"You are only as strong as your backups, remember that. This is a team, and you are all a part of it."
I heard this everyday for three years as a player and cannot help but reflect on it now as the New York Giants prepare for their 2009 season as defending NFC East champions. Only a year removed from a Super Bowl title, this Giants team has a few weaknesses, if any, and is poised to make another run to the top.
Despite a number of departures this offseason, most notably starting WR's Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, RB Derrick Ward, S James Butler, as well as backups DE Jerome McDougle, OL Grey Ruegamer, and CB's Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters, the Giants have one of the most loaded rosters in the league, top to bottom.
The Giants went to the defensive side of the ball early in free agency adding OLB Michael Boley, DT's Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard, and S C.C. Brown before addressing the offense in April's draft. Six of the Giants' nine draft choices were offensive players, four of whom, WR's Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden, TE/H-Back Travis Beckum, and RB Andre Brown, will all be counted on to contribute early this upcoming season.
Jerry Reese does a lot of things well, but excels at finding the right players for the Giants system. Not many GM's could weather the storm of losing former players like TE Jeremy Shockey and RB Tiki Barber and live to tell the tale, let alone compete in the playoffs or win a Super Bowl title in such a short time.
The Giants have more question marks than weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball. They can look to build off of last season's league leading rushing attack with a stable of backs that includes Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, Danny Ware, and Andre Brown. With the exception of Jacobs, there is little experience. But leading the way for them is one of the leagues most formidable and, most importantly, healthy offensive lines.
The veteran group, anchored by C Shaun O'Hara, has been playing together since 2005, and along with LT David Diehl, LG Rich Seubert, RG Chris Snee, and RT Kareem McKenzie, they have started every regular season game the last two seasons.
Outside of the starters though, the backups lack experience. This could be an issue if the injury bug decides to bite. Youngsters Kevin Boothe, Guy Whimper, and rookie William Beatty will be expected to step in, but the Giants hope their reliable starters will continue to play at their high level and let the backups learn from the sideline.
No player possesses the skills and ability of former tight end Jeremy Shockey, but third-year starter Kevin Boss has developed into a reliable target that quarterback Eli Manning feels comfortable with when things break down.
Boss is not the ideal tight end and has trouble setting the corner at times, but he gets the job done. Newly acquired tight end/h-back Travis Beckum has some extremely intriguing talents and could do wonders for this team as well.
While his position is undefined, Beckum can lineup in the backfield or on the weakside of the formation and become another sure target for Eli, when things break down. Too many times has fullback Madison Hedgecock dropped balls out of the backfield in this offense, and Beckum could be the answer to this problem.
Eli Manning and backup David Carr, both former No. 1 overall selections this decade, make up one of the best QB depth charts in the league. Manning has never missed a start, and if the worst were to come true, Carr is more than capable of filling in.
Finally we come to the question marks. Calling the receiving corps a weakness is premature since the only returning players with more than 15 catches last season are Steve Smith and Domenik Hixon. But if forced to use the term weakness, this is it. Sinorice Moss, Mario Manningham, and rookies Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden, have a combined 42 career NFL catches between them, and 38 of them belong to Moss.
Moss will mostly be used in sub-packages that work to his stengths of getting open deep down field or catching quick passes and taking off. It is the other three that need to realize this team may only go as far they can take them.
Nicks has the pressure of being a first-round pick on top of him, Barden is being viewed as a Plaxico clone, and Manningham has all the hype surrounding him. Between them, the questions of who is going to be the man has to be answered. And if they are not, the Giants' offense could falter.
The Giants' running game is good enough to take them as far as it did last season, but when the eighth man is dropped into the box and the Giants have to throw over top, the question marks catching the ball need to quickly become the answers. Good playcalling that maximizes the talent of these players could be the key to the Giants offensive success this season.
Not many teams can boast a defensive line like that of the New York Giants. The return of Osi Umenyiora should be enough to drive fear into the hearts of all opposing quarterbacks.
Couple that with the GMen keeping Mathias Kiwanuka in the dirt and the multi-millionaire dollar additions of DT's Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard, and the Giants d-line suddenly went from great to downright frightening. Opposing teams will be lucky to keep the Giants off their QB less than three times a game.
The linebacking corps is the weakest of the defensive thirds, although that is not saying much. Antonio Pierce is one of the best defensive signal callers in the league, and Michael Boley was a fantastic addition to this team on the weakside. Strongside backer is a bit of a question mark though.
Danny Clark is a serviceable player, but has seen his best days. I would expect to see new defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan give every linebacker a look at this spot to find the best fit, but the Giants love to run exotic looks and even played three safeties at times last year, with Michael Johnson dropping closer to the line.
I expect to see either Clark or rookie Clint Sintim in the starting lineup, but would not be surprised to find a lot of different looks being thrown at opposing QB's.
The secondary is so young and talented that the Giants may be set for another five seasons without making a single change. Cornerbacks Aaron Ross and Corey Webster are gifted playmakers around the ball and can both stick their nose in on the run. Safety Michael Johnson, a former seventh-round pick, has become a solid starter in this defense and knows exactly what is expected of him.
Second-year man Kenny Phillips may truly be the Giants most talented defensive player. He has all the tools to be a perennial Pro Bowler and should thrive as a new starter in this defense.
The rest of the secondary players provide a ton of versatility behind the starters, and corners Kevin Dockery and Terrell Thomas get a lot of snaps, while recently acquired veteran C.C. Brown can step up in a pinch.
It is truly hard to find a weakness in this Giants defense. They have talent all across the board at every position, with a good mix of young and veteran players. If the starting linebackers and safeties stay healthy and the pass rush heats up, the Giants should boast a top three defense this season.
This is a power running offense that beats to its own drum and an innovative defense that loves to cause havoc. Both sides of the ball have their question marks, but a true weakness is hard to come by.
If the players in question can step up early and establish themselves, this Giants team will be hard to beat early and down the stretch. Not many teams have depth like this, and Coach Coughlin knows how to get the most out of his players. A healthy Giants team has to be considered a Super Bowl contender for '09.