Despite an embarrassing Monday Night Football outing against the underachieving Cleveland Browns the 2008 NFL season started off about as well as possible for the New York Giants. In fact, with their wealth of young talent at the key positions backed by great coaching they looked poised to begin a run at becoming a dynasty. Unfortunately for Giants fans, that all unraveled with a an accidental gunshot discharge at a nightclub one weekend as primary wide receiver Plaxico Burress shot himself and was immediately disassociated with the team. No longer having to worry about the trouble a pending Burress trial may bring the Giants can look forward to trying to find themselves once again holding a Lombardi trophy; but is that possible with their personnel?
Whether you like him or not Eli Manning is a good quarterback. He may not be as good as Donovan McNabb or Tony Romo from a pure passing perspective, but he doesn’t have to be. Eli Manning simply has to be Eli Manning. By that I mean that is that Eli has to make the right throws when necessary—which is much more often than you think—and make excellent use of his running game to get the team into scoring position. Whether you agree or not, Eli Manning is a franchise quarterback and easily top 15 at the position. His toughness and durability, make depth not important, but we shall explore that anyway.
Down the depth chart behind Eli Manning is former first overall pick David Carr and one-time projected first-rounder Andre Woodson. David Carr is a good quarterback who just never lived up to his first overall billing. If Carr was taken later in the first round to a team like the Redskins he would still be starting today. Unfortunately he ended up in Houston which never tried to give him the type of offensive talent to work with that they have currently. Carr holds onto the ball too long, but fits the Giants scheme well as he has a deadly accurate short ball and doesn’t take huge risks. Unfortunately, he holds onto the ball too long and doubts himself.
Woodson, though talented, shouldn’t expect to start any NFL games any time soon unless God smiles down on him and injures the two players above him on the depth chart.
Last season the Giants easily would have graded out at a perfect 10 out of 10 in this position, but they chose to let Derrick Ward reach free agency because they still had a relatively deep halfback stable. While I don’t agree, there are numerous analyst and fans out there that feel that Brandon Jacobs is a top 10 halfback. Based on his production over the past two seasons I can see how one could feel that way. Jacobs is a bruiser who can predominately carry a load for a team and has deceptive speed and agility.
Spelling Jacobs will be Ahmad Bradshaw who has shown potential in the past two seasons. He will not be the number two back instead of the third guy and should reap the rewards via his production. Bradshaw is just as talented as former teammate Derrick Ward and has much bigger “big play” potential to bust a long run on a broken play. Fulfilling Bradshaw’s old role is Danny Ware whom I admittedly know little about, however look at the line he has in front of him.
The final piece to the puzzle in the backfield is Madison Hedgecock who is one of the best pure blockers in the league. From 2002 to 2007 Jim Finn was the Giants fullback and was vastly underrated by the average fan. In fact, to this day Finn remains one of my favorite NFL players of this decade which is why I am happy that Hedgecock, who reminds me of him, is his heir apparent. Hedgecock isn’t as versatile as the other NFC East fullbacks, but he doesn’t have to be. He’s asked to lead the way and open up holes and very few fullbacks do it as well as he does currently.
Bradshaw, Ware and Finn’s abilities to play the positions the way that they are meant to be played, which is the staple of the Giants team as a whole, are the reason they grade out so highly
Offensive Line: 9/10
Plain and simple, the Giants couldn’t play as well as they have in the Tom Coughlin era without the five guys up front on offense. Their interior offensive line is, far and away, the best in the league. While some teams have a good guard duo or a good guard and center duo, the Giants have three great interior offensive linemen.
Chris Snee is the league’s best right guard and has been dominating the league since 2005 when he was opening holes for Tiki Barber. It’s no coincidence that Tiki saw his best years after Snee emerged. Playing center is Shaun O’Hara who is often overlooked but is a top five center in the league. O’Hara is instrumental in Eli Manning’s play as well as in the running game. Rounding out the trio is Rich Seubert who is often overshadowed but has production akin to the elite left guards in the league. While he may not be elite, Seubert is a mauler that could start on a lot of teams as the premier guard for said teams.
Manning the outside for the Giants are tackles David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie. Diehl, formerly a guard with blocking issues, has emerged as a competent left tackle and is entering his third season at the position. While he did about as well as one would expect for a guard transitioning to the left tackle position two seasons ago, last year he underwent tremendous growth and was a factor in every game except for the Week 15 matchup against the Cowboys. With his growth at the position, Diehl could make a push for top 10 status this season.
