Projecting the New York Giants' Most Heated Roster Battles
It promises to be a really hot summer for the New York Giants—and no, I’m not just talking about the temperatures that usually top the 80-degree mark in the northern New Jersey area.
No, the heat that will be descending upon the Quest Diagnostics Training Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey, will be a result of some intense roster competitions at every spot.
This year, perhaps more so than in recent years, there are a lot of jobs up for grabs, not surprising since the Giants are coming off a disappointing 7-9 season in which they vastly underachieved.
Whether it's for a starting job—and there are a few of those open this year—or for a backup spot, head coach Tom Coughlin is getting exactly what he wants: competition at every position.
How will it all shake out? That remains to be seen as injuries and performance in both training camp as well as in the preseason games are still to be determined.
For now, however, here’s a look at the five most intriguing battles—the players, the stats and the projections—that I think are going to headline this year's training camp.
Starting Tight End
Currently, the Giants have five tight ends listed on their 90-man roster: Adrien Robinson, Larry Donnell, Daniel Fells, Kellen Davis and Xavier Grimble.
Let’s start with Fells, who last year was a final-training-camp cut by the tight end-starved New England Patriots. Fells ended up spending the year out of football before signing a reserve/futures contract with the Giants in January.
A six-year veteran, Fells has played in 71 games and has 92 receptions for 1,086 yards and has eight career touchdowns.
Prior to that, he was a two-year starter for the Chicago Bears, who ultimately replaced him with former Giants tight end Martellus Bennett in free agency.
Davis has 50 receptions for 561 yards and 12 touchdowns. He's probably better known for his blocking abilities, though in the last two years he’s finished with a minus-1.4 run-blocking grade in 2012 for the Bears and a minus-5.3 in 2013 for the Seahawks, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Donnell saw his first regular-season NFL action last year, when he was given 107 snaps on offense. He’s caught three of the six balls thrown his way for 31 yards and a long of 11 yards, but he graded out with a minus-4.0 mark as a run-blocker, per PFF.
Robinson, the Giants’ fourth-round draft pick in 2012 whom general manager Jerry Reese famously compared to defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul because of the physical similarities between both players, has just three regular-season snaps on offense, all coming in 2012.
He’s yet to have a pass thrown his way, as last season, he was sidelined most of the year with a foot problem only to return and suffer a season-ending knee injury on the opening kickoff in Week 16.
Grimble is an undrafted rookie whom NFLDraftScout.com (via CBSSports.com) compares to Davis. The former USC standout has all the physical tools you’d want in a tight end, but he’s just average as an athlete in terms of speed, balance and quickness.
That's your 2014 Giants tight end class, folks. Depressing? Given the production of this group, you can certainly make that argument.
Still, let's see if we can’t drill down how this battle might shape up.
The Giants will probably keep three tight ends. Based on what we know of the skill sets, both Davis and Robinson have primarily been blockers, though with Robinson, the Giants are hoping that the 6’4”, 264-pound product out of Cincinnati emerges as a receiver.
Donnell (6’6”, 269 lbs), who played his college ball at Grambling State, is more of a Bear Pascoe-type; that is, a player who is a jack-of-all-trades.
It’s very possible that the Giants’ starting tight end isn’t yet on the roster—perhaps they might be waiting for unrestricted free agent Jermichael Finley to receive medical clearance before adding him to the group.
If that happens, Finley would almost certainly become the starter by default, leaving the second and third tight end spots up for grabs.
However, that’s a big “if” at this point, as even if Finley does receive medical clearance to return after having spinal-fusion surgery, there’s also the possibility that he might return to Green Bay, where ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky reports that the Packers have not given Finley’s locker away.
Based on what I know to be true as of now, my guess is that the Giants' three tight ends will be, in no particular order, Robinson, Davis and Donnell.
I also think that Grimble has a chance of landing on the practice squad, though if he has a strong summer, I could see him push Donnell off the roster.
For the first time since the summer of 2007, the Giants’ starting fullback job is not only up for grabs, it's also one that's simply too close to call.
Before I break down the pros and cons of the competitors, John Conner and Henry Hynoski, what's making this race difficult to project is that I'm not sure exactly how new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo plans to use the fullback.
There have been a few clues. Head coach Tom Coughlin, at the combine in February, told The Wall Street Journal (subscription or log-in required) that the new offense “will maintain a commitment to the run.”
He reiterated that sentiment in his press briefing with reporters after the conclusion of the 2014 draft, when asked about the team's fourth-round draft pick, Andre Williams, a running back out of Boston College.
“You wouldn’t take a guy like (Williams) unless you were committed to the run,” Coughlin said.
Just last week, Hynoski told Jordan Raanan of NJ.com that the Giants’ new offense is going to mix in a little bit of what the Packers have done in the past with what the Giants have done, which would suggest some power rushing is in the cards.
