NY Giants: Full Position Breakdown and Depth-Chart Analysis at Running Back
Last season, the New York Giants suffered a major meltdown at the running back position. The franchise, once noted for its bruising running game, was reduced to signing backs off the street just to hold things together.
The aim this offseason has been to revamp this unit. Through free agency and the draft, the Giants have created quite a competition at the running back position. The goal for 2014 is to reestablish a power running game, as evidenced by the 230-pound average weight of the six running backs currently on the Giants' 90-man roster.
The offense will still revolve around quarterback Eli Manning and his passing attack, not differing from the NFL norm these days. The emphasis on the ground game, however, will be more potent than it has been in recent years. A more balanced approach will only boost Big Blue's offensive output in 2014, the first season under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
This slideshow will break down the Giants' running back depth chart, highlighting and analyzing each of the six running backs on the roster.
Jennings, a rare product of Liberty University (Lynchburg, Va.), made his NFL debut in 2009 as a Jacksonville Jaguar and seventh-round draft selection (250 overall). In North Florida, he backed up Maurice Jones-Drew, who was a handoff-hogging Pro Bowler between 2009 and 2011. In 2013, his lone season with the Oakland Raiders, Jennings flashed just enough potential as a part-time starter for the Giants to offer him a full-time opportunity.
The 29-year-old running back has started only 17 games in his five-year career. Most backs Jennings' age are winding down their careers; New York hopes that it has located a late bloomer in this former reserve.
Fresh legs make up for a lack of experience. Jennings has registered less than 400 professional carries, a light workload that will serve him well in his first season as a featured back.
The best-case scenario: Jennings combines a veteran's mentality and work ethic with the vigor of a young runner, making him a prime candidate to spearhead New York's rushing attack.
The worst-case scenario: Jennings is not cut out for the starter's spotlight, and New York pays dearly for placing its trust in a former Raiders castoff.
Nothing Jennings has done previously suggests he cannot handle a heavier workload. He is a well-rounded back, one the Giants should feel comfortable fielding in any down and distance. At 231 pounds, Jennings is often described as a power runner. While he does run with a thunderous thump, this description is only partial—Jennings can break away from the pack in the open field.
The true test will be Jennings' ability as both a pass-catcher and pass-blocker. If he catches the ball well when he releases out of the backfield, and keeps the quarterback upright when he does not, Jennings will develop into a very serviceable running back for the Giants.
Two years after the Giants selected him in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft (32 overall), David Wilson is still the most intriguing running back on the roster.
Even though New York signed a veteran and drafted a rookie, both of whom are promising ball-carriers, Wilson's recovery from offseason neck surgery has been closely monitored. If he can make a complete comeback, Wilson will bring blazing speed, exceptional agility and an additional dimension to the Giants' offense.
The most recent update on Wilson's return to action is encouraging, even though he has not yet been cleared for contact. On July 21, the date of his next appointment, Wilson's doctor expects the explosive runner to be fully cleared for the start of training camp, per NFL.com's Around The League.
Even if Wilson is a full participant in training camp and beyond, recall that he was not particularly effective the last time he took to the field as a healthy back. He began the 2013 season as New York's starter but amassed an unimpressive 146 yards on 44 carries through five games. In the season opener, versus the Dallas Cowboys, he fumbled twice in a performance reminiscent of his rookie debut.
The primary difference in 2014 will be Wilson's role in the offense. Before, as the team's starter, he carried much more responsibility. Now, with the arrival of Rashad Jennings as the presumed starter, Wilson can play a change-of-pace role, which may be better suited to his ability. If he thrives in such a situation, Wilson will shake the bust label— though he might never be able to justify his being selected in the first round.
With New York's offense geared more toward power running than finesse, Wilson may stand out as an occasional spark plug more than he ever did as a starter.
The Giants used their fourth-round draft pick this year on Heisman Trophy finalist Andre Williams out of Boston College.
Williams led all NCAA D-I running backs with 2,177 rushing yards as a senior.
The rookie won't replicate that type of production in his first professional season, if ever. With more experienced backs in Rashad Jennings and David Wilson likely to be ahead of him on the depth chart, the Giants won't press Williams into action before he's ready.
But, even if he's brought along slowly, Williams will be visible in New York's offense this season. Forget his draft position and the supposed devaluation of the running back position, Williams is simply too talented to rot on the Giants sideline. Not yet a multi-dimensional player, though, Williams shouldn't be called upon in moments of grave consequence until he matures.
Williams is most effective as a straight-forward, between-the-tackles runner. His approach to playing the position is refreshingly simplistic, minimizing flash in defiance of today's NFL. In this sense, Williams is the antithesis of Wilson.
