In a month, NFL.com will once again have a steady flow of relevant and interesting news to report. Each NFL fan will feed on quarterback controversies and trade rumors to satisfy the desire for regular season football.
Starters tend to grab the majority of the spotlight. You won’t see many headlines declaring the winner of a back up offensive guard competition.
Despite the lack of media attention, the players who won’t rest their heads on a dorm room pillow with the satisfaction of knowing that their jobs will exist in the morning are extremely important to the framework of a professional team.
For the New York Giants, quality depth has been a focal point of the team’s structure since 2007. With training camp merely weeks away, it is important to examine the status of the players who populate the middle and bottom of the roster.
With the second-string slot secured by Jim Sorgi, it seemed that all Rhett Bomar needed to worry about was beating undrafted Riley Skinner for a roster spot.
After Skinner was waived last week, it may have appeared that Bomar was set to officially join the roster. Unfortunately for him, the Giants haven’t carried a third QB since 2007 (the days of Jared Lorenzen and Anthony Wright).
The organization seems high on Bomar though and it stands to reason that he has shown marked improvement from his performance during last year’s preseason. Bomar struggled in his limited reps and the once heralded college quarterback easily cleared waivers and remained on the practice squad for the entire 2009 campaign.
In order to remain on the roster, Bomar will need to provide a legitimate challenge to Sorgi’s backup role. The Giants do not have a pressing need to groom Eli Manning’s replacement just yet. The team will need to see that Bomar has the ability to be a serviceable backup in 2010 if needed.
Complicating things further for Bomar, is the loss of Domenik Hixon for the season. If the Giants can’t find a suitable return man amongst the players already likely to make the roster, it will be harder than ever for the organization to carry an extra quarterback.
That said, the Giants believe Bomar has potential and do not trust that he will safely remain on the practice squad for another season. If the team is forced to part ways with him, it will likely be via a trade for a low round draft pick or a return man.
Despite his poor showing in 2009, Brandon Jacobs is still entrenched as the starter. Should his injury problems persist, perhaps this status could change mid season. For now Ahmad Bradshaw is also guaranteed his second option spot (provided he too can stay healthy).
The bottom half of the running back rotation is a bit less certain. Assuming that the team will carry four running backs, there are two spots remaining. Gartrell Johnson underwhelmed last season after he was brought in to replace an injured D.J. Ware.
Many felt that Ware was poised to have a breakout year. The Giants bent over backwards to maintain the rights to him in 2008. Unable to part ways with Reuben Droughns, New York elected to retain five backs for the regular season.
Stuck behind one of the best rushing attacks in the game, Ware didn’t see much action. Assumedly, he was kept on as Derrick Ward’s eventual replacement. As expected, the Giants were unable to match Ward’s salary demands when his contract expired and Ware found himself promoted from fifth to third back on opening day in 2009.
An injury on the season’s opening kickoff derailed most of his 2009 campaign. The Giants are now unsure that Ware truly is the next Ryan Grant.
Grant had been an overlooked running back in New York and was headed towards the practice squad or unemployment before being picked up by the Packers in 2007. Grant went on to rush for 956 yards that season and gave the Giant defense another offensive threat to worry about during the NFC Championship game.
When on his game, Ware is a nifty back with great speed and agility. Unfortunately, it has been speculated that Ware became skittish after suffering a concussion on the field.
His body may have healed physically but mental injuries could still remain. Whether or not Ware claims the third slot in the rotation will largely depend on his ability to conquer his emotional hurdles.
Challenging Ware for the third spot will be Andre Brown. A mid draft selection by the Giants last spring, Brown was expected to contribute immediately until an Achilles injury ended his rookie campaign. Brown’s injury has sevrely disrupted his career thus far and the inexperienced back will probably struggle to keep pace.
Brown will at least be given the fourth slot and Johnson is likely headed to the waiver wire.
It should be noted that each of the bottom three backs would benefit greatly from impressing the coaching staff on kick/punt returns. If a back such as Johnson can impress in this area, he may secure a spot while a better pure running back is cut. While this is always true in the NFL, it is even more significant than normal considering the Hixon injury.
