackers he has had with the Giants since he joined the team in 2009.
ON THE BUBBLE:The Giants will probably keep six linebackers and assuming everyone stays healthy, the six will probably be Beason, Thomas, Kennard, Casillas, McClain, and Herzlich. The one most vulnerable could be Herzlich. Herzlich had his best pro season in 2014 and appears to remain a Tom Coughlin favorite and decent special teams player. But he’s not the most athletic guy in the world and has only performed so-so or worse when called upon to start. That said, it’s not likely that one of the lesser known players such as Victor Butler, Uani Unga, Cole Farrand, or Troy Johnson would surpass Herzlich on the depth chart. Butler has talent, but a 4-game PED suspension hurts his cause. Farrand looks like he needs work in the weight room.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Jim Herrmann on J.T. Thomas: “He is very athletic. That is what I like about him. He will be a great addition to our (special) teams. Special teams and athletically as a linebacker he can cover. He is tough. He is going to fill that role, both in base and in sub. We can do a lot of different things with him…In our base, he is an outside linebacker and in sub, we play him some in the middle. It is a very fluid deal in sub defense, so he can play in or out.”
Herrmann on Thomas and Jonathan Casillas: “They are both very athletic guys. They are different kinds of players, but they are both very athletic and can move well. You like that. It is hard right now for me because you don’t have pads on. You will find out a lot more once the pads go on. With their body of work in the NFL, they are both tough guys who can play.”
Herrmann on Devon Kennard: “I think number one, he is more confident in himself as a player. He knows now he can play in the league. That takes you a long way. Just refining his technique and his footwork and trying to get the best of both worlds.”
Herrmann on Jameel McClain: “I think Jameel is versatile enough. He has played all three positions, so he can play in and out. He is a tough guy, which is good, so you want him in there in the run game. He is athletic enough to play in subs. It gives us a big luxury because we have a lot of guys that have played NFL snaps and to me as a coach, that is luxury to have because a lot of times you don’t have that as a linebacker coach. It is nice to have them where you can do anything.”
Herrmann on Jon Beason: “Yeah, he is a born leader. He has always been that way since the day he got into the league. Since he was at Miami, he was a leader. I think he likes that role and he wants that role. You want a guy like that.”
PREDICTIONS: I am going to go out on a limb and say Beason stays healthy and Thomas has a break-out season as a respectable three-down NFL starter. Fans will push for more playing time for Kennard but much will depend on the opponent and in-game match-ups. Casillas may be a better option at times against teams that throw the ball more to the backs and tight ends. Spagnuolo will use Kennard far more imaginatively than Perry Fewell did, having him rush the quarterback from a variety of spots. Contrary to popular belief, this unit could be one of the better ones in the NFL if Beason stays healthy and Kennard develops.
“I can’t praise Kennard enough,” said Beason. “He prepared better than any rookie I’ve ever seen, and that’s including myself. He just really wants it. He gets it. He understands it…The thing I’ve noticed the most this offseason, he’s a step or two faster. He’s quicker. He’s not afraid anymore.”
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Barring injury, Beason, Thomas, Kennard, Casillas, McClain, and Herzlich.
2014 YEAR IN REVIEW:It was a mixed bag for the New York Giants on special teams in 2014. The Giants finished 3rd in the NFL in field goal percentage, but 22nd in net punting (including allowing a blocked punt for a touchdown). The Giants were 2nd in the NFL in covering kickoffs, but 27th in covering punts (also allowing one punt return for a touchdown).
The punt and kick return games remained anemic, with the Giants finishing 19th and 18th, respectively. The punt returns were split among Odell Beckham (21 returns, 11 fair catches, 8.1 yard average), Preston Parker (8 returns, 6 fair catches, 6.6 yard average), and Rueben Randle (no returns, 10 fair catches). The kickoff returns were split among Parker (21 returns, 24.2 yard average), Quintin Demps (12 returns, 21.3 yard average), and Michael Cox (11 returns, 23.7 yard average).
The Giants scored no special teams touchdowns and had the two aforementioned scored against them, both in losses.
