NY Giants 2014 Virtual Program: Depth Chart Analysis, X-Factors and More
It promises to be an interesting season filled with ups and downs, particularly early on as the Giants offense continues to sand off the rough edges.
Before the curtain rises on the 2014 campaign, let’s take a comprehensive look at the breakdown of the roster as it currently stands, the key games, the X-factors and the prognosis for the year.
Starter: Eli Manning
Backup: Ryan Nassib
The Giants are going back to a two-quarterback format, as second-year man Ryan Nassib showed enough this summer to put the coaches’ minds at ease regarding his ability to function in the team’s hybrid West Coast offense.
All eyes though will be on Eli Manning, the 11-year veteran who at times looked skittish in this new offense. With the coaches having set a 70 percent pass completion rate for Manning this season, he might be lucky to get to 50 percent this year, based on his limited preseason showing.
Not only did he have some communication breakdowns with Rueben Randle, who is projected to be his No. 2 receiver, but Manning made some questionable decisions this summer by trying to force balls into tight spots (although he threw zero interceptions).
When it was all over, Manning ended the preseason 20-of-41 (48.8 percent) for 188 yards and one touchdown. The only 70 in his stat line was his passer rating.
Starter: Rashad Jennings
Backups: Andre Williams, Peyton Hillis
Rashad Jennings might very well be the early favorite for the Giants offensive MVP this season.
That’s because Jennings, who told Inside Football that his goal was to be “a complete back” in this offense, has shown early on that he can not only run the ball but also pass protect as well as be a receiving outlet out of the backfield.
Jennings’ 239 all-purpose yards, all of which were accumulated in 82 snaps per Pro Football Focus (subscription required) led the Giants' skill players in the preseason.
Williams, the rookie, finished as PFF’s most elusive running back this preseason, earning a 90.7 elusive rating. What that means is that Williams, who logged 11 missed tackles, averaged 3.13 yards after contact per rushing attempt thanks to his ability to run with power and break tackles.
Williams will likely be used initially in short-yardage situations and at the goal line, as his pass receiving skills are still a work in progress, along with his pass-protection skills.
Hillis will be the third back in the rotation, though it remains to be seen just how often he wears a uniform on game day, as the Giants could potentially dress just Jennings and Williams and use Henry Hynoski, the fullback, in an in-game emergency.
Starter: Henry Hynoski
The Giants went with the more versatile Henry Hynoski over John Conner, who is widely regarded as more of a traditional lead blocker.
Hynoski could potentially be one of the most underrated players on this year’s offense if the team’s struggles at tight end continue.
That’s because he was given part of the H-back playbook to learn during camp and could end up being more involved in the passing game in this new hybrid West Coast offense that the coaches are trying to implement.
The big question mark with Hynoski, though, is his durability. As previously noted in my training camp preview of the fullback competition, Hynoski has missed 18 regular-season games in three years, 13 of which happened last season thanks to a fractured left shoulder.
He also had an injury scare in the preseason finale against the Patriots, when he suffered a contusion on that same left shoulder, which ended his night early.
Although the fullback hasn’t been used much in the offense just yet, it remains to be seen just how large of a role the position will have, given the ongoing concerns at tight end.
Starter: Larry Donnell
Backups: Daniel Fells, Adrien Robinson
Not a day went by during training camp when head coach Tom Coughlin was asked about the tight ends.
What’s somewhat alarming is that each day it seemed like a different player was standing out.
That leads us to the team’s current predicament, which will be a tight end by committee, as the head coach explained to reporters last week.
"I really think that there will be a group of guys that will play and that will help us in different situations and try to be matched up according to the circumstance. I think that is the way it is going to go. I think there are a lot of roles for that spot."
So how might those roles shake out?
Second-year man Larry Donnell projects as the starter, despite having earned a minus-2.0, the third-worst overall grade from Pro Football Focus.
Donnell was targeted the most in the passing game. He had 11 targets and caught seven for 86 yards to lead the position. He’ll probably get most of the H-back duties.
