The positive comments regarding the 2005 New York Giants’ prospects are few and far between. You’ll hear or read some prognosticator mentioning them as a possible darkhorse team, but most analysts say they will be fighting just to make it to .500 and staying out of the basement of the NFC East. Perhaps these folks are right. But I don’t think so. The Giants’ front office did an outstanding job in the offseason of filling holes and acquiring talent. On paper, I honestly don’t see a lot of weaknesses on this team and I strongly believe this is one of the deepest Giants’ teams in over a decade.
If some things break right for the Giants, New York should not only make the playoffs, but they could press the Eagles for the NFC East title. At the very least, I think this is going to be a very fun team to watch.
Let’s breakdown the roster…
Quarterback: Eli Manning is the key. More than ever, this is a quarterbacks’ league. If you have a very good quarterback, you are almost guaranteed of making the playoffs – especially in the less-than-impressive NFC. Conventional wisdom says that the inexperienced Manning, who has only started seven NFL games, will struggle in 2005 as he will continue to make many mistakes. If Manning is too inconsistent and makes too many killer turnovers, the Giants will indeed struggle to be a .500 football team. Defenses will to try to confuse the youngster and most young quarterbacks have problems reading coverages, maintaining proper technique when under duress, and remaining poised in pressure-packed situations. But Manning’s pedigree, the way he played and handled himself against the Steelers and Cowboys late in the season, and all the hard work he put in this offseason suggests that the quarterback MAY be on an accelerated learning curve. Plus, the Giants have done a nice job this offseason of upgrading his surrounding talent at the skill positions and the offensive line. Manning doesn’t have to carry the team at this point, just smartly use the talent around him. My gut tells me that Manning is going to develop into a less-intense version of his brother – no not a guy who is going to throw for an absurd number of touchdowns, but someone who will be able to read NFL defenses at a surprisingly young age and correctly throw the football to the weak spot in coverage.
I like the Giants’ quarterback situation and I like the Giants’ quarterback situation with respect to the rest of the NFC East. The Redskins have done a poor job of grooming Patrick Ramsey and he looks like he will fall victim to a brewing quarterback controversy in Washington. Drew Bledsoe is nearing the end and is not the type of guy who is going to carry a team far at this stage of his career. Donovan McNabb, for all the positive publicity he gets, is developing a nasty habit of coming up small in big playoff games. Manning is not going to surpass McNabb in 2005, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see this happen in 2006 or 2007.
As for the backups, I was pleasantly surprised by Jesse Palmer’s play in the 2004 preseason. And I am a fan of Tim Hasselbeck’s. He doesn’t have all the tools, but he can step in and lead a football team when needed.
Offensive Line: The biggest move the Giants made this offseason was signing right tackle Kareem McKenzie. McKenzie is one of the young, up-and-coming offensive linemen in this league. He is a big, powerful man who can run and pass block. The Giants will team him on the right side with another mauler in second-year guard Chris Snee. In my opinion, this duo should develop into the best run-blocking tandem the Giants have ever had on the right-side in recent memory – better than Chris Godfrey and Karl Nelson and better than Bob Kratch/Eric Moore and Doug Riesenberg. These two are big, strong linemen who can generate movement at the point-of-attack. Moreover, they are very aggressive, play with a bit of a mean-streak, and won’t be intimidated.
Like most centers in the NFL today, Shaun O’Hara lacks ideal size and strength. But he is a heady player who usually makes the correct line calls and is agile enough to get out an effectively block linebackers at the second level. In this blitz- and stunt-happy NFL, it is critically important to have a center who can read what the defense is doing and help to settle down everyone else. Depth here is good with Wayne Lucier and Jason Whittle being able to man the pivot.
The left side of the offensive line is somewhat more unsettled. After playing well at right tackle in 2000 and 2001, Luke Petitgout had a very successful season at left tackle in 2002. However, his 2003 season ended early with a severe back injury. In 2004, his play was atrocious during the first half of the season, but Petitgout played much better over the second half. Which Luke will the Giants be getting in 2005? The very good left tackle of 2002 or the very inconsistent one of 2004? The good news is the Giants have a Plan B if Luke falters or gets hurt. Veteran Bob Whitfield was signed as insurance in the offseason. And while he is nearing the end of a long and successful career, he still has some gas left in his tank. Whitfield firmly believes he can win the starting job. His acquisition reminds me a lot of when the Giants picked up Lomas Brown in 2000.
At left guard, it is assumed that David Diehl will start. Diehl is a big, strong, aggressive lineman who just seems like one of those guys who is also going to have a long and successful career in the NFL. The key for him will be getting used to his third new position in three years. Breathing down his neck will be Rich Seubert, who looked like a future Pro Bowler before his leg was shattered in October 2003. But Seubert has been impressing the coaches this offseason and looks set to once again contribute. He insists he will regain his 2002-2003 form. If he does, the Giants have quite a positive dilemma on their hands.
To make a long story short, the Giants have nine quality offensive linemen with starting experience: McKenzie, Snee, O’Hara, Diehl, Petitgout, Whitfield, Seubert, Whittle, and Lucier. And many of these guys can play a variety of positions so the depth situation is outstanding. The biggest potential negative is that for the fourth year in a row, there is major personnel upheaval on this unit and so for the fourth year in a row, it will take some time for everyone to get used to their new flankmates.
