Key Questions Heading into the 1996 New York Giants Training Camp
What a difference one year makes! At this time last year, Giants’ fans everywhere were looking forward to having their team challenge the 49ers and Cowboys for supremacy in the NFC. One year later, after a hugely disappointing 5-11 season, the Giants have gone back to the drawing board and are clearly in the midst of a full-blown youth movement. Nevertheless, this team is not devoid of talent and the Giants have a solid foundation of players at a number of key positions to work with. Given the general level of parity and mediocrity in the NFC (aside from a few teams), if the Giants remain healthy and catch a few breaks, it is not inconceivable that they could garner a NFC Wildcard berth. However, in order to do so, the Giants must come up with positive answers to a number of key questions:
(1) Can the talented, but young offensive line come together quickly? The Giants have completely revamped this unit from a couple of years ago. Gone are stalwarts such as Jumbo Elliott, Doug Riesenberg, Bart Oates, and William Roberts. Yet the Giants SEEM to have done a very nice job in replacing these veterans with talented, young players such as OG/OT Ron Stone, OT Scott Gragg, OG Rob Zatechka, and OT Roman Oben. Also factoring into the mix are OC Brian Williams, OT Greg Bishop, OG Scott Davis, OG Derek Allen, OT Jerry Reynolds, OC/OG Adam Schreiber, OG Lance Smith, OG Chris Kennedy, OG Ken Dammann, and OC Jason Stinson. While one key question is where is everyone going to play, the big question is can whatever group that eventually starts come together quickly and play well? The odds are not good. Most lines take a couple of years to come together. It takes time for offensive linemen to become comfortable with blocking schemes, their role in those schemes, and most importantly, the players around them. Moreover, while the talent appears to be there, these guys are mostly young and inexperienced — especially at the all-important tackle positions. Can Bishop handle premiere pass-rushers such as Charles Haley and Simeon Rice one-on-one? Can Scott Gragg adjust from playing at the pass-happy University of Montana to the run-oriented New York Giants in two years given the fact that he missed virtually all of last preseason? Are Ron Stone, Rob Zatechka, and Scott Davis ready to handle the Eric Swann’s and Leon Lett’s of this world? Without a doubt, there will be some rough moments, especially early on in the season. Dave Brown and Rodney Hampton may want to increase their medical insurance.
(2) Are any of the WR’s on the current roster capable of scaring opposing defenses? The Giants haven’t had a Pro Bowl WR since Homer Jones back in 1967 — almost 30 years! Thomas Lewis has been hurt most of his short, 2-year career. But based on performances against the Bears in the preseason in 1994 and against the Eagles in the regular season in 1995, he appears to possess a great deal of talent. Lewis has the speed, moves, acceleration, and hands to become a very good WR. In college, he dominated a number of games against some very good teams such as Penn State. The big questions are his route running, intensity, and confidence level. The Giants (i.e., Dan Reeves) must give him every opportunity to prove himself this year. The Giants simply cannot afford to go into the 1997 season without finding out what kind of WR Lewis is in 1996. If Lewis can’t do it, maybe 1996 2nd round pick Amani Toomer can. Toomer was impressive in the Giants’ mini-camp and passing camp and has size, speed, and excellent athletic-ability. His biggest negatives are his route-running and concentration level. If Toomer and Lewis can come on, the Giants may finally have found some weapons to scare opposing defenses deep and prevent them from stacking the line against Rodney Hampton and Tyrone Wheatley. Chris Calloway and newcomer Lawrence Dawsey are very good possession WR’s, but they won’t become difference makers.
(3) Can the Giants find an adequate 3rd down specialist? Though he didn’t play well up in New England, the Giants missed Dave Meggett last year as Herschel Walker flopped as the Giants’ new 3rd down specialist. The Giants have been blessed in recent years with RB’s who could pick up key first downs in 3rd down situations (Tony Galbreath, Dave Meggett). On the surface, it appears as if there is no one on the current roster who can fill that role. Keith Elias is one possibility, but he can’t pick up the blitz like Meggett did and he doesn’t seem to have his quickness or moves either. Ty Wheatley is explosive, but he lack consistency. In fact, if a new 3rd down specialist is to be found, it may have to come from the WR corps — possibly Lawrence Dawsey.
(4) Can Reeves find a way to get both Hampton and Wheatley the ball enough times? Make no mistake about it. Offensively, this team is built around the running game and everything else comes second. Run blocking is the strength of the offensive line, fullbacks, tight ends, and even wide receivers. In Rodney Hampton and Ty Wheatley, the Giants possess two stud running backs — the former being a bulldozer and the latter being an explosive game-breaker (“thunder and lightening,” if you will). However, in order to be truly effective, BOTH need to touch the ball a lot and get into the rhythm of the game. In other words, neither is likely to come into a game, cold off the bench, and have much of impact unless he is allowed to touch the ball 20+ times per game. That’s been Rodney’s history with the Giants, and Ty’s history with the University of Michigan. They get better the more they play — they are not role players. Unfortunately, in most games, it will improve impossible to give the ball to Hampton AND Wheatley as much as they BOTH deserve to touch it. Moreover, the offensive line may have problems adjusting to their different running styles — Rodney is most effective between the tackles, Ty likes to run the ball outside. Money says here that Reeves won’t be able to pull it off and Wheatley sits more than he should. Rotating running backs rarely works in the NFL.