Daniel Fells, who actually was the highest-graded Giants tight end, per PFF, will probably handle the bulk of the in-line work after finishing with a very healthy-looking 3.2 grade in that area.
Adrien Robinson, the worst of the four tight ends with a minus-4.2 overall grade, is a mystery in that he really didn’t show an ability to do anything well.
He’s blessed with the physical tools to be a player at his position, but it seems as though there are too many mental mistakes being made by this 2012 fourth-round draft pick, who appears to still be on scholarship.
The other thing to note about this position is that it could still change if the Giants can find an upgrade via the waiver wire. The pickings from the most recently released group, however, appear to be slim, though Over the Cap has a list of players who might be better than what’s currently out there.
The bottom line is if the Giants are hoping to get a tight end who can do several things well, they might as well just stay with what they have and start anew next offseason.
Starters: Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle
Backups: Jerrel Jernigan, Odell Beckham Jr., Preston Parker, Corey Washington
The Giants have numbers at this position, but quantity doesn’t always equate to quality.
The biggest issue with the group is the ailing hamstring of first-round draft pick Odell Beckham Jr. The rookie has barely practiced all summer and is probably so far behind in terms of technique work and football conditioning that it’s been a source of frustration for the organization.
If that’s not bad enough, Jordan Raanan of NJ.com surmised that Beckham won’t be ready for the team’s opening-night game at Detroit.
Coughlin: “Preston also has the PR/KR ability. Right now that’s very critical for us, because Odell Beckham was going to be the PR.” #giants
— Jordan Raanan (@JordanRaanan) August 30, 2014
Where does this leave the unit? Victor Cruz, who is perhaps the most reliable receiver currently on the roster, will probably see a lot of reps as an outside receiver, while Jerrel Jernigan, the third receiver, will likely see most of his reps from the slot.
That could be a concern for the Giants, as per Pro Football Focus, Cruz worked from the slot 68.7 percent of the time last season, coming up with 43 receptions (seventh among all slot receivers) for 561 yards and three touchdowns.
When Cruz didn’t work from the slot, he was targeted just 118 times (23.6 percent).
So what about Jernigan? His 5’8” listed size tends to put him at an advantage when playing on the outside against the bigger and more physical corners. This summer, he caught seven of 12 passes for 63 yards (9.0 average) but only managed 17 yards after the catch.
That leaves the Giants with the inconsistent Rueben Randle as one of their outside options. This summer, Randle was targeted 10 times, coming up with three receptions for 53 yards and six after the catch. He also had one drop.
Might the team turn to Corey Washington, the star of the summer? It’s interesting that the Giants never really tried Washington against first- or second-team opponents.
However, some believe that might have been their way of hiding his talent should they have decided to expose their leader in preseason receptions (10), receiving yards (155) and touchdowns (five) to the waiver wire.
It remains to be seen if Washington will be given a chance to move up the depth chart in the regular season.
Starters: LT Will Beatty, LG Weston Richburg, C J.D. Walton, RG John Jerry, RT Justin Pugh
Backups: G/T Brandon Mosley, T Charles Brown, G/T James Brewer, G/C Dallas Reynolds, G/T Geoff Schwartz (injured)
While it’s understandable that head coach Tom Coughlin wanted to get as many different looks at different offensive line combinations this summer, the fact that the Giants continued to experiment right up until the final week of the preseason is of concern because the projected starting unit had practically no time to jell on the field,
Not that it matters, thanks to injuries.
That means that rookie Weston Richburg, who has looked promising in camp, will need to up the ante and continue to expedite his acclimation to the NFL.
Meanwhile at right guard, the Giants’ other initial projected starter, Chris Snee, has since retired. That has left Brandon Mosley as the initial favorite to inherit Snee’s spot.
The problem, though, is that Mosley, who is in his third year as a pro, can’t seem to stay on the field. His latest injury is a back problem that cost him some practice time.
With Mosley’s health an issue, the coaches have turned to John Jerry, the former Dolphin who had his best showing against the Patriots (albeit against backups). In that game, Jerry earned a 5.1 overall grade from Pro Football Focus and an impressive 3.9 grade as a run-blocker.
