Projecting the New York Giants' Starting Lineup Before the 2014 NFL Draft
So where exactly is New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese in terms of having completed the reconstruction of the team's roster?
If we think of the project in terms of a house, it's probably fair to say that the framework and foundation are both in place, but the walls and some of the supporting structures still need to be installed.
That’s partially what the NFL draft is going to accomplish for New York if the choices are made judiciously. Ideally, the Giants hope to get at least two or three starters out of their draft class, though a more realistic expectation is that every player picked will ultimately be able to contribute something during his rookie season.
We’ll find out in less than two weeks who the members of the class of 2014 are. But for the time being, based on the roster the team currently has, let's see how the starters at each unit are beginning to take shape.
Starter: Eli Manning
Forget about fourth-quarter comebacks.
Eli Manning, who barring something completely unexpected, is not only going to be the starter, he’s going to have to come back from last year’s abysmal showing which, while not all his fault, consisted of several uncharacteristic throws and poor decision-making from the two-time Super Bowl MVP.
Manning, whom NJ.com’s Jordan Raanan reported is now out of his protective walking boot two weeks after having a debridement procedure done on his left ankle, might not be able to do much this spring, but there's no reason to believe he won't be ready for training camp or opening day.
Starter: Rashad Jennings
The Giants inked Jennings to provide the running game the firepower that it sometimes lacked last year. Although Jennings has yet to be the "bell cow" for a team, that fact could potentially work in the Giants’ favor because his legs are still fresh.
Another reason why Jennings could very well surprise people as he potentially ventures into becoming a full-time starter for the first time in his career is his efficiency.
According to JJ Zachariason of NumberFire.com, an advanced analytics site that uses a metric called Net Expected Points (NEP) to evaluate a player’s performance, Jennings finished with the eighth-highest rushing NEP total (11.80) among running backs and was the sixth-best performer among the 35 NFL runners who had 150 or more carries.
I want to mention the backup running back situation for a moment. The Giants have gone to more of a two-person committee approach in recent years, and I think it's important to examine who could be No. 2 behind Jennings.
Peyton Hillis was re-signed to a very cap-friendly contract, and although he looked good last year after stepping in cold off the couch, his injury history—in particular his issues with concussions—is of concern, especially if he ends up having to be the third-down back.
Michael Cox also remains a mystery going into this year. As I have noted in the past, it was somewhat concerning that Cox got onto the field in 2013 only as a last resort. With everyone having to start from scratch with a new playbook, how quickly Cox can pick things up and show he can execute at a high level are questions he'll have to answer if he's to remain on the roster.
Last but not least is David Wilson. Last week during the team’s open media session, Wilson expressed optimism that he'll soon be able to “provide the picture” confirming that his neck bones have properly fused together.
However, the Giants can't count on Wilson being ready—nor should they. Although both general manager Jerry Reese and head coach Tom Coughlin have expressed hope that Wilson will be ready to go, Coughlin, in an interview with the team's official website, has vowed to be extra cautious with his third-year running back.
"I am not going to put him in any circumstance until it’s an absolute that he’s 100 percent," Coughlin told Michael Eisen in that interview. "I’m not going to mess with that one.”
That's why I wouldn't be surprised if Wilson starts the summer out on the PUP list and remains there to start the season.
Neither scenario is a good one, as Wilson, who will have to learn a brand new offense, could likely miss a lot of on-field work this year. Thus, don't be surprised if the Giants look to the draft to add depth at running back.
No, I didn’t forget to list a starter at this position. The fullback spot is actually one of two areas on the offense that I just don’t have enough information regarding the specifics of Ben McAdoo’s new offense to make an accurate projection.
Does he want a John Kuhn clone? If so, that would appear to favor Henry Hynoski, a rising talent whose 2013 season was derailed by knee and shoulder injuries.
Or is McAdoo looking for more of an enforcer with experience carrying the ball in the NFL? That criteria might make John Conner the favorite.
Here’s a wild thought. Maybe McAdoo might not even go with a fullback and instead will look at a tight end to work out of the backfield. More on that, however, in the next slide.
