Jul 152013
 
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Bear Pascoe, New York Giants (October 28, 2012)

Bear Pascoe – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Offseason Breakdown: New York Giants Tight Ends

If a tight end can’t block, he won’t play for the New York Giants. It’s that simple. In the Giants’ system, blocking is as critical, if not more important, than pass receiving. The traditional down tight end (hand in the dirt, lined up next to the offensive tackle) is often called upon to block not only linebackers, but defensive ends as well. The problem is that quality two-way tight ends are hard to find. With the proliferation of spread offenses in college, the two-way tight end is disappearing at many schools. There are 32 NFL teams and a very limited supply of quality prospects coming out in the NFL Draft. One-dimensional, pass-receiving, H-Back types (motion tight ends who often do not line up in a down position) are more plentiful, but the Giants’ offense does not tend to feature these types of players.

The good news is the Giants have 71-year old Mike Pope, arguably the best tight ends coach in the NFL. He’s been with the Giants seemingly forever (1984-1991, 2000-present) under head coaches Bill Parcells, Ray Handley, Jim Fassel, and Tom Coughlin. Pope has a history of developing players with good size and just enough athletic ability into solid, two-way tight ends.

The tight end position has been a bit of turnstile for the Giants since Jeremy Shockey (2002-2007) was traded to the Saints in July 2008. Since then, the primary tight end on the Giants has changed from Kevin Boss (2008-2010) to Jake Ballard (2011) to Martellus Bennett (2012) and now to Brandon Myers (2013).

Including Myers, there are six tight ends on the Giants’ current training camp roster. Historically, the team tends to keep three tight ends on the 53-man roster.

Brandon Myers: Myers was signed by the Giants as an unrestricted free agent from the Oakland Raiders in March 2013. He was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Raiders. Myers had a breakout season for the Raiders in 2012, catching 79 passes for 806 yards and four touchdowns. His 16 regular-season starts in 2012 were more than all of the starts he had combined his first three years in the NFL. His 79 catches also dwarfed the 32 he had from 2009-2011.

Myers lacks the size that the Giants usually look for in their primary tight end. He’s only listed at 6’3’’, 256 pounds. The Giants usually like their tight ends an inch or two taller and 15-20 pounds heavier. He’s also not very fast or quick for the position – the Raiders used him more as a short- to intermediate-receiver. But Myers seems to be a smart, heady player with just enough athleticism, a feel for getting open, and good hands. His blocking was reportedly subpar in Oakland last year. A painful shoulder injury (sprained AC joint) could have been a factor. Still his lack of size and strength is worrisome in the blocking department.

“We think he’ll be a great piece to our offense and I think (Eli Manning) will have a relationship with him really quickly,” said General Manager Jerry Reese.

“He is a good receiver,” said Pope. “I think at the Raiders he was more of an intermediate receiver. And now our passing game does allow the tight end to get more vertically down the field – flag routes – double seam routes – post routes – that kind of thing. And he appears to have the skills to get those balls. He has a little bit of a jet that can accelerate and go get a ball that is a little deeper. You may not think he is going to reach it, but he has that little bit. So we are very interested to see him in pads.”

“I’m with a great organization, a proven team with a proven quarterback, in an offense that if you’re a tight end and you can get open, you’ll get a lot of opportunities to catch the ball,” said Myers.

“Obviously, my blocking (in Oakland) wasn’t up to par,” said Myers. “But we kind of went over some things, (Pope’s) technique that he could teach me to help me out, so I think it will be a good fit.”

Coughlin doesn’t appear concerned about his blocking. “He’s a well-rounded tight end,” said Coughlin. “He’s a blocker in the running game as well. We’re looking forward to that.”

Bear Pascoe: The Giants picked up Pascoe in 2009 after the 49ers cut him as a rookie. Pascoe is a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type of player whose strength is his overall versatility. Pascoe plays tight end, H-Back, and even some fullback for the Giants. In fact, he filled in at fullback for the bulk of the 2010 season when Madison Hedgecock was placed on Injured Reserve. And Pascoe may have to do so again in 2013 with Henry Hynoski’s knee injury casting doubt on his availability.

Pascoe does not really stand out as a blocker or receiver, and needs to improve his productivity and consistency in both areas. But Pascoe is big (6’5”, 283 pounds), solid, and dependable. Pascoe finished the 2012 with only four catches for 35 yards and one touchdown. In four seasons with the Giants, he has 26 catches for 252 yards and one score.

“We’re very confident that Bear, no matter what role we place him in, he does an outstanding job,” said Coughlin. “Bear has had opportunities to play in that slot, B tight end, Y tight end, and he’s always done a nice job.”

“This is kind of what I do. This is my role,” Pascoe said. “The more I can do, the better it is for the team. It’s one of the reason I’ve been here for five years, is I have versatility.”

“(Pascoe) has had to do that for us whenever the fullback has been hurt,” said Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride. “It hasn’t been Henry (Hynoski) but it was Madison Hedgecock before. And so he has done a great job with that. It is not an easy thing. He is not a natural fullback but he is one of those guys that just whatever you ask him to do, he goes out and does it with as much courage and determination as anybody. As a result of that he plays above – sometimes – what your expectations might be. We asked him to do a very difficult role – he does it very well.”

Pope thinks having Pascoe playing fullback may make the Giants’ offense less predictable. “Bear has played a good bit of fullback for us,” said Pope. “Actually he played about 160 snaps at fullback last season. So he is aware of the assignments. There are still some finite things that he can get better at there. But it gives us a great deal of flexibility because when Hynoski is in the game they pretty well know that there are some limitations as to where he will line up. He is pretty much a backfield player. When we can put Bear in with one of these other guys, now we can do a lot more things as far as open formations – a little more difficult for the defense to predict where they can’t just key on one of the those guys and say the ball is going there. So that helps us.”

Adrien Robinson: 2012 was mainly a redshirt year for Adrien Robinson, who the Giants drafted in the 4th round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Robinson made the 53-man roster, but was only activated for two games. He did not catch a single pass. Robinson combines good size with excellent athleticism. He has very good speed and agility for a big tight end. However, he is a very raw player who will need a lot of coaching up. He was not targeted much in college (only 29 receptions in four years), but he displayed an ability to get down the field, adjust to the football, and make the difficult catch. Robinson has the physical ability to be a good blocker.

Because Robinson’s college has trimesters, he missed Organized Team Activity (OTA) practices his rookie season. “I think going through OTAs this year, seeing how slowly the coaches install the plays and understanding how everything feeds off each other, I realize that I did miss a lot last year by coming in so late and trying to jumpstart everything,” Robinson said. “I’ve been here since the (offseason) program started, and it’s a new year. I’m just trying to work my way up.”

“I think the biggest improvement I’ve made is in my understanding of the offense and knowing the plays, my assignments, where to line up, and how to read the defenses,” said Robinson. “Last year, I didn’t get many game reps, so I had to watch a lot, which helped, but it’s not the same as lining up on the field.”

“The biggest thing I want to show the coaches is that I fully understand the offense,” said Robinson. “I understand everything that’s going on, and I want to earn their trust. Once they are confident that you know what you’re doing, you’ll get on the field.”

“Adrien Robinson appears to have gone into the Land of the Believers and yes he has been making some good progress,” said Pope. “He is understanding assignment-wise. But the plays are still not the lines on the page that we give them for instruction. So he is doing a lot of the assignment things correctly. Now we have to get him to adjust to the way the defense is playing on each particular play and to make the best decisions based on how the defense is playing. But he is running well and he has his weight down some. The quarterback is starting to find him. He is hard to miss – he is the tallest tree in the forest out there. So he is a good target. But we are more than mildly pleased with the progress that he has made from an assignment standpoint.”

“Adrien was in that group of guys who came in, didn’t really know much about working with an offensive tackle on a double team block or how do you read coverages, what happens if they blitz here, what do I do?” said Pope in June. “It has taken him some time to learn and feel a little more comfortable. His speed and athletic skills did not surface as quickly as we hoped because he was thinking his way through every single play which slowed him down. Now he’s developing some confidence and he knows a little bit more about what he is doing. These last three or four weeks have been the very best weeks of his Giant career.”

“Wish we could have gotten him in some games more last year, but it just didn’t work out for us to get him in some games,” said Reese. “But we really think – the guy is 280 pounds, he ran a 4.57 (40-yard dash) at his Pro Day, and we think he can really develop into a terrific blocker. In practice, he flashed some things that were really like some ‘Wow’ things in practice. So we’re expecting him to make a jump this season and get in and get going and give us some contributions as our big blocking tight end. And he can catch the ball really nice. So we expect to bring him along, and hopefully he’ll contribute for us.”

Larry Donnell: Donnell went undrafted and unsigned in 2011. The Giants signed him as a street free agent in March 2012 and Donnell spent 2012 on the Giants’ Practice Squad. Donnell has excellent size (6’6”, 270 pounds) and is a good athlete. However, he is raw and needs a lot of coaching. Unfortunately, Donnell missed most of the spring work with a right foot or ankle injury that forced him to wear a walking boot.

Jamie Childers: The Giants signed Jamie Childers to a Reserve/Future contract in January 2013. Childers was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the St. Louis Rams after the 2012 NFL Draft. The Rams waived him in August. Childers needs a lot of technique work not only because of his small school background but because he played both quarterback and tight end in college. Lacking bulk (6’5”, 250 pounds), Childers is built more like an H-Back than true tight end. He’s athletic and has good hands. He probably will never be more than a finesse blocker. According to press reports, Childers did flash as a receiver in spring workouts.

Chase Clement: Clement was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Giants after the 2013 NFL Draft. In college, Clement converted to tight from defensive end. He has good size (6’6”, 262 pounds) and strength and could develop as a blocking-type tight end with better technique. He was not used much as a receiver in college with only 14 career receptions in four seasons. Clement isn’t overly fast.

“When I first looked at (Clement) I had visions of Jake Ballard,” said Pope. “Just because he was a good blocker on the goal line. (LSU) seldom ever threw him the ball. But when the ball was snapped he had kind of that tough-guy mentality – old school. But he really had a motor…He is not going to be an all-world receiver way down the field as far as being explosive and flexible, but he has pretty good football savvy…I think there is something to work with there.”

Summary: Brandon Myers is clearly the #1 guy heading into training camp and will likely be the Giants’ primary tight end, though due to his size, it would be easy to see the Giants using him some at H-Back too. Myers could be the type of receiver who Manning quickly develops chemistry with. But Myers needs to block better than he did last year in Oakland. Pascoe is a limited athlete and his attention will be split between fullback, H-Back, and tight end. The real question is how fast can Adrien Robinson develop? He has the size to be a good blocker and the athletic abiity to be a good receiver. Can he put it all together, and if so, how quickly? Don’t completely discount Donnell (two-way tools), Childers (receiver), and Clement (blocker) either, but their best shot is probably the Practice Squad unless someone gets hurt.

Jul 012013
 
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David Wilson, New York Giants (November 4, 2012)

David Wilson – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Offseason Breakdown: New York Giants Running Backs

In the long and storied history of the Giants, five of the franchise’s top six all-time rushers have played in the last 30 years. There was the Joe Morris (5,296 yards) era, the Rodney Hampton (6,897) era, the Tiki Barber (10,449) era, and the Brandon Jacobs/Ahmad Bradshaw (9,081) era.

