The New York Giants have come a long way toward clearing up some of the issues that they had at the start of training camp in terms of various roster spots and personnel packages.
However, there are still some unresolved questions concerning individual, unit, and coaching performances on which the success of the Giants' 2013 season hinges.
What are some of those burning questions? Let’s take a look.
Every year, the Giants' defense, just like any other in the NFL, aspires to be at or near the top of the league
In 2012, however, the Giants didn’t even come close to achieving that goal, finishing 31st overall in the NFL defensive rankings according to the team’s year-end stat package provided to the media.
That stat represents a huge fall from the 2011 season, when the defense finished the regular season ranked first in the NFL as part of a Super Bowl championship team.
The players are confident that last year was not the start of a trend. However, rather than spend too much time talking about it, they’ll be looking to take action to make sure there’s nowhere to go but up.
“(Head) Coach (Tom) Coughlin has a saying, ‘Well done is better than well said,’” said defensive end Justin Tuck. “For me to sit here and talk about what we can do is just words. For us, we’ve really got to get in the mindset of going out there and doing it.”
However, the players also need to be put in the best position to succeed by defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, who—based on the results from last year—didn't have many answers.
While part of that was due to injuries that forced Fewell to deviate from what he had planned to do, a large part was also due to a lack of execution, especially against the run. Still another, lesser-discussed part had to do with communication breakdowns, something which the players and coaches have worked extra hard this summer to eliminate.
This year, Fewell is leaving nothing to chance, especially after losing safety Stevie Brown for the year to a torn ACL.
He's had his players experiment with some 3-4 looks in which defensive ends have been standing up as outside linebackers in pass-rushing situations.
He also has been flipping the roles of his cornerbacks, safeties and defensive ends more this year in an effort to get more production out of the talent he has. And he’s having his assistant coaches make sure that every player is on the same page so that the mental errors and communication breakdowns are a thing of the past.
It remains to be seen if all of these moves result in a more effective Giants defensive unit.
If it doesn’t, then it will be interesting to see if Fewell gets another chance in 2014 to move the Giants defense toward their goal of being among the best in the NFL.
Last year, fans were begging for the Giants to put David Wilson, the team's 2012 first-round draft pick, on the field.
However, the coaches held him back because he struggled to pick up the pass-blocking part of his job description.
This year, Wilson has made progress in the pass-blocking department, though in preseason games, his opportunities have been limited largely by design. This is likely due to Wilson being able to recognize what to do but not showing the proper technique on every snap.
With the return of fullback Henry Hynoski, a move that allows Bear Pascoe to return to his more natural position of tight end, the pass protection part of the game should improve significantly and not have to fall on Wilson’s shoulders as much in the early part of the season.
With all that said, expect Wilson to be the No. 1 back this season, where he’ll also be used as a receiver out of the backfield and possibly split out wide.
Last season with the Oakland Raiders, Brandon Myers had a breakout year, catching 79 of the 101 passes thrown his way (78.2 percent) for 806 yards and four touchdowns.
So can the Giants faithful expect to see similar production out of this key free-agent signing?
If recent history is any indication, the answer is probably not, based on the following regular-season data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) covering the last three seasons:
|Martellus Bennett (2012)||55||88||626||5|
|Jake Ballard (2011)||43||69||647||4|
|Kevin Boss (2010)||35||66||531||5|
The last time a Giants tight end came close to matching Myers' 2012 production with the Raiders was in Shockey's rookie season in 2002, when in former head coach Jim Fassel’s offense, Shockey caught 74 passes for 894 yards and two touchdowns.
Again, recent history would indicate that Myers' 2013 numbers, if he stays healthy, will be modest. The Giants have receiving threats in Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Rueben Randle. Those three, if healthy, should be among quarterback Eli Manning's frequent targets.
The Giants brought a lot of linebackers into training camp. After taking some time to sort through different combinations, it looks like the starting three, at least for the immediate future, will be Keith Rivers on the strong side, Dan Connor in the middle and Spencer Paysinger on the weak side.
Is that the best combination? Well, that depends.
When healthy, Rivers brings both speed and athleticism to the picture, showing the ability to cover from sideline to sideline. As such, he should be an every-down player.
Paysinger has been a surprise in that he’s managed to hold off Jacquian Williams, who was projected to be the starting weak-side linebacker before camp. Williams will still have a big role in the defense's nickel package, where his speed and athleticism should help in coverage.
As for Connor in the middle, judging by the statistics revealed in a study by Pro Football Focus in which the 2011 Giants were found to have used their nickel defense 46 percent of the time, the middle linebacker spot might not matter as much, especially if the defensive line’s performance is improved this year.
The things to watch with this unit, then, are its health—Rivers has yet to make it through a full season since entering the league—and the production from the two outside guys.
If the Giants get lucky in both areas, the linebackers just might be the least of this team’s problems in 2013.
The Giants' offensive line is undergoing a long-overdue renovation. Youth is finally starting to replace longtime veterans.
This year, David Diehl has been replaced by first-rounder Justin Pugh, who was moved into the starting lineup when the struggling Diehl had thumb surgery that will keep him sidelined for six weeks.
Meanwhile, veteran Kevin Boothe has shifted over to center to replace the injured David Baas (knee). James Brewer, the third-year man, will try his hand at left guard.
