New York Giants: Top Position Battles to Watch in Camp
Thanks in part to their 7-9 record last year, the roster underwent a significant overhaul in the offseason. As a result, there are several interesting competitions brewing for starting jobs and key backup spots.
Later this week I will look at the entire roster and give you my projections for how I see the 53-man roster shaping up. For now, let’s look at some of the key battles that will take place in camp.
Right Guard: Chris Snee vs. Himself, Brandon Mosley vs. Weston Richburg
Earlier this spring, both the Giants and Chris Snee were brimming with optimism that the former Boston College star could rebound from surgeries to both hips and an elbow and return for an 11th and likely final season.
With Snee’s surgically repaired elbow acting up—he missed a large part of the spring practices as a result—it appears iffy regarding whether the team can count on him for this season as a 16-game starter.
In the meantime, the Giants have options at right guard. Brandon Mosley and rookie Weston Richburg will probably be the two primary candidates who will compete for the starting job.
Mosley has seen his first two seasons in the league end with him landing on the injured reserve list, with his rookie season wiped out because of injury. When he’s played, however, he’s shown flashes of being a solid player.
During this spring, Mosley primarily worked with the starters at right guard, drawing praise from offensive line coach Pat Flaherty.
“I see improvement on a daily basis; I really do,” Flaherty told reporters on the final day of the Giants’ spring practices.
“The one thing this spring showed for him and showed for us is that you’ve got a lot of reps and he didn’t miss any time. That’s a good step in the right direction for him.”
Richburg, who is the team’s future at center, has also been learning the ropes at both guard spots, though his future remains at center.
Flaherty said that teaching Richburg the other position is standard for young players, who need to learn to become versatile.
“I don’t like them standing around. How are they going to do good standing beside me?” Flaherty said of the decision to move Richburg around.
“You’ve got to get in there in play, especially when you’re young. You’ve got a lot of energy to do that so use your energy. It’s only going to make you better. He’s learning the position, not only at center, he’s learning at guard and he’s progressing.”
As much as I’d like to believe that Snee can make it back and last for an entire season, I don’t think the Giants can count on that happening. I wouldn’t be surprised if Snee starts the summer on the PUP list—I also wouldn’t be shocked if he retires just before camp.
If this competition comes down to Richburg and Mosley, as I think will be the case, I think Mosley has the edge because he’s worked at that spot before with the starters and has some live snaps under his belt.
If he can stay healthy and show that he knows the playbook, there’s no reason to think that he can’t be effective in that role should Snee be unable to go.
Inside Linebacker: Mark Herzlich vs. Dan Fox
The Giants figure to keep a maximum of six linebackers regardless of whether starting middle linebacker Jon Beason, who is recovering from a broken foot suffered late in the OTAs period, is ready for opening night.
The rest of the players who should be joining Beason on the roster at that position, barring season-ending injury, include Jameel McClain, Spencer Paysinger, Jacquian Williams and Devon Kennard.
The final spot projects to come down to veteran Mark Herzlich or rookie Dan Fox, the undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame.
Fox has shown good awareness and seems to have picked up the defense rather quickly, suggesting he’s a fast study.
He can also play outside and inside linebacker, his versatility giving him a slight edge over Herzlich, who’s primarily an inside linebacker.
While there are still question marks about Fox’s strength, he seems to play a smart, yet aggressive game that results in him putting himself into the best possible position to make plays.
“I keep going back to professional—a professional-type person that studies,” defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said of Fox. “I’m really pumped up to see when he gets hit in the mouth, how he’ll respond. I think he’ll be good on special teams for us and just a solid player that you can develop.
“He’s...I think this is some of the better rookie linebackers that we’ve brought in in the last four years that I’ve been here. That ’11 class was pretty good. I think this class is really stepping up to the plate to try to equal that or better.”
While Herzlich embraced his role as a special teams player last year and actually was the best of the special teams regulars, it spoke volumes when head coach Tom Coughlin, when asked about contingency plans to fill the middle linebacker spot during Beason’s absence, did not mention Herzlich’s name.
“We have two, you have the two that have been playing in it,” Coughlin said. “McClain would be in there first, Kennard would be in there second.”
For Fox, whom I think has a slight advantage given his versatility, to win this battle, he’ll have to outperform Herzlich on special teams, the latter being an area in which Herzlich excelled last season.
If the two players should come to a draw, it probably makes more sense for the coaching staff to keep the veteran and to stash Fox on the practice squad.
Fox will get his opportunities to show what he an do, largely thanks to Beason’s absence. Can he make the most of the chance and transfer what he did in the spring to the summer when the pads go on?
Cornerback: Charles James vs. Trumaine McBride vs. Bennett Jackson
Barring injury, the Giants’ first four cornerback slots should be set with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Prince Amukamara, Walter Thurmond and Zack Bowman.
Assuming the team keeps five corners, that would leave one spot up for grabs with three very eligible candidates competing.