Are David Wilson and Andre Brown mentally and physically prepared to pick up the mantel? Not only were Jacobs and Bradshaw productive running backs, but they provided a lot of emotion and leadership to the team. “We’ve got a tradition of great running backs here that have established themselves as leaders on this team,” said Running Backs Coach Jerald Ingram.

In addition, who else will round out the backfield? There are currently five running backs (not counting fullback Henry Hynoski) vying for three or four roster spots. Let’s look at the candidates:

Andre Brown: Many assume David Wilson will start, but Andre Brown was ahead of him on the depth chart last year and Head Coach Tom Coughlin may feel that Wilson is better suited as a change-of-pace back and someone who should get fewer touches given his size. On the other hand, Coughlin may trust Brown more with blitz pick-ups on third down and thus Brown may be the one coming off of the bench.

After rupturing his Achilles’ tendon with the Giants in 2009, spending time with four different teams in 2010, and spending all of 2011 on the Giants’ practice squad, Brown surprised everyone by winning the Giants’ #2 running back job in 2012. Indeed, at times, Brown seemed more productive running the football than Ahmad Bradshaw. Before Brown broke his leg in November, he had accrued 385 yards and eight touchdowns on 73 carries, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

Brown has a nice combination of size (6’0’’, 227 pounds) and athletic ability. He is no-nonsense, north-south, downhill runner with some power to his game. Brown performed well in short-yardage and goal line situations last season. He has good hands as a receiver. Brown’s biggest issue right now is that he has to prove he can stay healthy.

“Andre is healthy,” said Ingram. “(Vice President of Medical Services) Ronnie Barnes has done a great job with him right now. He’s motivated. It’s an opportunity for him. He’s been waiting a lifetime around here for that. We brought him in here because he can catch the ball, he can run, he can do a lot of things and be a complete running back here and he’s definitely a true every down kind of guy because he’s got size, speed and quickness. We saw some things out of him a year ago, which was great and it’s a great opportunity for him.”

“Andre has continued to grow,” said Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride. “And he has continued to get better (this spring). You feel more and more confident (about him). He has actually gotten to a point where you feel better about third-down. First and second-down is one important step. But the next step is can you be a third-down back because of the complexity of what people are doing with their defensive schemes?”

Brown realizes the tremendous opportunity in front of him. “I still feel like I’ve got a lot to prove and first I just want to have a healthy season and then go out there and just be productive and help this team win games and championships and that’s what it’s all about,” said Brown.

Early in the offseason, Brown stated that he wanted to rush for 1,300 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2013. He has since toned down his remarks. “I ain’t worried about the carries, I’m not worried about yards, or who’s got the most touchdowns,” said Brown. “I’m just worried about both of us (Wilson and Brown) working together and being effective for the team and having a positive running game.”

But Brown still thinks the Giants are capable of having two 1,000-yard rushers on the same team, a feat accomplished by Jacobs and Derrick Ward in 2008. “It ain’t like they haven’t produced two 1,000-yard backs before in the same season,” said Brown. “I believe that we’re capable of doing that.”

Brown also recognizes there is a leadership void that needs to be filled. “The first couple years we had Brandon, we had Ahmad – those guys were more of the vocal leaders in the room,” Brown said. “I’d just sit back and watch and listen. But now it’s like OK, they showed me the way, and now I’ve gotta step up and be more talkative in the room.”

David Wilson: Last season, Wilson did not see double-digit carries until December and finished the season with 358 yards and four touchdowns on 71 carries (5.0 yards per carry). He only caught four passes for 34 yards and a touchdown. Most of Wilson’s damage came on special teams where he set a team record with 1,533 kickoff return yards, averaging 26.9 yards per return.

David Wilson is very young, having just turned 22 in June. Wilson did not play as much as expected his rookie season, but when he did, he flashed great explosive ability. He also demonstrated a more physical running style than you would anticipate from a 5’9’’, 205 pound running back. And that’s the biggest worry with Wilson – is he big enough not only to take the pounding at the pro level as a ball carrier, but is he big and physical enough to take on blitzing linebackers? The coaches also won’t play him a lot until they believe that he is mentally ready to decipher the complicated blitz packages opposing teams will throw at him, especially on third down.

“I have to be really precise in practice and give the coaches confidence,” said Wilson. “Pass blocking…that’s an area that I definitely need to show the coaches that I can handle.”

“You see a guy like David Wilson who started with no clue on who to block, much less how to block, to a pretty good understanding of what it is that he has to do (during spring practices),” said Gilbride. “Now it is a matter of doing it. And it is a matter of getting better at it. He is still not 100%. He still makes mistakes but there has certainly been some significant, some significant growth. Now until you get the pads on – and he has to show that he, as a smaller guy, can do the things necessary that other small backs in this league have done – you are still kind of holding your breath when you see him.

“But his approach has been great; his attitude in terms of trying to work on that aspect of the game. As a running back, what do you want to do? You want to run the ball. That is all you want to do. You don’t want to do anything else. But he realizes that in order to get the playing time that he wants to get that he is going to have to become a pass receiver; he is going to have to become a good pass protector. And he is going to have to do the things that maybe don’t fall into the strict definition of running the football. But the good thing is that he has been working his tail off.”

“I definitely see progress (in his pass protection),” said Ingram. “I think he’s got a clear understanding as far as what our protections are, what is expected of him, but until you actually physically ask that individual to do that full speed and full gear, we’re not exactly doing that right now. But I think when we go to camp, he knows what his goals are right now and what he has to accomplish to be a complete running back and contribute on our team. I think we’ll get that out of him. He’ll be a much improved player from that situation this year.

“(Wilson) has the talent, has the speed, has a few plays from a year ago underneath his belt. Once we put the pads on, we’ll see who is physical, who’s determined to make plays out there… I think he’s a playmaker… I think we’ll take advantage of his natural ability as much as we can…He’s got to be a guy that Eli can trust in every situation possible and we’ll go from there, but right now I think he’s on track.”

“I’m a lot less nervous, and more comfortable with the offense,” Wilson said. “Going out there now, I can just play football, and run the play that’s called, and not really have to stress as much.”

Speaking of his friendly competition with Brown, Wilson said, “We’re both working hard, and we’re going to play off each other. He’s a bigger back, and I’ve got breakaway speed. We can make things happen.”

Wilson does want to continue to return kicks, but it is unknown whether the Giants will give him that role in 2013. “On kickoff return I definitely want to be a part of that,” said Wilson. “I really enjoy that part of the game and any way I can help the team I’m willing to do it and I definitely want to be back there.”

“(Wilson) would like to (return kicks),” said Special Teams Coordinator Tom Quinn. “He’s done it very well, but we’ll have to see how it all comes down with where he is on the depth chart and what he’s doing on offense… I don’t think it’s too much to do both, but I’m not making all the decisions.”

Da’Rel Scott: Andre Brown and David Wilson are clearly 1a and 1b in terms of the running back pecking order (and it’s not clear who “a” and “b” are at this point). The #3 job is wide open. Da’Rel Scott is the forgotten back on this team, mostly because he has hardly played in the last two seasons since being drafted in the 7th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Giants.  In two years, he has a total of 25 yards on 11 carries. Scott was placed on Injured Reserve in October 2012 after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee.

Scott has adequate size (5’11’’, 210 pounds). He is very fast and is a threat to break a big play every time he touches the ball. However, it still remains to be seen if Scott has the instincts, toughness, elusiveness, and power to succeed at the NFL level on a consistent basis. There simply is not enough to go on yet in order to fully evaluate him.

Coughlin did mention Scott during the June mini-camp. “Da’Rel Scott has had a few good days,” said Coughlin.

Last August, Ingram was asked about Scott. “We saw some things out of Da’Rel (in 2011),” said Ingram. “He’s linear, he can get up field, he’s got good finish speed when he gets going. Where he is right now, he hasn’t been on the field an awful lot. We haven’t played him in a game. Hopefully, we can get him in the game and see what he can do. I want, and we want to see an every down kind of guy, who has some size, who has some quickness, who has some finish speed, who can catch the ball out of the backfield, but can he be a continuous play maker? Can he take care of our quarterback? That’s what we want to see out of him. Until we actually get into these games, who knows?”

Ryan Torain: The Giants signed Ryan Torain in November 2012 as a street free agent. He played in two games but did not touch the football. Torain was originally drafted by the Denver Broncos in the 5th round of the 2008 NFL Draft. Torain was waived by the Broncos in August 2009. He signed with the Washington Redskins in 2010 and spent time on both Washington’s 53-man roster and Practice Squad. The Redskins waived Torain in December 2011. Torain’s best year was in 2010 with the Redskins when he rushed for 742 yards and four touchdowns on 164 carries (4.5 yards per carry) and caught 18 passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns.

Torain is a tough, physical runner with good size (6’0’’, 220 pounds). He lacks ideal speed and elusiveness. Torain also has been somewhat injury prone, something that popped up again in the spring as Torain was sidelined with a hamstring issue.

Michael Cox: Michael Cox was drafted in the 7th round of the 2013 NFL Draft by the Giants. He originally played at the University of Michigan before transferring to the University of Massachusetts. Cox is a big (6’0’’, 220 pounds), strong back with decent speed and elusiveness. He catches the ball well.

“He’s a big and powerful elusive guy with speed, so he’s got a lot of things that we like about him,” said General Manager Jerry Reese on the day the Giants drafted Cox.

“Runs hard, he’s got size, he’s got really, really good hands, excellent hands, got a little burst to him,” said Vice President of Player Evaluation Marc Ross. “Real good kid. Our coaches were impressed with him so we were happy we’re getting a big, fast guy who runs hard that late in the draft.”

Cox was regularly mentioned by the Giants’ beat writers as someone who flashed during the spring workouts, showing more nimbleness than anticipated. Coughlin also mentioned him the June mini-camp. “The young kid (Cox) continues to do some good things,” said Coughlin.

Summary: There really are two running back competitions heading into training camp. The first is to determine the “starter” – David Wilson or Andre Brown – though in reality, both will play a lot so the label probably does not mean as much to the team as it does to the fans. The second competition is who will be the #3 back and will someone show enough to convince the Giants to keep four running backs?

Jun 172013
 
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Mark Herzlich, New York Giants (August 18, 2012)

Mark Herzlich – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Offseason Breakdown: New York Giants Linebackers

The linebacker position on the Giants has been unsettled for quite some time. For the older fans, who had the pleasure to watch players such as Sam Huff, Harry Carson, Brad Van Pelt, Lawrence Taylor, Carl Banks, and Jessie Armstead, it has been frustrating.

When the Giants shifted from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense in the 1990s, the personnel emphasis naturally shifted from spending premium resources on linebackers to defensive linemen. And that trend has continued under General Manager Jerry Reese.

