Predicting NY Giants Starting Lineup After First Wave of Free-Agent Signings
Don't look now, but the 2014 New York Giants opening day roster is slowly starting to take shape.
The Giants, who last year came off an embarrassing 7-9 season, had so many areas in need of upgrading that general manager Jerry Reese, speaking to reporters at the NFL Scouting combine in February, vowed there would be a "significant difference" in the roster's makeup.
He wasn't kidding.
According to Inside Football, the Giants have been very busy filling some of their roster holes with veterans, both from their team and from around the league.
Some of the positions addressed have included offensive line, running back, cornerback, the return game, and of course linebacker. We'll get into all of the specifics in each applicable slide.
For as much as the Giants and Reese have done so far, there is still much more work to be done, both in free agency and the draft. We'll also take a look at that in each slide as well.
While championships aren't won in March, the moves the Giants have made so far are very, very encouraging. Let's jump right into it by comparing the 2013 opening day starting lineup with the 2014 projected starting lineup at each position.
2013 Starter: Eli Manning
Projected 2014 Starter: Eli Manning
Despite having one of his worst seasons as a pro, a season in which Manning threw a career-high 27 interceptions and the fewest touchdown passes in a season (18) since his rookie year, the Giants are hoping that their new quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf will be able to fix what's been ailing the two-time Super Bowl MVP.
It certainly didn't help that Manning was sacked a whopping 39 times, the most since he turned pro in 2004.
An improved offensive line, better skill-position players and a renovated offensive scheme that offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said via a conference call with reporters will be tweaked to the strengths of Manning should help the 33-year-old signal-caller regain his previous form.
As a side note, Manning's high-ankle sprain, suffered in the regular-season finale last year, is not expected to be an issue when the team kicks off its annual offseason conditioning program.
2013 Starter: David Wilson
Projected 2014 Starter: Rashad Jennings (UFA/Oakland)
Although general manager Jerry Reese has continued to insist that Wilson, the team's first-round pick in 2012, will be able to play football in 2014, despite undergoing surgery on his neck in January, actions speak louder than words.
Specifically Reese told reporters at his year-end press conference that they would have a backup plan in place just in case. Meanwhile head coach Tom Coughlin sounded less sure than Reese as to when or if Wilson might be ready to return.
"He's not going to be put out there unless he's ready for that," Coughlin told reporters at the NFL Scouting combine last month.
"Forget about the fact that he could be a difference-maker on our team—it's the idea that 'Is he going to be healthy enough to withstand (hits)?'"
That's not good news for a player who really needs to work on the pass protection aspect of his game. Per the 2012 and 2013 data at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Wilson has graded out negatively in those handful of instances where he's had to pass block in both seasons.
That's not going to endear him to new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, who in a conference call with reporters late last month, was very specific with what he wants in his running backs.
"First and foremost, the runner needs to be able to protect the quarterback. He also needs to be able to run with the ball in his hands and do that well," McAdoo said.
"Obviously, it’s ideal to have a guy who’s functional out of the backfield catching the football, but at the end of the day, if they can’t protect the quarterback, they’re going to have a hard time getting on the field."
As Wilson hangs in limbo, enter Jennings, who might very well have to be the answer. Interesting, his 2013 PFF grades in pass protection were actually worse than Wilson's.
It's not known how McAdoo plans to deploy the running backs just yet. The current and most likely scenario is that the Giants might designate Peyton Hillis, who was re-signed to a two-year deal, to be their third-down blocking back.
2013 Starter: Henry Hynoski; Projected 2014 Starter: TBD
Last year, Henry Hynoski tried to build off a solid 2012 season, but unfortunately, his 2013 campaign was doomed before it even began.
He suffered a significant knee injury during the OTAs and while he fought his way back to the field by opening day, he never really managed to get back on track.
A fractured left shoulder ultimately ended Hynoski's season during the first offensive series of the third game. He was placed on injured reserve, and the Giants brought in former Jets fifth-round draft pick John Conner on a two-year contract to handle the lead blocking duties.
Despite not having a chance to learn the playbook in detail, Conner did well in the Giants offense. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he finished with an overall 9.0 grade, the fifth-best mark out of all NFL fullbacks last season.