Halfbacks/Fullbacks: Other than a strong offensive line, the best ally a young quarterback can have is a strong running game. Last year, Tiki Barber put up career numbers with 1,518 yards and 13 touchdowns (plus two more receiving). Without question, he is one of the best running backs in the NFL.
The big change at this position and one that should have dramatic implications in 2005 is that the Giants have improved their depth situation in a big way. The Giants have been very impressed with Derrick Ward and Brandon Jacobs this offseason. Both are big backs who can move the pile, but who are also a threat to break the big run. One (or both) of these two should see quite a few carries in 2005, spelling Tiki and keeping him fresh. And even more importantly, combining these two big backs with the Giants new and improved offensive line, the Giants’ dreadful short-yardage difficulties should be a thing of the past. I have visions of these powerful backs breaking off big runs behind crushing blocks from McKenzie and Snee.
Fullback Jim Finn is not a punishing lead blocker, but he is entering his third year with the Giants and has developed quite a rapport with Barber.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Another critically important addition in the offseason was Plaxico Burress. Indeed, getting McKenzie and Burress was the equivalent to getting two extra first rounders. These two are still young, are already experienced, and are proven talents. Both still should be getting better too. The signing of Burress should not be underestimated. While perceived as somewhat of an underachiever in Pittsburgh, Burress still averaged 20 yards a catch in 2004, making huge plays against teams such as the Eagles, Patriots, Cowboys, and Ravens. He was one clearly one of Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite targets and Roethlisberger struggled somewhat down the stretch once Burress was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Keep in mind that Tom Coughlin is a former wide receivers coach. You know he is going to make Plaxico his special project. Burress is big and can deep. Manning throws a beautiful deep ball. We’re going to see some fireworks.
The other quality receiver target is Jeremy Shockey. Shockey has been working out like a madman and is in the best shape of his life. Jeremy’s pride was hurt last year as he was no longer being talked about by national media types as one of the top tight ends in the league. Plus, he no doubt saw the money the Ravens just handed out to Todd Heap. If he can stay health (and that’s always been the key with him), Shockey looks primed for a monster season…especially when one considers that Manning demonstrated a real fondness for throwing to the tight ends in 2004. The improvements on the offensive line will also allow Shockey to be sent out more in passing situations.
There is more talent here, but the question is who (if anyone) will step up and make a real impact. The soon-to-be 31-year old Amani Toomer is now three years removed from his best season in 2002. A very serious hamstring injury sabotaged his 2004 season, but Toomer was not exactly playing all that well before he got hurt either. If he can regain any of his 2002 form, the Giants will be hard to defend. If he doesn’t, he will make life more difficult for Burress and Shockey. It will be interesting to see how Toomer does at his new position of flanker.
With Burress, Shockey, and Toomer likely to see the bulk of the playing time (keep in mind that Shockey will often be spread out wide as a wide receiver), it remains to be seen how much playing time Tim Carter and Jamaar Taylor will actually receive. But both a very talented speedsters who can get deep and make the big play.
Another important cog who the Giants need to step up is Visanthe Shiancoe. Shiancoe lost his second string job last year due to mental mistakes rather than physical ones. Shiancoe is a good run blocker – he just needs to stay more focused and consistent – especially in blitz protection. With opposing defenders likely to concentrate heavily on Burress, Shockey, Toomer, and Barber, there is a real opportunity here for Shiancoe to do some serious damage as a receiver in two-tight end sets. The good news is that Coughlin has singled out Shiancoe for praise in the offseason.
Offensive Summary: The Giants have the franchise quarterback; they have the big, deep-threat wide receiver; they have a Pro Bowl tight end; they have the Pro Bowl running back; and they have the makings of a very solid and deep offensive line. Opponents can’t double everyone. If the various parts can come together quickly and develop cohesion and chemistry, this will be a very dangerous offense to defend. The key is Manning. How fast he grows up will determine everything.
Defensive Line: The Giants were 28th in the NFL last year in defending the run. If they don’t dramatically improve upon that embarrassing statistic, then how good the offense is won’t matter. Much of the problem last year had to do with injuries (the defensive line was incredibly hard hit as was the safety position) and new faces (especially in the front seven). But the Giants are counting on a lot of relatively unproven talent on the defensive line to fix the problem. Michael Strahan will be back, but he is 34 and coming off a serious chest injury. The starter opposite him at end will be Osi Umenyiora – an improving but inconsistent run defender and quality pass rusher. Inside, Fred Robbins is solid, but who starts alongside him will be determined in the preseason. The candidates are Steelers’ castoff Kendrick Clancy, former first rounder William Joseph, and no-names such as Kenderick Allen, Damane Duckett, and Davern Williams. The good news for the Giants is that Joseph, Allen, Duckett, and Williams all flashed ability late last season. All of these guys are young, strong, athletic, and have something to prove. So the odds are that at least one of these guys will end up developing into a decent player. There also may be strength in numbers as the Giants will likely rotate quite a bit the four defensive tackles who make the team. However, as stated, the bad news is that this is all pure speculation at this point. My gut tells me that the Giants will be OK here, but that remains to be seen.