Since Reese became general manager of the Giants in 2007, in seven drafts, the Giants have drafted seven linebackers, including players in the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds. Only two remain on the roster – sixth-rounders Adrian Tracy and Jacquian Williams. Tracy, a defensive end in college, was drafted as a linebacker and has since been moved back to defensive end. Gone by the wayside are Bryan Kehl, Jonathan Goff, Clint Sintim, Phillip Dillard, and Greg Jones.

In free agency under Reese, the Giants have signed Kawika Mitchell, Danny Clark, Michael Boley, Keith Bulluck, Dan Connor, Aaron Curry, and Kyle Bosworth. The latter three were signed this offseason.

The Giants also traded away their fifth round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft for Keith Rivers.

It’s obviously too early to comment on Connor, Curry, and Bosworth, but of all of the rest, since 2007, only Boley became an established, multi-year starter for the Giants. (After four seasons as a starter, Boley was released this offseason). If we’re being honest, to date, Reese’s track record in addressing the linebacking position has not been good.

With Boley and free agent departure Chase Blackburn no longer on the roster, and Mathias Kiwanuka moving back to defensive end, the Giants will have three new starters at linebacker in 2013. That’s quite a turnover. And it is conceivable that the three new starters in 2013 will be castoffs Rivers, Connor, and Curry. In fact, if you could turn back the clock and tell a Giants fan in April 2008 that the Rivers, Connor, and Curry would be starting for Big Blue in few years, the response would have been, “How the hell did Reese pull that off?” We’ll have to see if they can turn their careers around and regain former collegiate glory.

The Giants currently have nine linebackers on the roster. They will probably keep seven on the 53-man roster, especially since linebackers usually make good special teams players. But it is possible that they could keep as few as six.

“(Our linebackers) actually had a good spring,” said Head Coach Tom Coughlin at the end of mini-camp. “And the good thing about them, they are very unselfish. They work hard; they study hard. If I called for a one hour meeting, those guys were probably going to meet for an hour and a half to two. It is just the way that group is. They have been good. So we’ll see. I have seen some growth and I have seen a lot of good things happen out here. They are going to have to. It’s going to have to happen.”

Let’s look at each of these nine players:

Dan Connor: A highly-regarded Penn State linebacker coming out of the 2008 NFL Draft, Connor was originally selected in the 3rd round by the Carolina Panthers. He signed with the Cowboys as a free agent in March 2012. Connor was then signed by the Giants in March 2013 after he was released by the Dallas. In five NFL seasons, Connor has played in 56 regular-season games with 27 starts. In 2012, Connor started eight games for the Cowboys and finished the season with 56 tackles and one pass defense. Connor has decent size, but lacks athleticism. He is more of a tough, blue-collar, two-down run defender who sometimes struggles in pass coverage. Connor is not overly physical at the point-of-attack, but he is quick to locate the ball, avoids blocks well, and is a good, solid tackler. He can play inside or outside, but he definitely is more comfortable in a 4-3 scheme. Connor’s biggest problem has been staying healthy.

“I think (middle linebacker is my best) position,” Connor said. “That’s the position where I’m comfortable. I played it in college, I was in the middle of a 4-3 in Carolina. So I feel most comfortable in the middle. But I do have some experience on the outside.”

“It’s all about being technique-perfect and being able to call the defense, make the checks and be spot on,” Connor said. “As a new guy in the locker room, that’s how I’m going to earn respect – by knowing not only my position but everyone else’s position. So studying is big for me right now, being vocal on the field, and basically earn the respect of guys who I met (only recently).”

Connor’s chief competition at middle linebacker, Mark Herzlich, has been impressed by Connor. “Dan is a very intelligent player,” said Herzlich. “He’s very good with his reads and his fits. He’s very precise.”

“Run fits have been a point of emphasis, making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time,” said Connor. “The coaches have done a great job teaching us the mistakes that were made last season.”

“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” said Connor. “We have a lot of young guys. They’re hungry. Each one of us feels like we want to put our name on the map. I really like this defense. It lets you play fast and play aggressive.”

Aaron Curry: In the 2009 NFL Draft, Curry was widely-regarded as one of the best linebacking prospects in years and “the safest pick” in the draft. The Seattle Seahawks made him the fourth player selected overall in that draft, but Curry never lived up to his draft hype and was traded to the Raiders during the 2011 season for a 7th round pick and conditional 5th round pick. Curry played better in Oakland, but he was hampered by chronic knee issues and was cut.

Physically, Curry has excellent size and strength. Although he lacks ideal lateral agility, when healthy, he is a very good athlete who runs well. For some reason, it hasn’t come together for Curry at the pro level. Critics have pointed to the lack of big plays, inconsistency, poor coverage, and too often being out of position.

Curry says his problem in Seattle was that he was not focused on football. “Early in my career, I was just selfish and self-centered,” said Curry. “I was more about me than I was about the Seahawks. It was immaturity, and I’m glad I got past that stage…It was like I knew I could do it and I knew I would do it. I just don’t think at the time I was interested in doing it. I think I was interested in other things and at the time football just wasn’t my top priority, just to be honest…(Now) I approach everything differently. I see details now. Football is important now. It has a priority in my life that I’m willing to do whatever it takes that’s going to help the Giants be successful and I’m not so selfish…Now I’m more about finding a way to just put out a lot of effort and a lot of energy and just cause havoc.”

Curry’s biggest issue now may be the health of his knees. Curry underwent stem-cell therapy on both of his knees during the 2012 offseason. He only played two games before he was cut in November. He then underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in December.

Curry’s former linebacker coach in Seattle, Ken Norton, is still a believer if Curry is healthy. “He was a 4-3 linebacker playing off the ball and you’re not going to get sacks,” Norton said. “He’s probably the best linebacker I’ve ever had to play over the tight end and just dominate him. There were a whole lot of expectations. You don’t see the sack numbers and people say this guy isn’t doing what he’s supposed to be doing. At the end, his legs and knees were hurting a lot and he was unable to stop on a dime. He couldn’t do all the things he was supposed to do.”

“If Aaron’s health isn’t an issue, if he can run and stop and hit, I mean, this kid hasn’t scratched the surface,” Norton said. “He can do a lot of amazing things. He does things that Carl Banks used to do on the tight end. Once he gets his mind set on something, he can do it. The only issue with him has been what’s going on between the ears. If everything is in order and he’s to the point where he has something to prove, the Giants might have caught him at the right time.”

“I hope to be able to offer some positive energy (to the defense),” said Curry. “I just want to run around and hit things that are moving and I want my teammates to get excited. I want the defense to be excited at all times and I hope to be able to just uplift everybody and do what’s asked of me and do it full speed…My job and my only motivation is to go out there, play hard, play fast, be physical and get my teammates to just be fired up with me and just bring a positive energy every day.”

Keith Rivers: If Curry was supposed to be a “sure thing”, then Rivers was pretty damn close. Rivers was the ninth player taken in the 2008 NFL Draft. But the injury-prone linebacker was traded by the Bengals to the Giants in 2012 for a 5th round draft pick.

While Rivers never lived up to his draft hype in Cincinnati, he was a solid player for the Bengals when he played. The problem was that he couldn’t stay healthy and that trend continued with the Giants in 2012. Last season, hamstring and calf injuries caused him to miss five games and limited his playing time and effectiveness. Rivers finished the season with six starts and accrued 44 tackles. In four seasons in Cincinnati, Rivers started 33-of-35 regular-season games he played in. But he missed 29 regular-season games with injuries – including nine games in 2008 with a broken jaw and all of the 2011 season with a wrist injury that required surgery. Rivers also missed time in 2009 with a calf injury and in 2010 with plantar fasciitis. Rivers is an athletic, three-down linebacker. He is more of the run-and-hit type than physical presence at the point-of-attack against the run. Rivers has the overall athletic ability and range to do well in coverage, but he needs to become more consistent in that area of his game. He only has two career sacks.

Interestingly, Giants’ beat reporter Paul Dottino, who also does some work for the Giants, says Rivers was clearly the best linebacker in training camp last year. During spring workouts, Rivers was starting at weakside linebacker in Mathias Kiwanuka’s old position. (Note: In Perry Fewell’s system, the weakside linebacker is called the strongside linebacker).

During OTAs, Coughlin said, “The other day Keith Rivers made a heck of a play.” Rivers has the ability to be a very steady performer for New York if he can just stay on the football field.

Mark Herzlich: Herzlich was regarded as one of the better collegiate linebackers in the country before missing the 2009 season at Boston College with bone cancer. Because of the illness, a titanium rod was inserted into Herzlich’s left femur. Herzlich has very good size, but the key question is whether Herzlich now has the overall athletic ability to excel at the pro level. Last year, it was anticipated that Herzlich would provide more of a serious challenge to Chase Blackburn for the starting middle linebacker position, but Herzlich underwhelmed.

Herzlich has had a very good spring. It was Herzlich, not Dan Connor, who started at middle linebacker during spring workouts and the coaches appear to have come away impressed.

“Very commanding,” said Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell. “He’s taken a leadership role out there and I think he has some good respect from his teammates in some of the things he’s done in the OTAs. Obviously, we want to find out what happens when the pads come on.”

“After the first OTA, (Spencer Paysinger and I) always go and watch the films,” said Herzlich. “Me and Spence were watching film, and we’re like, ‘We’re gonna know this defense better than the coaches.’ So we went to Costco that day, got dry erase boards. I was on the dry erase board all day, just reviewing everything from OTAs, getting ready for mini-camp. That way, when you eliminate the mental mistakes, you can play faster and more physical.”

“As linebackers, you never want to be called ‘soft,’” said Herzlich. “There were some people saying that we were playing soft last year. So we have a mentality to change that this season…We’ve talked about how we couldn’t stop the run when we needed to last season. People say, ‘It’s the defensive line.’ But it starts with the linebackers. We have to fill our gaps and play downhill.”

Connor may overtake Herzlich in training camp and the preseason, but right now, it’s Herzlich’s job to lose.

Spencer Paysinger: Paysinger was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2011 NFL Draft. While serving primarily as one of the Giants’ best special teams players, Paysinger has seen his playing time on the defense increase. He actually started three games in 2012 and finished the season with 39 tackles and one forced fumble. Paysinger has a nice combination of size and athleticism.

Paysinger appears to be flying under the radar scope of many fans. In spring workouts, Paysinger has been starting in Michael Boley’s old strongside linebacker spot. If Paysinger fails, it will not be for lack of hard work. In the offseason, he initiated an intense workout program that not only included weight training, but hot yoga, acupuncture, stretching, and martial arts.

“I came into the league two years ago at 233 pounds and now I’m about 245 pounds and I feel like I haven’t lost a step,” said Paysinger. “When you get heavier, bigger, and bulkier, it’s natural for you to lose a step or two when it comes to agility. By doing yoga and acupuncture and revving up my on-field work, it’s allowed me to counteract any lost steps.”

“(Paysinger) is doing a good job,” said Linebackers Coach Jim Herrmann. “He has a great opportunity to get snaps. And he is competing for the job. He has matured over the last two years. To me, the biggest thing I have seen was his maturity level, because he is comfortable with the formation. Now he is going to go out and take the next step forward because he is anticipating the plays faster and faster. He’s not worried about ‘What do I do in this defense – What do I do in that defense?’ It is, ‘Okay, I know what I am doing – now what is the offense going to do?’ And he is anticipating. And all of those guys have done a much better job of that.”