As a pass blocker, he posted a respectable 1.7 grade and a 7.0 mark as a run blocker.
It was a curious move considering that the Giants initially declined to tender Hynoski as a restricted free agent the $1.431 million right-of-first-refusal offer.
Finances aside, it looks as though Hynoski and Conner will battle for the starting job in 2014 in what might be one of the understated battles of the summer.
It's not known exactly how Ben McAdoo plans to deploy the fullback in the offense. If we go looking at Green Bay for clues (since that's where McAdoo came from), the career stats of Packers fullback John Kuhn show that since 2006, Kuhn was targeted 92 times, with 72 receptions for 493 yards.
Also worth noting over that time period is that Kuhn rushed the ball 165 times for 506 yards.
Might that be an indication that the fullback in the Giants offense is going to be asked to rush the ball a bit more?
If so, how does Hynoski, who, per his website's official bio, placed sixth on the all-time Pennsylvania high-school rushing list following a four-year career that saw him rush for 7,165 yards and 113 touchdowns, match up against Conner at the NFL level?
Let's look at the stats:
While it's possible that McAdoo could keep both with the idea of maybe using Hynoski as more of a H-back, I think the Giants are going to instead look to plug a tight end into that H-back role.
As for who emerges as the starter for 2014, right now it's too close to call.
Projected 2014 Starters: Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle
After a disappointing and touchdown-less 2013 season, Hakeem Nicks revealed on a conference call with reporters that Giants didn't even bother to make him an offer.
So where does that leave the Giants concerning replacing Nicks? The most likely scenario as of this writing is that Rueben Randle, who started four games combined in 2012-2013 will succeed Nicks.
Or maybe not. While general manager Jerry Reese told reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine that the team expects Randle to continue to develop, Reese didn't sound too certain as to what kind of role Randle might be able to fill.
“I think he’s a good player," Reese said via Pro Football Talk. "I’m not sure if he’s a one, if he’s a two, if he’s a three, but I think he can contribute to our receiving corps.”
Randle started out strong in 2013, taking advantage of the offseason absences of Nicks and Cruz and building up chemistry with quarterback Eli Manning.
When the games started to count, Randle's performance was shaky. Per PFF, Randle was the target on eight of Manning's interceptions last season, including four in the first two games.
Randle, who turns 23 in May, also failed to record a touchdown in his final six games last year.
It's possible the Giants could turn to a more experienced veteran such as Trindon Holliday, who, per Pro Football Talk, agreed to a one-year deal with the Giants. They could also look at Jerrel Jernigan, who stepped into Cruz's slot role late last season with success.
The only problem is that both Jernigan (5'8") and Holliday (5'5") don't possess ideal size for an outside receiver, making it more than likely the Giants draft a taller candidate to eventually compete for the starting job should Randle flub the opportunity.
Holliday is projected to be the new punt returner, replacing Randle and cornerback Jayron Hosley, both of whom tried to fill that role last season.
2013 Starter: Brandon Myers
Projected 2014 Starter: Troy Niklas, Notre Dame
With the Giants unable to address the tight end position in free agency so far, it's virtually a sure thing that they'll look toward the draft, were there are several intriguing prospects.
The question though is how does new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo plan to use the tight end position? Will it primarily be as a blocker in the mold of former Giants tight end Howard Cross, or will he be looking for a Rob Gronkowski type?
My guess is he'll be hoping that general manager Jerry Reese gets him a tight end that can play inline, as a receiver, and from the H-back, sort of like the role they once envisioned for Travis Beckum.
To that end, I'm thinking that Troy Niklas could be their man if he's there on Day 2. Per NFL Draft Scout, the 6'6", 270-pound Niklas has the versatility the Giants like, though he's also described as being inconsistent as a receiver.
While Eric Ebron of North Carolina would be nice to have, I no longer think that the Giants will go tight end in Round 1 based their remaining needs.
