Top 5 Position Battles for the New York Giants
The New York Giants in 2014 are looking to rebound from a dismal season last year, a season in which their playoff hopes were torpedoed by an 0-6 start.
The Giants' 7-9 record resulted in significant roster turnover, with some familiar faces, like Justin Tuck and Hakeem Nicks, finding new homes. Big Blue hit free agency hard, looking to bring in a bunch of new talent in an attempt to fix some of its main personnel issues. With 33-year-old franchise quarterback Eli Manning on the back end of his career, the window for New York returning to Super Bowl contending form may be closing.
An influx of new faces mean numerous key positions are up for grabs, and many of these battles could determine the fate of the Giants season and whether the team eventually can return to its Super Bowl-contending form.
For this list, I just considered the most likely candidates for each position. Some players were left off (e.g., Curtis Painter) because I felt they didn't stand much chance of beating out a superior player for the spot on the depth chart. That's not to say they won't see action, just not as much as the players mentioned on this list.
5 .Backup Quarterback
Main Battle: Josh Freeman vs. Ryan Nassib
With Eli Manning coming off ankle surgery, the competition to be his backup has more importance than ever. Last year was the first time since 2007 that the Giants kept three quarterbacks, something they may not want to do again.
Josh Freeman has had an up-and-down career, to put it mildly. He was a first-round selection for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was expected to be their franchise QB. He had mixed results in Tampa, with his finest season coming in 2010 when he threw for 25 touchdowns to just six interceptions and posted a career-best quarterback rating of 95.9.
Freeman's time in Tampa came to a bitter end, resulting from a controversial leak about his enrollment in the league's substance abuse program. After they failed to trade him, Tampa released Freeman, who subsequently signed with the Minnesota Vikings. The only action he saw was against the Giants, a game in which he completed fewer than 40 percent of his passes and gave New York its first win of the season.
The other quarterback vying to be Manning's backup is last year's fourth-round pick Ryan Nassib. Nassib had a successful senior season in 2012 at Syracuse, passing for over 3,700 yards and 26 touchdowns, yet hre slipped down draft boards until the Giants traded up for him in the fourth round. He was viewed as a developmental project, someone to be groomed to take over for Manning when the veteran signal-caller decided to call it quits.
Unfortunately, Nassib didn't impress enough to win the backup role last year. Instead he was relegated to third string behind Curtis Painter. He was the subject of some trade rumors leading up to the draft, including a comment about how New York general manager Jerry Reese was open to hearing trade offers. Nassib needs to show some significant growth in order to again win over the organization.
Both quarterbacks bring something different to this battle. Freeman has the most NFL experience among the two. He showed flashes as a starter in Tampa, and he might just need the right coaching to rediscover his abilities. Nassib, on the other hand, is still a young player brimming with potential but needs to prove himself.
The outcome of this battle really hinges on Nassib in my opinion. If Freeman wins the backup position, the Giants will go with three quarterbacks again and keep Nassib as the third QB. If Nassib is able to beat out Freeman, then I think they will just go with Manning and Nassib.
The former scenario seems most likely to me.
4 .No. 2 Cornerback
Main Battle: Prince Amukamara vs. Trumaine McBride
The Giants secondary is by far the most improved unit on the team. In the offseason, they added Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond and re-signed Trumaine McBride. Throw in former first-round pick Prince Amukamara, and this secondary is stacked with talent.
Now comes the tough part of figuring out who gets the most playing time.
Given the amount of money the Giants are paying DRC, he is a lock for the starting role. Coughlin has already talked about the plan they have regarding him, stating, "Are you the best receiver of their team? [He's] following you then." This was expected given how well DRC played last year in Denver. He graded out as the fifth-best corner in the league per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The only other spot that has been determined so far is the slot/nickel corner position held by Walter Thurmond. Thurmond, who came over from the Seattle Seahawks, has established himself as one of the best slot corners in the game, although he believes he is the best, no contest.
With the No. 1 corner position and the slot position taken, that leaves one starting role open for two of last year's starters. Amukamara would appear to have the inside track for that position given his draft status and the fact the Giants have shown their faith in him by picking up his rookie option.