“Me and Mark (Herzlich), we’ve taken it upon ourselves to learn the defense in and out, studying together,” said Paysinger. “Buying dry erase boards to take home and just draw up plays. Pretty much internalizing the playbook to where it becomes second nature – cause if you know your stuff, you can play that much better.”

“I feel like it’s my time, Mark’s time, even Keith (Rivers’) time to step up and show we can handle this,” said Paysinger.

Jacquian Williams: Williams was drafted in the 6th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Giants. He was a very raw player coming out of the University of South Florida, having started only one season. Williams lacks bulk, but he is extremely athletic, fast, and quick for the position. However, Williams is not very physical and due to his size, he can get mauled at the point-of-attack against the run. Williams flashes as a blitzer and he could develop into a good coverage linebacker with added experience.

Williams’ 2012 season was sabotaged by a PCL knee injury he suffered in October that caused him to miss six games. He finished the year with just 30 tackles, down from the 78 he accrued in 2011. Though Williams returned to the playing field in December 2012, the PCL injury surprisingly limited him in the spring workouts this year. Hopefully, he will be closer to 100 percent when training camp starts.

Kyle Bosworth: The nephew of former Seahawks’ linebacker Brian Bosworth, Kyle was signed by the Giants as an unrestricted free agent from the Jaguars in May 2013. Eligible to be a restricted free agent, Bosworth was not tendered by Jacksonville. Bosworth was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Jaguars after the 2010 NFL Draft. He spent his rookie season on Injured Reserve with a hamstring injury. He also missed much of 2011 after being placed on Injured Reserve in November with a broken hand. In 2012, Bosworth played in all 16 games. He started five games but was later benched. He finished 2012 with 37 tackles and one interception.

Bosworth is smart, hard-working, and versatile – he can play all three linebacking spots. However, despite having decent size, strength, and some speed, Bosworth is a limited athlete who struggles in space. Bosworth is a very good special teams player and that – combined with his versatility and intelligence – may give him a leg up in the competition for backup spots.

“We felt like he would make a nice fit as a linebacker and a special-teamer,” said Coughlin after Bosworth was signed.

“I can definitely play all the (linebacker) positions,” Bosworth said. “I’ve still got to do a lot of learning in the playbook, but I’m able to fit in with the (weakside, middle, and strongside linebacker). I’m very versatile. I’ve played and started. I’ve been on every single special team, so basically wherever they need me I’ll be able to do it. Whatever they ask and I’ll be ready to go.”

Jake Muasau: Muasau was originally signed by the Giants as a rookie free agent after the May 2012 rookie mini-camp. The Giants waived him in late August, but decided to give him another shot in training camp this year and re-signed him in January 2013. Muasau was voted Georgia State University’s most valuable defensive player by his teammates in 2010 and 2011 when he played the “bandit” DE/LB hybrid position. Muasau has good size and plays with good intensity.

Etienne Sabino: Sabino was signed by the Giants as a rookie free agent after the 2013 NFL Draft. Sabino was a highly-recruited high school linebacker who had a disappointing overall career at Ohio State, but he started to come on as a senior despite breaking his leg. He could project to either middle or outside linebacker. Sabino is a well-built athlete with good agility, quickness, and speed. He flashes ability to run-and-hit as well as take-on-and-shed. There are conflicting scouting reports on his instincts. Sabino should do well on special teams. He supposedly has good intangibles – mature and coachable.

Summary: The starters heading into training camp are Rivers, Herzlich, and Paysinger. But they will be challenged by Curry, Connor, and Williams. It will be interesting to see if there are three viable starters and play-makers within this group, and if the three new starters can integrate themselves with each other and the other eight members of the defense quickly. Not many teams completely revamp their starting linebacking corps in one offseason. For a defense that finished 31st in 2012 and was equally bad against the run and the pass, it is imperative that the linebacking play improve.

May 282013
 
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Kris Adams, New York Giants (May 22, 2013)

WR Kris Adams – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Offseason Breakdown: New York Giants Wide Receivers (Part II)

In Part I, we covered the three New York Giants wide receivers who are likely to make the team behind stalwarts Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, namely Rueben Randle, Jerrel Jernigan, and Louis Murphy. Now we’ll turn our focus to the remaining five challengers: Ramses Barden, Brandon Collins, Kevin Hardy, Kris Adams, and Jeremy Horne.

It is not set in stone how many wide receivers the New York Giants will carry on the 53-man roster. But the team usually keeps six. That might be harder to do this year if the Giants keep three quarterbacks. Nevertheless, for now, let’s assume the Giants keep six. That means barring injury or something unforeseen, Barden, Collins, Hardy, Adams, and Horne will be fighting for one roster spot. It’s easy to dismiss the relevance of the sixth receiver. But just keep in mind that Victor Cruz was once considered “camp fodder” too.

Ramses Barden:

Drafted in 3rd round of the 2009 NFL Draft, Ramses Barden has been a disappointment. In four seasons, Barden has only had 29 receptions for 394 yards and no touchdowns. His best game as a pro came in Week 3 of the 2012 season, when he started against the Panthers and caught nine passes for 138 yards. But he only had five catches the rest of the season.

So why was Barden re-signed by the Giants? For one, you need bodies in camp to throw to, and the Giants usually carry at least 10 wide receivers heading into camp. Secondly, Barden knows the offense. If someone gets hurt and can’t play, it’s easier for him to come in and contribute more quickly because of that. Third, Barden does have some talent. He is a huge receiver (6-6, 224lbs) with long arms and decent athleticism. He has flashed as a player on the practice field and in regular-season games.

But for some reason, Barden simply hasn’t been able to be consistent contributor once the games count. He’s only been on the active regular-season roster 29 times in 64 chances. Some of that is due to injuries, but Barden also has never stood out as a special teams performer. It’s very tough to activate your fifth or sixth receiver on game day if he doesn’t contribute on special teams. In addition, as a receiver, Barden lacks ideal speed and quickness, and appears to have difficulty separating from tight, aggressive coverage, especially off of the line of scrimmage. Most importantly, with the exception of Week 3 in 2012, Barden simply has not consistently delivered on the playing field.

Barden will have to fight to make the 2013 team. He has a decent chance to make it if none of the other wide receivers impress because, again, he knows the system and therefore would be a good insurance policy if someone gets hurt. Even if he makes it, however, unless he dramatically improves or someone gets hurt, he’ll likely be inactive for most games once again.

Brandon Collins:

Brandon Collins lacks ideal size (5-11, 180lbs) but he has very good speed (4.4) and quickness. Collins also has collegiate experience returning punts.

The Giants originally signed Brandon Collins as a rookie free agent after he impressed at the May 2012 rookie mini-camp. Collins stood out again a month later at the full-team mini-camp in June 2012. “I think Brandon Collins has looked really, really impressive in practices,” said Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride. “That has been fun to see, because I didn’t know much about him…I have seen better quickness than anything…more quickness than speed. Good speed, great quickness, but also picking up the offense pretty quick.”

Raised expectations fizzled out shortly thereafter as Collins did not have a catch in the first three preseason games and was waived before the last preseason contest. He spent some time on the Giants’ Practice Squad in September but was not with the team for most of the season. Nevertheless, it appears that the Giants saw enough in Collins to bring him back for one more go-around as they re-signed him in January.

Kevin Hardy:

Kevin Hardy was originally signed by the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2012 NFL Draft. The Saints waived him in August 2012. The Giants signed him in January 2013. Hardy has ordinary size (6-0, 182lbs), but he has very good speed (4.4 range) and leaping ability (37 inch vertical). He also has collegiate experience as a kickoff returner. Hardy is very raw, having played in a college offense at the Citadel that only threw the ball 75 times his senior season. Hardy only had four catches for 53 yards and one touchdown in 2011.

Kris Adams:

Kris Adams was originally signed by the Chicago Bears and an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2011 NFL Draft. He did not make the team but spent time on the Practice Squads of the Bears, Rams, and Vikings in 2011. The Colts signed him in June 2012. Adams impressed in offseason workouts and caught five passes for 90 yards for Indianapolis in the preseason. He made the team and caught two passes for 26 yards in September, but the Colts then moved Adams to the Practice Squad in October. The Giants signed Adams in January 2013.

Adams has a nice combination of size (6-3, 194lbs) and athletic ability (4.4-range in the 40, 39.5 vertical jump, 6.97 3-cone), but he needs a lot of technique work, especially with his route running. Nevertheless, Adams has demonstrated an ability to threaten defenses down the field with his speed. Although he is capable of the circus catch, he needs to become more consistent catching the football. Adams has not stood on on special teams at the pro level.

Jeremy Horne:

The Giants signed Jeremy Horne in May 2013 after he impressed at the rookie mini-camp as tryout player. Indeed, Horne convinced the Giants to waive very talented undrafted rookie free agent WR Marcus Davis out of Virginia Tech, deciding to swallow the $15,000 signing bonus they gave Davis.

Horne played at the University of Massachusetts with Victor Cruz and was considered by some to be the better NFL prospect. Horne was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Kansas City Chiefs after the 2010 NFL Draft. Horne spent time on both the Chiefs’ practice squad and 53-man roster until he was finally released in August 2012. He has only played in 12 games with no catches. Horne has good size (6-2, 193lbs) and athletic ability (4.4 speed). He also has experience returning kickoffs.

“This guy’s a young player that has a certain skill set that is unique at times,” said former Chiefs’ Head Coach Todd Haley.

(Warning: Explicit Lyrics)

On the surface, these five do not look like an overly impressive group. One gets the strong impression that Barden only came back to the Giants when the other 31 teams in the NFL expressed little interest. Collins was waived by the Giants last year and Hardy, Adams, and Horne have been waived by other teams. Yet the Giants have seen enough in each to at least give all five a legitimate shot at a spot on the 53-man roster. And they liked these five over any other available undrafted rookies. Will any one of these five players make a strong impression at training camp and the preseason? Special teams play could be the determining factor.

May 242013
 
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Rueben Randle, New York Giants (November 25, 2012)

Rueben Randle – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Offseason Breakdown: New York Giants Wide Receivers (Part I)

Everyone knows that the New York Giants two studs at wide receiver are Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. But there has been a changing of the guard behind these two each of the last two seasons. In 2011, the #3 receiver on this team was Mario Manningham. That season, Manningham had 39 receptions behind Cruz (82 catches) and Nicks (76 catches). In 2012, Cruz (86 catches) and Nicks (53 catches) still led the way again despite Nicks’ injury woes. Interestingly, Domenik Hixon had the same number of receptions as the #3 receiver as did Manningham the year before with 39.

Manningham (free agent to 49ers in 2012) and Hixon (free agent to Panthers in 2013) are gone. The leading contenders to replace Hixon as the #3 wideout are Rueben Randle, Jerrel Jernigan, and Louis Murphy.