The other concern is at left tackle, where incumbent Will Beatty will try to erase the bad memories of his dismal 2013 showing. Per PFF, he gave up 13 sacks and 46 combined quarterback hits and hurries, thus earning a disappointing minus-11.7 overall grade.
The biggest issue with Beatty, in addition to recovering from a bruised ego, is he's trying to come back from a broken right leg. He admitted to reporters that “it’s still not the right leg before the injury.”
Don’t be surprised if the Giants tweak the depth of the offensive line over the coming days, especially considering that in addition to Schwartz and Mosley ailing, Charles Brown (shoulder) and James Brewer (back) are also not at full strength.
Starters: LDE Mathias Kiwanuka, RDE Jason Pierre-Paul, LDT Cullen Jenkins, RDT Johnathan Hankins
Backups: DE Robert Ayers Jr., DT Mike Patterson, DT Markus Kuhn, DE Damontre Moore, DT Jay Bromley, DE Kerry Wynn
This time last year, the Giants defensive line was probably the strongest unit on the defensive side of the ball.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the unit right now for several reasons.
The first is that one-half of that 2013 starting unit—end Justin Tuck and tackle Linval Joseph—are with other teams (Raiders and Vikings, respectively) after leaving via free agency.
Their projected opening-day replacement for Tuck is Mathias Kiwanuka, who told me at the end of camp that he had some injury-related issues last season that he wouldn’t specify.
However, he also didn’t want to use those ailments as an excuse for his struggles in a season where he received a minus-31.5 overall grade from Pro Football Focus, which landed him dead last among 4-3 defensive ends who took at least 75 percent of their team’s snaps.
The Giants also added Robert Ayers, who was with the Broncos last season and, for the most part, was consistent week in and week out. Ayers only finished with 5.0 sacks, but he posted 47 combined quarterback hits and hurries and came up with 24 stops for zero or negative yardage.
The player to watch for, though, is Damontre “DaMonsta” Moore, the exuberant second-year pass-rusher who has been trying to improve his game against the run.
The good news is that Moore has done just that this summer. His weekly PFF grades improved each week, and his run-defense grade came in at 1.6 after he came up with 10 tackles for loss in 141 defensive snaps.
It would not be a surprise if at some point in the middle part of the season Moore passes Kiwanuka, who is in the final year of his contract.
At defensive tackle, second-year man Johnathan Hankins will presumably step in for Joseph as the starter alongside veteran Cullen Jenkins. Hankins has been solid against the run all summer, clogging up the cutback lanes and influencing the direction of plays.
While not quite as polished of a pass-rusher, it probably won’t matter as much, as the Giants will likely go to their NASCAR package, which features the four defensive ends—Jason Pierre-Paul (whom I’ll talk about in an upcoming slide), Ayers, Kiwanuka and Moore.
Starters: MLB Jon Beason, SLB Jameel McClain, WLB Jacquian Williams
Backups: Devon Kennard, Spencer Paysinger, Mark Herzlich
This unit will get a big shot in the arm thanks to the return of Jon Beason, who has been sidelined since suffering a broken bone in his foot during an OTA practice on June 12. Beason missed the entire summer but has done his best to keep himself in shape so that he can hit the ground running.
Still, he’s realistic enough to know that he’s going to have to catch up to his teammates who have been in the fire every day. Beason told Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News that it “will take time for him to ‘transition’’ into ‘elite’ shape.”
When Beason does return to the lineup, Jameel McClain, who had been keeping the seat warm in the middle, will move back outside to the strong side, which will bump rookie Devon Kennard from the starting lineup.
However, the rookie, who has played very well this summer, figures to be a big part of the defensive sub-packages. He could, in fact, replace Mark Herzlich in the team’s goal-line and short-yardage packages and might even see snaps as a nickel linebacker.
The other player at this position worth keeping an eye on is Jacquian Williams, the athletic and talented weak-side linebacker.