In scanning for clues by examining the Giants' personnel at the running back spot, there's a mix. Rashad Jennings is probably more of an outside-the-tackles kind of runner, while rookie Andre Williams appears to be mostly a between-the-tackles style.
Peyton Hillis is probably the receiver out of the backfield and possibly even the third-down back to start the year.
If the Giants can get David Wilson back, his ability to excel in space would bring yet another dimension to the table, perhaps incorporating some of how the Packers deployed their running backs in space.
There’s also Michael Cox, who probably has the best breakaway speed of the running backs, even though he also has the least amount of experience. Cox could fill that Wilson role until the 2012 first-round pick gets his medical clearance.
One other important thing to remember regarding the possible role of the fullback is that the offensive line is still unsettled, a factor that, if not resolved early into training camp, might require the fullback to do a little more blocking than usual.
So let's get back to the fullback.
Packers fullback John Kuhn’s touches have declined over the last three seasons. This is no doubt due to the emergence of running back Eddie Lacy last year, and in the year prior, a committee consisting of Alex Green, John Starks and Cedric Benson.
What does this mean for the Giants’ fullback battle?
In reading the clues, it doesn't appear that the fullback is going to be asked to carry the ball much in this offense, certainly not with the talent at running back.
However, it also doesn't sound as though every time the fullback is on the field that opposing defenses won't have to worry about covering him.
As I noted in a previous analysis, Hynoski (24 career receptions for 138 yards, 5.8 avg. with one touchdown) has more than twice as many career receptions as Conner (10 receptions for 49 yards, 4.9 avg. and no touchdowns).
In terms of drop rate (the number of dropped passes per pass targets), using data compiled from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Conner (5'11", 245 lbs) has caught 55.5 percent of the balls thrown his way, with one credited drop every 18 pass attempts.
Hynoski has caught 68.5 percent of the passes thrown his way with two credited drops or an average of one drop per 17.5 pass targets.
Then there is a matter of each man’s physical condition.
Hynoski, listed as 6'1" and 266 pounds, is coming off one of his worst years health-wise, a season that saw him fight back from a significant knee injury suffered last spring only to have his season end when he fractured his left shoulder in Week 3.
Conner? He popped up on the Giants’ Week 12 injury report with a hip ailment but didn’t miss a beat and managed to stay off the Giants’ injury report the rest of the way.
Now let's look at the perhaps the most important aspect of the fullback's role: blocking.
So how will this competition play out? About the only thing I feel comfortable predicting is that I don’t see the Giants keeping two fullbacks on the roster, not even given the uncertainty at tight end.
Other than that, this is going to be a wait-and-see battle that is going to be fun to watch unfold.
Last year, for the first time since the 2007 season, head coach Tom Coughlin kept three quarterbacks on the roster: Starter Eli Manning, veteran Curtis Painter and Ryan Nassib, then a rookie whom the team traded up to get in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.
The decision to keep three quarterbacks at the time made sense, given that the Giants didn't want to risk losing their fourth-round prospect by trying to sneak him through to the practice squad.
The hope was that at some point during the season, Nassib would move ahead of Painter. That never happened, though, as the former Syracuse signal-caller was inactive for all 16 games.
It’s not known what impeded Nassib’s development, but whatever it was, Nassib, along with the other quarterbacks, now has a chance to start anew under Ben McAdoo.
Nassib's biggest competition for the Giants’ No. 2 job appears to be Josh Freeman, a former No. 1 (17th overall) pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2009 and a player whom the Giants signed as an unrestricted free agent earlier this spring.
After posting respectable numbers for the Bucs in his first four seasons in the league, which included throwing for more than 3,000 yards consecutive seasons (2010-2012), Freeman seemed to fall out of favor with former Bucs head coach Greg Schiano, who cut the quarterback.
Freeman was picked up by the Minnesota Vikings and made his first and only start against the Giants in a Monday night game, a game in which he went 20-of-53 for 190 yards and one interception in a losing effort.
Freeman's experience alone should be a big factor in his favor. Age-wise, at 26, he's only two years older than the 24-year-old Nassib.
The tea leaves seem to be pointing toward Freeman as the projected No. 2 backup. However, if Nassib shows he's improved by leaps and bounds, there's no reason to think that he won't win the job behind Manning.
If Nassib doesn't show that kind of progress, it will be interesting to see if the Giants are forced to keep three quarterbacks again.
Backup Inside Linebacker
Inside linebacker Mark Herzlich’s inspiring comeback from Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, will forever go down as one of the best feel-good stories to ever take place within the Giants organization.
However, there comes a time when it’s time to move on from the “triumph over tragedy” angle and determine if the player has been a success at the job for which he was hired.
