New York Giants 2008 NFL Draft: Bowl Prospects Preview (Part One)

by Colin Lindsay, editor and publisher of the Great Blue North Draft Report. (The GBN also publishes a weekly Giants’ newsletter offering insight and analysis on the Giants’ season as well as the upcoming draft. Here’s how to order.)

First things first… Here’s to a happy, healthy and safe holiday to Eric and all the BBI family… looking forward to talking with everyone more in the days leading up to the draft… And while there is still plenty of business to be taken care of before the 2007 season is done, it also certainly promises to be a key off-season for the Giants. With that in mind we have been working over the notion our own minds the past few weeks about the need to sometimes ask the right questions. Before getting into some of the top prospects to watch in this year’s bowls, here some thoughts on what those questions just might be…

Asking the right question… Arguably, the most intriguing question Giants’ fans have been asking themselves literally since the end of the 2007 season has been “just how many games does Tom Coughlin have to win this season to keep his job?” Leaving aside the unstated fact that the venerable head coach has yet to play a down this fall and that for the most part the variables that dictate the season-to-season variation in W-L records are factors beyond the control of the head coach, it may very well be the wrong question to ask regarding the immediate future of the Giants’ head coaching position. Of course, firing a head coach coming off a 10-11 win season and three straight playoff appearances is never an easy thing to do, especially for an organization that prides itself on loyalty, continuity and stability (and we are not for a moment suggesting the Giants will. In fact, like most observers we haven’t a clue how all this will play out.)

The Giants, though, are a team which figures that it has most of the core players in place for a serious 3-4-5 year run. And in that context the real question re the head coaching situation probably should be is Tom Coughlin the man the organization wants running the team over that span. In that context, Coughlin has done plenty of good things to merit an extension. It is hard to argue with the fact, for example, that the Giants are on the verge of making the playoffs for a third straight season, a period in which the team has been a solid 28-18. And the players have apparently bought into his regime. DE Michael Strahan, no friend of Coughlin when he first arrived in New York with his rigid rules, for example, was quoted the other day that other than winning the Super Bowl, the one thing that might induce him to retire would be if Coughlin left and he had to start over again with a new staff.

At the same time, though, there are also more than enough questions that give pause, even with a winning record. (Ed note: The guts of this piece were actually written before Sunday’s loss to the Redskins. Indeed, we generally try not to form far-reaching conclusions based on one game, but that certainly was one bizarre game-plan that Coughlin came up with!). This year, for example, the Giants have yet to beat a team with a winning record, and while the overall record is an impressive 9-5, the fact is the Giants have been for the most part very healthy and have won all the close games. More to the point, though, while Coach Coughlin has tempered his approach somewhat this season, football people are creatures of habit and one has seen little in the way of creativity or innovation from the Giants, especially on offense, in recent years with the result that the attack has been plodding and predictable. There also hasn’t been much in the way of development from many of the teams young players, in particular QB Eli Manning, who a case can be made has actually regressed a tad this fall, at least from a purely statistical perspective. It may very well be that that is something outside the control of any coach, but it may be something that the Giants’ front office has to take into serious consideration when deciding on which direction to take in the coming off-season. Should be interesting.

Ask the right question, Part deux… Talk about the upcoming draft and the first question from most self-respecting Giants’ fans is which position most needs to be addressed in 2008. Put in the context of which are the Giants’ weakest positions I would be tempted to answer (without much hesitation) safety, LB and CB in that order. And the inclination of most fans when thinking about the draft is to pencil in the name of the top-rated player at the weakest position of their choice.

However, something former Giants’ head coach Bill Parcells said on a recent NFL pre-game show got me thinking a little about the process. In particular, Parcells was asked something along the lines of whether a specific would help a particular team win games. Parcells responded that maybe the player would, but that wasn’t how he thought when he was a coach. Parcells went on to say that he didn’t ask whether a player would help the team win games, but whether the player would help the team win a championship.

In that context, I asked myself what player/position would get the Giants closest to the Super Bowl and came up with a somewhat different list than the above list. A case can be made, for example, that what the Giants need more than anything to challenge the top teams in the NFL (other than a true elite level QB) is a game-breaker at WR to line up opposite Plaxico Burress, followed by a true shutdown cover corner, followed by a real stud defensive tackle. Interesting in this context LB and safety don’t even make the top ehree, although, of course many are going to quibble with the list.

Of course, none of this takes into account what players are actually going to be on the board when the Giants make their early round picks at the 2008 draft. Indeed, we certainly aren’t advocating that the Giants rush and force a WR with their opening round selection, or any pick for that matter. The question, however, does raise the sometimes interesting dichotomy between fans who tend to look first and foremost to fixing weaknesses with top draft picks whereas GMs and coaches will often be somewhat proactive and will be looking to use early picks to build a particular type of team with specific strengths. Whatever the approach, though, it’s all still a lottery and the bottom line is one still has to be lucky on draft day.

Help is on the way… The 32-game college bowl season kicks off on Thursday with plenty of prospects for the 2008 draft to check out. For the most part, though, the very prospects the Giants will be looking at won’t play until next weekend or early January. However, there are several potential gems in the early games that could show up on the Giants’ wish list come next April 26-27. Some, of course, are already well known; others, though, are flying just a little below the draft radar. Here’s a list of the ten players to watch in the bowl games through December 30th. Note we’ll be back with a look at who to watch in the New Year’s Eve and beyond games closer to January 1st.