The one kink in this plan is the fact McBride is coming off a career year. The journeyman defensive back came in off the bench last year and had a great year, having the lowest catch rate allowed among all corners in the NFL, allowing only 43.8 percent of all passes thrown his way to be caught, per Pro Football Focus.
Odds are Amukamara will beat out McBride for the number two slot. However if Amukamara slips up or hits a rough stretch, it wouldn't be a surprise to see McBride step in. With McBride nipping at his heels, Amukamara knows that he has to prove himself this year if he is going to stay a Giant (per nj.com):
I don't expect them to [enter in talks for a long-term deal]. I don't think I really gave them a return on their investment yet. And with that being said, I plan on this year being a huge year for me. I'm just focused on playing ball.
The corner position ranked this high only because this is a win-win situation for the Giants. Their secondary is so deep right now that they can call upon a starting-caliber player when they turn to their reserves.
3. No. 2 Defensive Tackle
Main Battle: Johnathan Hankins vs. Jay Bromley, Kelcy Quarles, Mike Patterson
This is the most wide-open battle on the Giants roster this season. The only player guaranteed the starter position is Cullen Jenkins. The others will be vying for the position vacated by Linval Joseph, who departed for Minnesota in the offseason.
In all likelihood, each of these players will see some playing time as the Giants are big on defensive line rotation. It is just a matter of which of these players gets the most snaps.
The first candidate is second-year pro Johnathan Hankins. Hankins had an excellent rookie year for Big Blue, excelling as a run-stuffer. Hankins graded out as one of the top defensive tackles against the run, ranking 13th (a plus-9.5 grade) out of 151 tackles, per Pro Football Focus. On the flip side, he graded out as one of the worst pass-rushing defensive tackles, ranking 121st.
The second candidate is third-round rookie Jay Bromley. Some saw the selection of Bromley that high as a reach, as the Syracuse product was projected to go in the fourth round. Regardless, he was second in 2013 among defensive tackles in the nation in sacks (10) behind Pittsburgh University's Aaron Donald.
The 6'3", 306-pound Bromley does have good size but will be used sparingly, like Hankins was last year.
The third candidate is Kelcy Quarles, the highest-profile undrafted rookie the Giants signed. Quarles went undrafted primarily due to off-the-field concerns. He is still a good player, though he likely benefited from playing on the same defensive front at South Carolina as this year's No. 1 overall pick, Jadeveon Clowney. He is in the same boat as Bromley and will probably see limited action until he gets up to speed with the playbook.
Number four on the list is veteran Mike Patterson. Patterson, a former first-round pick by the Eagles, started nearly every game he played in during his tenure in Philadelphia. Injury kept him out of most of the 2012 season, and he was subsequently released. Picked up by New York last year, he had a decent 2013 season defending against the run.
Given how well he played in his rookie year and his high draft status, the second-year Hankins looks to be the front-runner for the spot. He needs to work on his pass-rush ability, but he could eventually be a suitable replacement for Joseph. Patterson likely will be next in line to get snaps with the two rookies bringing up the rear.
The defensive line ranked this high because it has a tough act to follow from last year. Despite the team's terrible start to the season, the Giants run defense was one of the toughest in the league, allowing only two runners to gain more than 100 yards.
2. No. 2 Wide Receiver
Main Battle: Rueben Randle vs. Odell Beckham Jr.
To say the Giants passing game was dismal last season is an understatement. Eli Manning led the NFL with a career-high 27 interceptions and was plagued by poor blocking and inconsistent receiver play. Victor Cruz put in a valiant effort but ended up getting injured, falling just shy of his third-consecutive 1,000-yard season.
His running mate, Hakeem Nicks, left in free agency to the Indianapolis Colts following a subpar season in which he didn't find the end zone once. Nicks' poor performance and eventual departure creates a void need across from Cruz that needs to be addressed if the passing game is to return to its Super Bowl form.