At end, the Giants have two very inexperienced, but talented, athletes backing up Strahan and Umenyiora. Justin Tuck and Eric Moore can rush the passer. Tuck was considered by some to be a possible first rounder. What remains to be seen is how they will do as run defenders. In a pinch, the Giants could play reserve tackles at end again if necessary.
Linebackers: The key defensive addition in the offseason was obviously middle linebacker Antonio Pierce. Pierce is a tad on the light side, but he is a very smart, instinctive, hard-working leader who can play both the run and the pass. He is good friends with Jessie Armstead and plays a lot like him. Redskin defenders credit Pierce with being the brains of the team’s outstanding defense last season, making sure everyone was in the right position.
Another positive will be that strongside Carlos Emmons will be 100 percent healthy after being hampered much of last season rehabbing a broken leg. Pierce and Emmons will likely form the emotional and vocal heart of the defense as both have strong leadership skills.
Keeping this unit from achieving a truly special status is a kickass, play-making weakside linebacker. Barrett Green (offseason knee and ankle surgeries) will be limited in training camp. It remains to be seen if he will become the player the Giants had hoped when they signed him away from Detroit last offseason. If he isn’t near full-strength or if he falters, the instinctive but unathletic Nick Greisen will likely start. Neither candidate is probably ideal. Others who may contend here include Reggie Torbor, Jim Maxwell, Kevin Lewis, and T.J. Hollowell. Torbor is a guy who will be used quite a bit, even if he doesn’t start. Torbor apparently has increased his flexibility and agility this offseason and having a full offseason under his belt as a linebacker should really help his cause
Defensive Backs: The Giants are quite talented and deep at cornerback. Pencilled in as starters are Will Peterson (an underrated player who most opponents stay away from) and Will Allen. Allen had progressed nicely from 2001 when he was drafted until 2003. However, last season he was slowed in training camp coming off a serious foot injury that sidelined him in 2003 and struggled early (especially against the opener in Philadelphia). He then developed an annoying habit of not making plays on the football despite solid coverage and dropping interceptions. With Allen due to be an unrestricted free agent in 2006, he has every motivation in the world to bounce back with a strong season in 2005.
Even if Allen has a strong season, he is not likely to be re-signed by the Giants as the team has invested a high draft pick in Corey Webster – a player who was deemed a sure-fire high first rounder before his play suffered his senior season due to variety of injuries. Webster gives the Giants something they haven’t had since Jason Sehorn – a ball-hawking cornerback.
And the depth doesn’t end there. Curtis Deloatch and Frank Walker have real ability. At 6-2, Deloatch has the size to match-up with bigger receivers. And Coughlin has also sung his praises this offseason. Walker improved his play in 2004 and has demonstrated a nose for the football and making big interceptions. By far, this is the deepest and most talented group of cornerbacks the Giants have perhaps ever had.
At safety, the only sure bet is that Gibril Wilson, if healthy, will start. Whether that will be at strong or free safety and who will line up opposite of him remains to be seen. The Giants say they use their safeties interchangeably (that there is no true strong or free safety). If true, it is likely that Gibril could be teamed up with a variety of characters including Brent Alexander, Shaun Williams, and possibly even Curry Burns. Williams has something to prove and the re-structured contract he accepted in the offseason now appears to make it easier for the Giants to cut him, so he should be motivated. Alexander is up there in years, but the Giants seem to appreciate him and he too has been complimented for his offseason work. Possibly complicating the picture are two undrafted, but talented, rookies in James Butler and Diamond Ferri. Regardless, getting Wilson back will be huge. He was arguably the Giants best defensive player before he got hurt last season. He is very fast for a safety, plays a physical and aggressive game, has a nose for the football, and is a good blitzer.
Defensive Summary: The Giants have a good, young core group to build around in Pierce, Peterson, Wilson, and Umenyiora. Though older, Strahan and Emmons are solid, as is Robbins. The real key here is to have one of the young defensive tackles step up and become a major factor. Someone also needs to take charge at weakside linebacker. Adding Webster and Tuck in the draft will help down the road. Overall depth is solid across the board, and outstanding at cornerback.
Special Teams: The kicking game should be solid with punter Jeff Feagles and place kicker Jay Feely. Special Teams Coach Mike Sweatman helped to turn the coverage and return units around last season. Willie Ponder lead the NFL in kickoff return average. The Giants still need to improve their punt return game.
Coaching: Coughlin is very organized and detailed. He is a work-a-holic who wants to win badly. And Coughlin has his players starting to believe in his program. Year one was dedicated to laying down the law and finding out what his team has and doesn’t have. While he is building more personal relationships in year two, he really hasn’t lightened up as much as the players think he has. The truth is they are simply getting used to him and his demanding style. One senses he has a specific plan and detailed vision for this team. It would surprise me greatly if he doesn’t turn this team around. It will also be interesting to see what Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis does with this defense if everyone stays healthy.
Overall Summary: Beware Philadelphia, there is a storm brewing in New York.