7 Missing Pieces New York Giants Must Find

Kevin BoilardCorrespondent IMay 7, 2013

7 Missing Pieces New York Giants Must Find

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    Last month’s NFL draft was just another piece of the puzzle for New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese, who will look to flesh out his roster in the coming months before paring it down to 53 men by the end of preseason.

    Reese and the Giants have been mending last season’s deficiencies since free agency began in mid-March.  Although clever drafting and frugal free-agency acquisitions have allowed Giants fans to rest easy, some holes are not yet completely filled.

    At some positions, there is sufficient talent and competition for the starting job—the only question being which player will nab it?  At other positions, New York would benefit from scouring what’s left of the free-agency market.

    This slideshow will highlight seven missing pieces that the Giants must find before Week 1 of the 2013 season.

Third Running Back

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    The Giants have an electrifying athlete in David Wilson at running back. He has the ability to earn the starting job in New York’s backfield, but he must first prove his value to a coaching staff that didn’t offer him much slack as a rookie.

    Behind him is Andre Brown, who is returning under a one-year tender after ending his breakout campaign prematurely with a broken leg and a trip to injured reserve.  Brown averaged a team-leading 5.3 yards per carry in 2012, but he has been a fragile back, dating back to his college days at North Carolina State.

    Behind Wilson and Brown, the Giants have very little depth. There is third-year speedster Da’Rel Scott from Maryland, who has recorded only 11 carries in two seasons’ time.

    There is also Ryan Torain, a former Redskin who was picked up midseason last year but did not touch the field. Finally, there is seventh-round draft choice Michael Cox of UMass, who is coming out of college with a large frame, but not much production to back it up.

    The Giants have flirted with another former Redskins running back, Tim Hightower, inviting him to visit the team facility, but a contract does not appear to be imminent.

Starting Right Tackle

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    Over the weekend, I brought up the Giants’ starting right tackle position (for a second time), since it appears to be up for grabs.  Rookie offensive lineman Justin Pugh, a first-rounder from Syracuse, is the fan favorite for the starting job, earning just over 50 percent of the vote in a readers’ poll.

    Coughlin is usually hesitant to start rookies, though, and some experts see Pugh as a more natural fit at guard.  If that is the case, James Brewer, a third-year mammoth, becomes veteran David Diehl’s biggest competition to usurp the starting role.

    Diehl, a mainstay along New York’s offensive front since 2003, has great versatility, making him a valuable stopgap at either guard or tackle.  However, Diehl is over the proverbial football hill, and his poor performance as the team’s starting right tackle has been costly at times.

    Brewer is much larger than both Diehl and Pugh, but he has been slow to develop since the Giants selected him in the fourth round of the 2011 draft.  He has ideal size for an NFL offensive tackle, but if his ability is not up to par, the Giants could find themselves in a bind.

    With no clear-cut solution at the position, New York may be forced into starting Diehl at right tackle for a third straight season.  If veteran Sean Locklear (currently a free agent) fully recovers from his ACL injury, he will become a plausible option.  At Locklear’s age (31), however, that is a very big “if.”

Pass-Rushing Defensive Tackle

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    Second-round selection Johnathan Hankins added some much-needed beef to the Giants’ interior defensive line. The 320-pound rookie is expected to team up with last season’s starter Linval Joseph (323 lbs) and 34-year-old Shaun Rogers (350 lbs) as the primary run-stuffers. 

    Cutting Chris Canty may have saved the Giants some cap space, but it also left the team without it’s best pass-rusher from the defensive tackle position. New York aimed to replace Canty’s production with the addition of Cullen Jenkins, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. Jenkins is no sure bet, though, since he has only collected 4.5 sacks in his last 27 games.

    Other potential pass-rushers are Marvin Austin, who has, so far, been a disappointment, and Mike Patterson, Jenkins’ former teammate with the Eagles. Markus Kuhn, who is recovering from a torn ACL, will also be in the mix after seeing an unexpected amount of playing time as a rookie.

    Although it would be exciting to watch Austin, a former second-round selection, find his niche after two dull, wounded seasons had him on the fast track toward draft bust, this is a competition that Jenkins may win by default.

Strong-Side Linebacker

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    True defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka is expected to line up with his hand in the turf in 2013.  Although the switch places Kiwanuka at a position in which he is most effective—evidenced by the six tackles and two sacks he had against the Packers in 2012—it also leaves a vacancy at strong-side linebacker. 

