New York Giants: 10 Key Players for 2014
At the start of their 2013 summer training camp, New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese famously put everyone in the organization “on notice” after declaring that one playoff berth in the last four years “is really not acceptable for us.”
In less than a week, it will officially be one playoff berth in the last five years, and two years straight without a playoff appearance for the Giants franchise.
If a 9-7 record after the 2012 season wasn’t reason enough for Reese to “blow the thing up,” certainly a sub-.500 record will prompt some type of overhaul of a roster that, while rocked by injuries, also underperformed.
The good news is that there are several keepers among the rubble that can serve as a solid foundation moving forward.
Here’s a look at 10 players currently under contract for 2014 who will probably form the foundation for next year.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats and ratings obtained from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), unless otherwise noted. All player salary information obtained from Over the Cap, unless otherwise noted.
Receiver Victor Cruz
The most consistent of the offensive players, Victor Cruz was one of a few starters who came to work every week.
Opponents didn’t make it easy for him, though. Thanks to the problems on the offensive line combined with the inconsistency of fellow receivers Hakeem Nicks and Rueben Randle, opposing defenses were able to bracket Cruz, forcing him to fight for every reception and every yard he gained.
That’s exactly what he did. Despite having to miss two games after having knee surgery, Cruz will finish as the team leader in receptions (73) and receiving yards (998).
Despite the added attention from defenses, Cruz, who recorded double-digit drops in each of his last two seasons, significantly cut down on those mental lapses, finishing with just five drops.
Want another reason why Cruz deserves to be a cornerstone player?
Of the Giants’ top three receivers, Nicks and Randle being the others, Pro Football Focus has Cruz as being the target of the fewest interceptions (four).
That says a lot about his preparation, considering he missed the spring workouts. He came ready from day one to justify his new contract that he earned last offseason.
He has also been the one receiver that has consistently been on the same page with quarterback Eli Manning.
Cornerback Prince Amukamara
Before the start of the 2013 season, cornerback Prince Amukamara, a 2011 first-round draft pick, told reporters that he had his sights set on one goal.
“I want to be the No. 1 corner on this team,” he said.
Mission accomplished. The 24-year-old has earned himself the best rating from Pro Football Focus on the Giants (2.6 overall), which includes a solid 5.1 rating against the run.
In coverage, Amukamara has allowed 56 out of 85 targets thrown against him to be completed (65.9 percent) for 610 yards, 203 yards after the catch and just two touchdowns.
The key for the former Nebraska defender is that he’s been able to stay healthy. And believes that if he can keep out of the trainer’s room and continue working on his craft, he can get even better.
"He’s gaining confidence every day that the game is going to start to slow down for him more and more and he’s just going to get better and better," added defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.
“I think I have been progressing and improving from my first year,” Amukamara told the Associated Press (h/t CBS New York).
“I am definitely not where I want to be. My goal this year was to make more plays on the ball and I feel like I missed out on opportunities so there is definitely something to work on.”
If he’s been this good this year, one can only imagine how much higher his star will rise with additional experience.
Quarterback Eli Manning
No, 2013 hasn’t been Eli Manning’s best season. In fact, you could say it’s clearly been the worst of his career since he became a 16-games-per-season starter in 2005.
He’s set a new career-high for interceptions (26), and is on his way to having his lowest number of touchdowns (currently at 17) in a full season, per Pro Football Reference.
He’s also been sacked a career-high 38 times, a number that includes at least one sack per week. Eleven of the 15 games played thus far have seen multiple sacks.
The talent around him combined with the injuries to his offensive line have had so much of a negative impact that it’s doubtful that even his older brother Peyton could have had much success.
So why consider Eli Manning as a cornerstone of this franchise?
The soon-to-be 33-year-old Manning has also proven (twice) that he can take this franchise to the Super Bowl.
Give him a better supporting cast in 2014 and there should be no reason why he can’t lead this team back into playoff contention again.
Safety Will Hill
Despite once again missing four games due to a league-imposed suspension, his second in as many seasons, Will Hill has been nothing short of dynamite.
Rated the third best safety by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) based on players with at least 500 snaps, there are very few deficiencies in Hill’s game, which can be best described as a physical, take-no-prisoners approach.
The problem with Hill has been his off-field issues, as detailed by NJ.com’s Jordan Raanan.
As previously mentioned, he has been suspended by the league twice, the first for violating the league’s performance enhancement policy as a rookie, and the second time for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Hill was also arrested last Friday on a warrant for outstanding child support payments, though he was not disciplined by the Giants, who, per Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News, defined the situation as a “private, personal matter that he is dealing with."
If Hill can keep his nose clean moving forward, he could eventually be among the NFL’s top safeties.
Offensive Lineman Justin Pugh
Justin Pugh is on track to become the first first-round draft pick to start every game in his rookie season since linebacker Lawrence Taylor accomplished the feat in 1981.
Pugh has earned every opportunity he's received. Per Pro Football Focus, the former Syracuse standout is ranked as the 13th best right tackle in the league among players who have played the position in at least 14 games.
After allowing 29 quarterback hurries in his first eight games, Pugh has clamped down on opponents, allowing just 13 in the second half of the season.
The sky is the limit for Pugh, who projects at right tackle again next season.
Safety Antrel Rolle
Antrel Rolle has been the one player that, every year, earns every penny of his salary.