The starting offensive line will likely feature a slightly different cast in 2010, but this will not benefit a disappointing Adam Koets.
Assuming that Kareem McKenzie can stay healthy and squeeze out another year of adequate or better play, his job is secure. Rich Seubert, however, may have to move down a rung in order to accommodate the talented Will Beatty.
Beatty stepped in when needed last season and his play and intelligence have given the organization reason to believe that the time has come for him to start. If he has a solid camp, he will likely become the starting left tackle. David Diehl will slide over to left guard (Seubert’s current position) where he seems to be more comfortable anyway.
Seubert will become the first guard in the reserve rotation, leaving room for perhaps two other linemen. The Giants are high on Guy Whimper and believe him to be a good backup player. Whimper, who plays guard and tackle, is now taking occasional practice reps at center. Koets attempted to earn the role of backup center last offseason but his play was horrendous.
With one spot remaining, Koets will have to battle rookie guards Mitch Petrus and Dennis Landolt. Thus, Koets’s time in New York is likely over.
Kevin Boothe also deserves mention here, as his injury may actually work in his favor. After severely injuring his pectoral muscle during an offseason workout, Boothe’s status for the upcoming season is in doubt.
Boothe too would have likely been on the wrong side of the axe when cuts were made. The Giants may now opt to retain the rights to him by placing him on season ending injured reserve. This will obviously allow the Giants to keep him for the next offseason without compelling them to sacrifice a roster spot in 2010.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
As was mentioned before, the loss of Hixon has thrown an early wrench into the Giants original plans. The Giants are likely to retain no more than six receivers for the regular season (especially if they want to reserve a spot for Bomar).
Ramses Barden joins proven players Smith, Manningham, and Nicks as the four locks to make the team. Hixon would have also been a lock given his high level of special teams play (as well as his value as a receiver).
Without Hixon, Derek Hagan is the likely candidate to claim the 5th spot. Hagan is a favorite among the coaching staff and his hard work on the practice field earned him substantial playing time towards the end of 2009. He hauled in a touchdown pass against Washington and provided a key block to set up Hixon’s critical punt return for a touchdown.
The 6th and likely final spot will be up for grabs. Now without a reliable return man, the Giants attempted to add Chris Davis off the Bengals practice squad. Davis failed his physical and will obviously no longer be competing for the final spot.
Sinorice Moss will make his annual case for a backup roll on a team that rarely utilizes backup receivers. His experience returning kicks may come to his aid, however, the Giants may move in another direction.
Moss has failed to contribute in games that were not already well in hand during his four years with the team. Tim Brown, an undrafted rookie free agent signing out of Rutgers appears to be a younger version of Moss. If Brown has a strong camp he may earn the final roster spot.
Even if a training camp body such as Brown steps up, the final receiver spot may not actually be given to a true wide receiver. 2009 draft pick Travis Beckum is technically listed as a tight end but at 6'3" 239 lbs, he isn’t quite big enough to be a blocker.
The Giants see him as a utility player or H-back. Similar to what Coughlin tried to implement with Jeremy Shockey in 2004, the Giants would like to position Beckum both in the backfield and on the line of scrimmage. In his rookie campaign, Beckum recorded a modest eight receptions for 55 yards.
If Beckum stays (and he will), the Giants still need a blocking tight end behind Kevin Boss. Bear Pascoe will almost certainly be the second TE. The organization made it clear that they were excited about acquiring Pascoe when they quite obviously invented an injury so that they could move Darcy Johnson to IR late last season.
When interviewed about his supposed season ending ailment, Johnson struggled to remember exactly what it was that he was “suffering” from. Johnson’s demotion made room for Pascoe to see playing time during the season’s final games.
Pascoe’s build is very similar to Boss’s and he has potential to become a respectable option in the passing game. He is big enough to block, but if he proves to be a reliable target, the Giants may want to keep an extra player solely for blocking purposes.
In essence this would force New York to retain four tight ends (thus limiting the number of receivers). For this reason, the Giants aren’t likely to choose this option and Pascoe will likely share blocking duties with a reserve lineman such as Whimper.
Backup Scott Chandler is more than likely just a training camp body and will be cut after the preseason.
Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka will battle for a “starting” role but there is little doubt that both will keep their job. In fact, it is likely that given the nature of the Giants defensive strategies, the title of “starter” is a formality. Both players could quite possibly enjoy equal time on the field.
Dave Tollefson on the other hand, doesn’t enjoy the same level of job security that the previously named pass rushers do. The young reserve end began making an impact on the highly effective 2007 pass rush during the playoffs that season. In 2008 he recorded 3.5 sacks over a span of 13 games played. In 2009 he made only seven appearances and notched just one sack.
Tollefson was never a force in the stat column but he is a needed piece to the puzzle. The Giants rely on a rotation of capable defensive linemen so that the top players can stay healthy and energized throughout the entire season.
Quality backups are a necessity if an organization wishes to employ the rotation strategy. As was evidenced over the past season; even if you can afford high quality backups they often don’t enjoy being behind other players on the depth chart.
A player like Tollefson understand his role and while he may not get a Pro Bowl nomination; he won’t make a big mistake while the headline players are taking a breather.
The Giants added defensive end, Jason Pierre-Paul with their first round selection in April. Pierre-Paul will be guaranteed a roster spot (barring injury) and if he meets realistic expectations for his rookie season, he will easily pass Tollefson on the depth chart. This would put Tollefson at fifth defensive end.
It is uncertain whether or not the Giants will feel comfortable carrying five defensive ends into the regular season. Both Umenyiora and Kiwanuka are injury prone and Tollefson isn’t likely to clear waivers, but the interior of the line will need plenty of depth as well.
The defensive tackle rotation for New York was a huge disappointment in ’09. Both Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard were touted as marquee free agent acquisitions. Both players had his season significantly hampered by injury.
Fred Robbins, who left this offseason to rejoin Steve Spagnoulo in St. Louis, was also held back by nagging injuries. Barry Cofield proved to be the healthiest player at the position, playing in all 16 games and recording 23 solo tackles and one sack.
Jay Alford missed the entire 2009 season due to an injury suffered during the preseason. Alford’s teammates had publicly stated that he was poised to have a breakout year and that his offseason had been extremely productive. If Alford truly has improved he could see a large amount of time on the field. Along with Cofield, Bernard, and Canty he is a lock to make the roster.
Behind those four sits rookie Joseph Linval who the Giants drafted out of East Carolina. Even as a rookie, Linval will probably see a significant amount of playing time this season. Only one returning tackle, Cofield, managed to play in every game last season. The Giants clearly have faith in their new rookie as they attempted to trade Cofield on the same day Linval was drafted.
Assuming these five round out the defensive tackle rotation, the Giants will have between nine and ten defensive linemen on opening day. It will be highly unlikely for relative unknown players such as Nate Collins and Dwayne Hendricks to overcome the odds and make the roster without a major injury befalling one of the top players.
Chase Blackburn was an undrafted training camp body in 2005. He impressed the coaching staff with his ability and work ethic. The organization felt that they had found an overlooked prospect with potential.
When Antonio Pierce’s season ended in December due to injury, the young rookie was forced into action as the starting middle linebacker. He made his starting debut against the Chiefs on December 15th of that season. The Giants defense managed to stop the favored Kansas City offense and give New York a surprise victory in the homestretch to the playoffs.
Blackburn has stayed near the top of the depth chart ever since. Of his 63 games played, he has started 11.
Despite his résumé, the Giants decided to not even consider Blackburn as a possible replacement for Antonio Pierce in 2010. The three man race is reportedly between rookie Phillip Dillard, injury prone Gerris Wilkinson, and an unproven Jonathan Goff.
Despite his depth chart limbo, Blackburn will likely see plenty of time on the field as the first player to rotate in. He is also a solid special teams player. A locker room veteran and an on field leader, Blackburn’s job is safe.
Michael Boley and Clint Sintim will be the starting outside line backers. Behind them Gerris Wilkinson (who is also competing for the middle linebacker spot), will strive to show the organization that he can contribute all season long. Wilkinson has yet to complete a 16-game schedule since his rookie season.