Rueben Randle:

Randle, the team’s second-round draft pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, is probably the favorite to win the job. Randle had only 19 receptions for 298 yards and three touchdowns his rookie season. His best games were against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5 (six catches for 82 yards) and the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 17 (four catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns). But Randle, who just turned 22 in May, has an excellent combination of size, athletic ability, and hands. Randle is not a burner, but he is fluid and smooth with just enough speed to threaten a defense vertically down the field. In that regard, he’s similar to Nicks. Like most young players, Randle needs to continue to improve his route-running and realize that professional football is indeed a serious business that requires a heightened level of commitment.

With Nicks recovering from offseason arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, Randle has been getting work with the first team.

“It’s a lot better to get a feel for how things are going to be,” Randle said of lining up with the first team. “You get on the same page with Eli, so it’s a fun thing. But also it’s work. You’ve got to continue to go out there and get better and just do the best you can. I’m a lot better than where I was last year. I’m a lot more comfortable with what I have to do and understanding the offense. I’m out there playing a lot faster and making a lot more plays.”

Jerrel Jernigan:

With Cruz still unsigned, Jerrel Jernigan has also been getting reps with the first team. Jernigan was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Giants. Because Jernigan is diminutive in size (5-8, 189lbs) and has been unproductive in his first two seasons (three catches total), he has drawn unfavorable comparisons by Giants fans to a previous draft bust, Sinorice Moss. Jernigan does lack size, but he is a quick, fluid athlete. In college, Jernigan was an extremely productive receiver who was dangerous with the football after the catch.

Jerngian’s development may have been hampered by his college offense at Troy. Receivers in spread offenses usually do not run the full route tree so it was a much bigger mental jump for Jerngian than it was for Randle. Regardless, the Giants are expecting Jernigan to step it up in 2013. Right now, he’s the number one back-up in the slot position behind Cruz.

“I’m looking forward to seeing Jerrel Jernigan and what he can do inside,” said Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride this month. “I think it’s about time that he steps up and I think we feel he has enough ability and he’s been here now long enough. Until Victor (Cruz) gets back, he’ll be the main guy inside at the slot position. It’s a chance for him to shine and step forward and do the things that we believe he can do…It’s going to be a great opportunity for him.”

“Jerrel’s also got to be able to help us,” said QB Eli Manning. “He has speed, he has skills, been in the system now a number of years so hopefully he can step up and fill a role for us.”

“I’ve been here three years,” said Jernigan. “I know the offense and it’s time for me to go out there and make some plays and contribute to my team… My confidence is always high. I never get down on myself. No matter what any article says, I still know what I can do.”

Louis Murphy:

Louis Murphy was signed by the Giants as an unrestricted free agent from the Carolina Panthers in March 2013. Murphy was originally drafted in the 4th round of the NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders traded Murphy to the Panthers in July 2012. In four NFL seasons, Murphy has played in 57 games with 24 starts. In 2012, Murphy played in all 16 games with five starts with the Panthers. He finished the season with 25 catches for 336 yards and one touchdown.

Murphy has good size for a receiver (6-2, 200lbs) and he is a deep threat with very good speed. The knock on him has been his inconsistent hands.

“I think he’s gonna add another dimension to our offense,” said General Manager Jerry Reese back in March. “We have a scout named Jeremiah Davis and he talks about guys being a knife. This guy is a knife. This guy can take the top off your defense. He’s an interesting guy. He gives us a different dimension in our offense. If we have the same guys, if we have Nicks back healthy and we have Cruz back this guy gives you a deep threat that we haven’t had. We haven’t had a guy who can run like this guy.”

In the first Organized Team Activity (OTA) practice, Murphy showed off that speed by getting behind the defense and catching a 50-yard touchdown pass from Manning. “That’s what I like to do,” said Murphy. “I can do a lot of things. I can go inside, play outside. I can do it all. But they do like to stretch the field and I like doing that.”

Barring injury or the unforeseen, Randle, Jernigan, and Murphy should all make the 53-man roster. But which of the three is going to see the most playing time during the 2013 regular season? The competition for the #3 spot has already begun and will reach its climax in training camp and the preseason in August.

(Part II of the wide receiver preview will focus on Ramses Barden, Brandon Collins, Kevin Hardy, Kris Adams, and Jeremy Horne).

May 202013
 
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Corey Webster (23), Kenny Phillips (21), Justin Tuck (91), New York Giants (September 5, 2012)

Corey Webster, Kenny Phillips, and Justin Tuck – © USA TODAY Sports Images

The State of the New York Giants Defense

Memories are often short for NFL fans. The long offseason, with excitement of numerous roster subtractions and additions, can overshadow recent failure. It’s an exciting time for fans, but it is important to remember that the ultimate goal is not to make noise in the offseason, but to make noise on the playing field when the games count.

Aside from a six-game stretch at the end of the 2011 season, the New York Giants defense has been putrid for the last two seasons. It was 27th in yards allowed in 2011 and 31st in yards allowed in 2012. It has had trouble stopping the run (25th in 2012) and the pass (28th in 2012). Indeed, if it were not for 35 takeaways (2nd in the NFL), the defensive stats, including scoring defense (12th in 2012), would surely have been much worse. Personally, I never think it is wise to count on being a league leader in takeaways. Too much luck is involved.

For better or worse, many of core defensive players are now gone: DE Osi Umenyiora, DT Chris Canty, LB Michael Boley, LB Chase Blackburn, and S Kenny Phillips. DT Rocky Bernard also will not be re-signed.

New faces include veteran free agents DT Cullen Jenkins, DT Mike Patterson, DT Frank Okam, LB Dan Connor, LB Aaron Curry, and S Ryan Mundy – all but Jenkins signed to only 1-year contracts. Also added to the mix were rookie draft picks DT Johnathan Hankins, DE Damontre Moore, and S Cooper Taylor.

There still may be a move or two, but the roster heading into camp is largely set. More tweaking could occur in late August and early September when teams make their final cuts.

Obviously, there has been a lot of change. But will change lead to improved results on the playing field both in the short-term and medium-term? Has the talent actually improved? Moving beyond 2013, key veteran holdovers such as DE Justin Tuck, CB Corey Webster, and S Antrel Rolle are aging and taking up too much salary cap space. DT Linval Joseph will be a free agent and DE Jason Pierre-Paul will want a new contract soon. Who will the front office and coaching staff determine to be the core defensive players to build around on this team moving forward? Who will be the defensive leaders? Can Defensive Coordinator Perry Fewell restructure the various moving parts into an effective, cohesive unit in 2013 and beyond? Yes, there is change in every offseason, but there is a pretty significant changing of the guard on defense. Can it all come together quickly?

Defensive Line: Except for Pierre-Paul’s play in 2011 and late season flashes from everyone else that same season, this unit has largely lived off its reputation rather than consistent play on the football field. And because of that, gone are Umenyiora, Canty, and Bernard. Tuck could be next in 2014.

On paper, the defensive line is still the strongest position on defense. There are 16 bodies present and all of them have talent. The Giants will probably keep five defensive ends and the sure bets are Tuck, Pierre-Paul, Mathias Kiwanuka, and Damontre Moore. But Adrian Tracy, Adewale Ojomo, Justin Trattou, and Matt Broha have all flashed as players. Based on early impressions, it appears that Tuck is reinvigorated to have a big season, if for no other reason than his next contract with the Giants or another team. But he has been physically beat-up and quite moody in recent years. JPP also needs to rebound from a sackless second half if he wants a big-money contract. Kiwanuka should move back to his more natural position with something to prove as well. Moore has exciting potential, but he needs a lot of work in the weight room. If the Giants think Tuck is likely to depart in 2014, can they find a way to hold onto six defensive ends this year?

The Giants added a lot of new bodies at defensive tackle. Due to injuries and declining play, this was necessary. Linval Joseph returns. He has a lot of talent but he needs to be more effectively consistent on the playing field. Cullen Jenkins should add veteran leadership and a pass rush presence. Johnathan Hankins is the type of stout, double team-eating nose tackle that this team has lacked. That leaves one or two spots for Mike Patterson, Shaun Rogers, Markus Kuhn, Marvin Austin, and Frank Okam. Austin is the three-technique, pass rusher of the group. Rogers and Okam are huge nose tackle types. Patterson and Kuhn offer flexibility and can play the run. Moving forward past 2013, if the Giants can re-sign Joseph (a big if), then the Giants will be in good shape with him and Hankins. The real wild card is Austin. Is he a bust or can he become the player the Giants hoped he would when they drafted him in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft?

Linebacker: Most Giants’ fans seemed to be more concerned with this position than any other. For quite some time, the Giants have rarely addressed this spot high in the draft (with the exception of Clint Sintim). The team has been more proactive in free agency with additions such as Michael Barrow, Antonio Pierce, and Michael Boley to name a few. The same pattern continued this offseason. The Giants did not draft a linebacker but added Dan Connor and Aaron Curry in free agency. They also re-signed Keith Rivers.

This position is the most unsettled on the team despite the fact there are only eight linebackers on the current roster and it is conceivable that the Giants could only carry six heading into the regular season. There is little stability right now. Not only is there no sure starter at any of the three spots, but five of the eight players will see their contracts expire after the 2013 season. Dan Connor is probably the favorite to start in the middle, but he could be challenged there by Aaron Curry or Mark Herzlich. Curry will also vie for one of the outside spots along with Rivers, Jacquian Williams, and Spencer Paysinger. Long shots include Jake Muasau who was with the Giants in camp last year and rookie free agent Etienne Sabino.

One wonders how much the Giants will actually use three linebackers on the field. Obviously, a three-linebacker set will be their base defense. And one would think that having more linebackers on the field would be a good thing against a run-centric team like the Washington Redskins. But Perry Fewell and many other defensive coordinators are using more nickel-type defenses in today’s passing league, and Fewell, in particular, favors the three-safety look.

Rivers has talent, but he can’t seem to stay healthy. Williams can run like a deer, but is he physical enough? Paysinger has been working like a dog this offseason to get his shot. But both he and Herzlich need to prove they are more than just special teams players. The real wild cards are Connor and Curry – two highly-touted collegiate prospects who have had their ups and downs in the NFL, each with two different teams.

Defensive Back: It’s not the linebacker position that worries me the most, but cornerback. This was the position I was more shocked the Giants did not address in the draft. On paper, the Giants look deep and talented with Corey Webster, Prince Amukamara, Terrell Thomas, Jayron Hosley, and Aaron Ross. But Webster and Ross are over 30 and obviously on the downside of their respective careers. Thomas is coming off his third ACL tear on the same knee. If Webster rebounds from a bad 2012, if Thomas’ knee holds up and his overall athleticism hasn’t suffered, and if Ross can serve as a steady backup, then the Giants should be in good shape. But those are all huge “ifs”. Things could get really ugly if the answers to those questions are negative. Moreover, the Giants need Prince Amukamara to build upon a decent 2012 with a better 2013. And they desperately need Jayron Hosley to improve; he struggled quite a bit as a nickel corner in 2012.

Is there any potential gem in the other unknown cornerback candidates? Terrence Frederick, Laron Scott, Trumaine McBride, Charles James, and Junior Mertile are all vying for a spot on the 53-man roster.