The best Giants player on special teams in 2014 was Josh Brown, who made 24-of-26 of his field goals (92.3 percent) with one of the misses being blocked.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants signed street free agent punter Robert Malone and street free agent place kicker/punter Chris Boswell in January to compete with punter Steve Weatherford and place kicker Josh Brown.
The big signing was the the 5-year, $17.5 million contract given to special teams stud Dwayne Harris from the Dallas Cowboys. Because Harris does it all on specials, returning and covering both punts and kicks, he is arguably the best special teams player in the game. Harris has three “NFC Player of the Week” awards to his credit.
Other additions who could impact special teams coverage units include free agent linebackers J.T. Thomas and Jonathan Casillas and rookies WR Geremy Davis, DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa, S Landon Collins, S Mykkele Thompson, and S Justin Currie. Rookies WR Ben Edwards and RB Akeem Hunt could provide competition to the return game.
No longer in the picture are linebackers Spencer Paysinger and Jacquian Williams, as well as returners Quintin Demps and Michael Cox.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Most eyes will focus on Dwayne Harris and his impact on not only the return game but on special teams coverage units. The $17.5 millon the Giants gave to Harris puts a lot of pressure on Special Teams Coordinator Tom Quinn to fix issues in the return game and punt coverage unit. The Giants also gave a lot of money to linebackers J.T. Thomas (3 years, $10 million) and Jonathan Casillas (3 years, $8 million) to help out on coverage units. Quite a few of the defensive backs on the team are or should be good special teams players too, including Mike Harris, Landon Collins, Bennett Jackson, Cooper Taylor, Nat Berhe, and Mykkele Thompson.
ON THE BUBBLE:Though he will probably make the team, Mark Herzlich (2-year, $2.6 million contract) could be pressed by rookie free agent linebacker Cole Farrand. The signing of Dwayne Harris also could reduce the special teams value of wideout Preston Parker.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Tom Quinn on Dwayne Harris: “He is going to be a ‘big four’ player, so he will be on all four of the teams and he will make a very good contribution. His coverage skills are equal to his return skills, so that is the nice thing about getting this kind of player.”
Quinn on what makes Harris a good returner: “He is decisive. There isn’t a lot of wasted movement. He is physical. He has a good understanding of the return schemes and what is needed for each one. There is no hesitation. If he is catching the ball and you are running it to the right, he is going to get it to the right, which sets up all the blockers for him. They know where he is going to be. A lot of times when you are blocking, (the returner) is supposed to be over here, but the returner is running the wrong direction or in the middle and now your block is not set up for that. He is very decisive. He is a strong runner.”
Quinn on new acquisitions who could help out: “We got some new acquisitions at the linebacker spot and we got some safeties in, which are nice, and getting Bennett Jackson back has been pleasing. The young kid from Texas, (Mykkele) Thompson, has done some good things; he is long and has real good speed, so I think he can be pretty versatile for us. Obviously Landon (Collins) has done a nice job in what he have asked him to do, so (I) am pleased with the overall group.”
PREDICTIONS: Punt returns and punt coverage have been a problem under Tom Quinn for quite some time. From 2010-14, the Giants have finished 31st, 29th, 30th, 26th, and 19th in punt return average with no punt return touchdowns during that five-year span. During the same period, the Giants have finished 31st, 17th, 15th, 30th, and 27th in punt coverage with six punt return touchdowns allowed. The kick return game has been pretty bad too except for David Wilson’s performance in 2012.
This is not so much a prediction, but a gnawing fear. Despite bright moments in the 2007 and 2011 playoffs, the Giants special teams have been a sore spot for years. Yet Tom Quinn has somehow avoided the executioner. If the special teams unit under-performs again in 2015, costing the team in the win-loss column, Tom Coughlin may find himself being the one receiving a pink slip because of his decision to stick with Quinn.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: It would be a pretty major upset if Josh Brown, Steve Weatherford, and Zak DeOssie do not remain the team’s place kicker, punter, and long snapper, respectively. Dwayne Harris should be the kickoff and punt returner. There are some good athletes at defensive end (Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Damontre Moore), linebacker (Devon Kennard, J.T. Thomas, and Jonathan Casillas), and safety (Landon Collins, Bennett Jackson, Nat Berhe, Cooper Taylor, and Mykkele Thompson) who should be special teams assets. The Giants also think Geremy Davis could be a special teams weapon.
