Victor Cruz, during an interview, said he sees something in this Giants team that he’s seen on another team – in 2011. The camaraderie and drive that defines a champion. He’s not as bold or brash like Rex Ryan and would not predict that the Giants would win a Super Bowl this season, but instead was saying that this team might have special chemistry. There is a similarity between the 2014 squad and the one fielded in 2011 – a glaring weakness that leads one to believe it could be a challenging season. In 2011 it was the secondary, as cornerback after cornerback went down to injury. In 2014, it’s the offensive line, a patchwork unit, that lost Chris Snee the day training camp started, and now Geoff Schwartz until November. How will the the 2014 Giants stack up? Let’s review each unit individually.
Presumed starters are bolded and blue:
Quarterbacks (2): Eli Manning, Ryan Nassib.
Eli Manning is coming off his worst season as a professional, having thrown 27 interception, while being subjected to constant pressure. The impact of the weak offensive line has carried over to this season, as Manning has looked uncomfortable in the pocket during the preseason, often rushing throws even when a pass rush present. Having an offensive line that will be a work in progress won’t help resolve this issue. Add on top learning a new offense for the first time in his eleven year career, and it’s not exactly a recipe for a bounce back year. However, Manning is highly intelligent, is surrounded by talented players, especially when Odell Beckham can return to the field, and another 27 interception season in this short passing offense is improbable at best.
Ryan Nassib ascended during the preseason following a demotion to third string that lit a fire beneath him. Starting with the Giants third preseason game, Nassib was a different quarterback and showed the talent that had some projecting him as a first round pick and the top quarterback off draft boards in 2013. His performance was of high enough quality that Tom Coughlin was comfortable keeping only two quarterbacks and let Curtis Painter go in the final cuts. Nassib is still learning and if he has to take any meaningful snaps in 2014, the season is lost.
Running Back (3): Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams, Peyton Hillis.
Practice Squad (1): Michael Cox.
The biggest victim of the Giants offensive struggles in 2013 was their running game as the team averaged a paltry 3.5 yard per carry and topped 100 yards only 4 times. David Wilson’s neck injury proved career ending, Andre Brown couldn’t make the Houston Texans as a backup, and Brandon Jacobs retired. Free agent addition Rashad Jennings will be the starter and had a dazzling 73 yard run during the preseason and showed off his pass catching prowess, a staple of the Ben McAdoo West Coast offense. Rookie Andre Williams is the power runner of the group, and expected to handle short yardage and goal line duty. He is surprisingly quick for his size (5’11”, 230), but lacks pass receiving ability. The injured Peyton Hillis, a holdover from 2013, rounds out the running backs. Michael Cox provides depth on the practice squad. Overall this unit is considerably stronger that 2013, and will be leaned on heavily early in the season.
Fullback (1): Henry Hynoski.
Fullback is not a complete description of Henry Hynoski’s role in the Giants offense. He will provide blocking, paving the way for Jennings and Williams as part of the running game, but Hynoski will also be used as a receiver out of the backfield in a H-Back capacity, something he showed a flair for in training camp. If practice is any indicator, the quick hand off to the fullback, a play that has worked well against the Giants for years, will be incorporated into the offensive bag of tricks in 2014. Beating out strong competitor John Conner, Hynoski was the better blocker, receiver, and runner during the preseason. He suffered a minor shoulder injury in the final preseason game, which is not expected to slow him down. Conner has not signed with another team as of the publication of this article, and would be brought back is Hynoski is unable to play.
Wide Receiver (6): Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, Odell Beckham, Jerrell Jernigan, Corey Washington, Preston Parker.
Practice Squad (1): Julian Talley.
The Giants wide receiver corps can best be described as Victor Cruz and his band of the unknown. Rueben Randle will start opposite Cruz to open the season, but has not shone brightly in the early going, still displaying evidence that “miscommunication” with Manning will be an issue, at least early in the season. The new offense is considerably simpler for the receivers, but has not slowed down for Randle yet.
Jerrell Jernigan made the team by default when camp star Marcus Harris, who caught everything throw his way, was injured against the New York Jets in the preseason and placed on season ending injured reserve. Jeringan’s breakout performance last December appears to be a flash in the pan as he was dropping more passes than he caught this preseason. First round draft pick Odell Beckham’s hamstring has kept him off the field and his potential remains on the sideline with him. Beckham has caught more passes from the JUGGS machine than Manning. Based on Coughlin’s comments earlier this week, the Atlanta Falcons game on October 5th would seem the most likely for Beckham’s debut.