Kareem McKenzie, on the other hand, is the obvious week link on the line. Look no further than the compilation film of Tom Coughlin yelling at Kareem for not knowing what to do in numerous games last season for testament to this. McKenzie has been a career underachiever, but he’s still played solid enough to not be unseated while playing for the Giants, and completes a top five offensive line. However, the lack of depth in comparison to the Eagles or Skins concerns me.
Receiving Corps: 6.5/10
This score may be a little generous for the Giants wideouts but I’m one of those individuals that feels that they merely have to do what is expected of them and not carry the team. The big three guys that should get the most playing time are Domenik Hixon, Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss. Another big contributor should be first-round pick Hakeem Nicks and third round pick Ramses Barden. Of these guys I am most sold on Hixon and Smith.
Despite what the national media reports, Hixon did well in his stint as “the guy” after the Burress fiasco. Hixon averaged 4 receptions and 55 yards per game over this span. These numbers are merely good, but they don’t tell the whole story such as when Hixon burned elite cornerback Sheldon Brown for what would’ve been a 45-plus yard touchdown, but dropped the ball. You can be sure that such a thing won’t be happening this season now that he is prepared to be “the guy."
Opposite Hixon is the youngster Steve Smith whom I am also high on. Like Jason Avant of the Eagles, Steve Smith is one of those excellent third down slot receivers, totaling 22 receptions for 236 yards, 17 first downs and a score. He has been a security blanket during his entire stint in the league. Smith is entering the ever-critical third season as an NFL wideout where a lot of guys tend to breakout and I think he can do just that.
The other two main contributors in the passing game, as previously stated, are going to be Kevin Boss and Hakeem Nicks. Boss didn’t exactly post “Jeremy Shockey” numbers, but when he was needed the most is when he stepped up, so I have no doubt that he can step up this season. He will most definitely be Manning’s favorite redzone target. Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden are rookies, so despite the rash of young rookie wideouts with commendable seasons, I expect a very minimal contribution from them. Rounding out this group are speedster Sinorice Moss, one-hit wonder David Tyree and collegiate standout Mario Manningham…nothing to write home about, and they shouldn’t figure to be significant contributors or game winners.
Defensive Line: 10/10
The Giants are such a good team over the past three years because they play football the way it was meant to be played…in the trenches. It is clear that the Giants have built their team from the trenches up in that they have decided that their offensive line will dictate their offense and their defensive line will dictate their defense. Therefore it’s no coincidence that both lines grade out so well. Obviously it all starts with the pressure, which is predominately caused by the bookends.
Manning the outside, defensively, are Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora who is returning from his second season-ending injury. Tuck is, undeniably, one of the better defensive linemen in the league, and is a top five defensive end while counterpart Umenyiora can be considered a top 10 defensive end based on his pass rushing abilities. The pressure they provide is what starts the defense going. What makes this duo special is that Tuck can kick inside and play under tackle on some snaps in order to bring in Mathias Kiwanuka as the left end and have three viable pass rushers on the field.
At the regular defensive tackle positions is where this team truly shines. While they don’t have one of the “best” defensive tackle combinations, their depth at the position is unrivaled as it goes five players deep with quality. Predicted starters Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard weren’t playing in G-Men blue last year, but were strong starters on other defenses. Canty was the 3-4 defense end that lined up in front of All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware and is now kicked inside where he’ll perform more of a playmaking role. Rocky Bernard should play the under tackle position and does very well at it as he was instrumental in the 2005 Seahawks leading the league in sacks. Lining up behind them are Barry Cofeild and Fred Robbins that helped carry this Giants defensive line last season. Both are capable of defending the run well, and both are good at stuffing the run. Robbins, despite being so big, has an excellent first step with timing the snap. Finally, the fifth man in the rotation (sixth if you include Tuck) is Jay Alford, yet another player with starter potential.
The New York Giants defensive line has no weaknesses. Despite the fact that their starters are all great, they can sub in backups and have a minimal drop-off in production.
Linebacking Corps: 8/10
This score may be high in the eyes of some, but I feel that the Giants severely improved their linebacking corps this offseason. The captain of this corps—as well as the entire defense—is Antonio Pierce. Pierce isn’t exactly a “great” linebacker, but he is a good one. Pierce doesn’t seem very athletic, nor does he seem to be a large playmaker, but what allows him to succeed is his high football I.Q.
