Eli Manning and 5 Other Players the New York Giants Can't Afford to Lose in 2012
The New York Giants appeared destined to fail before the 2011 season began.
General manager Jerry Reese's laid-back approach in free agency had NFL fans and analysts nationwide crying aghast, especially because he allowed both Steve Smith and Kevin Boss—two vital cogs in Big Blue's Super Bowl XLII run—to sign with the Eagles and Raiders, respectively. The Giants' biggest offseason splash was the signing of center David Baas.
To make matters worse, Philadelphia was doing everything New York wasn't. The Eagles were given the 2011 free-agency crown for their acquisitions of cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, defensive linemen Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins and quarterback Vince Young.
A string of devastating injuries appeared to further doom Big Blue's chances of success. Corners Bruce Johnson and first-round pick Prince Amukamara both went down in training camp, a mere prelude to an even more-disastrous preseason.
Big Blue lost second-round pick Marvin Austin, middle linebacker and captain Jonathan Goff, and cornerbacks Brian Witherspoon and Terrell Thomas, the latter of which led Big Blue in tackles in 2010.
The Giants looked weaker than ever going into their Week 1 game at Washington. Beset by injury problems and overshadowed by the Eagles' dream-team moniker, the team needed to win right away—not only for the sake of maintaining inter-city supremacy over the loud-mouthed Jets but also to keep coach Tom Coughlin off the hot seat.
That Big Blue would finish the 2011 season brandishing its second Lombardi Trophy in the last five seasons—against the mighty Patriots, no less—is almost unthinkable.
The Giants were written off multiple times throughout the season, most notably when they hit a four-game skid in November that appeared to put their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy. With their backs against the wall, they won three of four and rode that late-season momentum into the playoffs.
The one constant throughout the Giants' 2011 season was Eli Manning, and for Big Blue to have a shot at defending its Super Bowl title, he will need to reprise his mastery from the pocket to the tune of another 4,900-yard season.
Eli's health is imperative, that's not up for debate. But who else do the Giants need to stay healthy this season in order to avoid a Super Bowl hangover?
The Giants were a pass-heavy offense last season, and that figures to be the case in 2012, but one of the main reasons for the Giants' playoff success was the hard-running of Bradshaw, who forced opposing defenses to play linebackers near the line of scrimmage rather than helping out in coverage.
The seventh-round pick is hard to bring down in between the tackles and rarely gets caught from behind. More importantly, he fumbled just one time last season, an indication that his biggest flaw may finally have been resolved.
But for Bradshaw to contribute this season, he will need to stay on the field. Easier said than done, as the 26-year-old is already showing signs of poor health heading into offseason workouts. Bradshaw currently faces a three-month recovery after undergoing surgery on the same foot that has troubled him for much of his career.
With Jacobs gone, Big Blue will rely on D.J. Ware to spot Bradshaw, who is almost certain to miss at least one game this season. Ware, who rushed for 163 yards on 46 attempts last season, showed signs that he's ready for an increased role, but don't be surprise if the Giants address their running back depth as early as the first or second round in the upcoming draft.
When healthy, Bradshaw is one of the better backs in the NFC. But teams are increasingly moving away from one running-back systems, and Bradshaw is no longer reliable as a bell cow, every-down back. If he were to miss time this season, though, the Giants would have to find a way to score points with a less-than-desirable run game.
While the Giants struggled against the pass for most of the season, that is no knock on Webster, who has continued to develop in Perry Fewell's scheme, firmly establishing himself as one of the league's elite cornerbacks.
Webster has struggled against bigger, more-physical receivers, but the former LSU Tiger was more physical at the line of scrimmage in 2011, disrupting routes and locking down some of the league's best pass-catchers.
But even he couldn't prevent Big Blue's struggles against the pass last season. The injuries to Thomas, Johnson and Witherspoon meant that Aaron Ross was the primary starter opposite Webster. Ross was frequently victimized by opposing quarterbacks, struggling in both man and zone packages.
While he improved his play throughout the postseason, the Giants weren't too hung up when Ross signed a three-year deal with Jacksonville last month.
But his departure could become a major issue if Webster goes down, as Big Blue would be forced to rely on Amukamara, the talented but unseasoned 2011 first-round pick.
Webster was the reason the Giants pass defense was somewhat respectable throughout the playoffs. He has developed into one of their most consistent defensive players, one of the leaders in the secondary.
Matching up with the opposing team's best receiver has become a thing of habit for Webster, and he's winning those battles more than ever before. No one else on the Giants' roster could fill that role.