Corey Washington caught 4 game winning or sealing touchdown passes in 5 games this preseason and won himself a roster spot. While he may have a role the red zone package because of this 6’4″ frame, keep in mind that he never played in a preseason game with the starters and made scant appearances with the second string. This is a strong indicator that the coaching staff doesn’t see him as regular season ready. Preston Parker was kept to return punts until Beckham is healthy. He will be the fourth wide receiver and may or may not stick once the rookie is back. This unit has a lot of potential, but can also be a huge flop; Cruz will be his steady self and catch 80-90 passes for 1,000 to 1,100 yards and 9 touchdown, but as for the rest, your guess is as good as mine.
Tight End (3): Daniel Fells, Larry Donnell, Adrien Robinson.
Practice Squad (1): Jerome Cunningham.
When looking over the Giants tight ends, one question immediately springs to mind – How did Adrien Robinson make this team? He’s obviously the third tight end of three, but Kellen Davis, released Saturday, outplayed him, and is a far superior blocker. The tight ends are the weakest unit on the 2014 Giants. Coughlin already informed the media that despite their hope that one of the tight ends on the roster would emerge during camp, it’s apparent that this position will be played “By committee” with each taking a separate role. Fells is the blocker, Donnell is the receiver, and Robinson is the 4th round draft choice on the committee. The coaching staff much see something in Robinson that wasn’t apparent on the practice field or in the preseason games. Don’t be surprised if practice squad tight end Jerome Cunningham makes it to the active roster for the second half of the season, as the coaching staff was raving about his raw talent during camp.
Offensive Line (10): Will Beatty (T), Justin Pugh (T), Charles Brown (T), James Brewer (T/G), Dallas Reynolds (C/G), Brandon Mosley (G), John Jerry (G), J.D. Walton (C), Weston Richburg (C/G), Adam Snyder (G/T).
Injured Reserve, Designated for Return (1): Geoff Schwartz (G).
Practice Squad (2): Mark Asper (OT), Nick Becton (OT).
The biggest blow of the preseason was the injury to Geoff Schwartz. The crown jewel of the Giants 2014 free agency class, Schwartz was expected to stabilize the Giants offensive line and help protect Manning’s blind side. A right guard in Kansas City, the former Chief was struggling with his transition to the left side before the injury. The 2 months on the short term injured reserve list will give him additional time to work with coaches to refine his technique. Starting in his place is rookie second round draft pick Weston Richburg, who has proved a versatile addition to the Giants trenches. Playing all three interior line spots in the preseason, Richburg was expected to unseat presumed starting right guard Brandon Mosley prior to the Schwartz injury.
Center J.D. Walton, another free agent addition, is showing lots of rust as he is coming back from missing most of the past 2 season with injuries. He has been underwhelming at best, but is the only option at center for the moment. Will Beatty and Justin Pugh are the starting tackles, and Beatty is coming off a horrific 2013 that ended with a badly broken leg. He needs to recover not only his physically, but also mentally and in technique if the Giants line is to improve. As goes the Giants offensive line, so goes the season. The good news, the run blocking was surprisingly competent during the preseason. The bad news, the pass blocking was, well, absent.
Defensive Line (9): Jason Pierre-Paul (DE), Mathias Kiwanuka (DE), Robert Ayers (DE), Damontre Moore (DE), Kerry Wynn (DE), Cullen Jenkins (DT), Mike Patterson (DT), Jonathan Hankins (DT), Jay Bromley (DT), Markus Kuhn (DT).
Practice Squad (2): Jordan Stanton (DE), Dominique Hamilton (DT).
Gone are long time stalwart Justin Tuck and stud defensive tackle Linval Joseph. Replacing them are Mathias Kiwanuka and second year defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins. Tuck’s skill and productivity were beginning to diminish with age, and most of his sacks came over the last 6 games of last season. He was all but invisible over the first 10. Joseph priced himself out of the Giants range. Kiwanuka is a step down, but Hankins has shown potential to be a more than adequate replacement for Joseph.
