The New York Giants began defending their title the day after Super Bowl XLVI. That's how things work in this wacky league of ours. But that quest for a repeat is raised to a new level tonight in Jacksonville, where the Giants will take to the field for game action for the first time since this.
Here's what/who we'll be watching closely...
A Potential Franchise Back Launches His Career
We touched on this in this morning's links post. The final pick of the first round of the NFL draft is expected to be on full display tonight as he attempts to climb the Giants' running back depth chart. Virginia Tech product David Wilson hasn't been running with the big boys very often thus far in training camp, but the Giants will want to get a feel for how much he can contribute early because there's no telling how long Ahmad Bradshaw will stay healthy.
The Giants had the league's worst-ranked running game last year. Brandon Jacobs is gone, but he was useless for the majority of 2011 anyway. Bradshaw is back, but he's brittle. Wilson has the speed and the skill to re-energize this backfield, but he'll have to prove to the coaching staff that he can be relied upon as a runner and a blocker.
And it's not just Bradshaw and Wilson. He'll have to fight off DJ Ware, Andre Brown and Da'Rel Scott to earn reps, so it'll be fun to see how this four-man battle plays out, starting tonight.
The Battle for the No. 3 Receiver Job Takes Off
Domenik Hixon has the early edge in the race to replace Mario Manningham, and he'll have a chance to establish some separation in a starting role tonight. Hixon, who's played in just two games since 2009 due to knee problems, is filling in for the injured Hakeem Nicks.
But Jerrel Jernigan, Ramses Barden and Rueben Randle are all younger and probably have more upside, which means many Giants fans will be hoping to see at least one of those guys emerge this preseason. Jernigan has had a clear edge in camp, but Barden hasn't been shabby either and there are particularly high expectations for Randle, a second-round rookie out of LSU.
And then there are two darkhorse undrafted free agents in David Douglas and Brandon Collins, both of whom could have some Victor Cruz in them.
We won't find out tonight who the third receiver's going to be on Sept. 5, but we should get some clarity.
Chase Blackburn Battles Mark Herzlich
Blackburn is still penciled in as the starting middle linebacker, but Herzlich has looked great in his second training camp—probably better than Blackburn, who might be starting by default after playing a heroic role in the Super Bowl victory over New England.
It's one thing for a backup to outplay a starter in practice, but if that carries over to game action tonight (and beyond), Herzlich will eventually gain more reps than Blackburn.
Of course, it's also possible that a big preseason lifts Keith Rivers over both of those guys. Keep a close eye on all three of those players tonight (although Rivers will be playing with the second team on the strong side).
Prince Amukamara gets his first start
The 2011 first-round pick is the first man up as the Giants attempt to replace Terrell Thomas, who is very likely to miss at least a game or two. Amukamara struggled last season in limited action, but his injured foot played a huge role, as did the fact that he was robbed of an offseason and a training camp.
Amukamara has had a strong camp, but if he struggles against the Jaguars, it wouldn't surprise me if Michael Coe gained some first-team reps in the weeks to come. Considering the state of Thomas' knee, the man who wins that competition could be a key contributor throughout 2012.
The pressure's on.
Enjoy the return of football, Giants fans. Tonight should be fun. Check back tomorrow for my thoughts on the preseason opener.