Entering the 2009 off season, there were two noticeable holes on the Giants' roster: linebacker and wide receiver. It is even fair to say that the lack of playmakers and quality depth at these positions is what lead to an early exit from the playoffs at the hand of division rival Philadelphia Eagles.
Without Eli Manning’s security blanket Plaxico Burress, the Giants struggled to stretch the field, and as a result, the defense could key on stopping the running game. On the other side of the ball, the linebackers did little to help the Giants’ banged up front four put pressure on Donovan McNabb, resulting in a grand total of zero sacks.
There are still some question marks at linebacker, but the plan is starting to take shape. Antonio Pierce, the leader of the defense, will look to rebound from a disastrous end to the season. Pierce will be playing with a chip on his shoulder, intent to prove that he has not lost a step and that the Plaxico Burress distractions are behind him. Free agent OLB Michael Boley will likely start on the weak side, and will benefit from the Giants’ attacking style of defense.
In Atlanta, Boley was asked to play a “read and react” role, which turned him into a coverage linebacker and wasted his pass rushing, playmaking skills. Boley is a perfect fit with a Giants’ aggressive defense that he has the potential to be a pro-bowl linebacker this season. The strong side will likely come down to Virginia rookie Clint Sintim, veteran journeyman Danny Clark and second year man Bryan Kehl, or some combination of those three.
But while linebacker seems to be falling into place, the battle for playing time at wide receiver is more wide open. The absence of Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer means that there will be two new starters, as well as a need for veteran leadership.
Here is a look at the seven wide receivers vying for time in what figures to be a team effort:
Eli Manning’s favorite target last year, Smith led the team with 57 receptions while playing mostly in the slot. He may be elevated to starter at split end, but will also see a lot of time in the slot. He has a knack for getting open, especially on third downs.
While he may never become a dynamic weapon, he has a valuable possession receiver and is not in danger of seeing his playing time decrease from last season.
Hixon has game breaking speed and he showed it in the pre-season and in his spot start against Seattle. He was easily the most impressive receiver in camp last year, and he showed the ability to be a competent deep threat, catching four balls for 102 yards and a touchdown in the first half against Seattle, before leaving with an injury.
He will likely start opposite Smith at flanker, but will need to show more consistency with his hands, as well as an improved ability to go up and get the ball.
Moss has been a bust, to put it nicely. Drafted in the second round with a lot of expectations, Moss has managed only two career touchdowns in three seasons. At 5-8, Moss gives the sometimes erratic Eli Manning little room for error; that is, when Moss is healthy enough to even be on the field.
This camp could be make-or-break for him, and while the coaches are saying that Moss will have the first shot at the No. 3 WR spot, we can’t expect them to come out and say the truth; that Moss is in serious danger of being cut.
Manningham slipped to the third round due to character issues, and now he seems to be a forgotten man. In Michigan, Super Mario showed the ability to be an effective deep threat, averaging over 16 yards a catch each year, despite only mediocre speed. If he stays healthy, Manningham is a nice sleeper to see a good amount of playing time.
Remember him? Tyree jersey sales increased exponentially after his Super Bowl heroics (I doubt they even made Tyree jerseys before February of 2008) but he has yet to set foot into an NFL game since then. Now fully recovered from the injury that sapped him of his 2008 season, Tyree will resume his duties as the team’s No. 1 special teamer.
He will also be looked at by the youngsters to replace Amani Toomer’s veteran leadership. While there is no chance Tyree will replace Toomer’s production, he is a good bet to make the team and see the field in four receiver sets. Just don’t expect him to catch every pass with his helmet.
Although they entertained the idea of trading up for the likes of Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jeremy Maclin, the Giants eventually decided to stay pat and let Hakeem Nicks fall into their lap.
Nicks has the best hands of any receiver in the draft (they had to special order him 4XL gloves!) and is possibly the most polished as well. While it is always incredibly difficult for rookie wide receivers to make an impact immediately, Nicks has been virtually flawless in rookie camp. Nicks is built like Anquan Boldin, who experienced incredible success in his rookie campaign.
While that kind of production cannot realistically be expected, there is a chance that Nicks can be a positive contributor as the season unfolds. I believe his eventual landing spot is starting at split end, letting the Giants move Steve Smith back to his familiar role as slot receiver extraordinaire.
Built more like Marques Colston than Anquan Boldin (coincidence that these are the two most successful rookie wide receivers in recent memory? Probably…) Barden could be a force in the end zone. Like Colston, Barden was a dominant force in Division 1-AA, breaking Jerry Rice’s record with 20 consecutive games with a touchdown.
The 6'6" behemoth could one day develop into Eli’s security blanket, but to expect him to be a touchdown machine from day one is unreasonable. He is incredibly raw and needs to work on his route running, but with enough seasoning, Barden could be a useful weapon to add to Manning’s stable.
There is no question that the Giants will miss the production of Plaxico Burress and the timely catches of Amani Toomer. I fully expect Steve Smith or Domenik Hixon to step up and replace the productivity lost from Toomer, but no player can replicate what Plax meant to this team.
It is going to have to be a team effort, with key contributions from deep threats like Hixon and Manningham or red zone targets like Ramses Barden and tight ends Kevin Boss and Travis Beckum. The wide receiver position may not be their strength, but if enough of the youngsters develop, it will not be their Achilles' heel either.