    Keith Rivers, an injury-prone linebacker with exceptional range, was re-signed to a one-year deal in March; he will compete for the starting job. Rivers’ impact was noticeable when on the field last season, which wasn’t very often.

    Jacquian Williams, a former sixth-rounder (2011) and Jason Pierre-Paul's teammate at Southern Florida, is more likely to start on the weak side. Spencer Paysinger and a new wave of undrafted free agents, including Virginia Tech’s Alonzo Tweedy, will push for backup roles on the outside.

    This is a position in which the Giants can afford to upgrade. If Rivers goes down with an injury (likely), it wouldn’t be surprising to see defensive coordinator Perry Fewell fall back on Kiwanuka at linebacker. 

    New York avoided many of the popular linebackers on the early free-agent market and in the draft, despite pleas from the fans. Free agent Aaron Curry is the latest linebacker on the Giants’ radar.

Middle Linebacker

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    After turning down a veteran minimum offer from the Giants, Chase Blackburn signed on with the Carolina Panthers. Blackburn wasn’t an ideal starter—more of a perfect backup—with the Giants, and his departure was countered by signing former Dallas Cowboy Dan Connor.

    Mark Herzlich was never able to beat out Blackburn in a battle of former UDFAs, but the Ewing's sarcoma survivor’s chances of landing a starting job are sure to increase in 2013. 

    Blackburn was not superior to Herzlich athletically; if anything, it was the other way around.  Blackburn’s upper hand always came from his experience, knowledge and leadership, which were a byproduct of his seven-and-a-half seasons with the Giants.

    With Blackburn out of the picture, Herzlich only has to beat out the new guy, Connor, who is certainly more athletic than Blackburn, but not out of Herzlich’s league by any means.  Herzlich will start training camp with two years worth of experience in Perry Fewell’s system under his belt, while Connor enters camp tabula rasa.

    This will be one of the most thrilling position battles of training camp, one that has the potential to be neck-and-neck throughout the preseason. Right now, a front-runner cannot be determined. The dark horse in this race is another UFA, Jake Muasau, who spent the 2012 season on the practice squad. 

Third Safety

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    The Giants lost starting strong safety Kenny Phillips to free agency (Philadelphia Eagles) in March, but New York has plenty of talented young athletes to compete for the now-vacant starting job. 

    When the team lost Phillips to injury in 2012, Stevie Brown stepped into the starting role.  Eight interceptions later, Brown is heading into camp as the leading candidate for Phillips’ full-time replacement.

    Often, Fewell’s Giants line up in a three-safety set, so another defensive back besides Brown and incumbent starter Antrel Rolle will see significant playing time in 2013. Will Hill is a safety who can make an impact in the box, even as a blitzer. Hill could end up being the perfect fire to Brown’s earth and Rolle’s wind.

    The Giants also plucked Ryan Mundy from the Pittsburgh Steelers via free agency, adding depth and competition for the third safety role.

    Fifth-round selection Cooper Taylor, a 6'4", 228-pound safety from Richmond, has some interesting potential, either in the Giants’ defensive backfield or as a linebacker. Terrell Thomas, a cornerback by trade, has an outside chance to earn the role. Third-year safety Tyler Sash’s stock is plummeting.

    Brown is not a lock to start in place of Phillips. A lot will happen between now and September 8, when the Giants kick off the 2013 season against the Cowboys. Safety is a position that will undergo a lot of development. These young prospects will be shuffled a few times to ensure the best fit.

Third/Slot Cornerback

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    Two offseasons ago, it looked as if the Giants would field one of the strongest, deepest cornerback units in the league. Now, it is arguably New York’s biggest weakness and largest question mark heading into training camp. 

    Prince Amukamara, a former first-rounder, and Corey Webster, who took a pay cut to stay with the team, figure to be the starting corners. They have both lagged in coverage while struggling to overcome injuries recently.

    After Amukamara and Webster, however, the uncertainty looms even larger. The third corner, usually designated to cover the slot receiver, is especially important to the Giants, considering how often the unit is banged up. 

    After celebrating Super Bowl XLVI with a year-long “vacation” trip to Jacksonville, Aaron Ross is ready to go back to work in New York. The former first-round selection’s biggest competition for the slot corner duties will be second-year man Jayron Hosley.

    Hosley is undersized, but quick enough to excel covering smaller, shiftier slot receivers. If Hosley stays healthy, he might be able to jump Ross on the depth chart, considering Ross' brief stint with the Jags now has him a year removed from New York football. Terrell Thomas could also see some time, if his knee holds up and he isn't moved to safety.