Williams has been a consistent follower of the lessons preached by Beason and McClain and told Inside Football that he’s ready to show people that he is an every-down NFL linebacker:
No doubt. We always say that no one comes to the league to do one thing. I never want to be known as just a passing down linebacker. I’m an every down linebacker. Will it take work? Yes. Will it take practice? Yes. Will it take experience and coaching? Yes. Am I an every-down linebacker? I am.
Starters: RCB Prince Amukamara, LCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Backups: Walter Thurmond III, Trumaine McBride, Zack Bowman
The Giants placed a heavy emphasis on improving the back end of their defense in the offseason.
The mission appears to have been accomplished, as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will draw the opponent’s top receiver every week.
Rodgers-Cromartie, who, per Pro Football Focus, allowed just 47.1 percent of the passes thrown against him to be completed and gave up just four touchdowns en route to a 70.0 NFL rating, has picked up right where he left off.
He allowed just two of the six passes thrown his way to be completed for eight yards for a solid 42.4 NFL rating. That’s not bad considering he played in 106 defensive snaps.
Don’t be surprised if teams go after Prince Amukamara more this year. The fourth-year cornerback was slowed by a groin strain this preseason, so he only played in 53 snaps. However, he did well with those opportunities, holding opponents to just a 37.5 completion percentage for 32 yards 95.0 NFL rating.
The other major piece to the puzzle is the addition of slot cornerback Walter Thurmond, who figures to play just as much as the starters, with the league being a passing league. He brings a very physical presence to the defensive secondary, though his stats for the preseason were a bit on the high side.
Per Pro Football Focus, he played in 122 defensive snaps and allowed 12 of 16 passes to be completed for 175 yards and two touchdowns.
Starters: SS Antrel Rolle, FS Stevie Brown
Backups: Quintin Demps, Nat Berhe
The Giants swapped out the super-talented Will Hill, who again violated league policies, with Stevie Brown, their interception leader from 2012.
Brown, however, is still working his way back from ACL surgery, and while he’s held up nicely in the preseason, at times he looks to have lost just a bit of a step in getting into position to make plays that he routinely made prior to the injury.
Brown, who per Pro Football Focus played in 91 snaps, finished with a minus-2.9 overall grade. While not tested much in coverage—of the two passes thrown against him, just one was completed for 17 yards—Brown is sure to be tested more often once the regular season begins.
It will be interesting to see if the Giants deploy much in the way of the three-safety set this year given the talent they have at linebacker. If they do, look for veteran Quintin Demps to get the nod as the third safety.
PK Josh Brown, P Steve Weatherford, LS Zak DeOssie, KR Quintin Demps, PR Preston Parker
The only position of note here is the punt-returner job, which will initially be handled by receiver Preston Parker. Head coach Tom Coughlin told reporters last week that once rookie Odell Beckham Jr. recovers from his hamstring strain, he will move into that role.
“Remember, we wanted Odell Beckham Jr. to be involved in the punt-return game, and we have not had the opportunity to put Odell in that position as of yet,” Coughlin said. “I am expecting in the near future to be able to do that.”
When that happens, presumably the Giants will no longer need to carry six receivers unless they have another injury pop up at the position.
Parker, who has a history of ball-security issues—he has eight career fumbles, with six as a punt returner—could be the odd man out if he muffs any of his opportunities.
Remember the days when the NFC East was the league’s “beast”?
Those days are unfortunately long gone, as Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports notes. Schwab writes that the NFC West has risen to the top, while the NFC East is just one notch ahead of the bottom-dwelling AFC North.
The chances of the NFC East producing two playoff teams this year are not very good. Washington has question marks at quarterback, and Dallas’ defense is a mess. Additionally, the Giants are still trying to establish an identity on offense.
That leaves the Eagles, who seem to have settled in nicely under second-year head coach Chip Kelly, as a popular favorite to win the division, at least in the opinion of Scott Bantel of SB Nation (via Yahoo Sports), who has the Eagles finishing at 10-6 and the Giants at 9-7.