Bryan Kehl will be entering his third season. Kehl has the appearance of a prototypical NFL linebacker and made an impact as a rookie. In 2008 he appeared in 16 games, notched 25 tackles, and recorded one interception. Kehl should be able to make the roster as a backup linebacker although he had a quieter 2009 than the Giants would have liked.
The seven previously mentioned linebackers will be on the roster in September but the Giants are likely to carry at least eight. Taking that eighth spot may very well be Zak DeOssie once again. DeOssie has made the roster in each of the past three seasons as a long snapper. He is rarely used as a defensive player.
DeOssie’s skills landed him a Pro Bowl invitation in 2008 when Andy Reid (then NFC Team coach) brought him board because of his established chemistry with punter Jeff Feagles.
The Giants will also likely extend a roster spot to 2010 draft pick Adrian Tracy if he can hold his own in camp. Tracy was drafted in the 6th round but history has shown that New York does not guarantee late round draft picks a spot on the roster.
Should the Giants find another roster member who can perform long snapping duties consistently well, players such as Kenny Ingram may have a shot to squeak past the final cuts along with Tracy. However, a change at LS isn’t likely and DeOssie will probably maintain his spot.
The recent loss of Chad Jones for the season (and perhaps forever) changes the secondary depth chart drastically. Jones was brought in to give much needed help to arguably the team’s weakest area last season.
After Aaron Rouse and CC (vicious rumors have spread suggesting CC stands for “Can’t Cover”) Brown were shown the door, the Giants quickly signed Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant.
Rolle has had a very successful career thus far. Last year for the Cardinals he recorded 72 tackles and four interceptions. Since his rookie year in 2005, Rolle has 12 interceptions and four TDs.
Grant is also an established veteran. Despite his experience, the Giants would prefer to use him as the third safety. While it has planned for the worse, the organization remains hopeful that Kenny Phillips can take the field when the season opens.
The entire Giants fan base was deflated last season when after a stellar opening two games, Phillips was unexpectedly placed on injured reserve due to a somewhat hidden knee injury. The particular knee problem Phillips suffers from has the potential to end the young man’s career.
Should Phillips be able to contribute in any way, he will be saved a roster spot in 2010. Taking the fourth safety spot will likely be veteran Michael Johnson who has played inconsistently well thus far.
Johnson would have been the odd man out if Jones had been able to stay healthy. The Giants were very excited about how quickly the young rookie out of LSU took to the Pro game.
Johnson, however, still cannot rest easy. With Terrell Thomas nabbing five interceptions last season over his 16 games played, it is safe to say that he will continue starting opposite Corey Webster at cornerback.
That leaves Aaron Ross open to either play nickel, or occasionally safety. The need for Johnson may not be great enough to keep him. Bruce Johnson played well at nickel last year and the Giants have enough flexibility at the cornerback position to outsource Ross to safety.
While Ross’s versatility could be (Michael) Johnson’s worst enemy, it may be Bomar’s best friend. Ross excelled as a return man in college and is willing to fill in for Hixon. The Giants have been inclined to use reserve players as opposed to starters for special teams situations ever since Jason Sehorn’s season ended on a preseason kick return over a decade ago. This policy will probably rule out Manningham as a potential returner.
Now that Ross isn’t a starter, it may be time to tap into his ability. If Ross is named the kick/punt returner come September, the Giants may just be able to find a roster spot for the young Bomar after all.
Opening Day Lineup Projection (Barring Injury)
QB: Manning, Sorgi, Bomar
HB: Jacobs, Bradshaw, Ware, Brown
FB: Madison Hedgecock (The Giants traditionally carry only one pure fullback and Hedgecock’s job is secure)
WR: Smith, Manningham, Nicks, Barden, Hagan, Brown
TE: Boss, Pascoe, Beckum
T: McKenzie, Beatty, Whimper
C/G: O’hara, Snee, Diehl, Seubert, Petrus,
DT: Canty, Bernard, Cofield, Alford, Linval
DE: Tuck, Umenyiora, Kiwanuka, Pierre-Paul, Tollefson
LB: Goff, Dillard, Sintim, Boley, Blackburn, Kehl, Tracy
CB: Thomas, Webster, Ross, Johnson, Brown
S: Rolle, Phillips, Grant