2014 YEAR IN REVIEW:Like the cornerbacks, the New York Giants safeties were supposed to be an area of strength in 2014 but ended up being a big disappointment. The team decided to cut super-talented but super-idiotic Will Hill after he failed yet another drug test. And Antrel Rolle followed up arguably his best season as a safety with one of his worst. Stevie Brown returned from an ACL injury but lost his starting job to Quintin Demps who later lost it back to Brown. Obviously neither stood out. Second-year safety Cooper Taylor missed the entire season with a foot injury. Rookie 5th Nat Berhe rounder played all 16 games but was primarily used on special teams. The Giants finished 18th in the NFL in pass defense and the safeties were missing in action far too often against both the run and the pass.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants gutted the position in the offseason as they made little to no effort in re-signing free agents Antrel Rolle (signed with the Bears), Stevie Brown (signed with the Texans), and Quintin Demps (still unsigned). The team also waived practice squader Thomas Gordon in May.
The only remaining safeties from 2014 are Cooper Taylor and Nat Berhe. Bennett Jackson, who spent his rookie season in 2014 on Injured Reserve, was switched from corner to safety this spring. The Giants signed corner/safety ‘tweener Josh Gordy in free agency but he saw most of his spring work for the Giants at cornerback. Three of the six safeties on the roster are rookies: Landon Collins (2nd round), Mykkele Thompson (5th round), and Justin Currie (rookie free agent).
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: On paper, the Giants have some interesting talent at safety in the form of one second rounder, three fifth rounders, a sixth rounder, and a rookie free agent. However these players are all young and inexperienced. Five of the six were acquired in 2014-15 from the college ranks, and the other (Taylor) was a 2013 draft pick. There is absolutely no veteran presence to speak of despite the fact that Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s system is cerebral and complicated. And like most if not all systems, the safeties make the defensive calls in the secondary.
“It’s the most complex system I’ve been in,” said linebacker Jon Beason. “This is my fifth defensive coordinator. It is the most complex because we will not sit back and be dictated to by anybody…Offenses create problems by formations, moving people around, shifts and motions…Every call we (the defense) can make a change.”
So the chief story line will be how fast can the young pups grow up, and how many growing pains will there be?
“I think it is extremely hard (for a rookie to start in this defense),” said New York Giants Safeties Coach David Merritt. “(The safety is) an extension of the defensive coordinator. Whatever call comes in, you need to be able to hear the call, accept the call, and then spit it back out to your fellow teammates. For a rookie to come in and have that pressure, to be the extension of the defensive coordinator, it is extremely difficult.”
“Young,” said Spagnuolo of the safeties. “There is youth and inexperience there. It doesn’t matter what system you are in, in my opinion, defensively, (the starting safeties) are really important. Everyone else relies on them. The quicker we can get to the other nine trusting them, the better off we will be. I am not sure we are there yet. I think it is going to be a work in progress, but we will get there.
“Right now it is a challenge… It is a challenge for our patience and our trust in them. Everyday it gets better, I can tell you that… (But) we have a long ways to go in my opinion.”
Complicating matters is that Nat Berhe, who was pegged early by the coaching staff to start alongside rookie Landon Collins, missed all of the spring practices with a calf injury. Taylor, Thompson, Jackson, and Currie benefited from the additional practice snaps, but both Tom Coughlin and safeties coach David Merritt have said that Berhe’s development has been set back by the missed time.
With Collins sure to start at one spot, it is most likely that Berhe and Taylor will battle for the other starting position.
There is not a lot of time. The Giants face Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten on September 13.
ON THE BUBBLE:The Giants will likely carry four or five safeties. Bennett Jackson, Mykkele Thompson, and Justin Currie are most likely fighting for one or two roster spots.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: David Merritt on Landon Collins: “He has to make the calls and get everyone lined up…Now when you are trying to line up grown men who have wives and children at home and they need that call from you, it is a little different than lining up a freshman. The call has to be right. Right now, he is slow to go, which was expected, but he has to pick it up quickly for us to be successful…I really do (think Collins can do it). He is starting to realize that these missed alignments and the minus plays, I have to cut those out of my game in order for the guys around me to trust me. That is what he wants to be. He wants to be a leader. Okay, we are putting him out there. I think he is going to be ready to go, definitely, for Dallas.”
