Despite a competitive NFC East in 2008, the New York Giants coasted toward their first division title since 2000. It certainly will not be as easy this season with a number of question marks staring Big Blue in the face before training camp.
To New York's credit, it addressed its most glaring need in the off season by drafting wide receiver Hakeem Nicks out of North Carolina in the first round. At six feet, Nicks is not the big target that Plaxico Burress was for the Giants, but he will need to find his role in an offense filled with undersized receivers.
Perhaps 6-foot-6-inch rookie Ramses Barden could be the diamond in the rough the Giants need but that's asking a lot from a third-round draft pick.
Eli Manning will have an array of targets to throw to, including Domenik Hixon, Steve Smith, Sinorice Moss and Mario Manningham. But after Burress was sidelined, none of these receivers proved capable of making a big play as the G-Men sputtered to a 1-4 finish.
Burress was also Manning's safety net, a tall receiver who Manning could throw it up to in the face of pressure. Without Burress at the end of last season, Manning had trouble getting into a groove and the Giants' vertical passing game was nonexistent.
Tight end Kevin Boss could prove to be extremely valuable as another option in the pass attack. If Boss can establish himself as a legitimate threat, it will allow the other receivers to get open. Don't sleep on rookie tight end Travis Beckum either.
Fortunately for Manning, the entire offensive line that paved the way for the top-ranked rushing attack will return. The running back trio of Earth, Wind and Fire will be without Wind, as Derrick Ward departed New York to play for Tampa Bay.
The burden will be on Brandon Jacobs to make sure the Giants establish the bruising running game they used against opponents last season. Ahmad Bradshaw will likely get Ward's carries and will be a vital change-of-pace back from Jacobs.
The biggest loss for the Giants' D is that of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Spags departed Big Blue to take the helm in St. Louis, a move that was not a matter of if, but when.
After the Giants won Super Bowl XLII, Spagnuolo became the sexy coordinator that every team wanted to fill its head coach vacancy with. After 2008, Spags' $2 million a year became too much for the Giants to handle, even if they had fallen in love with the D-coordinator's aggressive and confusing blitz schemes.
Former linebacker's coach Bill Sheridan will take over the duties as defensive coordinator. Indeed, the linebacker core remains the biggest question for Big Blue's defensive unit this year.
While Antonio Pierce has been the heart and soul of the Giants for the past four seasons, he has showed signs of slowing down at the middle linebacker position. Keep an eye out for Mathias Kiwanuka, who will get significant playing time at linebacker with the return of Osi Umenyiora to the defensive line.
Even with Kiwanuka, the Giants lack depth at linebacker and Sheridan will need to be just as creative as his predecessor to turn the defense into a formidable one.
The return of Umenyiora to the front four is tremendous because it gives Big Blue options in the pass rush. Osi will play opposite of Justin Tuck on the line, but on third downs Tuck could slide over to tackle, moving Kiwanuka to the other end.
The Giants are definitely capable of repeating as division champs but I think the Philadelphia Eagles will ultimately be their biggest competitor. The Eagles had a stellar draft, adding wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and running back LeSean McCoy to their offensive arsenal.
The Redskins did well to strengthen their defensive line by drafting Brian Orakpo from Texas and signing tackle Albert Haynesworth from Tennessee.
The Cowboys remain the toughest bunch to predict for the 2009 season. They released their best receiver in Terrell Owens, but at the same time relieved a major headache for the franchise. It will be interesting to see how Tony Romo operates in an offense without T.O.
Realistically, the Giants have a good chance of winning the division for the second year in a row. In order to do so, they must focus their offensive attack on the run and let Manning manage the game. The receivers will need to step up in a major way if the Giants want to consider themselves as Super Bowl contenders.
Anything less than a playoff appearance will be a huge disappointment for the G-Men, as they have qualified for the post season for four consecutive years under Tom Coughlin.
And as always in the NFL, defense wins championships.
Let's see what Sheridan can muster up with this group.