If there was one good thing that came out of Nicks' troubles, it was the emergence of second-year receiver Rueben Randle. Appearing in all 16 games, with three starts, Randle had 41 receptions for 611 yards and six touchdowns. It was an admirable performance for a player who wasn't expected to be as large a part of the offense as he was.
Randle's 2013 season was not without its growing pains. According to Pro Football Focus, Randle had the highest interception rate among all receivers with more than 500 yards, with eight of his 76 targets leading to picks. This stemmed from issues he had running the wrong routes, an issue that has GM Jerry Reese reluctant to rely on him.
Randle will have the entire offseason now to really learn the playbook and put those issues to rest. However, he now faces a challenge from Odell Beckham Jr., his former LSU teammate Beckham, the Giants first-round pick, emerged as the third-best receiver in the draft following a season where he posted 59 receptions for 1,152 yards and eight touchdowns.
Beckham has great hands and is a good route-runner. He has excellent leaping ability and can make plays after the catch. He brings a playmaking ability to a Giants offense struggled for big plays when Nicks performance declined. Beckham's big-play abilities are evidenced by the fact that he averaged 19.5 yards per catch last season at LSU, a number that was second-best in the nation to Texas A&M's Mike Evans among receivers with at least 1,000 receiving yards in 2013.
Given his high draft status and his skill set, Beckham could seriously push Randle for the second receiver spot. Dan Graziano of ESPN.com reported that Beckham is currently learning the X receiver position, opposite Randle with Cruz manning the slot.
This battle primarily is for the second receiver in two-receiver sets. Both Randle and Beckham are playmakers and would work well in the second spot across from Cruz. Randle has an edge in height but Beckham is faster.
This is expected to be an extremely tough battle.
Randle looks like the early front-runner to play in two-receiver sets given his experience and his size (6'2" compared to 5'11"). However, much like with Amukamara, Randle will have a short leash. If Beckham starts outperforming him, Coughlin won't hesitate to pull the trigger and go with the rookie.
The receiver position ranks this high because, generally speaking, a quarterback is only as good as his receivers. Manning had issues with his receivers last year, and it showed with 27 interceptions. The position must be figured out if Manning is to play his best.
1. Starting Running Back
Main Battle: Rashad Jennings vs. Andre Williams
It's rare that a fourth-round pick has such a legitimate shot at starting but that is the case with the Giants. Last year was a total disaster for the Giants' running game due to injury. They fielded more starting running backs than anyone else in the league last year, yet not one exceeded 500 yards.
David Wilson, who was drafted to be their star running back, suffered a severe neck injury in the beginning of the season, and even now he is a question mark for the start of the season. This prompted the Giants to go into free agency to sign some depth, which came in the form of Rashad Jennings.
Jennings spent 2013 as the starter with the Oakland Raiders, following years as a reserve in Jacksonville. He performed well in relief of the Raiders' oft-injured Darren McFadden, compiling 733 yards on 163 carries (4.5 yards per carry) and six touchdowns.
Andre Williams managed to fall all the way to New York in the fourth round, where Tom Coughlin's affinity for Boston College made sure his fall stopped. Williams had an extraordinary season that saw him lead the nation in rushing with 2,177 yards. He also scored 18 touchdowns.
Williams has a powerful running style that allows him to blow through arm tackles. According to Jack McCluskey of ESPNBoston.com, Williams had 946 yards after contact in 2013, 150 more than any AQ team. His bruising running style will wear defenses down late in the game.
One spot where Jennings holds an edge over Williams is in the passing game. He is fluid out of the back field on flare routes or screens. Williams had ten career receptions in college (none last year), though he does hold his own in pass-blocking, something Jennings struggled with last year, as Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave him a minus-2.6 grade in that area.
I think Jennings will win the battle at the start mainly due to his experience and the amount of money they gave him. Williams will continue learning the playbook, but I expect that at some point during the regular season Williams will start getting more and more snaps and eventually earn the starting job over Jennings.
Running back ranked at the top of this list because it was the worst part of the offense last year. Because there was no running game, Manning was forced to throw the ball and make every play. It caught up to him with the high number of turnovers. If the Giants offense as a whole is going to improve, the running game must find some life.