Mark Herzlich is battling to become the Giants starting middle linebacker–one of three positions that will be settled in training camp for the team.
While many of their starters are set, the New York Giants will still have several interesting position battles in training camp.
Middle linebacker and the third wide receiver positions are question marks because Chase Blackburn and Domenik Hixon both fled to the Carolina Panthers in free agency. Right tackle is in play partly due to David Diehl’s ineffectiveness in 2012. Another factor is the presence of first round draft choice Justin Pugh, who would love to pay immediate dividends by starting at the only position available on the offensive line.
There are a few other battles that will be worth watching when Big Blue gathers at the Timex Performance Canter starting on July 26. They’ll be touched on here but the major emphasis will be the competition at the aforementioned three positions.
1. Middle Linebacker
When the Giants signed Dan Connor back in March, he appeared to be the likely replacement for Blackburn. Mark Herzlich apparently didn’t get the memo because his play in offseason workouts has made him the front runner to land the starting middle linebacker role heading into training camp.
Connor’s credibility as a bona-fide starter was questionable given his body of work through the first five seasons of his NFL career.
The former Dallas Cowboy and Carolina Panther has been astonishingly inept at making impact plays, as you can see in the chart below:
|Player||Snaps||Sacks||INTs||Forced Fumbles||Pass Defenses|
In a little over a season's worth of snaps, Connor has registered a grand total of four impact plays. The fact that he has never had an interception is amazing considering the position he plays definitely has a heavy dose of coverage duties.
In addition, Connor has never had more than 500 snaps in a single season. It is hard to trust someone with a starting role if he's never shown the ability to play full-time.
Connor’s recent arrest won’t help his candidacy either but the incident doesn’t appear to be serious enough to cause any real damage.
Herzlich, on the other hand, may be finally making a full athletic recovery from the cancer he battled and overcame four years ago. He was seen playing a lot faster in OTAs and looked noticeably better athletically then he did in his first two NFL seasons.
If Herzlich can get back to even 90 percent of his pre-cancer form, New York will have a real find. As the video below demonstrates, the 25-year-old was a talent worthy of a top-ten pick in his first three seasons at Boston College:
The statistics back up what you see, especially when you look at his junior season.
In 2008, Herzlich registered 110 tackles, six interceptions (two went for touchdowns), 2.5 sacks, 14 pass defenses and two forced fumbles. He also had 11 tackles for losses.
Now that is a great example of accumulating some impact plays.
2. Third Wide Receiver
This competition pits experience versus talent.
The experience belongs to Louis Murphy, who has four NFL seasons and 57 games to his credit. While the former Carolina Panther and Oakland Raider owns 115 receptions and seven touchdowns in his career, he has had a disturbing problem of diminishing returns over the last few seasons.
In 2011 and 2012 combined, Murphy only caught one touchdown and hauled in 40 receptions compared to six touchdowns and 75 catches in his first two years in the league.
Also, Murphy is a bit one-dimensional. While he has good speed and a knack for getting behind the defense (his 14.8 yards per catch average is a good indicator of this skill), he does not provide much else.
Rueben Randle, the other candidate in this battle, certainly has the talent to beat out Murphy. The second-year player demonstrates the many different ways he can beat a secondary in the below highlights video from his rookie season:
Randle only had 19 catches for 298 yards in 2012 but even with this limited production, he proved that he could make catches in the middle of the field, over the top and even break multiple tackles after a reception. He also flashed a consistent ability to out jump cornerbacks for the ball.
If offseason workouts are any indicator, Randle appears to be cultivating this talent. Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride had no trouble expressing his delight, at the conclusion of minicamp in mid-June, in the 22-year-old’s growth this offseason (as told by Kieran Darcy of ESPNNewYork.com):
"Rueben you saw emerge from a guy that showed flashes at times and always caught the ball well, but maybe didn't always run the routes as precisely, as crisply as you wanted, didn't have quite the understanding you wanted. [Over the past month] he looked like a guy that's been here for five or six years. He really benefited from the opportunity.
His whole demeanor, his whole professionalism was outstanding, Gilbride said. Now, is that because [Nicks and Cruz] weren't here, or because he got more reps, I don't know. But he certainly stepped into a leadership role. Not only did he grow, he kind of became the bell cow of the receiving corps. He was first in line and did all those things. That was not what we saw last year, not by a long shot. So to see him grow like that was a great step forward for him that will help us down the road."
This type of praise certainly leads one to believe that the third wide receiver spot is Randle’s to lose in training camp.
3. Right Tackle
Diehl is the incumbent at this position but he is certainly not guaranteed to start after a poor 2012. Unfortunately, according to Pro Football Focus, last season was Diehl’s best in quite some time. As you can see in the chart below, the 32-year-old has been a poor offensive lineman since 2010.
|David Diehl's PFF Ratings, 2010-12|
|Year||Snaps||Overall Rating||Run Block Rating||Pass Block Rating|
|2010||797 (LT & LG)||-20.6||-7.3||-16.0|
|2011||1,102 (LT & LG||-40.0||-9.2||-32.0|
Despite this woeful production, especially in regards to pass protection, Diehl still has the support of Gilbride. He also can take solace in the fact that his main competition, Justin Pugh, is a rookie.
Head coach Tom Coughlin has always been wary of trusting rookies and his track record backs this up. He has only started a rookie in Week 1 twice; the first was Chris Snee at right guard in 2004 and the second was Barry Cofield in 2006 at defensive tackle.
Pugh will get a chance to win the job but he’ll not only have to overcome recent history but also the fact that he has never played right tackle before.
One other candidate to consider is James Brewer. He is entering his third NFL season and the Giants would love to finally get some production out of their 2011 fourth round pick (he only has 34 offensive snaps in his short career). The problem with taking Brewer seriously is that he lacks quickness, which is a necessary asset when trying to protect the edge.
Also, he doesn’t appear to be getting any better, based on offensive line coach Pat Flaherty’s assessment of his play in offseason workouts.
Starting Cornerback: A bad training camp could conceivably make Corey Webster vulnerable as the starter opposite Prince Amukamara. It is difficult to envision Webster, however, being beaten out by the likes of Jayron Hosley and Aaron Ross.
Placekicker: The only reason that this is a competition is because the Giants inexplicably have two placekickers under contract—Josh Brown and David Buehler. Brown clearly has the advantage, given his experience and the fact that Buehler has only kicked field goals in the NFL for one season—in 2010 with the Cowboys.
The more intriguing storyline to watch will be whether Big Blue keeps Buehler on to handle kickoffs. He led the league in 2009 with 29 touchbacks.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus
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