Key Questions Heading into the 2006 New York Giants Training Camp

Anything less than a Super Bowl victory in February 2007 would be a big disappointment. Barring injury, the 2006 New York Giants are clearly one of the League’s most talented teams and the national and local media prognosticators who can’t see that don’t really understand the game. Here are some of the reasons why the 2006 Giants will be dramatically better than the 2005 team that won the NFC East:

  • QB Eli Manning will be better. Critics of Manning fail to recognize his achievements in his first full season. Manning became the first Giants’ quarterback to throw 24 touchdown passes in a season since Fran Tarkenton did so in 1967 and only Phil Simms (twice) and Kerry Collins (twice) have thrown for more yardage in a single season in franchise history. Manning’s 557 passing attempts were third-most in the NFL in 2005 as he helped lead the Giants to an 11-5 record. If you told most people that a second-year quarterback not named Manning would achieve all of that in his first full season, they would be truly impressed. But the best news is that the 25-year old Manning is only scratching the surface of his potential. Keep in mind that he has only started 24 NFL games. As he gains more experience, achieves a greater understanding of his own offense and opposing NFL defenses, and improves his comfort level with his surrounding personnel, his overall accuracy will improve. If he can get his completion percentage up from 53 percent to the 60-65 percent range, then Manning is really going to do some damage. Of all the starting quarterbacks in the NFC East, Manning has the biggest upside.
  • The offensive line will be better. The Giants return the same five starters at the same five positions for the first time in years. This is an offensive line that helped the Giants’ skill players become one of the most prolific offenses in franchise history. The growing familiarity with one another (and the tight ends and fullback) will improve cohesiveness and thereby improve performance. The line will pick up blitzes and stunts better, giving Manning even more time in the pocket. Also, 27-year old RT Kareem McKenze, 24-year old RG Chris Snee, and 25-year old LG David Diehl are all still young and improving and all three have the ability to earn Pro Bowl recognition. Depth should be no problem with Bob Whitfield, Rich Seubert, Grey Ruegamer, and Guy Whimper.
  • The receivers will be better. The 28-year old Plaxico Burress and the 25-year old Jeremy Shockey have not reached their fullest pro potential yet. And Manning, Burress, Shockey, and Amani Toomer are still building cohesion with each other. With each practice and game snap, they learn more and more about each other’s strengths and weaknesses. More and more of those “almost” big-plays will turn into big passing plays and touchdowns in 2006. Add the explosive 22-year old Sinorice Moss to the mix and the Giants should have a truly dynamic passing game, capable of leading the NFL in scoring. Moss is going to give most nickel backs fits and he will be truly deadly on WR-screens.
  • The reserve halfbacks will be better. Contrary to popular belief in the media and among many fans, the Giants are very happy with the 24-year old Brandon Jacobs and the 25-year old Derrick Ward. Both are big backs who can hurt a defense. And both will see more playing time as they gain experience with their blitz pick-ups.
  • The Giants may arguably have the best foursome of defensive ends in NFL history. Michael Strahan is a future Hall of Famer who is still playing at a very high level. Osi Umenyiora just went to his first of probably many Pro Bowls. 23-year old Justin Tuck flashes exceptional ability as a pass rusher and run defender. I am as high on Tuck as I was about Umenyiora. And the Giants added 23-year old Mathias Kiwanuka – a player who they felt had top-10 ability. In summary, the Giants have two Pro Bowlers here and two other players who would start on most teams.
  • The linebacking corps is deep and talented. Antonio Pierce has Pro Bowl-ability and LaVar Arrington is a three-time Pro Bowler who is being moved back to the strongside position where he excelled in Washington. Moreover, he will be playing with a huge chip on his shoulder. At the very least, he gives the Giants a hard-hitting, physical presence that the team needs. He also adds another emotional presence. The coaches and players have talked all offseason about how his personality has raised the energy level of the entire team. If LaVar returns to his Pro Bowl form, the Giants will have four Pro Bowl-type players in their front seven. In addition, with Carlos Emmons in the lineup, the Giants will have two huge outside linebackers who can both play over the tight end. And unlike last season, depth is exceptional with 25-year old Reggie Torbor, Brandon Short, and 23-year old Gerris Wilkinson. One thing to keep in mind, physically, almost to a man, this is a very big group. These guys are going to pound people.
  • The Giants will be stronger at safety. 24-year old SS Gibril Wilson will be more than a full-year removed from the serious neck injury he suffered his rookie year. He should be better with experience as well. FS Will Demps has more range and is a better hitter and tackler than since-waived Brent Alexander. 23-year old reserve James Butler was impressive as a rookie and should continue to improve.