Trumaine McBride, who filled in nicely as a starter last season, would appear to have the advantage in the three-man race that includes second-year man Charles James and rookie draft pick Bennett Jackson.
McBride started 10 games for the Giants and filled in nicely. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), McBride finished with a 57.4 NFL rating, the fifth-best mark among all cornerbacks in the NFL.
However, McBride is a bit of a question mark health-wise moving forward after undergoing hip surgery in January, as first reported by Art Stapleton of The Bergen Record.
If McBride isn’t ready to go by camp, that could open the door for James, who, in addition to being able to play cornerback, is able to contribute on multiple special teams, including as a punt returner.
Per PFF, James, who was elevated to the 53-man roster after Week 4, only played two late-season snaps on defense in 2013.
Lastly, there is Jackson, the rookie who was the Giants’ sixth-round pick this year. At 6’0”, 198 pounds, Jackson is the biggest of the three candidates but is also the least experienced.
Given the depth in front of him, that experience could be sparse, according to cornerbacks coach Peter Giunta.
“He’s a tough kid,” Giunta told reporters. “Unfortunately, because we have so many good players, he’s getting less reps, but he’ll get plenty of reps in training camp.”
Giunta said he likes what little he has seen of Jackson from the spring.
“He has good quickness, good speed; he’s got good size; he’s physical,” he said. “His best thing is being able to hit people and put his hands on people, and we won’t be able to see that until Buffalo.”
McBride is the key to this competition. If he’s healthy and ready to go, he should be the fifth cornerback, just edging out James for a second year in a row.
Jackson, meanwhile, is most likely headed to the practice squad, where, with a year of development, he should be ready to contribute in 2015.
Fullback: Henry Hynoski vs. John Conner
For the first time since the summer of 2007, the Giants will have a competition for the starting fullback position. That competition will feature two very good candidates in Henry Hynoski and John Conner.
I broke down the specifics of this competition last week, but to add to that article, what makes this such a tough battle to call is that both Hynoski and Conner have similar skill sets.
As I noted, the winner could come down to lead blocking, which we haven’t really seen yet in this new offense because of the no-contact nature of the spring practices.
One thing that certainly won’t surprise me about this battle is that whoever ends up losing the competition shouldn’t be out of work for too long—that’s how close this competition is and how similar the two players are.
Again, this battle is just too close to call until the pads go on and we are able to see how well both men block.
On paper, a more durable Conner appears to have the edge because of his health history as well as in terms of being a slightly better blocker. However, it remains to be seen just how Ben McAdoo plans to use the fullback in the offense.
If the running backs are healthy, there might not be much for the fullback to do other than to lead block. However, if injuries start to strike the unit down, that’s when we could potentially see the fullback become a little more involved in the offense.
Kickoff Returner: Trindon Holliday vs. Quintin Demps vs. Jerrel Jernigan
With the immediate future of running back/kickoff returner David Wilson in doubt—his next appointment to examine his neck will be on July 21—the Giants will continue their search for a kickoff returner who can give them the firepower that Wilson did as a rookie in 2012 when he averaged 26.9 yards per return.
That firepower, by the way, was good enough to help the Giants finish tied for sixth place leaguewide (with the Jets) with a 26.2-yard kick-return team average.
This year, the primary candidates for the kick returner job include newcomers Trindon Holliday and Quintin Demps and holdover Jerrel Jernigan.
Holliday finished with a 27.7 average, also recording a touchdown return as a member of the Denver Broncos.
Both Demps and Holliday finished in the top 10 leaguewide in the number of 20-plus-yard returns generated. Demps posted 26 (tied for fourth in the league), and Holliday posted 21 (10th in the NFL).
Jernigan’s issues as a kick returner are not so much his speed but his ball security. He has two fumbles in 21 kickoff returns (one in each of the last two seasons) and has only mustered up 12 returns of 20-plus yards, his longest being a 60-yard return in 2012.
Where Holliday has had his struggles has been as a punt returner, a role he’ll also audition for and where he has 10 career fumbles, including nine in the last two seasons.
Demps appears to have the best statistical history of the three, with a career long of 100 yards, two touchdown returns, 68 returns of 20-plus yards and only one fumble.
The stats favor Demps in this race, but I always question the wisdom of putting a player on as a return specialist if that player is set to be a heavy contributor to the offense/defense. (Anyone remember how cornerback Jason Sehorn tore his ACL and MCL on a preseason kickoff return in 1998?)
If Demps is projected to be the third safety—and I think the safety position is a tad thin right now on experience behind Demps and projected starters Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown—it’s a big risk to expose Demps to a potential injury.
I think it makes more sense to see if a player who’s fourth or fifth on the depth chart can handle the position.
With that said, I suspect whoever wins this battle will come down to Holliday or Jernigan. Given that Jernigan has had four years to emerge as a return threat and has made little headway, I think the job could be Holliday’s to lose.