The Most Intriguing Rookie Storylines at the NY Giants' OTAs
After what seemed like months and months of endless waiting, spring football is so close to being here that before you know it, it will be time to reach out and grab it.
I’m talking about Phase 3 of the offseason program, or the OTAs, which, for the New York Giants, get underway on Wednesday at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Yesterday, I gave you a list of what I believe are some of the major storylines developing for the Giants, five things that I’m sure will be among the topics of discussion in the coming weeks.
Here, I’m going to focus on some of the developing storylines specific to the drafted and undrafted rookies.
Before I do that, I think the story of Victor Cruz needs to be mentioned as a lead-in.
Cruz, of course, was an undrafted rookie free agent out of Massachusetts whom no one really thought would amount to more than just camp fodder when he joined the team in 2010.
Well, we all know what happened with Cruz’s career, and now he’s one of the most visible faces of the franchise.
The point is that it doesn’t matter where a rookie is drafted—if he’s drafted at all. With hard work and the right timing, it’s certainly possible that there could be another Victor Cruz out there—an unknown name that on the surface appears to be fodder but who has only begun to write his inspirational NFL story.
So here’s a look at five rookies, drafted and undrafted, who potentially have a chance to make an impact on the team with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work.
Tight End Xavier Grimble
Former USC tight end Xavier Grimble (6’4”, 257 lbs) will be sporting jersey No. 89 for the Giants this summer as he tries to earn a roster spot.
If you're wondering why that's significant, it's because that jersey was once famously worn by Mark Bavaro, a Pro Bowl tight end who played for the Giants from 1985 to 1990 and a player whose success and workmanship Grimble is hoping to emulate.
Certainly Grimble has as good of a chance as any of the tight ends on the roster—the others being Adrien Robinson, Larry Donnell, Daniel Fells and Kellen Davis—to earn what is probably one of three slots at the position.
So what's it going to take for Grimble to make some noise at the position?
From the few clues that have come out about what characteristics new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo would like to see in the Giants’ tight ends, we know they must be versatile enough to move around, playing as an in-line blocker, lining up in the slot, lining up in the backfield as a fullback and playing some H-back.
Grimble believes he can do all that and then some.
“I think I bring versatility. When I was at USC I think that was one thing that we always focused on—being an all-around tight end,” he said.
“It seems to be sometimes lost in the game. I want to be the guy who can block and catch passes. I want to have an all-around game, that’s what I work towards.”
He’s also going to be working toward showing the coaches that, despite not having a high enough grade to be drafted in the seventh round (where NFLDraftScout.com projected Grimble might go if he was drafted), he can make an impact in this league.
“I’m just a hard worker, tough and am willing to do anything to contribute to the team, special teams, offense, whatever coach asks,” he said when asked what he planned to show the team in OTAs and in training camp.
Center Weston Richburg
Second-round draft pick Weston Richburg was widely regarded by many to be one of the top young center prospects in the 2014 NFL draft class.
While probably not yet of ideal size to be an anchor in the middle of an NFL offensive line—Richburg stands 6’3” and 298 pounds—he is said to be a smart, sound technician who is a quick study and who builds his game on the fundamentals.
The question regarding Richburg is where will his best fit be on this team this year, assuming he shows he's as polished as his predraft scouting report, such as this one by NFLDraftScout.com, portrayed him to be.
There's little doubt that the Giants believe he is their center of the future.
Yet before drafting Richburg, they signed veteran J.D. Walton to man the position for 2014 in what's a critical transition period for a Giants offense that's transitioning to a new system.
So where will Richburg likely play?
He's sure to get more than a handful of snaps at the center position behind Walton. However, he told reporters last week that he’ll take some snaps at guard.
That raises the question as to whether Richburg's path to get into the starting lineup is through Walton or through incumbent right guard Chris Snee, the four-time Pro Bowl guard whose one-time stellar mobility and athleticism has been slowing deteriorating.
Snee, of course, is trying to make it back from surgeries on both of his hips and his elbow for what will probably be the final year of his NFL career.
At this point in his career, is he the better option ahead of a younger, healthier and more mobile Richburg for that right guard spot?
Stay tuned to find out.
Defensive Lineman Kelcy Quarles
Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, an undrafted rookie free agent out of South Carolina, is another player who has the potential to open a few eyes.
Originally projected by NFLDraftScout.com as a third- or fourth-round prospect, Quarles, who played on the same line as defensive end and No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, found his draft stock tumbling amid questions such as how many of his plays were a result of the attention Clowney received.
Whatever the reason for him not being drafted, Quarles is going to get a chance to compete for a roster spot, just like those drafted ahead of him.