Merritt on Cooper Taylor: “Cooper is coming along well. Mentally, I never doubted Cooper would be able to pick up the defense. It is just now getting Cooper’s body to move in the proper direction once he receives the call and allows himself to line up and just see what is happening in front of him. The mental part, Cooper is fine, but it is now the physical part. We have to make sure the durability factor – he has to be durable for us because he has missed the past two seasons. Mentally, I am not concerned about him. Physically hoping that he will be able to step up and be durable for us.”
Merritt on Nat Berhe: “(Him missing spring practices) hurts tremendously because all the reps that Cooper (Taylor) and Landon (Collins) and Mykkele (Thompson) and some of the other guys have taken, Nat would have been right in there with all the other guys. By him standing on the sideline and taking mental reps – I understand you are taking mental reps, but it is different. It is not the same as putting your body through the motions and making your body react to different movements that the receivers are stemming at you. It is going to definitely hurt him and set him back a little bit, but hopefully he can come back at training camp and be ready to fight for a starting job.”
Merritt on Mykkele Thompson: “Mykkele, I knew was a smart kid. He came here and he is a cerebral kid, that is for sure. He is going to take what I say literally and take my word for it and go out and try to execute it. Now I am starting to see that the kid actually has some football awareness, where I didn’t think he had much of it when we first started off. The (missed alignments) that started at the beginning of rookie mini-camp and OTAs have drastically gone down. Mentally, he has excelled past my expectations…Long arms. We did a drill the other day where he was having to punch a bag and escape from the blocker and to see his arms and the extension of his arms, that was good to see. I am definitely interested to see him in the pads.”
Merritt on Bennett Jackson: “(His conversion to safety) has been good. You are going from the outside where you are playing on an island and then all of sudden, you go to a back end position where you have to see the formation and play, the moving parts, and put people in the right position. Jackson, in his situation right now, there has been a learning curve for him, which has been hard for him. It has been a struggle at first, but out of all the guys, that is one kid that when he puts his foot in the ground, he can go. He can go. I am looking forward to seeing Bennett at camp with pads on because I truly believe he will hit as well.”
Merritt on Justin Currie:“Justin Currie has done a great job, as well, our free agent. Big kid, as well. I am interested to see what he can do once the pads are on his shoulders and hopefully he will be able to be a thumper for us.”
PREDICTIONS: There will be growing pains. The young safeties will make mental mistakes that will lead to big plays and touchdowns. How bad this inexperience will hurt the Giants in terms of lost games in 2015 remains to be seen. But it’s the nature of the game that old players will eventually be replaced by young ones. Some of those young players will wither while others blossom. In his last interaction with the press, Tom Coughlin seemed generally pleased by the progress of the two rookie draft picks. “We have a good feel for the rookies, we really do. Thompson (has) been doing well and starting to come along and that was a key thing,” said Coughlin. “Collins has done a good job, has gotten better and has really done a good job of starting to direct back there, and I think the coaches are excited about him going forward.”
I believe the players who are currently on the roster will develop into fine players. What I don’t know – and no one really does – is how fast that process will take. The overall effectiveness of the entire defense and the fate of the team’s playoff chances may depend on how quickly Collins, Taylor, and Berhe become assets rather than liabilities. Based on coaching comments, one thing is clear – the team is looking for someone to take charge at safety as a vocal leader.
“You need to have one leader back there, and that’s what I’m still looking for,” said Merritt. “It’s elusive. I’m searching for it. If it’s Landon, great. If it’s Cooper, great. If it’s Nat, great. If it’s Mykkele, great. But I need to have a leader come up and emerge out of this mini-camp and emerge out of training camp…(We’ve had) very slow leadership as far as making calls and controlling the defense. The guys right now are very slow at making those checks.”
