Breaking Down New York Giants' Likely Opening Game Starting Lineup
In three weeks, the New York Giants will be taking the field for a game that actually matters. That means, unlike in the preseasons games we've been watching, the starters will play the whole game.
New York's projected starting lineup is relatively clear, with only a couple positions still up in the air.
A lot can change, however, before the Giants' regular season commences on Monday, Sept. 8, when they go on the road to face the Detroit Lions in prime time.
To come away from that matchup with a win, the Giants must field the best starting lineup possible.
Read on to get a breakdown of what that lineup is most likely to be.
Eli Manning will be the Giants' starting quarterback for the 2014 season.
OK, so this isn't breaking news off the desk of ESPN's Adam Schefter, but after Manning's preseason performance against the Indianapolis Colts, I thought the notion could use some reinforcement.
After all, I had people commenting on my game grades piece hoping the Giants would land the top spot in the draft and select 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston out of Florida State.
As dysfunctional as the Giants' new offense appears, Manning is still the best man New York has to run it. Perhaps it is presumptuous of us to expect it to run like a well-oiled machine so early in the preseason.
Even Manning himself said that he's not too worried about the lack of success New York has had moving the ball, according to Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News.
We may not see the Giants offense look perfectly comfortable in its new identity until about midseason, and until we see it take its full form, the jury is still out on whether this change of offensive direction was actually a good idea.
There were times when Manning and the Giants offense looked downright terrible under former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride's leadership, like the 2013 season when Manning threw 27 interceptions.
There were also times when Gilbride had them looking unstoppable, like the 2011 playoffs when Manning threw nine touchdowns and only one pick.
You have to take the good with the bad, and it's not all that surprising that we're getting a lot of the bad before we get the good from this new unit under Ben McAdoo.
The bottom line is Manning is a true professional—a calm, veteran presence New York counts on during times of turbulence.
No one is pushing Manning's case for the "elite" argument anymore, but that's not what the team needs. The Giants need someone who can run the ship and direct its crew, someone who can keep the team from wrecking and sinking to the depths of the league.
Manning is still that team captain.
The Giants signed Rashad Jennings in free agency to be the starting running back, and nothing so far this summer has forced the team to deviate from that plan.
Jennings came from the Oakland Raiders and the Jacksonville Jaguars before he reached New York. Although he saw eight starts in place of Darren McFadden in 2013, most of the 29-year-old's six-year career has been spent as a reserve.
This is the first true opportunity Jennings has received to be an NFL team's starting running back from the outset of the season.
In the preseason, Jennings has had his moments, the most notable of which being the 73-yard touchdown run he ripped off against the Pittsburgh Steelers. For the most part, though, he has struggled to find room to run.
Not only will Jennings relish the chance to start, he'll also savor the opportunity to play for a team with a history of winning. As a Raider and a Jaguar, Jennings never played for a team that posted a winning record.
Now, the 231-pounder is being asked to spearhead a power running game for a franchise that has won the Super Bowl twice in the past decade.
A veteran presence—who has witnessed the worst of the worst—with low mileage is just what Eli Manning needs alongside him in the backfield. New York's passer was often hung out to dry with a rag-tag group of backs in 2013.
Rookie running back Andre Williams deserves mention on this slide, as does fullback Henry Hynoski.
Williams will not start over a healthy Jennings in 2014, for his pass-catching and blocking skills aren't yet up to par. Still, Williams, a pounder, will get his reps in, especially on the goal line.
Hynoski will be in there, too. The fourth-year fullback can play running back in a pinch and added tight end duties to his repertoire, which will help him beat out John Conner for the "starting" job.
Wide Receivers and Tight End
New York's starting trio of wide receivers has not yet been validated during the preseason.
Victor Cruz is the only proven member of the bunch. Last year, he fell two yards shy of his third consecutive 1,000-yard season.
Cruz is a favorite target of Eli Manning's when he lines up in the slot, but that familiar quarterback-receiver connection has not been on display during the preseason.
Against the Colts, Cruz caught what would have been a huge gain and his first reception of the preseason. However, he lost the ball at the end of the play, and the Giants were forced to settle for a five-yard illegal contact call on the play.
Manning's offense is at its best when his slot receiver is a menace to cover, so it is imperative to the health of the unit for Cruz to find his groove soon.
Starting opposite Cruz will be third-year receiver Rueben Randle, who has caught only one pass for 12 yards this preseason.
Randle is a large-framed pass-catcher who has displayed great hands in the past, particularly in the red zone. Last year, he led the team with six touchdown grabs, despite the fact that he was the No. 3 target behind both Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
Randle was criticized last season for communication issues with Manning, and one has to wonder how well he's picking up the mental aspect of Ben McAdoo's new West Coast-themed offense.
Originally, Randle called it "pretty much black and white, simple," per Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger. Receivers coach Sean Ryan cautioned that Randle was over-simplifying things back then, and early indications say that Ryan was right.
The third starter on opening day will be Jerrel Jernigan, not 2014 first-round selection Odell Beckham Jr., whom the Giants so desperately need in the lineup.
Although Beckham will probably be healthy enough to play in Week 1 of the regular season, he has likely missed too many reps in training camp to get on the same page as Manning and the rest of the offense.
I mean, just look at the lack of progress made by the guys who are actually practicing.
Jernigan has been one of Manning's most-targeted receivers in the preseason, but the 2011 third-round pick has done very little with the influx of attention.
As far as tight end goes, it's anyone's guess who the Week 1 starter could be. If the season were to begin today, Larry Donnell would probably be the starter.
Veterans Daniel Fells and Kellen Davis could make a push for those duties in the closing weeks of the preseason. It would be a long shot for Adrien Robinson to come all the way back from the bottom of the depth chart to win the starting job.
