Ranking Strength of Every New York Giants Positional Unit
With OTAs complete, on-field preparation for the 2014 season is officially underway for the New York Giants. After an active, mostly productive offseason, Big Blue will look to put a disappointing 2013 campaign behind them and try to get back to the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Before we dive into ranking the Giants positional units—in order from worst to best—it is important to understand one thing. After starting 0-6 last season, New York backed into a 7-9 record. It was a bad team in 2013 and actually played like a team that deserved to lose 11 or 12 games.
The changes the Giants made in player personnel this offseason make virtually every positional unit better. Expected improved performance by certain returning players—most notably Eli Manning and Jason Pierre-Paul—further boosts confidence that New York will be a better all-around team.
Therefore, the units bringing up the rear on this list are likely still better than the 2013 version. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are weak, just not as strong as the units in the top half of the list.
One other note—we will only be looking at units on offense and defense. Special teams will not be covered.
For what it’s worth, the return game should be much improved with dangerous weapons like wide receiver Trindon Holliday, safety Quintin Demps and rookie wideout Odell Beckham Jr. in the fold. Also, punter Steve Weatherford and place-kicker Josh Brown are experienced, quality players in their respective disciplines.
This was the weakest unit for the Giants entering the 2013 season, and it will be again in 2014—barring any unforeseen major changes. However, they are no longer a liability to the defense.
The biggest reason why is Jon Beason, who was traded to Big Blue from the Carolina Panthers last October. While the middle linebacker is not strong in coverage, as witnessed by his minus-16 Pro Football Focus rating (subscription required) in this area last season, he is a sure tackler (he only missed seven all last season). He also provides tremendous vocal leadership to a unit that was desperately lacking direction prior to his arrival.
This unit also saw unexpected positive contributions from Spencer Paysinger and Jacquian Williams last season. The former provided solid all-around play in his 350 snaps at weak-side linebacker, boosting a 1.7 PFF rating. The latter was solid in pass coverage in his 622 snaps at outside linebacker, with a 5.3 PFF rating.
The biggest issue for this group is that it lacks playmakers. In 2013, Giants linebackers combined for only two sacks and one interception. They also didn’t force a fumble all season.
The addition of Jameel McClain, who will likely play strong-side linebacker for the departed Keith Rivers, probably won’t help this weakness. The 28-year-old only has 4.5 sacks, one interception and one forced fumble in his six NFL seasons.
New York averaged only 83.3 rushing yards per game last season on 3.5 yards per carry, ranking 29th and 30th in the NFL, respectively.
While poor offensive line play was part of the reason for this putrid production, the running backs did not help the cause. David Wilson was ineffective early in the season, while the trio of Andre Brown, Peyton Hillis and the recently retired Brandon Jacobs weren’t much better after the then-second-year player suffered a severe season-ending neck injury in Week 5 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Giants are banking heavily on free-agent acquisition Rashad Jennings to significantly improve the rushing attack in 2014. The six-year NFL veteran is coming off a career year. He had 733 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 4.5 yards per carry for the Oakland Raiders in 2013. He was also productive in the passing game, with 36 receptions for 292 yards.
However, the 29-year-old has never had more than 163 carries in a season, so it is questionable whether he can be a productive featured back over a 16-game slate.
Rounding out the running back group is Wilson, Hillis, Michael Cox and rookie Andre Williams. If Wilson proves healthy—which he did, albeit in non-contact drills, at OTAs this past week—he could be a dangerous, game-breaking complement to Jennings.
Also, Williams is intriguing as a between-the-tackles runner. The fourth-round pick had a ridiculous 2,177 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns in his senior season at Boston College.
As for the fullbacks, it will be an interesting competition between Henry Hynoski and John Conner. The latter is a modestly better blocker while the former is a more adept pass-catcher. Hynoski also needs to prove he is healthy from a shoulder injury that cut short his 2013 campaign after just three games.
My colleague Kevin Boilard wrote a great article on the Giants fullback competition on May 26, complete with a prediction on the winner.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The best way to describe this group is it has potential.
Rueben Randle, rookie Odell Beckham Jr., Jerrel Jernigan and Mario Manningham make up the rest of the wide receiver corps that figures to see targets in 2014. This bunch has talent but woefully lacks experience, save for Mario Manningham.