Safety is more settled, but the Giants will be without Kenny Phillips. It’s hard to envision Stevie Brown duplicating his 8-interception season again in 2013, but we shall see. Rolle is steady and athletic, but he does not make many plays on the football and his cap number may become untenable in 2014. Will Hill flashed a great deal of promise and the Giants drafted Cooper Taylor. Ryan Mundy is a veteran free agent addition, but he was often viewed as a liability in coverage in Pittsburgh. Tyler Sash has not demonstrated anything more than special teams ability and may be on the hot seat. Veteran David Cardwell and rookie free agents Alonzo Tweedy and John Stevenson are the long shots.

Summary: So there has been a great deal of change. But will these changes improve their dreadful defensive rankings? There is talent on the defensive line, but it has to stop living off its reputation. Everything seems to be in a state of flux at linebacker. Are there three quality starters in that group? In the secondary, much depends on the questions surrounding the cornerback spot. Can Webster rebound? Can Thomas come back healthy and strong? Will Amukamara prove to be worthy of a #1 pick?

And can Perry Fewell and his defensive staff successfully mold together all of these changing and evolving parts into a cohesive, aggressive, and physical defense?

The Giants’ 2013 season probably depends on it.

Jul 132012
 
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New York Giants and the National Sports Media

Watching the football media experts on The NFL Network and ESPN this offseason makes me feel like Mugatu in the film Zoolander. Most commentators say the New York Giants barely made the playoffs last year, have lost more than they have gained this offseason, and will be hard-pressed to fend off the dramatically-improved Eagles, Cowboys, and Redskins.

But what these critics seem to completely ignore:

•    Continuity is a strength, not a liability.
•    The Giants have the game’s best quarterback.
•    The Giants have the game’s best up-and-coming defender.
•    The Giants have one of the game’s best coaching staffs.
•    The defense will be dramatically better in 2012.
•    The running game will be dramatically better in 2012.
•    The Giants are getting significant reinforcements through the return of injured players and what looks to be a very strong rookie draft class.
•    Despite all of the problems last year (injuries, inexperience, weak running game and defense for most of the season), the Giants still won the NFC East, swept aside all of the best teams in the playoffs, and won the Super Bowl.

But there is no discussion about these facts by the critics.

“Doesn’t anyone notice this? I feel like I am taking crazy pills!” – Mugatu

I’ll say right now, barring significant injuries, this may be the most talented Giants team since 1986. Some seem to forget how strong the 2008 New York Giants were before Plaxico shot himself and injuries wore down the defensive line. That team was cruising for a repeat Championship, having beaten both eventual Super Bowl participants in their home stadiums. Even though most of the players from that team are no longer on the Giants, I get the sense that Tom Coughlin, Eli Manning, and Justin Tuck know what it takes to repeat that impressive regular-season performance and this time finish the deal in the playoffs. Most importantly, the 2012 Giants are a stronger team than the 2008 Giants at almost every position.

To be clear, what I am saying is this – I think the Giants have a good chance to be the NFL’s dominant team from start to finish in 2012. I’m sure the Packers, 49ers, Saints, and Patriots may have something to say about that. And the NFC East will be a lot tougher. But this is a DAMN GOOD Giants team and it’s remarkable that the “experts” don’t seem to recognize it.

Quarterback: Taking into account both the regular season and playoffs, Eli Manning was the best quarterback in football last season and the League’s MVP. Without Eli, the Giants were probably a 4-12 team at best. Now the same could be said of Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, but in the playoffs, Rodgers’ performance against the Giants cost his team dearly and Brady’s performance against the Ravens should have done the same.

Eli is the best not only because he puts up big numbers (over 13,000 yards in the last three seasons), but because the entire team has subconsciously adopted his calming personality. So has the fan base. Giants fans were inexplicably optimistic heading into the playoffs last year. Why? It wasn’t because of the 32nd ranked running game or 27th ranked defense. Whether you want to admit to it or not, it was because of Eli. Eli doesn’t shy away from pressure. He thrives on it. Fourth-quarter comebacks and dramatic wins have become so common with Eli at the helm that we now expect it. I hope Giants fans recognize the greatness they are watching.

Eli’s critics say he is inconsistent. Again, I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Eli is the model of consistency. He has improved every season and his upward trending performance is as linear as it gets. Eli may actually be the game’s most consistent performer, especially when it matters the most. With the game on the line, I wouldn’t want any other quarterback.

Wide Receivers: The story is so remarkable that it seems surreal. In one season, Victor Cruz went from an undrafted rookie free agent who spent his first season on IR with no catches to the most productive single-season receiver in the 87 year history of the franchise. Despite the fact that he is only 25 years old and will be entering only his second full season, Cruz may be the game’s most dangerous slot receiver. And the odds are that he is going to get even better.

As good as Cruz is, Hakeem Nicks may be the better receiver and definitely should be considered one of the game’s best. He just turned 24.

The Giants will miss Mario Manningham unless someone else steps up. Manningham made a number of huge plays for the Giants, especially in the playoffs. But he also never seemed to be quite on the same page with Eli at all times. Contrary to their nature, Giants’ coaches were practically gushing about Rueben Randle ever since the rookie mini-camp. Randle has the ability to make the Giants’ receiving corps even stronger than it was in 2011.

And don’t completely discount Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden, and Jerrel Jernigan. Coughlin and Eli both seem to respect Hixon a ton. It’s now or never for Barden. And Jernigan will have a much better understanding of the Giants’ system. Throw into that mix, rookie Brandon Collins who Kevin Gilbride seems very high on and Dan DePalma, who supposedly has impressed his teammates with his ability. It’s a very strong group. Nicks and Cruz are Pro Bowl talents. If Randle develops as hoped, it may be the best in the League.

Running Backs: The Giants were 32nd in rushing last year. There is no way in hell that a Tom Coughlin-coached team is going to be at the bottom of rushing figures for two years in a row. On the contrary, it is far more likely that the Giants will be one of the stronger rushing teams given Coughlin’s emphasis on the ground game.

For all of the grief that the offensive line gets for the lack of productivity in the ground game, the running backs deserve much of the blame. Due to a foot problem, Ahmad Bradshaw started only nine regular-season games and missed most of the practices. That lack of practice time affected his performance. Brandon Jacobs played well in 2-3 games, but was ordinary or worse in the rest of the contests. D.J. Ware was just a guy.

Even before David Wilson was drafted, it was my belief that Ahmad Bradshaw was going to be on a mission to prove himself in 2012. The addition of Wilson only adds fuel to that fire. Bradshaw was a very tough runner in 2011, but I expect to see the return of that elusiveness that made him so dangerous. I also expect to see him become more of an emotional leader, replacing the void created by the departure of Brandon Jacobs.

That all said, the Giants may never have had a running back like David Wilson. “I don’t know if we have had a guy as explosive, regardless of the position, here,” said Kevin Gilbride last month. “The darting, the explosiveness and short bursts that you see with him. That is kind of exciting to see…Tiki (Barber) was a tremendous all-around back. But this guy has the kind of explosion that I’m not sure how many guys in the league have.”  (Keep in mind that Tiki Barber is the franchise’s all-time rushing leader).

Once the Giants trust Wilson’s pass protection enough for him to play regularly, he may elevate the Giants’ offense to a totally different level. What I love about the guy is not just his ability, but he seems to “get it.”  He is one focused player.

The competition doesn’t end there. Da’Rel Scott is a homerun threat every time he touches the football. Andre Brown flashed last preseason. And Joe Martinek is a jack-of-all-trades type who is going to be very hard to cut. I’ll be curious to see if the Giants try to use him as a short-yardage running back.

At fullback, look for Henry Hynoski to dramatically improve. He knows the system better and has added strength and muscle in the offseason.

Tight Ends: Here is one of the few question marks on the team. If Martellus Bennett is focused and his reputation as a strong blocker is accurate, then he will be a tremendous addition for improving the running game alone. So much of the Giants’ running game depends on the tight end block, something that was subpar much of 2011. Bennett is a big, strong guy who can block a defensive end. What we don’t know is if Bennett can provide the type of clutch-receiving performance that Jake Ballard gave the Giants in the first half of 2011 before he was injured.

Depth remains a concern. Bear Pascoe isn’t really the kind of guy you want starting and is more of a jack-of-all-trades type than feature tight end. Adrien Robinson may be big and athletic, but he is green as grass. Travis Beckum is coming off of an ACL injury. And who knows about Christian Hopkins, Ryan Purvis, and Larry Donnell?

Offensive Line: This is one area where the 2008 team was stronger. But I guarantee you that the 2012 offensive line will be much better than the 2011 version. For one, the interior trio is pretty much set. David Baas will be healthy and he showed late why the Giants signed him. Look for Chris Snee to rebound strongly from perhaps his worst season. And Kevin Boothe was a rock of consistency at guard last year. Those three give the Giants a big, strong, physical, nasty interior presence.

The questions are really at tackle. Will Beatty’s eye is supposedly no longer an issue, but he had back issues last year and those continued this offseason. The Giants don’t seem to be particularly worried about it, but big guys with back problems make me nervous. If Beatty is healthy, the Giants should be fine at left tackle. In his first season as starter, while there were some down moments, Beatty played pretty darn well in pass protection. He should improve with experience if he remains focused. On the right side, Kareem McKenzie faded pretty quickly in 2011 and was let go. David Diehl, who plays better at tackle than guard, will likely be the starter. He’ll see less athletic defensive players on that side and that should help his game. The Giants appear to be grooming James Brewer for a future starting position. He’s a huge man with good feet. Sean Locklear is the veteran insurance policy, but he may be pushed by Matt McCants.

For all the grief the line gets, it only gave up 28 sacks last year. With the interior trio solidified, the addition of Bennett, an improved Hynoski, and better play from the halfbacks, look for drastic improvement in the ground attack.

Defensive Line: In 2008, Michael Strahan retired and Osi Umenyiora missed the season with injury. Injuries to Justin Tuck and Fred Robbins really affected the line late in the year. Last season, Tuck was a shadow of himself for most of the season. Umenyiora missed half of the year. And Chris Canty and Linval Joseph were slowed with injuries that required offseason surgery. But the Giants had arguably the best all-around defensive end in football in Jason Pierre-Paul – the 23-year old Jason Pierre-Paul who has only started seven college and 12 NFL regular-season games. Coaches and players say the sky is the limit for JPP.

But keep in mind that if Tuck rebounds as many expect him to do, opposing offenses are going to have a real problem. Before last year, Tuck was the impact player up front. What if both Tuck and JPP are impact players in 2012? Add to that mix a much more content (pay raise) and healthy Osi Umenyiora who was a huge factor in the post-season run with his pass rush. And Osi will be exceptionally motivated to perform in his contract year. Dave Tollefson departs, but all that means is that Mathias Kiwanuka may see more snaps at defensive end (which is a good thing). The Giants have some young defensive ends who could surprise too – Justin Trattou, Adrian Tracy, Craig Marshall, Adewale Ojomo, and Matt Broha.

Inside, Chris Canty had his best year despite playing with a bum knee. People seem to forget that last year was Linval Joseph’s first year starting and that he got better each game despite a bad ankle injury. Marvin Austin hasn’t played football in two years, but he still may be the best pass-rushing defensive tackle on the team. The presence of Rocky Bernard, Shaun Rogers, Martin Parker, Dwayne Hendricks, and Markus Kuhn makes this an incredibly deep unit.