This is another position that can go in so many directions and one where I'm just not sure who the starter is as of right now.
The Giants have a pair of young players on the roster: Adrien Robinson, a fourth-round draft pick from 2012, and Larry Donnell, an undrafted free agent who is also going into his third season.
Robinson has yet to make any significant on-field contributions two reasons. First, he was delayed in coming into the spring 2012 OTAs because his college classes finished late. Unfortunately, he was never able to catch up after missing so much practice and classroom time and thus was rarely able to get on the field as a rookie.
In 2013, Robinson again had a setback, this time of a physical nature after he suffered a foot injury in the preseason finale. When he finally overcame that ailment, he went on to suffer a season-ending knee injury.
Suffice it to say, this summer is going to be huge for the player once dubbed “the JPP of tight ends” because of his size and physical attributes. Can he stay on the field? Can he learn the new playbook at a reasonable time? Only time will tell, but these are two aspects he has so far failed to accomplish in his short pro career.
Donnell is an interesting prospect. Under former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, Donnell was training to be an H-back/backup fullback. Unfortunately, when it came to contributing in the passing game, he was far too inconsistent in his route-running and fast became a non-factor on the team.
Still, Donnell has some good tools with which to work and appears to have the desire to get it done. He could be someone who ends up surprising this summer, though it’s still too soon to say.
Kellen Davis was added in the offseason and his signing is interesting. Davis is reputed to be a pure blocking tight end which could be an indication of how the Giants are viewing this position in the 2014 draft.
Ideally, a team would like to get a guy who can block and be a receiving threat, but those two-way talents are fast going the way of the dinosaur.
If the plan, then is to have Davis be the in-line blocker, might any tight end the Giants have their eye on in this draft be more of a receiving type (e.g., Eric Ebron of North Carolina)? I also mentioned in the fullback slide that I wouldn't be shocked if the Giants abandon the fullback position and instead look to line up an H-back in the backfield.
That's where a player such as Troy Niklas of Notre Dame might be of interest—Niklas can play that H-back role, thus giving the Giants more flexibility at the position if they choose to go in that direction.
The other thing to keep in mind is that if the Giants are looking to keep four tight ends again—that would be surprising, but it's a possibility that can't be ruled out—the extra roster spot could come at the expense of the fullback.
Starters: Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle
Barring the unexpected, Victor Cruz will be one of the starting receivers this season.
The other starter, who will attempt to replace Hakeem Nicks, is believed to be third-year veteran Rueben Randle.
However, there appear to be some trust issues with Randle, something he noted when he met with the media last week.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the wideout was the intended target of eight of Eli Manning's interceptions last season and who also had five dropped passes. Still, Randle said he feels prepared to become the starter.
So what then does he need to show his teammates and coaches to make that happen?
“Just gain the trust of the coaches, the players around me—Eli," he said. "Continue to go out there and make plays and just get comfortable with the atmosphere around me.”
As far as I know, Randle has been a regular participant at the offseason conditioning program so far. If that's the case, then that's to his credit. It's an important development, since earlier this offseason, head coach Tom Coughlin told ESPN that Randle needs "to continue to become a better pro."
However, there have been enough hints to suggest that the team doesn't yet fully trust Randle.
General manager Jerry Reese told reporters at the combine that "the jury is still out" regarding what kind of role Randle can play. Former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, in an interview earlier this month with PFT Live on NBCSN, suggested that the Giants need to "get somebody that’s going to be productive for them as an outside receiver."
Even Cruz doesn't sound convinced that Randle is the answer. In an interview with NFL Total Access, Cruz had this to say when asked about how the Giants should draft at No. 12:
[An outside receiver] is something we need in this offense to be successful. I think an outside guy that can do the job and that can help fuel all the other receivers in the locker room and put some fire up under them to get them where they have to be, I think it will be beneficial to us.
It will be interesting to see if the Giants take Cruz's advice, as it will to see if Randle finally pulls everything together this year.