The Giants were already thin on the offensive line before stalwart right tackle Kareem McKenzie decided to leave via free agency. McKenzie's departure leaves Big Blue in a precarious position, as Will Beatty and David Diehl are now the only two tackles on the roster with any real experience.
Beatty was effective at left tackle last season, but he was placed on injured reserve with an eye injury after just 10 games. Diehl slipped into Beatty's spot but was mediocre at best. He consistently struggled with speed rushers, most notably in the NFC championship game, when Manning found himself picking dirt clumps out of his facemask on nearly every play.
Diehl can play left tackle, but if he's forced to play there an entire season, it would spell doom for the Giants' playoff hopes.
Of course, if Beatty stays healthy and builds on his impressive play through 10 games last season, Diehl can play his more natural position, guard. Either way, the Giants will need to add some depth to the offensive line in the draft or via free agency—they've already signed guard Chris White and tackle Joel Reinders, both of whom are undrafted free agents.
Left tackle is one of the most important positions in football, especially in a pass-heavy scheme like the Giants'. There's no question that Eli can have another Pro Bowl-caliber season, but so much of that is dependent upon how much time he has in the pocket and how well his blind side is protected.
Beatty needs to stay on the field so that Manning stays upright.
Victor Cruz became the Giants' most popular receiver by the end of the regular season, but Nicks wasn't to be outdone in the playoffs, where he recorded a team-high 444 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Despite his tendency to drop passes, Nicks has developed into one of the league's most dangerous receivers. His athleticism is unquestionable: The 6'1", 208-lb wideout has the ability both to out-jump and out-run defensive backs.
Nicks was the main reason Manning was able to elevate his game last season. Even if he doesn't catch the ball, his deep routes force multiple DBs to follow him downfield, opening up crossing patterns for Cruz, Jake Ballard and co.
Nicks' health will be imperative this season, especially with the recent departure of Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham. Manningham's versatility as both a deep threat and a capable slot guy made him one of Manning's favorite targets, and he also gave Nicks more room to work on the outside.
With Manningham gone, Nicks will face more bracket coverages this year, but he will still be Manning's go-to guy. Were he to go down, the Giants would have to rely on one of their many unproven receivers, a group that includes Ramses Barden and Jerrel Jernigan.
The loss of Manningham was a huge blow to the Giants' Super Bowl repeat hopes, but an injury to Nicks would be even worse.
Jason Pierre-Paul was the Giants' most improved player last season, abolishing the "raw" label while developing into one of the league's most dominant pass-rushers. Pierre-Paul compiled 86 tackles and 16.5 sacks last season, leading the Giants in the latter category.
With the recent departure of Dave Tollefson and Justin Tuck's nagging injuries, it will be even more important that Pierre-Paul play Defensive POY-caliber football this season.
Big Blue's strength on defense has always been its pass rush. Such was the case throughout its playoff run, when even mobile quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith were at the mercy of the dynamic "NASCAR" package.
The Giants' have holes throughout the secondary and linebacking core, but they were able to cover up those weaknesses because of the consist play from their defensive line. Pierre-Paul epitomized that consistency all season, and he will need to do that again in 2012.
If Pierre-Paul were to go down, there is no one on the Giants' roster—or in the entire NFL, for that matter—who can replace his production. Even with the likely return of Osi Umenyiora, Pierre-Paul remains the most important player in Perry Fewell's defense.
An injury to JPP would decimate the Giants' biggest strength: their pass rush.
When Manning called himself an elite quarterback before last season, he ignited a storm of criticism, most of which contended that the 31-year-old was far from entering the Brady-Brees-Rodgers-Manning (Peyton) class.
Eli silenced those critics in the best way possible, leading the injury-depleted G-men to their second Super Bowl title in the last five years—both of those wins coming against the consensus best quarterback of the 21st century, Tom Brady.
I'm not really sure I can put into words what it would mean for the Giants if Manning were to get injured. He threw for a career-high 4,933 yards last season and nine fewer interceptions than the previous year. More importantly, he continued to prove that he's one of the best clutch quarterbacks in the league.
For the second time in his career, Manning proved that mid-season mediocrity is nothing to worry about in the Big Apple. The Giants were left for dead after their four-game skid in November. But Big Blue got hot at the right time—thanks to Manning's elevated play—and that's all that matters.
Were Manning to suffer an injury, the Giants would be forced to rely on 2002 No. 1 overall pick David Carr. What would Carr do for the Giants' hopes for a Super Bowl repeat?
Let's just say that the more time Carr spends with a clipboard, the better.