While all of the games are important for every team, some do carry a little more weight than others. Here’s a snapshot of six games that could be key for the Giants’ season.
Week 1 at Detroit
The Monday night opener should provide a clear picture of just how far the Giants' new offense really is, especially when it goes against the Lions defense. Eli Manning and the passing game will need to show some signs of cohesiveness.
The Lions, remember, finished the preseason with the NFL’s fourth-best run defense, allowing opponents 81.5 rushing yards per game.
If teams are successful in shutting down the Giants' running game, it could make for a long year.
Week 6 at Eagles
If the Giants have their sights set on winning the division, they will need to handle the Eagles in this annual series opener, no questions asked.
Week 9 vs. Colts
The Giants come out of their bye facing the first of three straight opponents who were in the postseason last year.
It all starts with the Colts, whose starting quarterback, Andrew Luck, completed 12 of 18 passes for 89 yards and one touchdown in his handful of snaps against the Giants' starting defense—without receivers T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne.
In fact, Luck proved to be a nightmare to handle thanks to his ability to move around and avoid the rush. With a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal, Luck and the Colts should be a nice challenge for the Giants.
Week 10 at Seahawks
The Giants will head west to face the defending Super Bowl champions, a team that shut them out last season 23-0. Seattle is brutal to play at its home stadium thanks to its “12th Man,” but a win against the Seahawks in their building could be just the kind of second-half confidence boost the Giants might need.
Week 11 vs. 49ers
The Giants will cap a brutal three-game stretch against the 49ers, who by the way would be their second straight foe from the powerhouse known as the NFC West.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is another mobile quarterback who makes use of his mobility to inflict damage on an opponent, so he’ll need to be contained. Also, this game will be linebacker Aldon Smith’s first one back from suspension.
Week 17 vs. Eagles
If the division is going to come down to the Giants and Eagles, this game could be the deciding factor. More importantly, a win in this game will help whoever loses the Week 6 matchup keep the pace if things are indeed close by the end of the season.
X-Factor No. 1: DE Jason Pierre-Paul
Most every time defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul spoke to reporters this summer, he was positive and confident that he’d be able to produce big things this year.
While his summer production did not back up his words—per Pro Football Focus, he had zero sacks, six pressures and five tackles in 108 defensive snaps—it needs to be remembered that very few players, especially those coming off injuries as Pierre-Paul was, hit training camp off and running to the races.
That’s what Pierre-Paul tried to remind people about when he spoke with reporters a few weeks ago.
“Coach is going to take us out probably after 20, 25 plays or whatever,” he said. “It’s hard to (get into a rhythm) in 20 snaps. You’re not really getting a feel for it in 20 snaps; you need to play like a whole first quarter—that way you know what you’re going to do for the rest of the game.”
The good news is that Pierre-Paul’s stamina has come along, and he’s had no setbacks regarding his back or shoulder, the latter of which he injured late last year.
"I felt good. I still have to get better. I’ve got a lot of improvement to do. Otherwise, I feel good. Running to the ball, I wasn’t tired—especially on that long screen (against the Steelers) when they broke for—I don’t even know how many yards they broke for. That was a long run for me, so I wasn’t tired at all."
If the Giants can get the kind of production that Pierre-Paul generated in 2011—his lone Pro Bowl season and a year when he recorded 16.5 sacks and a career-high 67 tackles—that will go a long way toward giving the rebuilt defense a much-needed shot in the arm.
If they can’t, then it’s probably going to be a long year for the defense.
X-Factor No. 2: The New Offense
When the Giants' offensive players got their first look at the new system headed by first-time NFL offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, the enthusiasm among the players was unanimous.
Practically every player who was asked about the system spoke about how much more streamlined it would be, how it had the potential to resurrect an offense that last year finished 28th in the league and how much simpler the responsibilities were for the receivers.
So where is the offense after 12 spring practices and five weeks of training camp?
