New York Giants: 4 Position Competitions to Watch Against the Browns and Beyond

Kevin BoilardCorrespondent IOctober 6, 2012

New York Giants: 4 Position Competitions to Watch Against the Browns and Beyond

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    For yet another season, the New York Giants have been hobbled by injuries.  The team’s injury report against the Browns has reached 13 players, a season high.

    With five of those 13 injured players already declared out for the game against Cleveland and two more listed as “doubtful,” the Giants will surely need some reserve players to step up and fill the gaps.

    This season, the Giants have already had a few backups excel when given the chance to run with the starters.  New York will continue to ask some of those backups to produce moving forward, as the team shows no signs of getting healthier anytime soon.

    As a direct result of the injuries, there will be a few battles to fill the voids left at those positions.  This article will highlight four competitions to keep an eye on during the Browns game, and for some, the remainder of the season.

Rueben Randle vs. Jerrel Jernigan

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    Week 5 will be the third week in a row that Eli Manning and the Giants offense will be without their top wide receiver, Hakeem Nicks.  His absence becomes a bit more significant against the Browns, though, because late-blooming receiver Ramses Barden will also be missing the game with a concussion.

    Domenik Hixon, who hauled in six catches for 114 yards in place of Nicks a week ago, will be a sure start opposite Victor Cruz against the Browns. 

    However, Barden’s injury raises a looming question mark at the team’s third wide receiver position.  New York will need at least one of the two other receivers currently on the roster to help ease the pain for an aching unit.

    After Hixon and Cruz, rookie Rueben Randle may be the first wideout called into duty on Sunday.  Randle hasn’t exactly experienced a warm welcome to the NFL; the rookie’s work ethic has been in question by teammates and media outlets all week.

    Cruz’s “lollygagging” accusations may have been the most scathing comments made about Randle, but Hixon, Manning, Tom Coughlin and Kevin Gilbride have all weighed in on the rookie’s impact as well (h/t Paul Schwartz, New York Post).  Randle was able to shrug off the harsh words from his critics, setting the stage for a “prove it” game against the Browns this Sunday.

    For the most part, Coughlin backed Randle, calling him a “young guy that wants to do well,” but he knows that won’t directly translate into success on game day (h/t Jorge Castillo, The Star-Ledger).  That’s why Coughlin specified that second-year receiver Jerrel Jernigan has a role in Sunday’s game as well.

    If Randle gets off to a slow start, it would be extremely surprising to see Jernigan have an explosive performance in his relief.  The former third-round draft pick out of Troy has yet to catch a pass with the Giants, as the young pass-catcher has struggled to adjust to the professional game.

    Still, Jernigan will have to come out fighting on Sunday if he wants to avoid becoming completely irrelevant.  In the preseason, he lost his job as a return man due to ball security issues, and since then, Jernigan has been a bottom-feeder on New York’s depth chart.

    Both Randle and Jernigan should be highly motivated to make a difference against the Browns.  It should be fun to watch them duke it out.

Stevie Brown vs. Tyler Sash (and Will Hill)

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    Against Philadelphia, Giants strong safety Kenny Phillips went down with a sprained MCL.  Since he was drafted in 2008, Phillips has been an integral part of the Giants secondary.  But on Sunday, New York will be without their trusty center fielder.

    Free safety Antrel Rolle is also banged up with a knee injury, so whoever fills in at safety for the Giants will have a slim margin for error.

    When Phillips went down against the Eagles, it was first-year Giant Stevie Brown who replaced him in the defensive backfield.  Surprisingly, Brown’s transition was virtually seamless, as he collected seven tackles (two for a loss) in last week’s game.

    Coughlin praised Brown’s hard work and preparation in practice, telling Long Island Newsday’s Tom Rock that the team is “very confident that he’s going to get the job done.”  That’s reassuring, because even the slightest mistake at safety can result in a big play for the opposition.

    The Giants will also have Tyler Sash available against the Browns.  Sash spent the first four games of the season serving a suspension for PED use over the offseason.  Sash may have to wait even longer to play, though, as Coughlin has yet to announce whether he’ll be active or not against the Browns.