The Giants offensive line has some new faces, but it's just as shaky as it was a season ago.
The only holdovers from last season are the two tackles, Justin Pugh on the right and Will Beatty on the left.
So far in the preseason, Pugh appears to have regressed from a rookie season in which he was probably New York's most consistent blocker.
Beatty just recently made a full recovery from a broken leg suffered in last year's season finale, and it remains undetermined whether he'll be as terrible as he was in 2013.
Beatty took the first step toward a repeat performance by getting flagged for a hold during his first game back.
The interior offensive line will look very different than it did last year.
J.D. Walton, signed during free agency, will begin the season as the Giants' starting center. The Giants also drafted Weston Richburg in the second round, but he is not yet in position to usurp the starting center role by Week 1 of the regular season.
There's a good chance, however, we could see Richburg in the starting lineup, possibly at right guard, before his rookie campaign comes to a close.
Unless Richburg begins developing at a much quicker rate, Brandon Mosley will be New York's starting right guard when the season opens. Mosley was a fourth-round pick in 2012 but has minimal game experience.
Pretty much anything New York does at right guard will be a downgrade from a healthy Chris Snee, who made his retirement official on the first day of training camp.
Left guard Geoff Schwartz should be the Giants' most reliable blocker in 2014. The 6'4", 340-pound behemoth was signed on the first day of free agency, as New York had clearly put a premium on rebuilding its offensive line.
Schwartz has been slow to solidify the Giants O-line, but, in time, he should become the road grader he was in Kansas City.
New York's starting defensive line is solid, but it's still not quite the weapon it once was.
Right end Jason Pierre-Paul is the most dangerous pass-rusher along the defensive front. In his All-Pro campaign of 2011, he racked up 16.5 sacks and earned a reputation as one of the most disruptive defenders in the NFL.
Pierre-Paul has ridden that reputation through a couple down seasons now, and some might be suspicious of his ability to replicate his breakout year. JPP's not one of them.
On the opposite end, Mathias Kiwanuka is holding the fort Justin Tuck called home for so many years. There, on the left side, Kiwanuka will be a full-time starter on the line for only the second time in his nine-year career.
The only time the 2006 first-round selection started all 16 games in a given season was in 2008, when Osi Umenyiora was lost for the season with a knee injury. Kiwi had a career-high eight sacks that year.
The Giants have a nice mix of veteran leadership and ripe, young talent in their interior D-line.
Cullen Jenkins was a standout last season as a pass-rushing tackle. The 33-year-old is also solid against the run and can kick outside to play like an end if need be.
Next to him, Johnathan Hankins is expected to take the next step in his second year. The big man in the middle will play a nose tackle-type role, taking over where Linval Joseph, now a Minnesota Viking, left off as the other starter on the inside.
Another second-year player, end Damontre Moore, will see extensive time, even if he's not technically a starter. Moore will be a pass-rushing specialist and is a candidate to lead the team in sacks for the 2014 season.
Even if the Giants don't field the same fearsome pass rush they once did, the starting D-line should be one of the team's strengths this season.
Linebackers have long been New York's Achilles' heel of the defense, but this year they may actually be an asset.
The starting middle linebacker this preseason has been Jameel McClain, but last year's starter Jon Beason plans on returning to action from his foot injury by Week 1 of the regular season.
In fact, Beason is still hopeful he can make his way into a preseason game. Beason took over a leadership role as soon as the Giants traded for him last season, and he'll likely step right back into that role when he's healthy and back on the field.
When Beason comes back, McClain may be bumped back over to the strong side of the formation—or, possibly, the bench.
Rookie linebacker Devon Kennard has made the position his home during the preseason, while McClain has manned the middle. The fifth-rounder has drawn more praise this summer than any other rookie and will be difficult for McClain to displace.
On the weak side, Jacquian Williams has really created some separation between himself and Spencer Paysinger.
Williams and Paysinger have been battling for these duties since they were rookies in 2011, and the playing time has usually been an even split.
This summer, however, Williams, perhaps the most athletic of New York's linebackers, has developed into a difference-making, every-down linebacker.
McClain and Kennard are aggressive, downhill 'backers who can make plays in the backfield.
Williams, on the other hand, is a quick, reactive linebacker who can cover a lot of ground in pass coverage. Beason, a tremendous run-defender, is a mix of both types of linebacker.
That's an enviable starting combination.
The Giants secondary is being advertised as the team's strongest unit.
The starting cornerbacks have the potential to become one of the league's finest outside tandems.
Prince Amukamara, a 2011 first-round selection, became the team's top coverage man last season, but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, signed in free agency, will likely take over that role in 2014.
If you're arguing over the better cornerback between Prince and DRC, you're splitting hairs. Both players are very good, and opposing quarterbacks will need to be precise in order to squeeze in completions on either sideline.
The safeties lining up behind New York's two stellar corners should be equally exceptional this season.
Antrel Rolle was a second-team All-Pro and set a new career high with six interceptions in 2013. Stevie Brown is in the process of making his return from a torn ACL after intercepting eight passes in 2012.
Rolle is the team's most vocal leader, and he is like a heat-seeking missile when chasing down a ball-carrier who's in front of him.
Brown has proven himself as a viable center fielder, but there's still a lot he can learn from Rolle about playing the run in a more aggressive fashion.
Slot cornerback Walter Thurmond III may not be in the starting lineup, but he's sure to play a high number of snaps in each game this season.
With more and more teams utilizing three- and four-wide receiver sets, Thurmond will be a valuable commodity for the Giants in 2014. He considers himself the league's best slot cornerback.