Let's look at Herzlich’s case.
In 2011 as a rookie, he replaced fellow rookie Greg Jones, a sixth-round draft pick who was struggling in the role.
Herzlich held the starting job for two games that season, taking 75 defensive snaps, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
An ankle injury sidelined him the rest of the way right on through to the Super Bowl, and the Giants had to turn to Chase Blackburn to man the position.
Blackburn held on to the starting job throughout the 2012 season except for one game, that being Week 9 against Pittsburgh when he missed the game due to a hamstring injury.
In 2013, after Blackburn left for Carolina via free agency, Herzlich had a chance at securing the middle linebacker job when Dan Connor, a free agent the team had signed in the offseason to be the starter suffered a season-ending neck injury midway through the Week 1 game at Dallas.
Herzlich gave it his best effort, but he struggled, earning four negative overall grades from PFF as part of a defense that allowed an average of 36.4 points per game.
Ultimately, he was replaced by Jon Beason, whom the Giants acquired in a rare in-season trade. Herzlich, meanwhile, was limited to goal-line duty on defense, where his game snaps didn't hit double digits.
He also emerged as a special teams force, leading his teammates in tackles with 14.
This winter, Herzlich, who was to be a restricted free agent, signed a one-year, $1 million contract that, per Over the Cap, has a base salary of $775,000 and up to $200,000 in roster bonuses if Herzlich is active on game day.
In addition to special teams, he's next in line behind Beason at middle linebacker.
However, the Giants have brought in competition for that backup middle linebacker spot, including fifth-round draft pick Devon Kennard, who, per his NFL draft profile played defensive end and middle linebacker and a couple of undrafted free agents, Dan Fox out of Notre Dame and Justin Anderson of Louisiana-Lafayette.
Whether Kennard, Fox and/or Anderson have what it takes to beat Herzlich out remains to be seen, but as Herzlich and others have proven, you don’t need to have been drafted to make a NFL roster if you’re willing to work at your craft.
The front office did its part by adding several new faces to an offensive line that was a large reason for the Giants’ broken offense last season.
They signed four veteran free agents, guard/tackles John Jerry, Geoff Schwartz and Charles Brown, and center/guard J.D. Walton. They also drafted Weston Richburg in the second round this year.
So what does this all mean for the offensive line competition? Right now, the only two players who are set in stone to start are Schwartz, who will play left guard, and Justin Pugh who will play right tackle.
Walton is projected to be the center, but if Richburg comes in and has a solid camp, he’ll likely unseat the veteran from that position.
The Giants will then have to make a decision as to whether Walton or Chris Snee is their best option at right guard.
Snee, of course has been working his way back from surgeries to both of his hips and to his elbow last year. So far, his recovery has gone well.
While everyone seems optimistic that he can return, it would be shortsighted on the team's part to count on him for a full 16-game schedule—assuming of course that Snee’s skills haven’t deteriorated.
Thus, I could see a scenario where Richburg wins the starting center job, Walton moves to right guard and Snee is the first option off the bench. If Richburg were to struggle/get injured, then Walton could move over to center, and Snee would slide back in at right guard.
Then there’s the matter of left tackle. At some point, Will Beatty, who is recovering from a broken leg and who is unlikely to do much on-field work before training camp, is going to return to the lineup.
In the meantime, Brown will presumably fill in for Beatty with the starting unit, as according to NJ.com, there still remains the matter of a possible medical evaluation for Jerry stemming from his alleged involvement in the Miami Dolphins' workplace-harassment scandal.
Besides the starting unit, there is also the matter of depth to be settled. Assuming the Giants keep eight offensive linemen (possible, assuming everyone stays healthy), that would leave two spots for a group that includes guard/tackle James Brewer, guard/center Eric Herman, guard/tackle Brandon Mosley, guard/center Stephen Goodin and guard/center Dallas Reynolds.
Of those, Brewer's seat seems to be the hottest. He had a golden opportunity last year to win a starting job, but his inconsistent play left management with no choice but to seek help from the outside.
Herman is also going to need a big camp this year to stick around. It spoke volumes when the offensive line was running low on healthy bodies to play, the front office didn’t call on Herman until the last week of the season.
Mosley has flashed some talent, but he’s also suffered two season-ending injuries in as many years. Will the third time be a charm as far as his health is concerned?
Reynolds is a 30-year-old offensive lineman who started 15 games for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2012. With Walton and Richburg on board, there might not be any room for him on this roster.
Goodin has done enough to hang around on the practice squad but has yet to take that leap up to the next level. Will this be his year?
That's a lot of questions to which the answers will hopefully fall into place this summer.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are via Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and all quotes and information were obtained firsthand. Follow me on Twitter for all the latest Giants news and discussion.