1. Penn State LB Dan Connor; versus Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl, December 29, 8 PM ET; ESPN… If the Giants do opt to take a LB with their opening round pick this coming April, the Nittany Lions’ Connor (#40, 6-2, 232, 4.60), assuming of course, he were to be available when the Giants make their initial selection, would likely be high on the list. Connor is a better all-around prospect that former PSU teammate Paul Posluzny, a second round pick by Buffalo this past April who was off to a great start before being injured. Connor is a throw back type who can play both inside and outside and would appear to be a perfect fit as a WLB in the Giants scheme.

2. Boise State junior OT Ryan Clady; versus East Carolina in the Hawaii Bowl, December 23rd, 8 PM ET; ESPN… With the emergence of David Diehl as a decent player, LT isn’t the priority it once was, however, if the Giants were to get a shot at an athletic young OT like Boise State Clady (#79, 6-5, 320, 5.25) with the potential to be a shut-down LT for the next 10 years they might be forced to pull the trigger.

3. Michigan State junior WR Devin Thomas; versus Boston College in the Champs Bowl, December 28th, 5 PM ET; ESPN… If the Giants were indeed inclined to take a WR with their opening round pick this year they might have a problem in the sense that while there is a very deep cast of receivers in this year’s draft class, there may not necessarily be a WR worth a late first rounder this year. One player who might be an exception is Michigan State junior Devin Thomas, who doesn’t get the national pub as some of the college football’s other top receivers, but may just be the best overall receiver. Thomas has good size at 6-1, 220 and speed with a 40 clocking in just under 4.5 seconds. However, Thomas plays faster than that, has excellent hands and runs very good routes; plus Thomas is a dangerous kick returner who averaged 28.1 yards per KO return this fall. In the regular offense, Thomas caught 76 passes for over 1,200 yards working in a offense that really didn’t throw the ball all that well.

4. Maryland junior LB Erin Henderson; versus Oregon State in the Emerald Bowl, December 28th, 8:30 PM ET; ESPN… Henderson (#1, 6-2, 242, 4.65) is the more athletic younger brother of former Terps’ star and current Vikings’ starter E.J. Henderson; indeed Henderson the younger originally signed at Maryland as a QB before switching to LB; has a nice size speed combination with a 40 time in the mid 4.6 range; also a very strong player for his size. Very productive collegiate LB who had 236 tackles over the past two years. Did tear an ACL in 2005.

5. Nevada LB Ezra Butler; versus New Mexico in the Mexico Bowl; December 22nd, 4:30 PM ET; ESPN… Butler is another player who doesn’t get much nation pub, but he’s a good-sized (#56, 6-1, 250) OLB with 4.55 speed who is especially disruptive attacking the line of scrimmage; indeed, he had 30 tackles for loss the last couple of seasons. Also pretty good in coverage where he picked off three passes in 2007.

6. Houston WR Donnie Avery; versus TCU in the Texas Bowl, December 28th, 8 PM ET; NFL Network… Avery (#6, 5-10, 185, 4.35) lacks prototype size but can motor with a 40 time in the low 4.3 range. For good measure Avery is also a skilled receiver who is not afraid to catch the ball over the middle; also dangerous with the ball in his hands after the catch; had 81 receptions in 2007 for over 1,300 yards. Like Michigan State’s Thomas is a also a good KO returner who averaged over 28 yards a pop this fall.

7. Colorado CB Terrence Wheatley and 8. Alabama DB Simeon Castille; in the Independence Bowl, December 30th, 8 PM ET; ESPN…. The Independence features two of the better second-tier DBs in the 2008 draft class in Colorado’s Terrence Wheatley (#26, 5-9, 175, 4.38) and Alabama’s Simeon Castille (#2, 6-0, 190, 4.62). Wheatley kind of dropped off the radar after missing all of 2005 season with a wrist injury that required three surgeries and threatened his career. If healthy, though, is very fast with a reported 10.15 100M time in high school; he also has excellent ball skills with 14 career picks including 5 in both 2006 and 2007; not all that big or physical but has that extra gear to make up ground when the ball is in the air. Meanwhile, the Tide’s Castille nominally is a CB but lacks real speed, but could find a home at the next level as a free safety. And while not fast or real big Castille is a solid hitter with good instincts and ball skills of his own..

9. The UCLA secondary; versus BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl; December 22nd, 8 PM ET; ESPN…. UCLA in fact has three decent second-tier DBs in safeties Chris Horton (#14, 6-0, 200, 4.63) and Dennis Keyes (#11, 6-1, 195, 4.62)) and CB Trey Brown (#23, 5-9, 185, 4.50). For its part, BYU also has an underrated OLB in Bryan Kehl (#41, 6-0, 235, 4.65) worth a look early in the second day of this year’s draft.

10. Purdue WR Dorien Bryant; versus Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl, December 26th, 7:30 PM ET; ESPN… Maybe what Eli Manning needs most is a Wes Welker type safety valve receiver who knows how to get open underneath anf the Boilermakers’ Bryant (#9, 5-9, 175, 4.48) is all of that. Bryant isn’t all that big but he’s a fast enough, extremely quick receiver with great hands who runs crisp routes. Came up just short of 300 career catches after hauling in 82 in 2007.