    Sash, a second-year player out of Iowa, has never started a game with the Giants, but he has been a reliable backup and big contributor on special teams.  He is arguably more familiar with the defensive scheme than Brown, making him less of a liability in coverage.

    Undrafted free agent Will Hill will also get into the mix, but more so as a nickel cornerback rather than a traditional safety.  He had three tackles (two solo) and a pass defense against the Eagles last week.

    All three players should be hungry for a chance to make an impact against the Browns.  Expect all three hardworking safeties to make the most of their opportunities.

Marvin Austin vs. Markus Kuhn

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    Starting defensive tackle Rocky Bernard joins Phillips as one of the newest additions to the Giants’ injury report.  Bernard will miss the Cleveland game with a quad injury.

    New York is already thin at defensive tackle; third-year player Linval Joseph suddenly becomes the seasoned veteran in the Giants’ interior defensive line, as both of Bernard’s backups are extremely inexperienced.

    Marvin Austin, the Giants’ second-round draft pick in 2011, may end up getting the start in place of Bernard.  Austin is an athletic specimen, but he is still very raw.  After missing all of last year on injured reserve with a pectoral injury, Austin has struggled to find his place in the Giants defense.

    Austin made his NFL debut against the Panthers two weeks ago, but he only played five snaps against the Eagles last week.  He’ll need to show that he can provide a much larger presence against the Browns if he wants to become a cog in the Giants’ long-term plans at defensive tackle.

    However, if Austin is considered a “raw” talent, then rookie Markus Kuhn is basically a blank slate.  The seventh-round draft pick was labeled a developmental project almost immediately, but he has since been thrust into the Giants' defensive plans for 2012.

    Kuhn has played respectably while learning the game along the way.  He has rotated in as the team’s third defensive tackle and has made a few plays on special teams. 

    This Sunday’s matchup with Cleveland will easily be the biggest game of Kuhn’s short NFL career so far, as the Giants will probably ask him to play a substantial role in stopping Browns running back Trent Richardson.

    Austin and Kuhn are definitely the two most inexperienced players with a chance to make an impact on Sunday.  Whichever one plays with more confidence may end up receiving the majority of the playing time.

Ahmad Bradshaw vs. Andre Brown (and David Wilson)

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    Starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw actually avoided the injury report this week, but his position battle with Andre Brown will surely continue into the Cleveland game.  In fact, this is a competition that should last the rest of the season and possibly even extend into future seasons.

    The conflict began when Bradshaw went down against the Buccaneers with a neck injury, forcing him to miss the Panthers' game the following week.  In his absence, Brown performed incredibly, racking up over 100 yards and a touchdown against Carolina in Week 3.

    Bradshaw was able to easily reclaim his starting job against the Eagles last Sunday, but after a lackluster rushing performance, Brown still leads the team with 198 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries. 

    Brown’s effectiveness in the running game has caused Giants fans to lose patience with Bradshaw, whose running style has left something to be desired as of late.

    Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride explained that Bradshaw’s playing time is a result of his pass-blocking expertise, as reported by Jorge Castillo of The Star-Ledger

    Gilbride said that Brown hasn’t yet earned the coaching staff’s trust in pass protection, which is why he only played in nine of the Giants’ 68 offensive snaps against the Eagles.  Compare that to the 58 snaps that Bradshaw played against Philadelphia.

    Brown may have to deal with a minor role for the time being, but as he starts to gain a better understanding of the blitz pickups, expect him to cut deeper and deeper into Bradshaw’s carries.

    This complicates things, of course, for rookie running back David Wilson, who is supposed to be the Giants’ back of the future.  After an impressive performance returning kicks against the Eagles in which he averaged 36.2 yards per return, Wilson also deserves a few carries against the Browns.

    The Giants will try to keep all of their backs happy, but they run the risk of muddling up an offensive backfield that already ranks 23rd in the league in rushing.