What Can David Wilson Bring to the New York Giants in 2014?

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJuly 21, 2014

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The New York Giants are doing everything in their control to turn things around after missing the playoffs four times in a five-year span.

Uncharacteristically, they've shaken up the coaching staff by bringing in Ben McAdoo to replace longtime offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, and they broke from their regular approach to team building this offseason by signing 14 outside free agents. 

But the Giants know as well as anyone that it's nearly impossible to be consistently successful in this league without getting positive results from your homegrown guys. That's why this team isn't going to break out of its current slump unless recent high draft picks like Odell Beckham, Weston Richburg, Justin Pugh, Johnathan Hankins, Damontre Moore, Rueben Randle and David Wilson can step it up. 

The jury is still out on all of those young players, but a large amount of the spotlight this summer will likely be on Wilson, who is attempting to save his career despite serious questions regarding both his health and his ability to produce as an NFL running back.

Six months after undergoing spinal fusion surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back, Wilson has been cleared to participate in training camp, which begins this week in New Jersey.

But even before the 23-year-old was diagnosed with spinal stenosis in October, there were doubts regarding his ability to live up to being a first-round pick in 2012. Now, with veteran Rashad Jennings on board with a $2.5 million average salary, Wilson will likely be battling himself and his new peer.

As Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News notes, the Giants will undoubtedly ease him back slowly and conservatively, which is par for the course with an organization like this one:

Wilson can get back to action with the Giants in training camp, although fans shouldn't expect him to grab a major role. The club will likely ease the speedster back into action. It has another option in free agent signee Rashad Jennings. Additionally, Wilson has yet to distinguish himself as a lead runner; when the position was handed to him last season, he continued to struggle with fumbles.

Still, Wilson's progress will also inevitably be tracked constantly by those watching daily practices as well as the five preseason games the Giants have scheduled between now and the end of August.

Even if he's healthy, we have to keep in mind that Wilson was already being viewed by many as a bust before getting hurt last fall. The Virginia Tech product still had fewer than 60 rushing yards in all five of the games he played in last season and was chained to the bench for a large part of the 2012 campaign because he couldn't block and was prone to fumbles. 

Poor blitz-pickup skills and fumbling habits are not the types of traits head coach Tom Coughlin is willing to tolerate, which is why Wilson has spent more time in Coughlin's doghouse than anyone else on the roster the last two years.

After fumbling twice and missing a key block in the season opener last year, it did appear Wilson was making some progress in those fundamental areas. Between Week 2 and Week 5, he went fumble-free on 39 touches and didn't give up a single sack, hit or hurry in pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

But there's not enough evidence there to indicate that he has completely turned it around, especially since Coughlin and Gilbride rarely used him on obvious passing downs. Plus, up until that point, Wilson was averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, which ranked 27th among 39 backs with at least 40 attempts.

So even if that very serious back issue isn't a mental or physical distraction, Wilson will have to prove he still has the ability to light up defenses like he did against New Orleans, Atlanta, Baltimore and Philadelphia during the final month of his rookie season.

It was that stretch that had the Giants thinking he could be the No. 1 guy. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry, ranking fourth in football, and went over 10 yards on eight carries of his 43 rushing attempts, adding a 97-yard touchdown on a kick return.

Top YPA: Weeks 14-17, 2012
1. Jamaal Charles7.22
2. Marshawn Lynch7.05
3. Bernard Pierce5.80
4. David Wilson5.73
5. Adrian Peterson5.74
Min. 40 carries (Pro Football Reference)

He was the electric player the Giants were eyeing at the bottom of the first round of that spring's draft.

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But a lot has changed since then. Even if Wilson can regain his full speed and ability after suffering an injury that doctors feared could lead to potential long-term damage, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the No. 1 back job is Jennings' to lose.

In some ways, Jennings is the antithesis of Wilson. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes as a ball-carrier or blocker, and he has the resume to back it up. The 29-year-old has averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry in three of his four NFL seasons, and during a four-week stretch in the second half of the 2013 season, he was probably the best back in the NFL. 

NFL's top rushers: Weeks 9-12, 2013
1. Adrian Peterson4264.44
2. Rashad Jennings4135.72
3. Alfred Morris4054.71
Pro Football Reference

He's not flashy, but the former Oakland Raider and Jacksonville Jaguar has fumbled just three times on 484 career touches, and he's a very good receiver out of the backfield. 

That could be a key factor if this does become a battle for reps, because Wilson has just six career catches under his belt but has the speed and explosiveness to flourish on swing and screen passes.

A rare example:

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Those types of plays were generally foreign to Gilbride, but it'll be a different story with McAdoo bringing West Coast tendencies and a quarterback-friendly offensive approach to town.

Most yards after the catch, 2013
1. Denver Broncos2,751
2. New Orleans Saints2,576
3. Detroit Lions2,392
4. Green Bay Packers2,344

In Green Bay, backs Brandon Jackson, James Starks, Eddie Lacy and Ryan Grant all had over 200 yards receiving in the last four years. Ahmad Bradshaw hit that mark three times between 2010 and 2012, but he's gone now, and McAdoo will be looking for guys to catch short passes before adding extra yards afterward.

Fewest yards after the catch, 2013
29. New York Giants1,579
30. San Francisco 49ers1,411
31. New York Jets1,398
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers1,151

Jennings is no spring chicken, and Wilson can't be considered a full-time back right now, but there may be enough opportunities to go around for both to excel in a platoon-type role. Rookie Andre Williams, who was a Heisman finalist last year at Boston College, will also factor in, but Coughlin doesn't usually give a lot of work to rookies, so Jennings and Wilson will undoubtedly lead the way.

Coughlin already stated in March that Wilson might be back "in a different capacity," per NJ.com's Jordan Raanan:

Right now, Wilson's goal for Week 1 has to be "any capacity." He won't immediately beat out Jennings, but he can't afford to lose ground and has to consider Williams' presence.

And the team can use everything it can get out of all three players, because it can't get much worse than what we saw from the scrub carousel featured in the Giants backfield with or without Wilson last season. They finished the season ranked 30th in the NFL with just 3.5 yards per carry and had a league-low four runs of 20-plus yards.  

If this offense is going to redeem itself in 2014, it has to improve right across the board. That inevitably means there's room for Wilson to come in and finally begin living up to his potential. But the reality is there are a lot of question marks, and it's going to take some time.


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFC East for Bleacher Report since 2012.