Ranking the New York Giants' Biggest Needs to Address in the 2014 Draft
It might not seem like it now, but the NFL Draft will be here in less than three weeks.
Yeah, it might as well be three months—it sure feels like it, given how long the anticipation for the event has been building. But trust me when I say that now we’re inside of one month, and the annual NFL Draft is so close that you can smell the newness of the hats each first-round pick in attendance will wear after his name is called.
As we continue to patiently count down the days until NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell takes the podium on May 8, here’s a look at the top five positions, in reverse order of priority, that I think the New York Giants need to address over the three-day NFL Draft period.
Pop quiz time.
When was the last time that the Giants drafted and started a rookie center, regardless of the round, right out of the chute?
The answer, per Pro Football Reference's archives, is Rich Umphrey, a fifth-round draft pick (129th overall) out of Colorado who started seven of the nine games he played in for the Giants as a rookie in the strike-shortened 1982 season.
Don't expect that if the Giants draft a rookie center this year—it's possible they could draft one as high as the second round—that he'll supplant J.D. Walton as the projected opening day starter.
The Giants' decision to sign Walton to a two-year contract that, per Over the Cap, will see him earn a $1.25 million, fully guaranteed base salary, which means that, barring injury, they're looking at him to be the starter this season.
As for 2015, the final year of Walton's deal, the Giants no doubt want to leave themselves with options.
One option is that they could stick with Walton for a second year.
The other, assuming that they draft a prospect at center, as seems to be the popular consensus among the public, is to turn over the reigns to that youngster in 2015.
If they're looking to draft a youngster with the goal of having him ready for full-time duty in 2015, an interesting prospect that should be there for them in the second round is Colorado State's Weston Richburg (6'3", 298 lbs), whom NFL Draft Scout lists as the top-rated center in this year's class.
According to Rob Rang's scouting report, Richburg is a durable interior lineman who has good mobility when asked to pull on sweeps and screens.
Possessing high intelligence, Richburg seems to be more advanced athletically in terms of run blocking than he is in pass blocking.
With a year of seasoning in the NFL, where he'd be able to work on improving his strength and fine-tuning his footwork and back pedal in order to improve as a pass-blocker, the Giants could potentially get strong value if they go with Richburg.
4. Defensive Tackle
The Giants showed that they’re not quite finished adding depth to their defensive interior rotation when they recently hosted veteran Kevin Williams, currently an unrestricted free agent for a visit.
Unfortunately for New York, Williams left East Rutherford without signing a contract, leaving the Giants with projected starters Cullen Jenkins and Johnathan Hankins, and reserves Markus Kuhn and Mike Patterson as their four experienced defensive tackles
That’s not quite a settling picture, not so much because the quality is shaky, but because a year ago, the Giants put such a heavy (no punt intended) emphasis on loading up on interior defensive linemen. With injuries randomly striking any player at any position, adding another player to this unit would certainly go a long way toward reinforcing the depth.
A young prospect that could be a fit for the Giants while at the same time not having the pressure to step right in and contribute immediately is Florida’s Dominique Easley (6’2”, 288 lbs).
At his school's pro day, attended by representatives of the Giants, Easley, who is coming off a torn ACL suffered seven months ago—this after fighting his way back from a torn ACL in his left knee in November 2012—demonstrated that he still has that same burst and quick first step, per Scott Carter of GatorZone.com (h/t Fox Sports).
Because of his injury history, Easley is projected to fall to the middle rounds, where he might make sense for a team like the Giants.
Historically, the Giants have limited the live game snaps of their drafted defensive tackles—per the snap counts kept by Pro Football Focus, Hankins played in just 195 snaps as a rookie before him, Linval Joseph played in just 62 snaps in the 2010 season.
Getting back to Easley, Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger reported that the draft prospect told reporters assembled at his pro day that he’s “80 percent” and that will be ready to start offseason training activities.
Historically, the Giants have not been afraid to take a chance on players whose draft stock has fallen due to injuries. A couple of those gambles that came to mind were cornerbacks Corey Webster and Terrell Thomas, both of whom were solid players in their respective primes before age and injury set in.
The Giants could still look for a veteran defensive tackle on the back end of free agency. That would allow them the luxury of bringing along Easley or any other young prospect slowly in this all-important rookie season.
