With training camp on the horizon, unproven players will be fighting for a shot to squeak past the final cuts of summer and become a part of an NFL roster. For the Giants, several solid players will also be fighting to maintain their spot on a team that enjoys a healthy amount of depth at every position.
The Giants formidable front line was perhaps the key to the team’s success during the first three quarters of last season. However, as November turned into December, Burress’s thigh wasn’t all that was shot. Without a three pro bowler rotation to minimize the wear and tear on each player’s body, Justin Tuck ran out of gas. Michael Strahan’s retirement along with Osi Umenyiora’s injury, would leave the bulk of the DE duties to Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka alone. Fred Robbins’s aging body didn’t help.
With all of this in mind, Jerry Reese and the Giants added two starting caliber defensive linemen during free agency: Rocky Bernard and Chris Canty. While Bernard will almost certainly only see time on the interior of the line, at 6'7", 304 lbs, Canty may bounce back and forth between end and tackle. Both men along with Tuck, Umenyiora, and Kiwanuka are locks to make the team. That leaves three roster spots at best.
While Jay Alford is the youngest and least experienced of the veterans (not including Jeremy Clark who saw some action last season), he has proven to be a solid long snapper. As the Steelers learned against New York last October, that position cannot be overlooked. On the ends, Dave Tollefson has shown flashes of potential during his limited snaps while rookie Maurice Evans looks to make a push for his role. Evans was at one point thought to have early round potential, but a brush with NCAA regulation and the law derailed his senior season at Penn State. Robert Henderson was lost for all of his rookie season due to a back injury and is not likely to make this team. If no one else impresses at LS during camp, Alford’s job is safe. That leaves two spots. Most Likely, New York will keep at least one more backup defensive end to keep the rotation fresh and if he impresses, that job may very well be Evans’s. With one spot left, the final cut would have to be among Cofield and Robbins.
After coming off the same surgery, it can only be assumed that Cofield’s significantly younger body has recovered better than the aging (chronically banged up) Robbins. However, Robbins has been an impact player over the past two years and looks to have at least one more year of good football left in him. His ability to play with two broken hands also demonstrates his tenacity and dedication to the team. Cofield has had less of an impact and while the Giants may get more mileage out of him in the long run, it is likely that he is either traded or cut before the regular season opener in September. If Alford impresses in camp and shows that he could start by 2010, Cofield’s departure becomes even more likely.
Perhaps a position that has flown under the radar this offseason would be tight end. After being held without a reception until the third week of 2008, it looked as if Kevin Boss’s best feature was that he simply wasn’t Jeremy Shockey. There were even rumblings of a trade brewing between the Giants and the Chiefs for Pro Bowler and fan favorite Tony Gonzalez. Boss would step up and become one of Eli’s favorite and most dangerous targets. His redzone prowess may make him a valuable sleeper in ’09 fantasy leagues. Michael Matthews was relatively silent, while Darcy Johnson made the most of his limited opportunities by hauling in a touchdown catch on his first two career receptions. To bolster blocking at the position, New York brought in former Eagle Lee Vickers to compete for a backup role. Barring injury, a tight end spot will certainly be used to give rookie H-Back Travis Beckum a spot on the roster.
If the Giants keep three tight ends (including Beckum), only the second slot is open. The competition thus far seems to be wide open. If Vickers can prove to be the most formidable blocker among his competitors, his veteran experience should give him the edge over Matthews. It would still be a tight race with Johnson, who showed potential to be a solid number two tight end last season. However, blocking will certainly be the determining factor in this race, as both Boss and Beckum will figure into New York’s downfield passing attack. The job is Vickers’s to lose and Matthews and Johnson are likely to find themselves on the waiver wire or trade block.
Last year, the Giants opted to dedicate five slots to their stable of running backs. Obviously, the starting role still belongs to Brandon Jacobs. Ahmad Bradshaw was an effective option as the second back during the 2007 post season run. Stuck behind two of the games best backs last season, Bradshaw was demoted back to third string when Derrick Ward returned to the lineup for 2008. With Ward in a Buc’s jersey, it would appear that Bradshaw’s spot as the second option is his to lose. However, Danny Ware has been waiting in the wings. Ware has been dangerous….in the fourth quarter of preseason games. Though he appeared against Minnesota (rushing for 15 yards on two attempts) in a meaningless game for New York at the conclusion of last season, Ware’s critics are quick to point out that he has no legitimate body of work. His nearly 10 yards per carry statistic against Cleveland in the 2008 preseason came against practice camp bodies and scrubs.
That being said, the Giants learned their lesson when they let Ryan Grant go to the Packers for a song. Grant had looked impressive in preseason games but that was all. He exploded on to the scene in 2007 for Green Bay and excelled as a starter. Lastly, rookie Andre Brown will certainly make the roster if he is healthy and if he performs in practice he could get some mop up duty early in the season. Most likely all four backs make the roster.
Finally, the receiving corps will certainly be the most closely watched position in camp by coaches, media members, and fans alike. After refusing to trade for a proven number 1 receiver, the Giants are left with what may very well be a group of the best seconf and third wideouts in the game. As it stands now, Smith and Hixon are penciled in at one and two respectively. Sinorice Moss had a strong spring, despite yet another injury, and Mario Manningham is expected to have a decent (possibly breakout) year if he can stay healthy. Add in the new draftees, Nicks and Barden and 6 slots are already accounted for. At most, the Giants will take 6 receivers into week 1.
David Tyree is returning from an injury plagued season and looks to take the field for the first time since February 2008 next month. Tyree established himself as a New York sports icon, by making the famous “Catch 42.” He even landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the beginning of the 2008 NFL season. Had he been able to make any contribution at all last year, his chances to make the roster in ‘09 would have been much improved. However, it is very likely that his helmet catch in the Super Bowl will be the last catch he makes for the Giants in a game that matters.
As much as the Giants would love to avoid losing another key part of the 2007 Super Bowl victory, there simply isn’t room on the roster for a receiver who in reality has had only one big game since his career began in 2003. Tyree could possibly slip by the final cuts by demonstrating his Pro Bowl caliber special teams prowess in camp. In that case he would likely take the spot of a special teams linebacker or defensive back, not a potential receiver.
As usual, there is likely to be a surprise or two when the final roster is announced and rumblings of the Giants making a move for another receiver have not ended entirely. Regardless of who makes the final squad, New York will have difficult decisions to make at several positions.