2013 Starters: LT Will Beatty, LG Kevin Boothe, C David Baas, RG Chris Snee, RT Justin Pugh
2014 Projected Starters: LT Will Beatty, LG Geoff Schwartz, C J.D. Walton, RG Chris Snee, RT Justin Pugh
The No. 1 target in the crosshairs of general manager Jerry Reese, the Giants offensive line is undergoing significant changes this offseason.
First comes the departure of oft-injured David Baas, who in a statement sent by the team to members of the press, said that he's contemplating having surgery on his neck. The Giants also lost the versatile Kevin Boothe, who started at left guard but finished the season at center last year for New York.
Boothe, one of a few remaining players to be on both the 2007 and 2011 championship teams, returned to the Oakland Raiders, who originally selected him in the sixth round of the 2006 draft.
Chris Snee, whom many people initially believed would retire after having surgeries on both hips and his elbow last year, agree to take a pay cut that Newsday reported amounted to $5.1 million.
Despite the fact that Snee is planning to return in 2014, he is not assured of a starting spot, even though he's currently the incumbent at right guard.
At center, former Denver Bronco J.D. Walton, whom The Star-Ledger reported received a two-year deal worth $5 million, including $3 million in guarantees, will try to make a comeback after being out of football in 2012 due to complications arising from a broken ankle suffered in 2011.
The big signing on this unit so far is Geoff Schwartz, who spent last season with Kansas City Chiefs as their right guard. Schwartz, who will presumably move over to left guard with the Giants, inked a four-year, $16.8 million deal with $6.2 million guaranteed, per Yahoo! Sports (h/t NJ.com).
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Schwartz played three games at left guard and nine at right guard for the Chiefs and finished with a 15.2 overall PFF grade, the eighth-best mark among all guards in 2013.
The Giants might not be done yet with shaping their 2014 opening-day starting offensive line. Will Beatty is currently recovering from a broken tibia for which he had surgery in early January.
While Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News reported that Beatty "should be ready" for the start of the 2014 season, it would not be surprising if Beatty starts training camp on the PUP list.
If that does happen, the Giants could be looking at a possible reshuffling that would depend on what they come away with in the draft. One possibility would be to grab a tackle at No. 12 and move Justin Pugh over to the left side if Beatty isn't ready.
If the Giants instead grab a guard, Pugh could still go to left tackle, and Schwartz could kick outside to right tackle.
The bottom line is the starting offensive line isn't set in stone yet, so we'll see how the draft along with Beatty's availability in the spring OTAs influence what the Giants might do.
2013 Starters: LDE Justin Tuck, LDT Linval Joseph, RDT Cullen Jenkins, RDE Jason Pierre-Paul
Projected 2014 Starters: LDE Mathias Kiwanuka, LDT Johnathan Hankins, RDT Cullen Jenkins, RDE Jason Pierre-Paul
The Giants' starting front four lost one-half of its members when end Justin Tuck and tackle Linval Joseph both signed multiyear deals with the Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings respectively.
Fear not, however, as the Giants likely anticipated Joseph's departure as early as last year, which is probably why they drafted Johnathan Hankins to replace him.
Hankins, who did well in his 195 snaps, had 11 stops in the run game, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The situation at end is a little murkier.
As noted in the past, Damontre Moore, who is believed to be the heir to Tuck, is coming off shoulder surgery per The Star-Ledger. That's significant because it's not known just how much his rehab will cut into his plans to add muscle for 2014.
The projected starter at this time then is veteran Mathias Kiwanuka, who last year was the lowest-ranked 4-3 defensive end per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Once believed to be a potential salary-cap casualty, Kiwanuka was likely saved by Tuck's departure, but not before he had to accept a significant pay cut that Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports dropped his base salary from $4.375 million to $1.5 million.
The Giants will almost certainly look to add more depth at the defensive end spot and have, per The Dallas Morning News, already met with Anthony Spencer, most recently of the Cowboys, a visit that didn't end in a deal,per Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News.
2013 Starters: WLB Spencer Paysinger, MLB Mark Herzlich, SLB Keith Rivers
2014 Projected Starters: WLB Jacquian Williams, MLB Jon Beason, SLB Jameel McClain
The Giants' projected starting linebacker unit in 2014 is going to have a significantly different look across the board.