Better, better, better. This is going to be one of the most-talented teams the Giants have fielded since I’ve been watching them. On paper, there are not many weaknesses. They will have one of the NFL’s best offenses, should have a top-10 defense, and have one of the NFL’s best special teams units. The coaching is solid as Tom Coughlin and his staff have proven that they can keep up with the likes of Bill Parcells, Joes Gibbs, and Andy Reid.

But there are question marks that can derail the season. Here are my biggest concerns:

(1) Quarterback Eli Manning: He will be better, but the question is how much better? The Giants need him to play at an exceptionally high level. That may be a bit unfair as he is only entering his second season as a full-time quarterback. He really won’t be reaching his prime for at least a couple of more years. But Giants gave up a lot to get Manning and Barber, Toomer, and Strahan are not getting any younger. If the Giants are going to win a Super Bowl this season, he needs to become consistently more accurate quarterback who makes big plays in the clutch with the game on the line. Most importantly, unlike his brother, he must prove he can deliver in the playoffs. Truly great quarterbacks excel in the post-season, when the games matter the most.

(2) Team Health: If Manning is my primary concern, then team health is a close second. I firmly believe that the tough NFC East is going to come down to (1) quarterback play and (2) overall team health. The Giants can ill-afford a serious injury to Manning, Barber, Shockey, Burress, or Pierce.

(3) The Secondary: There will be three new starters and a new nickel back. That’s a huge turnover. And these guys will only have about six weeks to get on the same page together before the season starts. That’s a tall order. Breakdowns in communication in the secondary can cost you football games. And it remains to be seen if Corey Webster is a quality football player and if 32-year old Sam Madison can still play at a high level. Depth at cornerback is a big concern if Curtis Deloatch doesn’t improve dramatically. People love to point at Carolina’s defensive line and say that is the reason why their defense is so good, but the truth of the matter is that it is their secondary that is the strength of their defense. Same story with Philadelphia and Washington. This is the one position where I wish the Giants had one more stud.

(4) Aging Performers: The Giants are relatively young team with some rising young stars, but they also have a number of incredibly important players who are in the latter stages of their respective careers. The Giants must cross their fingers that these players still have the ability to excel on the football field for at least one more season. The most key figure here is Tiki Barber. But you can also put Michael Strahan, Amani Toomer, and Jeff Feagles in this category. It would also be nice to see Carlos Emmons play up to his previous form in Philadelphia and stay healthy as well.

(5) The Schedule: There is not anything one can do about the schedule so there is no sense in worrying too much about it. If the Giants are good enough to win a Super Bowl, then they will overcome the schedule. Nevertheless, the front portion of the schedule is absolutely brutal. If the Giants start the season 0-3, then panic and finger-pointing could start. It is essential that the Giants win at least one of their first three football games. And the team needs to play very well immediately after the early bye week when there is another group of tough games.

(6) The Defensive Tackle Position: I am not as worried about this as most. I think the Giants are set at the three-technique or under tackle position with William Joseph and Fred Robbins. The big concern that most fans have is with the one-technique or nose tackle position. But in my mind, a nose tackle isn’t going to make or break this defense. And there is a chance that Jonas Seawright, a player with a lot of physical ability, will surprise. Fred Robbins, who has had a tremendous offseason in the weight room, could also shift over to the nose tackle spot if needed. Others in the picture include Barry Cofield, Damane Duckett, and Junior Ioane.

If the Giants can get positive answers to these question marks, they will be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February. The keys are Manning, team health, the secondary, and winning early.