Rated as the 10th best safety in the league per Pro Football Focus, Rolle has posted solid grades in both run defense (4.0) and in coverage (4.1).
He's also strung together an impressive four-game stretch shutting down opponents, this coming after his disastrous outing against Dallas when he was unprepared for an unexpected switch to slot cornerback.
“Nine times out of 10 I come out on top,” he told reporters on Thursday when asked about the multiple roles the coaches ask him to play on defense.
“The one time this year I didn't was the Dallas game. It was a hard pill to swallow, but as a man, I swallowed it.”
Since that game, in which he earned one of his lowest grades of the season from PFF, Rolle has made sure that no matter what, he works on every aspect of his game so that a similar performance doesn’t happen again.
“No matter what position you work at a particular week, always work on your craft,” he said. “I’m a nine-year vet and that’s something I had to learn the hard way.”
Although he will be 32 years old on his next birthday and is due to count for $9.25 million against the 2014 salary cap, Rolle has shown no signs of his skills deteriorating.
He could be a player that the Giants might extend in order to ensure that they have his leadership for several more seasons.
Defensive End Jason Pierre-Paul
One of the most frustrating things to watch this year, besides the season-opening six-game losing streak, was defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul's struggle to regain his 2011 form.
The reason behind the struggles was the fourth-year player’s health. After a condition reported by USA TODAY Sports to be related to a disc issue failed to respond to rest and physical therapy, Pierre-Paul finally underwent back surgery the first week of June.
His recovery time was announced by the team as being 12 weeks, a period which, given the timing of the surgery, put him dangerously close to the regular season opener.
After spending most of training camp on the physically unable to perform list, Pierre-Paul was finally activated, playing in the team’s first 11 games and gradually showing signs of recapturing his breath-taking explosiveness.
However, before a shoulder injury suffered against Dallas unofficially ended his season, Pierre-Paul openly declared that he wouldn’t be himself until 2014.
Ironically, 2014 happens to be Pierre-Paul’s contract season, a year in which he’s due to count for just $3.561 million against the 2014 cap.
If Pierre-Paul can come close to being the player that he was in 2011 when he recorded 16.5 sacks, the fourth-highest single-season total in team history, the Giants pass rush could once again become a nightmare for opponents to handle.
Receiver Rueben Randle
Last spring, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride heavily praised second-year receiver Rueben Randle, even going so far as to say that there were plans for Randle to “play a lot” this season, per ESPN New York.
The former LSU star certainly has done just that, taking 567 snaps on offense (per Pro Football Focus) and making three starts so far this season.
Randle, who has caught 41 of 75 passes thrown his way for 611 yards, currently leads the team with six touchdown receptions. He’s also been the intended receiver on eight of Eli Manning’s 26 interceptions.
Lately, teams have schemed to reduce his contributions. In his last three games, Randle has caught just six of the 15 passes of which he’s been a target for 67 yards and no touchdowns.
Still, he appears to have a very bright future next season, especially if Hakeem Nicks departs via free agency and the Giants decline to add a veteran wide receiver to complement Victor Cruz in the starting lineup.
Defensive Tackle Johnathan Hankins
Placing a heavy (no pun intended) emphasis on improving the team’s run defense, the Giants drafted Johnathan Hankins out of Ohio State in the second round with an eye toward the future.
That future could come as soon as next year, as with Linval Joseph set to be an unrestricted free agent, the Giants are no doubt hoping for "Big Hank” to show that he has what it takes to graduate into the starting lineup.
The rookie hasn’t disappointed when given chances. Per Pro Football Focus, Hankins has yet to record a negative overall grade.
He has especially been solid in run defense, with his 7.7 grade, which is the third best on the team behind ends Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul.
In addition to seeing his snap counts increase over the last four weeks, Hankins has rewarded the coaches’ faith in him with at least one stop at or behind the line of scrimmage during that period.
Hankins is also rated as the sixth best overall defender on the team, one spot behind Cullen Jenkins, whom he’ll likely team up with next season in the starting lineup.
Defensive End Damontre Moore
Although he only has five tackles and has yet to record a sack, rookie Damontre Moore, the team’s third-round draft pick this year, has an extremely high ceiling.
Moore, who has gotten a piece of two punts this season on special teams, one of which was recovered for a touchdown by fellow rookie Cooper Taylor in the game against Oakland, has been used sparingly on defense.
A big reason for his lack of snaps has been injuries.
He suffered a shoulder injury after the first preseason game that cost him the rest of the preseason and the first two games of the regular season.
In Week 6, he was inactive after suffering a hamstring injury.
“Any time that you miss a certain amount of time with a hamstring injury and you don’t get a chance to work your craft, yeah, that can slow your progress,” said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.
Now that Moore has finally shaken off the injuries, he’s been finding work in pass rushing situations where, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he’s accumulated four hits and two hurries thus far.
“We think that he can get after a guy and if we match him up on the right person, we think that he has value that way in match-ups on the offensive tackles,” Fewell said.
“Nothing inside, but you’re really on the edge and I think that’s where his value comes in. He drops pretty good, too. We did a lot of that with him early in the camp, so he has a good sense for dropping in coverage, and can do some things that can enhance us from a pressure standpoint.”
In time, the team would like to see Moore develop into a complete defensive end, one that can play the run just as well as the pass. That will eventually come as he earns more snaps in practice.