(5) Will the tight ends become effective weapons? Are the Giants’ tight ends underutilized or overrated? We would like to think the former is true. Howard Cross will never become a major receiving threat, but he is well respected around the league because of his fierce blocking skills (he’s often called upon to block a DL by himself) and solid receiving capabilities. He struggles catching the ball in stride, but has proven to be a threat in the red zone during his career. Aaron Pierce SEEMS to have enough talent to become a bigtime receiving threat, but he rarely makes any big plays. Part of this, we blame on the system — it doesn’t seem like the Giants run Pierce down the seam enough; part of it, we blame on the quarterbacking, the seam pass doesn’t seem to be a strength of Brown’s game. Regardless, Pierce is big, fast for his size, and agile. We’d like to see the Giants get the ball to him more in stride and moving forward, rather than running curls or out patterns. We also think Brian Kozlowski and Brian Saxton have enough talent to be starting for some other teams and they should be involved more.
(6) Is Dave Brown the answer? Fans are sometimes guilty of impatience…especially in New York. A number of “top,” young quarterbacks struggled a great deal last year — guys like Drew Bledsoe, Rick Mirer, Heath Shuler, and Kerry Collins. Quarterbacks, even the good ones, usually take time to develop. They need to learn how to read defenses and become accustomed to the fast-paced pro game. However, a number of the other “top” guys possess attributes that Dave Brown does not, such as a cannon arm or impressive accuracy. Nevertheless, Dave has some impressive assets himself. He’s tall, athletic, mobile, intelligent, and competitive — all of which cannot be taught. Brown also seems to have been hampered by the lack of quality receivers and a head coach who doesn’t have a lot of confidence in his ability. Dave says the time to talk about his “potential” is over, it’s now time to deliver. We wholeheartedly agree. If he’s going to do so, he MUST become more accurate (hopefully, this is possible for him) and more consistent (ditto). Just as importantly, he needs to be able to make the game-winning play when the game is on the line.
(7) Will Brad Daluiso become a reliable, consistent placekicker? We asked this same question last year, but after a solid start, Daluiso faltered in the second half of the season, missing a number of big kicks that cost the Giants dearly. With Brad, it seems like it is feast or famine as, thus far in his young career, he has proven to be terribly streaky. The Giants are sure to be involved in a number of very close contests once again in 1996 and they simply cannot afford Daluiso coming up short.
(8) Will the defensive tackles make an impact? No doubt about it — the Giants’ defense is soft in the middle and the DT’s must accept much of the blame. Keith Hamilton, Ray Agnew, and Stacy Dillard performed adequately last year, but not up to previous Giant standards. We feel Hamilton is best suited as a DE, but with the plethora of talent at that position, the Giants moved Hamilton inside. Likely to join him this year, if DE’s Cedric Jones and Jamal Duff can play the run, is Robert Harris — another player best suited outside. Regardless, these players must do a better job of stuffing opposing linemen and ball carriers near the line of scrimmage, or at the very least, being more disruptive to the opposing offenses. It would also be nice if the DT’s could exert more of a pass rush on passing downs. Long shots to make an impact are Todd Yeaman, Bernard Holsey, Darnell Gilliard, and Ramon Okoli.
(9) Will the linebacking corps be able to improve its play? We also asked this same question last year, and the answer was a resounding “no.” Gone are the days of Banks, Reasons, Carson, and Taylor; in their place are expected starters Corey Miller (strongside), Corey Widmer (middle), and Jessie Armstead (weakside). While the defensive line must shoulder much of the blame for the poor play against the run last year, in our opinion, it was the linebacking corps which was chiefly responsible. Simply put, last year, Marcus Buckley (now the first reserve off of the bench), Michael Brooks (now with Detroit), and Michael Croel (not invited back) could not shed blocks quickly enough in order to get to the running back at or near the line of scrimmage. All three lacked the bulk and strength to do so at their respective positions. Miller and Widmer should change that because they are bigger and stronger, but they are less mobile than their predecessors and a big question remains if these two can effectively stay with RB’s and TE’s during passing plays. 4-3 LB’s need to cover a lot of ground in pass defense and opposing offenses are sure to test them. As for Armstead, while he is a superb pass defender, many question if he has the bulk and strength necessary to defend the run. Besides the starters, also possibly factoring into the equation are OLB’s Buckley, Ben Talley, Scott Galyon and MLB’s Coleman Rudolph and Doug Colman.
(10) Will the secondary be able to continue its solid play? Usually considered a sore spot on the team, the Giants’ secondary played remarkably well last year. Phillippi Sparks stayed healthy for once and became a Pro Bowl-calibre player. Thomas Randolph played well early, struggled late, but is still filled with potential. Depth at CB remains a concern, especially if Sparks or Randolph go down with an injury. It is hoped that 7th round draft pick, Conrad Hamilton, who showed well at the mini- and passing-camps, will provide that needed depth. At safety, gone is veteran leader FS Vencie Glenn — a very good player who did not see eye-to-eye with the coaching staff. In his place will be Tito Wooten — a very gifted and talented athlete who lacks Glenn’s savvy and leadership skills. At strong safety, Jesse Campbell is solid, but unspectacular, and may be challenged in camp by 1995 3rd round draft pick Rodney Young. Other potential contributors include CB’s Jason Sehorn and Willie Beamon and S’s Maurice Douglas and Percy Ellsworth. The key to the secondary in 1996, besides staying healthy, will be the play of Wooten.