The problem with Manningham is that he tore his ACL late in the 2012 season as a member of the San Francisco 49ers and hasn’t been the same since. In fact, the knee is still bothering him. He isn’t expected to start practicing with his former and new team until training camp, according to Jordan Raanan of NJ.com.
As for the tight ends, there currently isn’t a viable starting option among them. The best candidates to emerge are Adrien Robinson and Larry Donnell.
Simply put, if the Giants get the 2011 version of Jason Pierre-Paul, this group will be better than they are ranked here.
After registering 16.5 sacks and a first-team All-Pro nod three years ago, the 25-year-old was slowed by back and shoulder injuries in 2012 and 2013. These ailments severely hurt his performance and ability to stay on the field. The good news is that JPP exclaimed at OTAs that he feels great.
Among the rest of the defensive ends, New York will hope for a breakout year from either second-year man Damontre Moore or newcomer Robert Ayers. As I wrote last week, Ayers has a great chance for a career year following a quietly impressive 2013 campaign.
The story at defensive tackle is Johnathan Hankins. The 22-year-old will look to hold down the 1-technique position for the departed Linval Joseph, who bolted to the Minnesota Vikings in free agency following a stellar four-year career with Big Blue. Considering he had an 8.0 PFF rating in only 195 snaps last season, hopes should be high that Hankins will thrive as a starter.
The offensive line was the worst unit on the Giants in 2013. Retooling through free agency and the draft should dramatically change the fortunes of the men in the trenches this upcoming season.
The signings of guard Geoff Schwartz, tackle Charles Brown, guard John Jerry and center J.D. Walton provide Big Blue with an infusion of talent and depth across the offensive line. The best addition should be Schwartz, who had an 18.3 PFF rating in 632 snaps, playoffs included, with the Kansas City Chiefs last season.
As for the draft, second-round pick Weston Richburg has a great chance to claim the starting center role. However, in OTAs, he took snaps with the second unit at both center and guard, per Ed Valentine of Big Blue View.
Along with the additions, this unit will be helped tremendously by bounceback years from holdovers Chris Snee and Will Beatty. Snee played in all but three games last year because of a hip injury but appears healthy and in line to retain his starting spot at right guard.
The news isn’t as good for Beatty. The Giants' starting left tackle the last two seasons completed a woeful 2013 campaign with a broken leg in Week 17 against the Washington Redskins. According to Raanan, he will be on the sidelines until training camp as he continues to recover from the injury.
After allowing only three sacks in 2012, Beatty surrendered a whopping 13 sacks last season.
When ranking the quarterbacks for Big Blue, 99 percent of the evaluation centers on Eli Manning. The Giants signal-caller for the last decade has never missed a start since taking over midway through his rookie season in 2004.
If the Giants had a game following their Week 17 matchup against the Redskins last December 29, Manning’s starts streak—currently at 162, playoffs included—would likely have ended.
The 33-year-old suffered a high ankle sprain just before halftime in that game. He had it surgically repaired this April, but was a full participant in OTAs and appears healthy.
It is a fortunate that Manning recovered so quickly because he needs all the work he can get after enduring the worst season of his career. This is especially important considering that he is learning a new offense and working with a lot of new players.
If the Giants had a less accomplished quarterback than Manning, this unit would not currently be considered the third-best on the team. When you are a two-time Super Bowl MVP and three-time Pro Bowler, however, it is acceptable to assume a 27-interception season was an aberration.
As for the backups, the surprising release of Josh Freeman last Friday makes it a two-man race between Ryan Nassib and Curtis Painter for the second-string job.
The suspension of Will Hill last Friday puts a damper on this unit, but it also highlights the tremendous depth and talent the secondary contains.
Even with Hill out for the first six regular-season games, the Giants have capable replacements in Quintin Demps and Stevie Brown. Demps started six games at free safety for the Chiefs in 2013 and picked off four passes. Brown missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL but started 11 games for New York in 2012 and was tied for second in the NFL with eight interceptions.
Either of these replacements for Hill will start alongside Antrel Rolle, who had a tremendous 2013 season with a 7.4 PFF rating and six interceptions.
The situation is even better at cornerback. With newcomers Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Walter Thurmond and Zack Bowman joining holdovers Prince Amukamara and Trumaine McBride, the Giants have five cornerbacks who logged at least 450 snaps in 2013. All but Bowman registered a PFF rating of 4.0 or better.
The secondary is clearly the best unit on this team. It is so good that it can withstand Hill being released—a distinct possibility—and even an injury or two and still hold onto this title.