“I think it’s still trying to get it exactly the way we want it. It’s a work in progress,” quarterback Eli Manning told reporters last week. “It’s not the final product right now. It’s going to be, the more games, the more plays we get, the more practice...there’s definitely room for improvement, and that will be a season-long situation, which is, I think, normal.”
The question, though, is how much patience will the front office have if the offense does indeed take all season to start firing on all cylinders?
The Giants, remember, have only been to the playoffs once in the last five seasons, a fact that didn’t sit well with general manager Jerry Reese or team co-owner John Mara when they both addressed reporters at the end of last season.
Then there is a matter of head coach Tom Coughlin, the man who led the Giants to two Super Bowl championships. Coughlin, who just turned 68 years old on August 31, isn’t getting any younger. If this offensive system sputters, and the Giants again limp to the finish line, what will become of him in 2015?
Those questions aside, there have been signs that the players, despite their embracing of McAdoo’s modified West Coast offense, are still not comfortable.
For example, Manning and receiver Rueben Randle still appear to have issues with reading each other’s body language to where Randle is in the spot that Manning expects him to be.
There are also times when Manning has made rookie-like decisions with the ball by trying to force it into tight quarters. In fact, the only time Manning has truly looked comfortable throwing the ball this preseason was in the two-minute offense against the Jets—a series in which some of what Manning was asked to do was from the previous offensive system, as Newsday’s Bob Glauber pointed out.
"When you look at it and say, 'Gee, I've seen that play before,' that's basically where you are," Coughlin told Glauber. "There's a lot of detail involved, where you're not going to know what [the play] is about, but much of what you see could be easily attributed to. That's to be expected."
With all that said, the Giants offense appears to be at some sort of crossroads as McAdoo and Coughlin continue to adjust their system to fit what best suits Manning’s strengths.
There’s no question that the previous offense had grown stale and that change was needed. The question that must be answered, though, is this: Did the Giants change too much too quickly, and will they in fact be ready for opening night to where they're not ready for the start of the season?
Here's what Manning told reporters:
"Don’t get me wrong, we’re ready for Week 1, but I think as a season goes on, you’re always looking to improve, whether you’ve been in a system for 10 years or not, whether you have young guys and need guys to step up or you have new players, it’s still, there’s always room for improvement.
"You don’t want to alarm people and say, ‘We’ve got to get better, we’ve got to keep getting better.’ That’s just part of it. We’re going to keep getting better, but we can still go out there and be successful and do good things and win games but still strive to make improvements within our offense."
One improvement that Manning thinks the offense can make right away is to get back to playing football.
“Everybody’s trying to do everything perfect, do everything like it is in the book, do everything exactly how they’re being coached, instead of, ‘Hey, we’ve got to play some football.' We’ve got to run around and we’ve got to just get back to playing football and making plays."
The future of many people within the organization depends on them doing just that.
Prognosis: 9-7, 2nd Place in the NFC East
Given how unstable the offense has looked, are the Giants again headed to a winless streak to start the season?
Unlikely. They might struggle in the first game—the history section of the Giants media guide shows that they have lost their last three regular-season openers and that head coach Tom Coughlin has never won a regular-season opener on the road while with the Giants.
In fact, the last time the Giants won a regular-season opener away from home was on September 12, 1999, a 17-13 win at Tampa Bay. So hey, maybe they’re due.
Getting back to the question, think back to 2007 when the Giants defense was cutting its teeth under a first-time coordinator by the name of Steve Spagnuolo.
The team, mostly a veteran group, started out 0-2. That defense gave up 80 points in two games before things finally clicked.
So expect some growing pains with the 2014 team that’s trying to allow a new offense to take root and is still young.
It’s not going to be easy. It might not be the desired results, at least right away. The important thing is to measure if there’s growth moving forward, even if it’s baby steps. That’s how, in the end, we’ll be able to gauge if the season offers hope for the future or necessitates a complete overhaul at the top.
Projected depth chart information obtained via Giants.com. Unless otherwise noted, all stats are from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and all quotes and other information have been obtained firsthand unless otherwise sourced. Follow me on Twitter, @Patricia_Traina.