Barring unforeseen injuries, the 2008 New York Giants should be a better team than the 2007 version that surprisingly won an NFL Championship.  In a nutshell, the 2008 version should be stronger across the board due to added experience and confidence in what largely is a very young team.  And team management appears to have done a nice job of filling what few holes there were on the roster.

Indeed, some would argue, including myself, that the Giants seriously contended for/won their NFL Title a year or two earlier than expected.  That’s because the youngsters on this team played with poise, maturity, and productivity well beyond their relatively young ages.

That all said, that does not mean the Giants will repeat.  The odds will be stacked against them.  Winning an NFL Championship is extremely difficult and repeating is even more so.  Everyone will be gunning for the Giants.  Heck, their record may not be as good and they might have to fight tooth-and-nail in a very tough division just to make the playoffs again.  But I am firmly convinced, talent wise, this will be a better team.

Let’s look at the reasons why:

Eli Manning: Yes, he’s one of the youngsters.  27 is still young by NFL quarterback standards and Manning only just completed his third season as full-time NFL starter.  Let me be clearer – Eli hasn’t entered his prime yet.  Most quarterbacks with that kind of limited experience are not supposed to already have a Super Bowl MVP trophy.  It is certainly possible that Manning will regress into the very inconsistent quarterback of the 2007 regular season.  Undoubtedly he will still have his ups and downs.  Many fans can’t seem to accept the fact that all quarterbacks – even the very good ones – have bad games or even down seasons.  My guess is that Manning simply continues to improve.  I don’t think he will be as flawless and regularly clutch as he was during the 4-game playoff stretch, but we should see better play and more consistency from him.  With the Super Bowl, he is now the unquestioned leader of the offensive team.  That will help.  So will the added confidence.  And with the Super Bowl, a heavy weight must have been lifted from his shoulders.  He will still be under heavy scrutiny and criticism, but the load has been lightened immeasurably.

The Second-Year Players: Fans and the media always make the mistake of looking at newcomers, namely free agents and draft picks, as the sole source of a team’s projected improvement.  It will be the improvement that the 2007 draft class makes that will have a greater impact on this team.

In his book Finding the Winning Edge by coaching legend Bill Walsh, there is an entire section on why “in most instances, first-year players encounter too many obstacles which must be overcome for them to make a significant contribution.”  Some of those obstacles include physical and mental immaturity, the “survival mode” mentality that most rookies adopt during training camp and the preseason that limits focus, the lack of individualized attention these players receive the further into the NFL calendar a team goes, and the often overwhelming change that occurs as a rookie transitions from college to a totally new and adult lifestyle.

It is absolutely astounding that the Giants benefitted immediately as much as they did from their 2007 draft class, and in particular from CB Aaron Ross, WR Steve Smith, TE Kevin Boss, and HB Ahmad Bradshaw.  Lesser, but important contributions, also came from DT Jay Alford, LB Zak DeOssie, and S Michael Johnson.  And the Giants received quality minutes from rookie free agent Michael Matthews.  These guys ranged in age from 21-25.  They not only produced, but they produced in the clutch.  Their poise and maturity, their ability to handle the mental as well as the physical elements of the game, in the biggest of games, was remarkable.

With a full year under their belts, these players are now positioned to improve and elevate the play of the entire team.  The additional playing time and high-pressure experience from the playoff run expedites matters.  Keep in mind that all of these players have only scratched the surface of their potential.  Considered one of the top rookies in the NFL last year, Ross was self-admittedly overwhelmed for much of the season and played hurt down the stretch.  He should make more plays on the ball in 2008.  Smith missed most of the season.  When he played, the Giants’ offense became much more consistent and dangerous.  He might be a better down-the-field target than most fans realize.  Boss will improve as a blocker as he continues to improve his technique and strength.  And his productivity in the passing game as a receiver should increase fairly dramatically.  Ahmad Bradshaw may in fact be the best running back on the team and that’s saying something given the talents of Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward.  Jay Alford saw his minutes increase down the stretch and improved with each game.  Zak DeOssie should be a factor at the competition at linebacker.  Michael Johnson has the chance to start and improve the overall level of athleticism and physical play at safety.