Down the line, the Giants will probably need to think about grooming a successor to right guard Chris Snee, and they might need to rethink their plan at center. Since signing with the Giants in 2011, Baas has struggled to stay healthy.
However, for the near future, the newly configured line is almost certain to have some early-season growing pains until the chemistry develops. How much those growing pains will affect the offense’s production remains to be seen.
What a difference a year made for the Giants' pass rush which, despite recording 15 more hits on the quarterback in the 2012 regular season, came up with 15 fewer sacks and 14 fewer pass breakups from 2011 to 2012.
While part of the drop-off was due to injuries along the defensive front, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell also was reluctant to send blitzes, instead preferring to try to get things done with the banged-up front four.
That might change this season, especially if the Giants run more 3-4 looks and if Fewell takes advantage of the athleticism he has in linebacker Keith Rivers.
For the Giants to be successful, they will need their pass rush firing on all cylinders.
This summer, the Giants starting offense under quarterback Eli Manning took approximately 94 preseason snaps, and the results were not pretty:
- 33 points (8.25 points per preseason game)
- 26.3 percent third-down conversion rate
- Just one red-zone conversion
Those stats are hardly reflective of the talent the Giants have on offense, the execution of the plays not being anywhere near what Giants fans have come to expect from a Manning-led offense.
However, there are two things to remember before going off the deep end.
One, at no time during the preseason did the projected starting offense play together as a whole. Therefore, it hasn't had any chance to build cohesiveness. Two, there was no real game-planning in the preseason; the offense couldn't adjust to what it was seeing.
“The game-planning is not as extensive as it is in the regular season," explained Manning. "Some of it is not really game-planning. We’ve got a one-on-one matchups (and) we’ve got to win those match-ups. We haven’t done it well enough. We know where we have to improve, though.”
One way they can certainly improve is for each player to do a better job of executing his assignment, something that was a consistent issue throughout the preseason. If they don’t, it could be a long season.
Early in training camp, it looked like Damontre Moore, the talented rookie defensive end, was going to be the toast of the rookie class given his playmaking abilities. However, a shoulder contusion suffered in the first preseason game cost him valuable practice and the final three preseason games, snaps that cannot be made up.
With that said, Moore should still be a contributor on defense this year, though how big of an impact he's able to make remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, Justin Pugh, the team's first-round draft pick who is currently starting at right tackle, will probably be the rookie most likely to make the biggest impact this year.
One of the most pleasant surprises to emerge during Perry Fewell's tenure as this team's defensive coordinator has been the three-safety package, which partially came about as a way to minimize their linebacker issues.
The goal of this package, of course, was to replace a linebacker with a more athletic safety equipped to handle both the run and pass coverage.
However, the summer has not been kind to the Giants at the safety position.
Will Hill, the talented second-year player, will need to sit out the first four games of the season due to his second straight league-imposed suspension, this one for violating the league's policy on substance abuse.
Stevie Brown, the ball-hawking safety who led the team in interceptions last year and who also led the league in interception return yards (307), is out for the season after tearing his ACL in Week 3 of the preseason.
Starter Antrel Rolle should be ready to go on opening day after missing a few days with what he had initially described as a "significant" sprained ankle. Whether the injury lingers, though, remains to be seen.
Finally, promising rookie Cooper Taylor, the team’s fifth-round pick this year who has impressive size and athleticism, has been sidelined most of the summer due to a hamstring issue that cost him valuable practice and game snaps. While he did see action against the Patriots, the missed practice time seems to have caught up with him.
So where does that leave the Giants at this position?
The projected starters will be Rolle and Ryan Mundy. The third safety on the depth chart is Tyler Sash, a hard hitter and solid special teams guy who suffered a concussion in the preseason finale against the Patriots. He would appear to be a question mark for the regular-season opener against Dallas.
The Giants could look to add another safety depending on the severity of Sash's injury, but the thinking is that once Hill’s suspension ends, he’ll likely become the final cog in the three-safety package.
Despite the league's attempts to improve player safety, injuries are still going to happen.
Already the Giants have lost starting safety Stevie Brown for the season to a torn ACL. They are likely going to be without offensive linemen David Diehl, who is recovering from thumb surgery, and David Baas, who has an MCL sprain, for most of September.
Receiver Victor Cruz should be ready after missing the second half of the preseason with a heel contusion, but it remains to be seen if the injury will have any lingering effect. Ditto for safety Antrel Rolle, who should be good to go after sitting out with a sprained ankle.
Cornerback Corey Webster is returning from summer-long groin and knee issues, so who knows how effective he’ll be. In addition, the sprained ankle suffered by Jayron Hosley could be a concern moving forward.
Finally, the Giants suffered three potentially big injuries in their preseason finale which will have a direct effect on the final roster. These injuries include a broken left leg suffered by running back Andre Brown, a foot injury suffered by tight end Adrien Robinson, and a concussion suffered by safety Tyler Sash.
The good news, as of this writing, is that all of the injuries (with the exception of Stevie Brown's) are not season-ending. Andre Brown, who will certainly miss time, will likely receive the temporary IR designation come Sept. 3 and miss at least six weeks.
If the Giants can can avoid any more major injuries, they should be fine moving forward.
However, if the injury bug continues to strike down key players, what started out to be a promising season could suddenly take a turn for the worst.
Patricia Traina is the senior editor of Inside Football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.