If Jennings is injured and must miss a game, Williams should be the back to replace him—not Wilson. Williams (5'11", 230 lbs) is of a similar size and style to Jennings and it makes more sense to plug in a familiar back than to completely change the game plan for a smaller, shiftier runner in Wilson—even if he is technically higher on the depth chart.
Before Williams can be considered a competitor for the Giants' featured running back role, he must improve the finer aspects of his game. He is known to struggle as a pass-catcher, and the jury is still out on his ability to protect the quarterback as a blocker.
Williams will be one of the most exciting rookies to watch in 2014, as one of the best players in college football last season now tries to make an NFL-caliber name for himself with the Giants.
The Giants signed a previously team-less Peyton Hillis six weeks into the 2013 season. He made his Giants debut in Week 7 versus the Minnesota Vikings, and 73 carries, 247 yards and two touchdowns later, Hillis had apparently done enough to warrant a two-year contract extension.
New York is unlikely to keep more than four running backs on the 53-man roster. While Rashad Jennings, David Wilson and Andre Williams are all virtual locks to make the team, Hillis is the front-runner of the remaining three backs on the Giants' current, 90-man roster to claim the final spot on the team.
Assuming the Giants' running back corps does not completely implode in 2014 as it did a season ago, Hillis will not even match the minimal production he experienced in 2013. Although Bleacher Report's Patricia Traina described Hillis as "slimmer and more chiseled" during OTA workouts, there is too much talent ahead of him and not enough touches to go around.
Listed as 6'2" and 250 pounds, Hillis is the largest running back on New York's roster. That could bode well for Hillis, as the Giants look to commit themselves to a power-running game. He was effective enough in short-yardage situations last year, but it would make little sense to pull a cold Hillis, who fumbled twice in 2013, off the bench in favor of bulls like Jennings and Williams, neither of whom were on the Giants' roster a season ago.
Hillis is in adequate position to make the Giants' final roster, but it will be an uphill climb for him to make an impact from there. The 28-year-old back is experienced and can be relied upon in a pinch; the Giants will be in trouble, however, if the running back situation gets that tight again in 2014.
Although Michael Cox, a 2013 seventh-round selection (253 overall), is buried in the depth chart, he does not deserve to be glossed over.
An overlooked prospect, who began his collegiate career at Michigan then transferred to Massachusetts, Cox won't easily be cast aside by the Giants.
As a rookie, Cox did little to call impressive. He ran the ball 22 times for just 43 yards, caught three passes for just 12 yards and returned 20 kicks for 436 yards. He also failed to cross the goal line on any type of play in 2013.
Cox isn't promising, but he could be a surprise standout in training camp. He runs with determination and grit, even though that doesn't always add up to lengthy gains on the ground. A former junior hockey star with a year of NFL development, Cox could take a massive leap in 2014 and make the Giants' final roster.
The focus for Cox should be on making the team, not his projected on-field impact. Even if he does beat the odds and make the cut, Cox will need a phenomenal preseason to see the field beyond special teams in the regular season.
Even at 222 pounds, Cox is a tad slight compared to the other backs on New York's 90-man roster. Still, as a large back but competing at a minor disadvantage, Cox must excel in an aspect of the game in which the other backs struggle. His best bets are pass-catching and pass-blocking.
If Cox can prove his value—in one way or another—he will make the 53-man roster.
Kendall Gaskins joined the Giants on a Future/Reserve contract at the conclusion of last season, making him the dark horse in this race. Right now, he's clearly on the outside looking in.
Gaskins, a University of Richmond product (FCS), went undrafted in 2013 but was signed as a free agent by the Buffalo Bills. He did not make the team in Buffalo, allowing him to be signed to the Tennessee Titans practice squad and, later, the Giants practice squad. He may end up there again in 2014.
Peyton Hillis is the only running back on the Giants' roster that is bigger than Gaskins, who weighs in at 240 pounds. In an interview with Ed Valentine of Big Blue View before the 2013 draft, Gaskins suggested that he could "bring a lot to the table," even offering his services as a fullback. He weighs just five pounds less than John Conner, who will compete with Henry Hynoski for the starting fullback role.
Could Gaskins be kept aboard for his ability to step in and play fullback if needed, especially now that the Giants have parted ways with utility tight end Bear Pascoe?
Overall, Gaskins fits the mold for the type of running back New York is trying to field this year. A power back who averaged less than four yards per carry in college, Gaskins is an unabashed short-yardage guy who scored 38 touchdowns on less than 500 total touches (34 rushing, four receiving).
At the very least, Kendall Gaskins is a name to keep an eye on this summer.
*All roster information courtesy of Giants.com
**All statistical information courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com