FINAL DEPTH CHART: The Giants will keep four or five safeties. I think they will keep five: Landon Collins, Nat Berhe, Cooper Taylor, Mykkele Thompson, and Bennett Jackson. Jackson not only provides special teams value but he can play corner too. Justin Currie is intriguing but his best shot is probably the Practice Squad.
The New York Giants are scheduled to report to training camp on July 30th. Since the Giants won its eighth NFL Championship in 2011, the team has missed the playoffs three straight seasons and seen its regular-season record get progressively worse. Not only is Head Coach Tom Coughlin and the entire coaching staff once again on the proverbial hot seat, but three of the team’s best players (Eli Manning, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Prince Amukamara) are entering the final year of their respective contracts. 2015 could be a make-or-break year for many of key faces of the franchise.
Over 30 players have been added to the 90-man summer roster. Are the Giants better? If so, by how much? Which rookies and first- and second-year players will make an impact on the 2015 season? What veterans may be on the bubble? What are the strengths of the team? Where are the roster holes and areas of concern?
2014 YEAR IN REVIEW:The Giants dramatically overhauled the cornerback position in the 2014 offseason, saying goodbye to long-time contributors Corey Webster, Aaron Ross, and Terrell Thomas while adding free agents Dominique-Rodgers Cromartie (DRC), Walter Thurmond, and Zack Bowman. These new additions were to support former-first rounder Prince Amukmara and the re-signed Trumaine McBride. It was believed by many that not only were the Giants exceptionally strong at corner, but that this could be the strongest group of corners on the team in recent memory.
But those expectations vanished quickly due to injury. Nickel corner Walter Thurmond was placed on Injured Reserve after only two games, followed by Trumaine McBride in mid-October and Prince Amukamara in early November. The loss of Amukamara – who was having his best season – was particularly a hard pill to swallow. Without three of their top four corners, more pressure was placed on DRC, who was also dealing with a litany of injury issues to the point where he could not play a full game.
The Giants were quickly left to scramble and made in-season roster moves including signing castoffs Chykie Brown, Mike Harris, and Chandler Fenner. Brown and Harris performed reasonably well given the circumstances, but overall, the secondary failed to fulfill their preseason boasts as one of the best units in the NFL. The Giants finished 18th in the NFL in pass defense.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Most of the significant roster changes at corner have been subtractions. Somewhat surprisingly, the team did not make much (if any) of an effort to re-sign Thurmond and he signed with the Eagles. The Giants also appear not to have made an effort to re-sign Bowman, who signed with the Dolphins.
The Giants made few additions at corner, choosing instead to re-sign free agents Chykie Brown and Chandler Fenner. The team signed the uninspiring corner/safety ‘tweener Josh Gordy from the Colts and journeyman street free agent Trevin Wade. Because of this, it was expected that the Giants would probably take a corner in the 2015 NFL Draft. However, not only did the Giants not draft a corner, the team also did not sign a rookie free agent at the position after the draft.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: If Rodgers-Cromartie and Amukamara can stay healthy, the Giants may have the best duo of corners in the NFL. However, Amukmara has been an injury-prone player since being drafted in 2011, missing significant time in three of his first four seasons. Rodgers-Cromartie did not miss a game in 2014, but was nagged all season long with a variety of injuries that affected his game and the number of snaps he could play. Assuming these two stay healthy, the media will focus much of its preseason attention on how good these two can be playing together.
But the more important story line could be the apparent lack of depth. The third (nickel) corner is a de facto starter in today’s NFL. Who will be the team’s nickel corner? The early favorite is McBride, but he could be pressed by Mike Harris. Also, what if DRC or Amukamara miss time due to injury? Who will be the first corner off of the bench to replace the missing outside guy? Again, the early favorite is probably McBride, but Chykie Brown could factor into the equation.
Other contenders for roster spots include Josh Gordy, Jayron Hosley, Chandler Fenner, and Trevin Wade. None of these names inspire. Indeed, on paper it appears that corner is the shallowest position on the team. An injury or two here could spell disaster.