However, don't discount the Giants adding at least one if not two more defensive tackles before the start of training camp.
3. Running Back
Warning: Video's soundtrack has some NSFW language.
Although general manager Jerry Reese and head coach Tom Coughlin have both continued to express optimism of having running back David Wilson in the lineup at some point in 2014, Reese has not hesitated to protect the team should Wilson not receive the medical clearance from doctors.
Already the team has signed Rashad Jennings to a four-year deal that, per Spotrac, is worth $10 million.
Jennings’s base 2014 salary will be a very reasonable $730,000 this year, but will bump up to $2.23 million in 2015 and 2016, and $2.48 million in 2017
Behind Jennings, the team will have Peyton Hillis, who signed a two-year deal to presumably be the change-of-pace, and, presumably, the third-down back; and Michael Cox, last year’s seventh-round draft pick who, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), received just 38 snaps on offense despite the fact that injuries were crippling the unit around him.
That’s not exactly a strong picture in terms of depth. Though Hillis was solid, he also dealt with a concussion last season, which could be of a concern moving forward.
Given the present depth at running back, it would be a shock if the Giants don’t look to get a running back out of this draft at some point during Day 3.
Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney (6’0”, 220 lbs) is ranked as NFL Draft Scout’s 14th best running back prospect and is projected to be fifth- or sixth-round pick.
Dane Brugler writes of Gaffney that he is a “strong inside runner and a very smart and assignment sound runner” who can’t be brought down by arm tackles.
As a receiver out of the backfield, Brugler notes that Gaffney has had some drops when he takes his eye off the ball. He also questions Gaffney’s vision and decisiveness.
What’s not clear about Gaffney is how well he can pass block. In a conference call with the Giants' beat reporters in February, new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said that the ability to pass block is mandatory for any Giants running back to get on the field.
“Obviously, it's ideal to have a guy that is 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," McAdoo said.
Historically under Coughlin, the Giants have kept four running backs on their roster, not counting the fullback. Presumably Jennings, Hillis and Cox would be the first three if all make the final roster.
The wild card is Wilson.
Based on Coughlin’s insistence in an interview posted on the team's official website that he’s “not going to put (Wilson) in any circumstance until it’s an absolute that he’s 100 percent,” it would not be surprising if the 2012 first-round draft pick starts the summer on the PUP list, a designation that could extend into the fall.
2. Tight End
If the Giants are to resurrect their 19th-ranked passing offense (224.2 yards per game), they’re going to need some receivers for quarterback Eli Manning to hit.
Starting with the wideout position, both general manager Jerry Reese and head coach Tom Coughlin are optimistic that Rueben Randle, who’s entering his third season, will make progress as a pro.
The talent is certainly there, but one of the biggest questions that Randle still needs to answer for Coughlin, per ESPN, is if Randle fully understands what it takes to be a pro.
Rueben has to continue to develop, continue to become a better pro--focus, concentration, production on the field, consistency, day in and day out. Practicing. You’ve seen the plays the guy can make. He’s made great plays ... We have a lot of belief and stock in his development.
The same could probably be said about the Giants tight end situation, which is probably worse off right now than the receivers. As expected, the team gave up on Brandon Myers after one disappointing season.
They also opted to not re-sign Bear Pascoe, two moves that currently leave them with the untested Adrien Robinson and Larry Donnell, a pair of raw players entering their third seasons, and veterans Kellen Davis and Daniel Fells.
The signing of Davis is interesting because, as Pro Football Talk noted, he’s a solid blocker, something the Giants are going to obviously need for their running game.
Interestingly, Pro Football Focus graded Davis’ run blocking as a -5.3; in addition, Davis saw his snaps drastically decrease starting in Week 7 of last season, and he wasn’t active for the Super Bowl.
So where does that leave the Giants regarding the direction they might take at tight end? Do they hope that someone from the Donnell-Robinson duo develops or do they instead look to the draft?
As I’ve noted in the past, the Giants often see their needs differently than those of us on the outside. They're usually good for a surprise or two every year in the draft—remember how, last year, they passed over linebackers Alec Ogletree (Rams) and Kiko Alonso (Bills) in the draft?