Starters: LT Will Beatty, LG Geoff Schwartz, C J.D. Walton, RG Chris Snee, RT Justin Pugh
This unit’s projections come with asterisks attached to left tackle Will Beatty and right guard Chris Snee, both of whom are recovering from significant surgeries.
Let’s start with Beatty, who suffered a broken leg in the 2013 regular season finale. During last week’s open media session, Beatty tried to remain positive, but he sent some mixed signals as to when he might be ready to return to the field.
“The doctor is positive everything went well and the timeline is good for me to start the season 100 percent with no issues,” he said. “So we’re just working our way up to get to that point.”
The question mark though is how much of training camp, if any, Beatty will miss and how will any missed time affect his ability to learn a new offense and new blocking techniques.
Then there is Snee, who is trying to come back from three procedures—two on his hips and one on his elbow.
“I’m doing everything. I ran with the team this morning, I lifted with everyone so I’m back at it 100 percent,” he said, adding that the plan, unless he hears otherwise, is to keep moving forward at 100 percent and “see how I feel at the end of June.”
That might sound like there is some uncertainty, but as of now Snee is optimistic that he’ll be back in his right guard spot on opening day, telling reporters:
I’m very optimistic and positive. I did all the research throughout the offseason, I spoke to the doctors and then really have been putting myself through tough workouts the past two months to see how my body would handle it. I’ve continued to climb in every aspect of my strength so I’m very encouraged with what’s been going on.
Whether he makes it through a 16-game season, however, remains to be determined.
Starters: RDE Jason Pierre-Paul, LDE Robert Ayers, RDT Cullen Jenkins, LDT Johnathan Hankins
The Giants lost one-half of their starting defensive line from last year to free agency, as defensive end Justin Tuck (Oakland Raiders) and defensive tackle Linval Joseph (Minnesota Vikings) found new homes.
At tackle, the presumed plan is to replace Joseph with Johnathan Hankins, who like Joseph is a second-round draft pick.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Hankins played in 113 snaps last season, finishing with a respectable 8.0 overall rating that include a 9.5 season grade against the run. Interestingly, that’s just a half point less than what Joseph, who played in 287 snaps against the run, earned from PFF.
The situation at defensive end is a little less clear cut. Last year, he Giants drafted Damontre Moore in the third round to presumably be a future starter. However, injuries stunted his development as a rookie, and he ultimately had to have offseason shoulder surgery. As Moore wasn’t available to speak with the media last week, it’s not known where he is in his rehab. Presumably, though, he should be ready for the start of OTAs next month.
The Giants did sign free-agent defensive end Robert Ayers, who spent last year with Denver and for whom he recorded a career-high 5.5 sacks.
Ayers, who will wear Tuck's old jersey number, will be a part of a rotation at defensive end, an could end up starting if he has a strong camp.
He credited Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio with helping him find a niche in which he could be productive in limited snaps.
I feel like the opportunity was given to me to play at a position that I could maximize my ability. Before, it wasn’t always that. I feel like I was out of position a lot of times, but last year when Von (Miller) was suspended, they had to play me. I was put in the situation and I was able to capitalize...I’ve got to give coach Del Rio a lot of credit for understanding that when he first got there and he put me at my position that I should have been in and he knew that.
Ayers believes he can be as versatile as Tuck, who played inside and who on occasion stood up, was.
I mean, the thing about this team...they want guys that can do it all. They want guys that can play a lot of positions. In Denver I did a lot of different things, played on the end, on the outside, I stood up...I’m trying to bring a little bit of versatility to this defense, but whatever they ask me to do, I plan on doing.
Starters: SLB Jameel McClain, MLB Jon Beason, WLB Jacquian Williams
The key for the Giants was finding a way to retain starting middle linebacker Jon Beason, who was partially responsible for enabling the Giants defense to hold opponents to an average of 18.3 points per game once he was inserted into the lineup.
This offseason, Beason, who recorded 104 tackles in 15 games played last season (including games played with the Carolina Panthers before his trade to New York) signed a three-year deal that Over the Cap reports is worth $17 million.