A longer-term focus is Amukmara’s contract situation. The Giants are currently set to have three of their very best players hit the open market in 2016 (Eli Manning, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Amukamara). And the team can only Franchise tag one of them. Prince has made it very clear via his Twitter feed that he wants to get paid. Will he be able to play a full schedule for just the second time since he was drafted? If he does and plays as well as hoped, will the Giants be able to re-sign him?
ON THE BUBBLE:The Giants normally keep five or six corners. Barring injury or unforeseen circumstances, DRC and Amukamara are locks, leaving three or four roster spots open. The early favorites to make the team are McBride, Harris, and Brown. Gordy, Hosley, Fenner, and Wade are clearly on the bubble. Gordy could be helped by his position flexibility, being able to play safety in a pinch.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Tim Walton on Prince Amukamara: “He definitely can improve just in techniques in general. When we play press technique, that is always a constant thing because with his talent, he is going to see different guys, he is going to see smaller receivers and bigger receivers, and you have to be able to change that up based on the guys you see and be effective with it. Also just on his ability to play fast and trying to show him to be able to see formations, see tendencies, see splits and being able to let that put you in the right position and be able to play up to his maximum potential all the time. That has a lot to do with the understanding of the situations, of formation or splits and things like that, because he has played a lot of football so he understands and those are the things that can help him grow so he can play fast all the time because he has some real talent.”
Walton on Rodgers-Cromartie and Amukamara being elite corners: “(DRC) definitely has to be that guy. The thing about it that we feel good about is hopefully we have two guys that can be that and that is the confidence and level of expectation that we have is that he definitely will be that guy and a guy that has that ability, and we need to build on a consistent basis. We also feel that Prince has the ability to do that, also, and that is where we become better as a football team where we can have that with both guys because that gives you the ability that you can handle the match-ups.”
Walton on Jayron Hosley:“He has the talent. The thing we talk about is confidence. We have to make sure the confidence is there and the consistency is there and all of those things, so that the talent is showing on a daily basis. We don’t want to be up and down with it, so that is the thing we talk about and we work on, is trying to be consistent with it and getting confidence so you can play at a level that you would like to play at on a daily basis… He would probably be outside right now. Who knows what he may end up doing, but right now, to get confidence, you also want to start at one spot and kind of go from there and grow with it. You don’t want to throw a ton on his plate, start with one thing, let’s do that well and we’ll progress from there.”
PREDICTIONS: Provided they stay healthy, the Giants are in great shape with Rodgers-Cromartie and Amukamara. They are clearly the best two corners in the NFC East and one of the two could end up in the Pro Bowl.
Nevertheless, the biggest weakness on this roster may not be the offensive line or linebacker or safety, but cornerback due to the overall lack of quality depth. When teams like the Cowboys, Eagles, and Redskins play 3- and 4-wide receivers sets, the Giants will be forced to counter with the likes of McBride, Harris, and Brown. And God help the Giants if either one of the two top guys get hurt.
The fear here is that while DRC and Amukamara largely handle their business, opponents will feast on the third and fourth corners. The Giants desperately need one or two of these former castoffs to surprise. McBride did start 10 games for the Giants in 2013 and did a respectable job. Harris is a guy who the team thinks can play nickelback.
The wild card could be Brown. He was a 2014 in-season cut by the Ravens, when he was ironically being coached by Steve Spagnuolo. Before he was fired, Perry Fewell said of Brown, “He is a young man that is very conscientious. He takes very good notes, and when I say takes good notes, he is a good film study guy. He doesn’t have all of our techniques down pat, but he has the long arms. We like that, for jams, he has really good speed, so we like the speed that he can possess when he runs down the field. He is a pretty tough guy as a corner. Most corners are not physically tough guys, I think he is a pretty tough guy. I think he is a really nice addition to come in and help play in our secondary. We just like the speed factor, and some of the intangibles of what I just mentioned in his play.”
If the reserve corners struggle, the Giants will be scanning the waiver wire.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Unless there is another roster addition, the top five corners look to be Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Prince Amukamara, Trumaine McBride, Chykie Brown, and Mike Harris. To me, the bigger question is do the Giants go with five or six corners. My early guess is they will carry one more safety and one fewer corner and go with only five cornerbacks.