While I think it would be a major upset if the Giants don’t draft a tight end, I’m not sure it will be fan favorite Eric Ebron because I am not convinced that Ebron is going to fall to the Giants at No. 12 nor do I think the Giants are going to trade up to get him.
A decent prospect who should be sitting there for the Giants in the second round is Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas (6’7”, 270 lbs).
Niklas’ size alone makes him a potential nightmare matchup against linebackers. However, as NFL Draft Scout’s Rob Rang notes, Niklas is not as polished of a route-runner because he rounds off his breaks, which limits his separation from defenders.
Niklas does seem to relish the physical part of playing the position, which is the blocking aspect of things, something that, if chosen by the Giants, he might be able to assume full-time in 2015 if the team doesn’t extend the one-year contracts given to Fells and Davis respectively.
The wild card in trying to handicap how the Giants proceed in this draft at tight end will all depend on how new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo plans to use the position, which is why trying to predict how the Giants might draft here is difficult.
1. Offensive Guard
Although the draft is deep in offensive linemen, one opinion of mine that hasn’t changed since I’ve started looking at the various draft possibilities is that the Giants must continue to add depth on this unit.
Right now, the projected starting lineup as of this writing—left tackle Will Beatty, left guard Geoff Schwartz, center J.D. Walton, right guard Chris Snee and right tackle Justin Pugh—carries too many unanswered questions.
The primary unanswered questions regarding the projected starters include:
- Can Snee make it through a 16-game season, and if he does, can he play at a high enough level?
- Is Beatty going to be ready to go following his season-ending broken leg, the recovery from which could very well keep him sidelined for most of the offseason program?
- What are they going to get out of Walton, who hasn’t played since 2012?
The questions regarding the depth aren't any better.
James Brewer had a golden opportunity to nail down a starting job last year at guard, only to fumble it away with inconsistent play.
Brandon Mosley showed some flashes, but between his inconsistency and a second-straight season-ending injury, it appears to be becoming hard to rely on him.
Eric Herman, one of two seventh-round draft picks last year, saw his development take a little bit longer than what was perhaps hoped for. He spent the majority of the season on the practice squad, and despite injuries and poor performance, he wasn't added to the 53-man roster until the very end of the season when they were out of options—and salary cap space.
So that leads us to 2014, where new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo told reporters during his conference call with them in February that the past is the past.
It's going to be a new operation on offense. There are some new coaches in place, and there are some coaches who have been here that are in different spots. But at the end of the day, everyone has a clean slate, and that is how we're going to start. And that is important for the players to know that.
While McAdoo's approach is admirable, it would be foolish for McAdoo and the Giants to completely ignore the past, especially when it comes to injury history and any limitations a player might have.
That’s why I think offensive line will probably be at the top of their draft list, specifically guard.
Why guard over tackle? The Giants signed veterans Charles Brown and John Jerry, both of whom have experience playing tackle and either of whom could fill in for Beatty if he's not ready to go.
Meanwhile at guard, Snee is entering his final season, regardless of where he stands health wise. Even if he’s healthy enough to start the year, I would not be surprised if at some point, the coaches eventually replace him with whoever is designated to be his successor.
I've been in favor of the Giants grabbing Zack Martin out of Notre Dame, but upon further contemplation, the fact that Martin hasn't had much experience playing guard could mean his transition to the NFL might take a bit longer than the team can perhaps afford to wait, especially given the questions about Snee.
I've recently started looking at UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo (6'4", 307 lbs) as a prospect whom the Giants could probably trade down to get, thus picking up extra picks to ensure they have all they need to address those remaining pressing needs.
Su'a-Filo, who, per his college bio, started 13 games at left tackle in 2009 before moving to left guard in 2012 following a two-year Mormon mission, possesses good initial quickness and upper body strength to handle the bull rush, and has good balance to stay on his feet in pass protection while also possessing athleticism necessary to be successful in run blocking.
Although Su'a-Filo comes with some warts—Kyle Posey of DraftChargers.com noted that Su'a-Filo still needs some work with leverage, picking up stunts and getting to the second level—these would all appear to be correctable issues that good coaching can fix.
If Su'a-Filo can be had a little lower in the first round, the Giants would stand to get some excellent value in terms of landing an offensive lineman that can provide the depth and flexibility their offensive line desperately needs.