This is the most-talented and deepest defensive line in the NFL. The unit may also include the game’s best defensive player.

Linebackers: Stop bitching about the linebackers. This is deep and talented group. Last year, the unit was hurt by the preseason loss off Jonathan Goff for the year, missed time and effectiveness by Michael Boley due to injury in the middle of the season, and the inexperienced rookie class that was further set back by the lockout. Once Boley recovered and the Giants added a veteran presence in Chase Blackburn, things really turned around. Now everyone is healthy, the Giants added another player by trade, and the rookies are not pups anymore.

Michael Boley is one of the most underrated players on the team. His strength is pass coverage and that’s why most fans don’t notice him more. Mathias Kiwanuka is more comfortable than ever at weakside linebacker. And the journeyman Chase Blackburn made a huge impact during the stretch run last year. That all said, the guys behind the starters will be pushing hard for playing time. Perry Fewell has been raving about Keith Rivers, Mark Herzlich, and Jacquian Williams. All three will play in various sub-packages and don’t be shocked to see Herzlich win the starting spot in the middle. Rivers, Boley, and Williams give the Giants three extremely athletic linebackers who can cover a lot of ground. We may see less of the three safety package because of these three.

And even behind these guys there are others who have talent and should not be discounted. Spencer Paysinger, Greg Jones, and Jake Muasau can play in this league. Paysinger and Jones are good special teams players and Fewell likes Mausau as a potential middle linebacker.

This is the strongest and deepest group of linebackers the Giants have had in years.

Defensive Backs: At cornerback, Corey Webster is one of the NFL’s best, and he’s coming off one of his best seasons. A big question is how well will Terrell Thomas rebound from last year’s ACL injury? Before he was hurt, he looked primed for a breakout year. The Giants will likely once again use him as their slot corner in nickel packages as Thomas is a very physical player from that position as a coverman, blitzer, and tackler. If Thomas is slow to recover, the Giants will have plenty of options. Prince Amukamara’s foot problems should be behind him. He has a ton of talent. Michael Coe really impressed the coaches in practices this offseason and the team also appears pleased with Justin Tryon and Jayron Hosley. Then there are guys like Brandon Bing, Bruce Johnson, Antwaun Molden, Janzen Jackson, and Dante Hughes who could press for a roster spot.

If Thomas can return to form, Amukamara demonstrates why he was first round pick, and back-ups like Coe, Tryon, and Hosley continue to impress, then the Giants may have one of the better cornerback collections in the League.

At safety, Kenny Phillips’ athletic presence prevents most teams from testing the deep third of the Giants’ secondary. With the reinforcements at cornerback and linebacker, Antrel Rolle – another athletic performer – won’t be forced to play out of position at nickel corner in 2012. The Giants have high hopes for Tyler Sash. He may not be the most athletic guy, but he is a very smart, heady, and physical player. Keep an eye on both Stevie Brown and Will Hill. Both flashed in practices this offseason.

Special Teams: Funny what a year makes. In 2010, everyone wanted to run Tom Quinn out of town. The Giants got a legitimate NFL punter and dramatically improved in punt and kick coverage and the bitching stopped. One area that still needs improvement is the return game. Before his two ACL injuries, Domenik Hixon was a very dangerous punt and kickoff returner. Can he return to form? Or will someone else step up? The good news is that Giants are rock solid in the kicking game with Steve Weatherford, Lawrence Tynes, and Zak DeOssie. And there are a lot of young and hungry linebackers, defensive backs, and wide receivers on this team that should help on the coverage units.

Summary: Brandon Jacobs was not a big loss. Losing a healthy Jake Ballard hurts and we’ll have to see if Martellus Bennett and Adrien Robinson can fill the void. Mario Manningham might be a big loss, but not if the Giants’ faith in Domenik Hixon and Rueben Randle is validated. The biggest loss could be losing Quarterbacks Coach Mike Sullivan to the Buccaneers, but the otherwise, a very strong coaching staff returns remarkably intact.

I may or may not be taking crazy pills, but I’m definitely drinking the Kool-Aid. And it’s Blue…Giant Blue. This is a damn good team. It’s a much healthier and stronger version of the one that won the Super Bowl last year. The Giants will be better at almost every position, and at some positions, significantly so. Defensively alone, the Giants should improve from 27th to easily top 10. At worst, the Giants will be middle of the pack running the football. The fact that the “experts” can’t see that is mind-boggling.

The Giants are the best or near best in the NFL at quarterback, wide receiver, and defensive line. They have enviable talent and depth at many other positions.

Injuries can always derail a season, but the Giants have also won two recent Super Bowls despite being hit by significant injuries. If this team can stay somewhat healthy, watch out NFL.

Jul 272010
 
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Key Questions Heading into the 2010 New York Giants Training Camp

The New York Giants are at a crossroads. 2009 was supposed to be a continuation of nice little run that resulted in four straight seasons with playoff appearances, an NFL Championship in 2007, and the top-seated NFC playoff team in 2008. But after an impressive 5-0 start in 2009, the roof caved in as the Giants finished the next 11 games 3-8. And in actuality, the collapse even felt worse than that.

Despite the fact that the Giants swept Dallas in 2009, most predict the Cowboys will own the division in 2010. Some of these people think the Giants can finish as high as second in the division; others believe New York will have to fight to keep out of the division basement.

What we know for sure is that there are a lot more questions heading into 2010 than there were heading into 2009.

Can the Giants Stay Relatively Healthy? The early returns appear to be no. Training camp has not even started and the Giants have already been hit pretty hard. Domenik Hixon, a critical contributor on special teams, is gone for the season. Kevin Boothe, a versatile back-up lineman who could play all five offensive line spots and allowed the Giants to be comfortable carrying one less lineman on game day, will miss all of camp and the preseason. Chad Jones, the third-round pick who would have been a factor on special teams and possibly a future starter at safety, may have had his career end before it started. And this week we learned that Osi Umenyiora will have to play through a hip issue that has already caused him to miss non-contact practice time. The Giants say they will “manage” it, but they said the same thing about Kenny Phillips last year.

There is a direct correlation between team performance and a team’s overall injury situation in the NFL. A team that stays relatively healthy – especially among its core players – will likely be more successful than teams that do not. The Giants ran out of steam in 2008 when injuries started to pile up. Injuries were a huge factor in 2009. How will 2010 turn out? The defensive line has been injury prone the last couple of seasons. And the secondary, offensive line, and running back corp was the same way in 2009.

Does Coach Coughlin Still Command Respect? Three years removed from an NFL title, this sounds like an insane question. And it would be had the Giants not performed like they did in the final two games of the season. I think many fans have put out of their mind just how embarrassingly dreadful the last two games of the season were. The Giants were out-scored 85-16 and had not the Panthers and Vikings called off the dogs, both teams would have easily put more than 50 points up against the Giants. And the offense collapsed too. The team appeared to have lost its confidence and fight – and to many – it appeared that the effort was not there. “Quit” is a dangerous word but when a solid NFL team cannot even compete on the playing field, that word is sure to come up. Coach Coughlin certainly seemed to be at a loss. And the Giants followed up as bad a defeat in their entire history – the loss to Carolina in the final Giants’ game at Giants Stadium – with an equally atrocious effort against the Vikings. That was a damning indictment on Coughlin. He needs to regain control of this team and instill confidence, pride, and yes, fear, in it again. Fear of non-performance.

Was Perry Fewell the Right Hire? Tom Coughlin is batting 1-for-3 in terms of defensive coordinator hires. He won a Championship with Steve Spagnuolo but was forced to fire Tim Lewis and Bill Sheridan. Was Fewell the right hire? Only time will tell. Fewell had mixed success in Buffalo – his team was strong against the pass but not against the run.

Do the Giants Have a Viable Punter? C’mon, a punting question is the fourth most important question surrounding this team? I think it is. Football is a game of field position. Field position can help or hurt your offense and defense. 10 yards does not sound like a lot, but it is. It could mean the difference between a touchdown and a field goal, or a field goal and no points. A punter is critical. And right now, with Jeff Feagles gone and the restraints of an 80-man roster limit in training camp, the Giants’ punting game is in the hands of untested, inconsistent, green-as-grass Matt Dodge. Will the Giants have to pick up a veteran at the end of the preseason? Will there be a decent veteran available if that is the case?

Can the Giants Become One of the Better Running Teams in Football Again? Two years ago, the Giants had the #1 rushing attack in the NFL. Everyone was talking about the “Earth, Wind, and Fire” backfield and “the best offensive line in football.” A year later, many folks say the Giants’ running backs are an ordinary bunch who can’t stay healthy and that the once-vaunted offensive line is over-the-hill. In 2009, the Giants became less smash-mouth and more of a finesse, passing team. Obviously the Giants need to regain their physical offensive aspect. Much depends on the health and productivity of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. But the offensive line, fullback, and tight ends need to return to form and block better. They also need to stay healthy. Injuries were an issue with the offensive line and fullback last year too.

Will the Loser of the Umenyiora-Kiwanuka Competition Rock the Boat? Perhaps the most intense New York Giants training camp battle will be for the starting weakside end position. Umenyiora has done and said all the right things this offseason, but it is clear that he will be one upset camper if he is not designated the starter. Mathias Kiwanuka has publicly said he expects to start and will be very disappointed if he does not. Whoever loses this competition, will he be the good soldier and not rock the boat both behind the scenes and in public? An unhappy Umenyiora caused morale issues last season.

Will the Giants Be Able to Field a Decent Linebacking Corps? The Giants carried nine linebackers on their roster last year. NINE! And they all pretty much sucked. Michael Boley at least had a viable reason (injury) but the others did not. Two starters have been let go – Antonio Pierce and Danny Clark. And there have been three additions – Keith Bulluck, Phillip Dillard, and Adrian Tracy. The Giants hope and expect Boley to man the weakside spot. And they are praying Clint Sintim – who was a huge disappointment in 2009 – will do the same at the strongside spot. Unless he’s done physically, the aging Bulluck, who is also recovering from a December ACL injury, will likely man the middle. Can Boley, Bulluck, and Sintim get the job done?

Can Kenny Phillips Return and Play Like He Did Against Dallas? It’s funny that so much has been made of Kenny Phillips since the Giants lost him near the start of the 2009 NFL season. Why? Because, to be honest, Phillips has not made much of an impact in the first two years of his NFL career. He has only started five games in two years. And in the 18 games that he has played in, he has only really stood out in two. But one of those was the last game he played – the game against Dallas – and he was stellar in that contest. Much of the faith that has been placed on Phillips appears to be based on that game and his potential. He is a very good athlete who can cause problems for passing games if he is healthy – especially if he is combined with the equally athletic Antrel Rolle. If Phillips can play at a high level, the Giants will have turned an area of weakness to a real strength.

Can the Giants Find Productive Returners? The loss of Domenik Hixon was huge as he was a threat to score as a kickoff and punt returner. That’s a rare commodity. Now the Giants must find someone who can not only gain field position, but also safely secure the ball. Another option was lost when Chad Jones was lost for the season. The Giants may be forced to use someone like Mario Manningham, Ahmad Bradshaw, and/or Aaron Ross now. Pray it’s not Sinorice Moss.