The success or failure of the defensive line will boil down to how Jason Pierre-Paul bounces back from an injury riddled 2013. If he becomes the nearly un-blockable force of 2011, when he had 16.5 sacks, drawing double and triple teams, it will mean single blocking for his line mates, including second year end Damontre Moore. Moore will be used as a pass rusher, where he excelled this preseason, tallying 4 sacks. The influx of talent in the Giant secondary will mean some coverage sacks, something the Giants have not seen in a long time.
Linebackers (6): Jon Beason, Jameel McClain, Jacquian Williams, Spencer Paysinger, Mark Herzlich, Devon Kennard.
Practice Squad (1): Dan Fox
In June, when Jon Beason suffered a foot injury, it sent shock waves through the hearts and minds of the Giants faithful. Coaches and fans joined together holding their breath awaiting results of the medical exams and breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced that the injury was not season ending. When the Giants traded for Beason last October, the team was 0-6, and being regularly gashed up the middle by opponents ground game. He immediately solidified the run defense and his leadership helped mold the Giants defense into a top 10 unit. Joining Beason on the most talented linebacking corps the Giants have had since the days of Jessie Armstead, are free agent addition Jameel McClain, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, and super rookie, fifth round draft pick, Devon Kennard. Joined by returning starter Jacquian Williams, who is said to have taken a leap forward in his fourth season, the linebackers are expected to be the playmaking unit the defense has sorely lacked in recent seasons.
If they can stay healthy.
Defensive Backs (9): Dominique Rodgers-Cromarie (CB), Prince Amukamara (CB), Walter Thurmond (CB), Trumaine McBride (CB), Zack Bowman (CB), Antrel Rolle (S), Stevie Brown (S), Quintin Demps (S), Nat Berhe (S).
Practice Squad (2): Bennett Jackson (CB), Chandler Fenner (CB)
When free agency was over in April and the dust settled around the NFL, the Giants had added a boat load of talent to their secondary. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will part with Prince Amukamara to form as solid a pair of cover cornerbacks that the Giants have ever had. Walter Thurmond, formerly of the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, will provide solid slot coverage. Zack Bowman, the former Chicago Bear, showed a knack for interceptions during the preseason and holdover Trumaine McBride rounds out a deep cornerback group.
The safety position is not nearly as robust. While starters Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown are top notch, the depth behind them took two bad blows when Will Hill was suspended and released and Cooper Taylor suffered a season ending foot injury. The backups are Will Demps, more of a kick returner than safety, and rookie Nat Berhe, a big hitter, who needs to develop better coverage skills. An injury to either Rolle or Brown would be devastating to the Giants secondary. No additional depth was added to the practice squad at safety as two additional cornerbacks were brought on board, 2014 Giants draft pick Bennett Jackson, and camp hand Chandler Fenner, who made some big plays in practice.
Specialists (3): Josh Brown (K), Steve Weatherford (P), Zak DeOssie (LS).
One of the better battles of training camp was the kicking battle between Josh Brown and rookie Brandon McManus. Brown outlasted McManus, who was sent to Denver for a conditional 7th round draft choice, and returns for a second season as a Giant. Weatherford is a popular and serviceable punter, and DeOssie a dependable long snapper. Punt returns will be handled in the early going by Parker or Randle, and later by Beckham if healthy. Dynamic returner Trindon Holliday was brought in to compete for the punt return job, but suffered a hamstring injury that kept him out of camp and landed him on injured reserve. Demps will be the primary kick returner after Wilson was forced to retire. The Giants return teams ranked near the bottom of the league in 2013 and any improvement is welcome.
If the Giants are to win games in 2014, especially early, it will be because of a strong defense and running game. The pass offense is still a work in progress (Coughlin’s words, not mine), which was evident throughout the preseason. The offensive line needs to gel, which will be difficult with their best guard on the trainer’s table. Expect close, highly competitive contests that will be won if the offense is able to protect the ball better that in 2013, when the team had a league high 44 turnovers. If they don’t improve ball security, fall behind in games, and are forced to pass, things could get ugly. Ball security was better in the preseason, when the team had 5 fumbles lost, threw no interception, and created 6 turnovers for a +1 turnover margin. If this carries over into the regular season, it will immediately improve the team. Another promising preseason statistic was the Giants +7 sack margin. Despite their offensive line woes, Giants quarterbacks were sacked only 7 times in 5 games, and sacked opposing quarterbacks 14 times. The team was -6 in sack differential in 2013.
Part 2 of the season preview will be a review of the schedule, and the projected outcome for each game.