The Giants also added former Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Jameel McClain, presumably to take over the starting strong-side linebacker spot after the team opted to move on from Keith Rivers, the starter the last two seasons.
McClain is hoping to rejuvenate his career after two straight disappointing seasons in which he was limited to 23 games between 2012 and 2013 due to injuries.
Last year, McClain recorded 52 total tackles for the Ravens (29 solo) with one forced fumble.
Jacquian Williams, one of three sixth-round draft picks in the Giants' 2011 draft, should finally be over a PCL injury that first developed in 2012 and carried over into last season. Williams knee issues required that Spencer Paysinger needed to step in and start the team’s first seven games of the season. (Paysinger also started three more games before the 2013 campaign ended).
Williams’ biggest issue isn’t so much talent as it is some of his decisions. If he can curtail some of the gambles he takes on the field that dented his consistency, he could very well be a solid contributor for the Giants this year.
However, it would not be surprising if he continued to rotate with Paysinger, depending on down-and-distance situations.
Starters: SS Antrel Rolle, FS Quintin Demps
Another year, another pending suspension for the incredibly talented Will Hill, whose return last year from a four-game suspension combined with the arrival of middle linebacker Jon Beason helped to turn the Giants struggling defense around.
The Associated Press, via The Journal News, reported that Hill’s latest run-in with the league is for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, the very same violation that last year cost him the first four games of the season.
This time Hill, who in 2012 was suspended four games for violating the league’s PED policy, could be looking at a suspension that’s anywhere from six to eight games, according to Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News.
The Giants have not made an official announcements regarding Hill’s status, as Vacchiano notes that Hill will appeal. Even if he does win his reported appeal, Vacchiano reported that the Giants are "livid" over this latest slip-up, which would suggest that they're unlikely to give Hill another chance.
If Hill’s time is indeed up with the Giants, Quintin Demps, who signed with the team this past offseason, could have the inside track ahead of Stevie Brown, who is returning from ACL surgery, and Cooper Taylor, who had an injury-filled rookie season last year.
Demps, who started his career with the Philadelphia Eagles before making stops in Houston and Kansas City, has 126 career tackles and seven interceptions, one fewer than Brown’s team-leading eight picks in 2012.
Starters: LCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, RCB Prince Amukamara
Although the Giants re-signed Trumaine McBride, who filled in admirably once Corey Webster and Aaron Ross went down with injuries, New York still sought to upgrade its cornerback tandem for 2014.
The third time ended up being the charm as the Giants were able to convince the last of the remaining top-shelf free-agent cornerbacks, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, to join forces with them.
"To be honest with you, he was looking for a place to sink his roots and become a guy who represented a team and stayed there and worked his way through some things," head coach Tom Coughlin said, via a team press release announcing Rodgers-Cromartie's signing.
"He wanted to be part of something instead of one year here, one year there. He wanted to be a guy who’s associated with a team and be recognized."
According to NFL.com, another reason why Rodgers-Cromartie is believed to have chosen the Giants over the New York Jets is that during his meeting with Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, he was presented with a plan that outlined precisely how he would be used against each opponent.
That plan boiled down to one thing.
"Are you the best receiver of their team? (He's) following you then," Coughlin told The Star-Ledger.
Rodgers-Cromartie certainly appears to be more than up for the task. Dan Salomone of Giants.com, using data pulled from Pro Football Focus (subscription require), put together a comparative study showing how Rodgers-Cromartie did against the NFC East’s top receivers last season. With the exception of his game against the Dallas Cowboys, Rodgers-Cromartie received positive coverage grades.
Per PFF, Rodgers-Cromartie allowed just 44.1 percent of the passes thrown at him to be completed, which contributed to just a 67.8 passer rating allowed.
That was good enough to land Rodgers-Cromartie as PFF’s fifth-best cornerback among those who took at least 60 percent of their team’s snaps on defense.
Rodgers-Cromartie will join Amukamara, who saw a drop in his performance from 2012, when he finished with a 74.5 NFL rating against while allowing 52.4 percent of the passes thrown at him to be completed. In 2013, those numbers jumped to an 87.7 and 64.9 percent, respectively.