Can the Giants Finish 2010 on the Upswing? Only once in Tom Coughlin’s tenure as head coach with the Giants have the Giants finished out a season on a strong note – and that was in 2007.  Strong starts were largely wasted or almost wasted down the stretch in 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2009. Coughlin is on the wrong side of a trend. Other than 2007, he’s 0-3 in playoff games.

So there you have a list of my personal key questions. I am not overly worried if the team can stay healthy. But due to recent historical experience, I do worry about the health situation. Let’s just pray the Giants have already hit their injury quota.

Jul 282009
 
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Key Questions Heading into the 2009 New York Giants Training Camp

The New York Giants are one of the very best teams in the NFL and have few question marks.  Under Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning, the Giants have a nice little run going.  In the past four seasons, the Giants have made the playoffs every single year and have earned two NFC East Division titles, one NFC Championship, and one NFL Championship.  Barring catastrophic injuries to key players, the Giants are likely to add to their laurels in 2009.  The Giants are a relatively young football team that should continue to get better as it matures.   This is a golden age of Giants football.

(1) Will Bill Sheridan Be a Good Defensive Coordinator?: It’s a major jump and transition from position coach to coordinator.  Many fail.  Bill Sheridan has worked under Tim Lewis and Steve Spagnuolo.  Coughlin made a mistake when he hired Lewis, but made a very good decision when he hired Spagnuolo.  How will this decision turn out?

(2) Can the Giants Avoid the Injury Bug?: No team in the NFL, including the Giants, can expect to reach the Super Bowl if key players miss significant time or are not as effective due to injury.  Serious injuries to Eli Manning, a starter on the offensive line, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, or Corey Webster could prove devastating.

(3) Will the Giants Peak at the Right Time?: In the 2007 season, the Giants were peaking at the right time; in 2008, they were not.  Now there are all kinds of explanations why they didn’t in 2008, but all that really matters is that they were not playing their best football in January.  The Giants will make the playoffs in 2009.  That’s not the issue.  It’s what they do once they get there that matters.   This team is now in the same category as the New England Patriots – anything less than another NFL title will be a disappointment.

(4) Are the Giants’ Young Receivers Good Enough?: There are two question marks surrounding the revamped receiving corps: (a) is there enough talent, and (b) is there enough experience?  Regarding the first issue, the Giants have enough talent in other areas of the roster to still win and make the playoffs with the current group of wide receivers.  But when January rolls around and the Giants face do-or-die, lose-and-you-are-eliminated situations against top defensive teams, will this group be good enough?  What if the Giants play the Eagles again in January?  Can these guys get open against their corners?  Will they deliver in the clutch in pressure-packed situations?  The other issue is even if these players are good enough to succeed in the NFL, are they good enough to succeed THIS season?  The Giants probably have THE most inexperienced group of wide receivers and tight ends in the NFL.  Guys like Kevin Boss and Steve Smith seem like they have been around for a while, but they have only played two seasons.  Domenik Hixon caught one NFL pass before last season.  Michael Matthews and Darcy Johnson have few NFL catches.  Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks, Travis Beckum, and Ramses Barden are very green.  How many bad passing plays will occur because a receiver didn’t run the right route or didn’t use the proper technique?  It will happen.  The question is how often?

(5) Can Adam Koets Handle Back-Up Center?: The Giants did not re-sign Grey Ruegamer.  It appears the team is high on Adam Koets as his replacement as a back-up center.  If he can handle the position, it would be a very good development as Koets would be a player who could handle tackle, guard, and center.  If Koets cannot handle the transition, the Giants would most likely be forced to move Rich Seubert or Chris Snee to center if Shaun O’Hara got hurt.

Five questions?  That’s it?  Well it is for me this year.  What about the linebackers you ask?  Or running back?  Or back-up offensive linemen?  The kicker?  I’m not worried.  The Giants defensive line and secondary is so good that they could, if necessary, cover up for a multitude of sins at linebacker, if that were the case.  But Michael Boley, who will miss training camp with a hip injury, will return and round into form when it matters most.  I look for a good year from Antonio Pierce.  Clint Sintim and Bryan Kehl will press for playing time.  Don’t forget about guys like Jonathan Goff and Chase Blackburn too.

Running back?  The Giants are loaded at the position.  It’s just a matter of how the touches are divvied up.  Back-up offensive line?  I’ve already mentioned the question of Koets at center.  I like Kevin Boothe at guard (he struggles more at tackle).  Guy Whimper has played well at tackle.  And the Giants drafted the talented William Beatty in the second round.  The Giants should be fine with Boothe, Whimper, Koets, and Beatty as long as Koets can handle center.  The kicker?  Lawrence Tynes gets too much grief.  He’s pretty solid.

Believe me, like the Yankees in their heyday, the question is not if the Giants make the playoffs, but what they do once they get there.  This is a very, very good football team.  There aren’t many potential trouble spots.  If Sheridan was a good choice (big if) and the team stays relatively healthy, the Giants are as good as anyone in the NFL.  They are strong on both lines and have a franchise quarterback and very good secondary.  They also have a rock of stability and knowledge in Tom Coughlin.  That’s as good as it gets.

Feb 252009
 
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New York Giants 2009 NFL Free Agency Preview: General Manager Jerry Reese says there are always good players available in free agency.  “There are always good players,” said Reese at the NFL Combine on February 21.  “You just have to look deep into what you need and what’s available. There are always people in free agency who can help you fill some holes in your roster.  Sometimes you have to look a little deeper.  It would be nice to get all the top guys, but that’s (not) really reality, so you have to look at the mid levels.  And you even have to bottom-feed sometimes in free agency.”

To me, it seems that each year there are fewer interesting players available.  Part of this is due to the fact that teams are doing a better job of retaining their own good players.  On top of that, the Franchise tag has been used more this year than ever before.  But also, the Giants’ talent level on their roster right now is very good.  If the Giants bottom feed, there is no guarantee that these players will even make the team or be significant contributors.  For example, last year the Giants signed players such as Danny Clark, Sammy Knight, Renaldo Wynn, Shane Olivea, David Carr, and Jonathan Palmer.  The one starter out of that group – Clark – was just OK.  Wynn was an unexciting reserve who may not be re-signed.  Knight rarely played and was just cut.  Olivea and Palmer did not make the team.  Carr has been re-signed as Eli’s primary back-up.  My point?  Don’t get your hopes up!

Quarterback: With David Carr re-signed, the Giants already have an experienced veteran behind Manning.  The Giants will not likely add another veteran here though they could re-sign Anthony Wright to compete for the #3 job with Andre Woodson and possibly another draft pick.

Wide Receivers: With Plaxico Burress’ future with the team very much in doubt and Amani Toomer’s days in New York most likely over, this obviously is one of the chief areas of concern for the Giants.  I think the Giants hold Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith in high regard and both are still just scratching the surface of their potential.  It remains to be seen if Mario Manningham can mentally adjust to the pro game.  Sinorice Moss was rumored to be on the trading block last year.  David Tyree is a 4th/5th-type of receiver.  The Giants will undoubtedly draft a wide receiver or two.  But rookie wideouts don’t usually make a big impact.  So the Giants probably will look at free agents and possibly a trade.  The problem is there is not much out there in free agency.  T.J. Houshmandzadeh (Bengals) will be 32 years old in September, is not really a vertical threat, and will likely be in high demand.  The Giants may be better off looking at a guy like Nate Washington (Steelers).  He’s inconsistent, but he is fast.  He’s also young (turns 26 in August) and improving.  Devery Henderson (Saints) is inconsistent, but he can also get down the field.  The Giants could also take a chance on someone like Miles Austin (Cowboys) or Hank Baskett (Eagles).  Both have size, speed, and special teams return ability.  (Late Update: The Jets also released Laveranues Coles. Although he is past 30 and not the vertical threat the Giants need, he may be someone the Giants consider if they want a veteran presence).

Running Backs: No quality fullback will want to sign with the Giants with Madison Hedgecock firmly entrenched as the starter.  Brandon Jacobs was franchised and will be back (Late Update: Jacobs was re-signed to a 4-year, $25 million deal).  Derrick Ward will hit the open market and is not likely to return.  That said, the Giants are in good shape with Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw and Danny Ware.  It is possible that the Giants could sign a second-tier veteran to compete with Bradshaw and Ware.

Tight Ends: The Giants have a decent group of tight ends in Kevin Boss, Darcy Johnson, and Michael Matthews.  But if Boss were to go down, the Giants might be in trouble.  Adding another tight end in free agency or the draft is certainly a possibility.  However, there are not many interesting guys available in free agency at tight end.  If the Giants want to consider an older veteran, they may look at someone like the versatile Jim Kleinsasser (Vikings).

Offensive Line: The starting five is one of the best offensive lines in football and all are signed through at least 2011.  The question is one of depth.  What do the Giants truly think about Guy Whimper, Adam Koets, and Kevin Boothe?  Will an attempt be made to re-sign Grey Ruegamer or will the Giants look to add a younger veteran?  Obviously a top-tier player will not likely be the focus here.

Defensive Ends: The Giants are in great shape with Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, and Mathias Kiwanuka.  Adding a fourth defensive end to compete with Dave Tollefson and Robert Henderson would be ideal, but that person will likely come in the draft.

Defensive Tackle: The Giants are in good shape here as long as Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins recover well from offseason knee scopes.  Jay Alford is a quality reserve.  What would make the Giants’ defensive line truly outstanding would be adding a player like Albert Haynesworth (Titans).  But he is likely far out of the Giants’ price range.  Shaun Cody (Lions) has been a disappointment in Detroit, but he could do better with a change of scenery.  The Giants could also look at some 3-4 ends who could play in the 4-3 at tackle such as Chris Canty (Cowboys), Igor Olshanksy (Chargers), and Stephen Bowen (Cowboys).

Linebackers: The Giants need more speed and athleticism here.  Bryan Kehl probably has a future at the weakside spot.  Antonio Pierce will likely remain the starter for at least one more year inside, but the Giants do like Jonathan Goff behind him.  Still, more bodies are needed.  Look for the Giants to draft at least one linebacker, possibly two.  As for free agents, the team could look at Jonathan Vilma (Saints), Channing Crowder (Dolphins), Napoleon Harris (Vikings), Kevin Burnett (Cowboys), or Marcus Washington (recently cut by Redskins).  (Late Update: Crowder was re-signed by the Dolphins).

Cornerbacks: The Giants are in very good shape at cornerback with Corey Webster, Aaron Ross, Kevin Dockery (protected with 2nd round tender), and Terrell Thomas.  Look for the Giants to draft a corner to replace Dockery in 2010.

Safeties: The Giants have solid starters in Kenny Phillips and Michael Johnson, but no depth if James Butler departs as is quite possible.  Additional bodies will have to be acquired either through the draft or free agency.  The Giants could look at back-up type who is also a special teams stud like Sean Considine (Eagles).

Kickers: Jeff Feagles and Lawrence Tynes are likely to be the kickers in 2009.