In New York, he has a very interesting and potentially favorable situation. Currently, the Giants' defensive tackles include projected starters Johnathan Hankins and Cullen Jenkins; reserves Mike Patterson and Markus Kuhn; and third-round draft pick Jayson Bromley.
Barring a rash of injuries, it’s unlikely the Giants keep five defensive tackles. If they go with four, I'd be stunned if a fifth defensive tackle doesn't end up on the practice squad.
One of the first orders of business for the Giants will be to determine if they want to keep both Kuhn and Patterson on the roster. My guess is that one of those two does not make the final cut.
Jenkins, who is 33 years old, is versatile enough to play defensive tackle and defensive end, so he doesn’t appear to be in any danger of losing his roster spot this year.
Patterson played well for the Giants last year, particularly against the run. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Patterson graded out with a 6.4 mark against the run, finishing with 15 stops in run defense (out of 413 plays).
So where does all of this leave Quarles and his chances? If everyone stays healthy, there probably won’t be room for him on the 53-man roster.
However, with a strong showing, he could earn a spot on the practice squad where with continued development, he could find his way to the main roster by the mid-point of the season, a time when injuries usually start to take a toll on the rotation guys.
Linebacker Devon Kennard
Linebacker Devon Kennard, the second of the Giants’ two fifth-round draft picks, has an interesting summer in front of him, thanks to his versatility.
Let’s start with the linebacker position.
Last week, Kennard told reporters that he’s been told by the coaches that they want him to learn both the middle and the strong-side linebacker spots, but that “right now, they have me concentrating on middle linebacker.”
Based on that piece of information, the 6’3” and 255-pound former standout from USC figures to challenge incumbent Mark Herzlich for the backup middle linebacker position behind Jon Beason.
Where Kennard could really help his case in leaping ahead of Herzlich on the depth chart (besides shining on special teams) is if he can master at least one other position, such as an outside pass-rushing linebacker and/or a 3-4 defensive end, the latter being a position he played early in his collegiate career.
As the Sports Xchange noted, the Giants are still short on proven defensive ends, a fact that hasn’t exactly helped considering that Damontre Moore, who had shoulder surgery earlier this offseason, recently told Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger that while he’s “at 95 percent right now,” he still hasn’t been cleared for contact.
As I’ve noted in several past articles, last summer defensive coordinator Perry Fewell experimented with some multiple fronts, plans that he had to scrap when injuries left him short-handed.
Might Fewell be planning to dust off some of those 3-4 looks for this season? Certainly players such as Kennard, who, earlier in his collegiate career, have the necessary experience to bring to the table in some of those fronts.
Running Back Andre Williams
Last February, head coach Tom Coughlin told The Wall Street Journal, per Jonathan Clegg (subscription required), that one of the things that won’t change in Ben McAdoo’s new offense is the team’s commitment to the run.
The goal? To get the running game back into the top-10 league-wide, an occurrence the Giants haven’t had happen since 2010 when they finished sixth in the league.
They signed Rashad Jennings to presumably be the starter, what with David Wilson still recovering from offseason neck surgery.
The 29-year-old Jennings has never before been a bell cow in an offense, and while he had success last year as a running back for the Oakland Raiders, Pro Football Focus’ Shawn Siegele, who made the comparison between Jennings and former Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, noted that while Jennings “averaged 2.8 yards after contact in 2013, (he) only broke 16 tackles on 163 attempts.”
The No. 2 running back behind Jennings, as of right now at least, should be Peyton Hillis, a tough, but sluggish, runner who was the Giants' best receiver out of the backfield last year. Hillis will compete with second-year man Michael Cox, a speedster who is probably the fastest of the current running backs.
Wilson? The Giants keep clinging to hope that he’ll be ready by training camp. That won’t happen, though, until a MRI of Wilson’s surgically repaired neck shows doctors that the bones he had fused together to repair a herniated disc have fully fused together.
So where does Andre Williams, their fourth-round draft pick fit into the mix?
"You wouldn’t take a guy like that unless you were committed to the run," head coach Tom Coughlin said. "We’ve got to get going up front again and be the dominating force up front, which can move the defense."
Williams certainly seems to have the background to help the Giants dominate on the ground again.
At Boston College, the 5’11”, 230-pound Williams averaged 6.1 yards per carry as a senior, showing that he could operate in-between the tackles, something the Giants really haven't had since the days of a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw and Jacobs.
But can Williams pass block, which is what McAdoo wants in his running backs?
That remains to be seen.
“I know I’m going to have to be a lot cleaner in terms of pass-blocking fundamentals,” Williams told reporters last week, “but I’m using a lot of the same protections now that I used in years past.”
If he can prove to be a quick study, he'll see the field early and often as a rookie.