When the 2008 season came to an abrupt halt for the New York Giants, front office management realized the gaping holes in their team, which were exposed in the final five regular season games and the divisional playoff game.
The Giants limped across the finish line with a defense riddled with injured and worn down lineman and an offense that did not actually play any offense. After the suspension of Plaxico Burress in the final weeks of the 2008 regular season, the New York Giants offense became a predictable one-dimensional offense.
Defenses were able to stack the box with seven guys and protect against the run without fear of getting beat over the top. Even though Burress was having a subpar year before the suspension, he still demanded double coverage each week from opponents.
This really opened up the field for the rest of the Giants’ offensive weapons, especially their dominant running game, featuring a trio of backs.
The first order of business is revamping what made them Super Bowl Champions, the defense. The holes in the defensive unit became obvious at the end of 2008. The defense played the entire season without their all-pro bookend defensive ends.
If the loss of Michal Strahan to retirement was not enough, Osi Umenyiora went down in the final preseason game with a season-ending knee injury. In the final weeks of 2008, Justin Tuck was carrying a leg injury and Mathias Kiwanuka was having trouble making it through his first full season as a starting end.
The interior was no longer as deep, as injuries held back Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins, since Tuck was no longer able to spell either of the duo. The Giants wasted no time in free agency adding defensive end Chris Canty and tackle Rocky Bernard.
With these additions plus getting Umenyiora back, the line should be the strength of the Giants once again.
However, an area of concern is the linebackers. Antonio Pierce, the defensive captain, had a very poor end to 2008 and could be slowing down going into his ninth year. The Giants currently lack an experienced weak side linebacker.
Michael Bouley, who was signed as a free agent, could be the quick solution to the problem. But he has played the strong side his entire career and will need to be up for the switch. Depth has and will once again be a hole for the Giants among their linebackers.
For the past three seasons, the Giants have lacked stability at the two outside spots.
Drafting Clint Sintim with the second round pick in the draft should provide some extra depth and could turn out to be a very good pick down the road, but the Giants will have to fill up the depth chart with some proven players if the injury bug hits this position once again.
Over the past two seasons, the Giants have emerged as an elite team in the NFL and one big reason is their balanced offense.
Until week 13 of last season, they featured a three-headed monster in the backfield teaming up with an established duo of wide-outs in Burress and Amani Toomer with a reliable second year pro in Steve Smith catching passes from a much more confident Eli Manning—the very same offensive weapons that led the Giants to a victory in Super Bowl XLII, only nine months earlier.
Yet as the Giants prepare to open training camp for the 2009 season, they need to face the reality of their offense—it is just not as feared as it was only 12 months ago.
While the offensive line, as good as any in the NFL over the course of the past three seasons, has stayed in tact, each player has aged a year and that means more depth on the line is vital.
With the average age of the five starters at 29 and the average length of time in the league at eight years, the Giants added rookies William Beatty and Alex Derenthal, through the draft and free agency respectfully, to a cast of already experienced young back-ups in Mike Fladell, Adam Koets, and Guy Whimper.
All three will be looked upon to have more of an impact, playing more series in 2009 to give the starters a much needed rest so they do not wear down as was the case at the end of 2008.
Another area of concern is in the backfield. With the departure of Derrick Ward to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers through free agency, the Giants are left with only earth and fire from the trio of the 2008 season.
In all likelihood, Ahmad Bradshaw will step in and fill the void as the number two back in the offense behind starter Brandon Jacobs. The hole is at the number three spot in the backfield. This gives the Giants a chance to see what Danny Ware can do, once given ample opportunity.
The third-year pro out of Georgia hopes to fill the void left by Ward by following the same career path as the departed running back. Ware was also signed by the Giants off the New York Jets Practice squad just like Derrick Ward.
Ware hopes to come into his own in the 2009 season by becoming a productive third down back picking up much needed yards on 3rd-and-short and protecting Manning from blitz packages.
The other option here is Andre Brown, a rookie out of North Carolina State. The Giants showed a lot of confidence in Brown by selecting him in the fourth round of the 2009 draft, when a running back was not an overwhelming need.
During the past two seasons, depth at running back has been key to the Giants success and it will be as well this year. Bradshaw was asked to step up in the No. 2 spot when Ward went down with a broken leg in the eighth game in the 2007 season and was asked to fill in again for a beat up Brandon Jacobs.
Yet Jacobs has yet to play in all 16 games since being promoted to number one on the depth chart at the start of the 2007 season. The Giants rely on the running back, a position where a number of injuries can occur through the course of a season. Look for the Giants to continue to fill holes with youth as the season progresses.
The wide receiver corps has been the biggest hole in the Giants’ offense since Plaxico Burress was suspended for the last five regular season games and the divisional playoff game to end the 2008 season for the Giants.
Initially, the Giants felt they could fill the void left by Burress with speedster Domenik Hixon, but playing wide out and doubling as a return man took too much of a toll on Hixon and, by the end of the year, he did not live up to expectations.
In addition to the loss of Burress, the Giants elected not to resign Amani Toomer. The franchise career leader in receptions (620) yards (8,917) and receiving touchdowns (50) will leave a large void to be filled. Toomer has been a sure-handed compliment to Burress, and a go-to target for Eli Manning in key situations.
The Giants looked to youth in the draft instead of going out and spending money on an already proven free agent or on a trade. Steve Smith is the most obvious choice to replace Toomer. Smith has worked out of the slot since the Giants drafted him in the second round in 2007.
He came on at the end of his rookie year and continued to make strides in his first full season working out of the slot in the Giants’ offense. He could be moved to the outside to replace the crafty veteran as a reliable target for Eli Manning.
Replacing Burress is a difficult task. His presence on the field alone created match-up problems for most defenses. Domenik Hixon will be looked at to stretch defenses with his speed and open up options underneath.
The Giants added to their receiving corps in the 2009 draft by selecting Hakeem Nicks with their first-round pick, and Ramses Barden with their third-round pick. Looking for an underneath guy, the Giants found Nicks, the standout from The University of North Carolina. He gives the Giants a presence on the field.
At 6’0” 212 lbs Nicks plays bigger than he is, and has no problem going over the middle. He immediately brings a different dynamic to the Giants’ offense with the ability to go over the middle and create after the catch.
Barden will also be looked at to fill the hole left by Burress. At 6’6” he gives Manning and the Giants a big red-zone target once again, something they missed after Burress was suspended and made patently clear when Manning fluttered through the last six games of the year (including the divisional playoff game) with 3 TDs and 5 INTs.
Barden could also develop into a deep threat the same way Burress was. He has the ability to not only stretch defenses but also the ability to go up and leap for a ball at its highest point, making him a tough matchup for any cornerback.
In addition to their draft picks, the Giants have Sinorice Moss and Mario Manningham as back-ups.
Both had disappointing 2008 seasons with Moss catching only 12 balls with two touchdowns and Manningham only appearing in eight games, with four receptions. For the Giants to be successful both will need to improve their production not only to earn more reps but just to stay on the active roster.
At this point, the biggest hole in the offense is the lack of a proven receiver. Very few teams have been successful without the presence of one big wide out. Only five teams since 1990 (’90 Giants, ’00 Ravens, ’03 and ’04 Patriots, ’05 Steelers) have won a Super Bowl without a 1,000-yard receiver.
As training camp gets underway the Giants will have to find a true number one receiver to bring the offense back to the level where it once was in 2008.