Plaxico Burress: The Giants’ best offensive player missed most of training camp, all of the preseason, and rarely practiced for five months during the regular season and playoffs.  Despite all of that, he had an excellent season.  Indeed, he was a touchdown machine early in the season, scoring eight touchdowns in six games, until the ankle really began to take its toll.  If healthy or near full strength, he is quite capable of putting together the best season a Giants’ receiver has ever had in the team’s 83-year history.

Brandon Jacobs: In his first full season as a starter, Jacobs rushed for a 1,000 yards and average 5.0 yards per carry despite missing five full games and the bulk of a sixth.  Not only do I expect him to put up bigger rushing and touchdown numbers in 2008, but I expect him to break more big runs.

Mathias Kiwanuka, Jeremy Shockey, and Derrick Ward: Getting these three back healthy will be a tremendous benefit to the team.  Many forget how productive Ward was when he played, including a 154 yard effort against the Bears.

Corey Webster: I am still floored by the dramatic level of improvement Corey Webster made from the regular season to the post-season.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.  Webster not only just improved his play, but he was one of the Giants’ best players on the field in the playoffs.  If that level of play continues, the Giants are going to be very, very tough on defense.

The Left Side of the Offensive Line: The middle and right-side of the Giants’ offensive line has been the same since 2005 and that cohesion and chemistry is an advantage that many NFL teams do not enjoy.  Many people thought the left side of the Giants’ offensive line was going to be a problem last year.  It wasn’t.  And with a year under their belt playing next to each other, David Diehl and Rich Seubert will be even better.

The 2008 Offseason Additions: Danny Clark is a better linebacker than most realize.  He will push hard for playing time.  If he doesn’t start, it’s a good sign that Gerris Wilkinson is ready.  Giants’ safeties made too many mental mistakes in 2007.  That won’t happen with Sammy Knight if he plays.  Knight may not start, but he will be a very good mentor for all of the young safeties.

Don’t expect much of an immediate impact from Bryan Kehl and Jonathan Goff (other than special teams), but each of the Giants’ first three 2008 draft picks might significantly contribute.  Kenny Phillips may start on opening day and be a serious upgrade despite being a rookie.  Terrell Thomas is ideally suited to the press and blitzing schemes the Giants employ.  He won’t start, but he could end up playing a lot.  The presence of Burress, Toomer, Smith, Shockey, and Boss likely means there won’t be many balls thrown in the direction of Mario Manningham in 2008, but he could surprise, especially in 4-WR sets or if someone gets hurt.  He’s very dangerous.

The Coaching Staff: For one, the guillotine hanging over their necks is gone.  They are not going anywhere and that in itself commands respect.  But the real respect will come from having done it.  Secondly, many forget that Steve Spagnuolo’s defensive scheme was completely new last year.  The players will be much, much more comfortable with it from the get-go.  And with added comfort, there will be even more wrinkles.  Third, the offensive coaches should have a better level of understanding about what works and what doesn’t work with this group of players.

Keep in mind this one important fact:  In the NFC East, the Giants were the only team not to be significantly hurt by coaching changes.  The Cowboys, Eagles, and Redskins all lost quality coaches.

Final note… I just don’t see a lot of holes on this team.  This is one of the more complete rosters I’ve seen while closely following the Giants.  The DL is one of the best in football.  The draft strengthened and deepened the secondary and linebacking corps a great deal.  Eli Manning has proved he can do it.  This may be the deepest running back group in the NFL.  This may be the deepest collection of wide receivers the Giants have had in decades.  The Giants have two quality tight ends.  The offensive line is very solid and underrated.  There is a nice mix of youth and veterans.  The players now believe in the coaching staff.  And everyone has the experience and confidence of having already done it.

I personally hope the media, fans, and possibly other teams underestimate the Giants.  They shouldn’t.  This team is good.  Very good.