Take for example a play last season in which the Giants only lined up 10 men on the field, leaving an offensive player wide open. Rather than allow the potential big play, Antonio Pierce ran across the line of scrimmage and drew an encroachment penalty, affording the opposition five yards as opposed to a possible 50. It’s this kind of leadership that makes Pierce a good player.
Danny Clark will probably start at the SAM linebacker position, but he is merely a role player, playing between average and good. Clark isn’t the best linebacker in coverage, but he is very willing to make an attempt and can succeed in doing so. However, his biggest asset is his ability to crash the line of scrimmage, which helps in the Giants’ pressuring abilities.
The final member of this corps is former Falcon Michael Boley who I feel is easily the best of the group. Despite being benched last season after falling out of favor with new coach Mike Smith, Boley has All-Pro skills. He is capable of defending the run and the pass at a high level and is a very capable playmaker in terms of forcing fumbles or grabbing interceptions. With talent in front of him this season, look for Boley to post career highs and become a leader on this defense.
I know that the Giants had Corey Webster last season but I am not sold on their secondary. They have a lot of young talent in Ross, Johnson and Phillips, but they are just that…young talent that has not been actualized. Phillips and Johnson could be a nice safety duo, however, I don’t think either has true superstar potential. That said, they don’t need to be superstars based on the fact that, as stated previously, this team’s defense is based on the pressure provided by the front four.
With that kind of pressure Phillips and Johnson can look to be the benefactors of errant throws forced up by hurried quarterbacks. Both Johnson and Phillips are pretty big safeties that look to be imposing, which can only help their careers and Johnson loves to get involved in the run game, but as far as coverage goes, I’ve got to label both of them liabilities at this point.
At the cornerback positions are Corey Webster, Aaron Ross and backups Kevin Dockery and Terrell Thomas. By now many Giants fans are aware of the metrics on Corey Webster last season and have prematurely labeled him a “shutdown cornerback," but I would like to see more out of him. With that said, at this point, he’s a commendable corner and definitely an asset.
Opposite of him is former first round pick Aaron Ross who has fallen out of favor with some of the fans as well as the coaching staff. Kevin Dockery, as a result could replace him as, though Ross is a bigger playmaker, Dockery is the more sound cover guy. While Giants fans don’t talk him up, I think I like Terrell Thomas enough to be a significant contributor. However, there’s not enough in this secondary to make me think it’s a great one, if even a good one without the pass rush.
Tom Coughlin is an old school NFL coach. In fact, the league needs more coaches like this who are willing to hold their players accountable and make them work hard in order to reach a championship. Initially the Giants players did not approve of his coaching methods, but I wonder if any of them question him now? Coughlin is the best coach in this division, and unlike Reid—his biggest competitor—he doesn’t let his hubris get in the way to cost his team games. Even when Coughlin instills his beliefs over what others believe is best for the team, such as how he has handled Plaxico Burress throughout his time in New York, it all seems to flow because he knows what’s best.
What I like most about Coughlin, however, is his ability to work with young talent. I am rarely impressed by young talent or think that it can make an impact outside of the occasional standout first or second round pick, but Coughlin seems to be able to get young players to contribute immensely as the young players were crucial during the Super Bowl run. For instance, Steve Smith, Madison Hedgecock, Ahmad Bradshaw, Kevin Boss, Justin Tuck, Mathis Kiwanuka and Corey Webster are all young players that are a product of Coughlin upbringing. That, my friends, is why I’m so high on him.
Prediction: 10-6 to 13-3
I, like most people this offseason, believe that this division could very well come down to the Eagles and Giants. Both teams are equally talented and their seasons depend on unproven corps stepping up. However, the Giants are so well-coached that I can’t see anything short of a significant injury to one of their elite players slowing them down. I don’t know if they have the talent to make it to Super Bowl XLIV but I do know they have playoff talent and Super Bowl-quality coaching. They play in a tough division where sweeping the division is an impossibility. The Saints and Falcons match up well with them, and then they have teams that appear tough on their schedule such as the Vikings and Panthers. While I feel the Giants are better than those good teams that they face, one has to remember the old adage “any given Sunday."