Let's start in the middle. Jon Beason, who was acquired four games into last season, signed a three-year contract that ESPN reports is worth up to $19 million, to return to anchor the middle.
Beason, who was reportedly the Giants' top priority among their own free agents per a NJ.com report, also figures to share the leadership of the defense with safety (and fellow University of Miami alumnus) Antrel Rolle, now that defensive end Justin Tuck is confirmed to have departed for Oakland.
Beason will be flanked by Jameel McClain, who was released by the Baltimore Ravens just prior to the start of free agency. McClain, who has 332 tackles and 4.5 sacks in six seasons with the Ravens, will likely be the two-down linebacker on the strong side for the Giants, replacing Keith Rivers, who signed with the Buffalo Bills.
On the other side of Beason will probably be Jacquian Williams, who, once he got past the knee issues that sidelined him most of last spring, seemed to pass Paysinger on the depth chart.
Williams, who finished last season with a 94.6 NFL rating in coverage per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), has good athleticism, but needs to start playing more consistently. He finished last season as the starter and will presumably be the incumbent this year, though he can expect to have competition from Spencer Paysinger.
Speaking of Paysinger, the only one of the Giants' restricted free agents to receive a right of first refusal tender, he is still projected to have a role on defense, most likely in the nickel package.
Mark Herzlich, who found his niche on special teams and in the goal-line defense, will likely continue in that role.
2013 Starters: LCB Corey Webster, RCB Prince Amukamara, Slot Cornerback Terrell Thomas
2014 Projected Starters: LCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, RCB Prince Amukamara, Nickel CB Walter Thurmond III
The Giants made a significant splash at this position, replacing Webster, who spent the last two years dealing with multiple injuries, with Rodgers-Cromartie, Pro Football Focus' fifth-best cornerback last season among corners who took at least 60 percent of their team's snaps on defense.
Rodgers-Cromartie, who was also recruited by the Jets, allowed just 47.1 of all passes thrown at him to be completed for 565 yards and four touchdowns for a 70.0 quarterback rating.
The 6'2" Cromartie represents a significant upgrade over the 5'9" Trumaine McBride, who last year finished the season as the starter.
Speaking of McBride, he played well when pressed into action, but his size disadvantage against taller receivers apparently made the upgrade of that left cornerback spot a high priority for GM Jerry Reese.
Speaking of upgrades, the Giants also inked Thurmond to be their slot cornerback. He replaces Terrell Thomas, the Giants' second-round draft pick in 2008, who valiantly fought to resume his career after three ACL surgeries to the same knee.
While Thomas was successful in his return, it was apparent that he had lost the burst to keep up with speedier slot receivers, a fact that was painfully obvious in Week 14 against the San Diego Chargers, a performance for which PFF graded him with a -4.1 mark, his worst of the 2013 season.
Getting back to Thurmond, he finished with a 74.9 NFL rating, having allowed 66.2 percent of passes thrown his way completed (for 376 yards).
Ironically, Thurmond's worst outing last year came in the Super Bowl against Denver's Wes Welker and Demaryius Thomas, both of whom combined from the slot to catch six passes out of six targets for 90 yards against Thurmond.
2013 Starters: FS Ryan Mundy, SS Antrel Rolle
2014 Projected Starters: FS Will Hill, SS Antrel Rolle
A season-ending ACL injury to Stevie Brown last summer combined with another four-game suspension handed down by the league to Hill forced Mundy into the starting lineup. While he wasn't horrible in that role, he didn't come close to matching Brown's league-leading eight interceptions from 2012.
Ultimately, Mundy was replaced in the starting lineup by the freakishly talented Hill, though Mundy did contribute in the three-safety package defensive coordinator Perry Fewell likes to run.
If Hill can keep his off-field issues in order, there's no reason to think that he won't anchor the Giants' free safety spot for a long time coming.
Meanwhile, Brown, who re-signed with New York, is projected to step into that third safety spot, assuming his surgically repaired knee holds up.
Also of note, safety Quintin Demps signed with the team to presumably replace the defensive depth previously offered by Mundy. Demps will be the team 's new kickoff returner, replacing a 2013 rotation of David Wilson and Michael Cox.
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