New York Giants' Offseason State of the Union
The countdown is on to the start of the New York Giants’ training camp on July 30.
With the coaching staff having recently completed their work with the rookies, who were kept beyond the three-day minicamp for a little extra work before heading out to the NFL Rookie Symposium that’s occurring this week, the Giants should have a little better understanding of where they stand in several key areas now as opposed to last year.
Where are the improvements? How will the injuries factor into the equation? What should we be watching when camp does commence?
Let’s break it all down into digestible pieces.
Eli Manning has looked so much more comfortable in the West Coast offense this spring and has thrown the ball with much better velocity, his passes becoming more difficult to knock down at the line of scrimmage.
There are concerns, though, moving forward. First, Manning will not have left tackle Will Beatty protecting his blind side.
According to Pro Football Focus, Beatty only gave up three sacks last year, which was the third-fewest among the offensive linemen.
While Beatty continues his recovery from a torn pectoral muscle, the Giants have penciled in a rookie at left tackle. That would be first-round draft pick Ereck Flowers, who was supposed to begin his NFL career at right tackle.
“It is going to take some development,” offensive line coach Pat Flaherty told reporters on the final day of the team’s minicamp.
“We all know that because of the injury to William (Beatty) that his development has been escalated, so we [have] to go.
“I really feel and still feel that Ereck is going to be a very good player for the New York Giants for a long time, and I thought in a couple [of] years he would be very good. Well that couple [of] years now is September, so that is where that is at.”
Manning’s health depends on the rookie coming in and showing that he can indeed be a very good NFL left tackle.
Keep an eye on Shane Vereen, the free-agent acquisition from New England.
Initially penciled in to be the receiving threat out of the backfield, it would not be a surprise if by the end of the season, Vereen moves ahead of projected starter Jennings on the depth chart.
“He is a very smart player,” running backs coach Craig Johnson said of Vereen. “He really picked up our system well, has done a good job of understanding and has a really good rapport going on with Eli right now, so I really like where he is at and I think he has done a good job.”
In the meantime, Rashad Jennings, the projected starter going into camp, will get his share of the carries, but the early odds favor Vereen to be used on screens and third-down attempts.
As for second-year man Andre Williams, he is likely headed to the roles he was initially supposed to have before injuries forced him to learn on the fly.
Those roles include short-yardage and goal-line duties, where Williams’ bulk and power should translate into success for him and the Giants.
Lastly, the re-configured offensive line’s interior should also help the situation. This spring, Justin Pugh, now at left guard, and center Weston Richburg looked as though they had been working next to each other for years—that’s how efficient they were with executing “blocks.”
Geoff Schwartz, who was limited in the spring while continuing his recovery from a season-ending ankle injury, should be 100 percent by the time the season starts.
The Giants made several personnel changes that should help restore the run defense to a respectable situation.
They added linebackers J.T. Thomas and Jonathan Casillas, two guys with very good sideline-to-sideline speed who should be able to catch anything that gets by the edge defender.
Thomas projects to be the starting weak-side linebacker, while Casillas will probably work as part of a big nickel package.
Middle linebacker Jon Beason was limited in the spring as the coaching staff took care to make sure that their defensive co-captain didn’t have any setbacks on his surgically repaired foot.
Beason might not be what he once was as far as coverage, but if the Giants can get him to contribute the kind of numbers he did in 2013, where an estimated 77 percent of his run-game tackles came within five yards of the line of scrimmage, they will be ahead of the game.
The other key addition is defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis, who represents the first true “plugger” the Giants defensive line has had since Shaun Rogers.
Ellis is a big-bodied space-eater who can muck up the inside running lanes, thereby forcing opposing rushers outside.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that two of the three worst run defenders from last year’s team, according to Pro Football Focus, are no longer Giants.
Those three-worst run defenders were defensive tackle Markus Kuhn, who is still a member of the team, but is in no way a lock to make the 53-man roster; safety Antrel Rolle, whose strong safety spot will be filled by rookie Landon Collins; and defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, who was a salary-cap casualty this offseason.
Unfortunately for the Giants, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo didn’t walk in the door this past January with Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora or Justin Tuck behind him.
Instead, he will have six defensive ends with which to work this summer, with franchise player Jason Pierre-Paul at the top of the list.
Last year, Pierre-Paul went on a late-season run, recording 9.0 of his 12.5 sacks in the final five games of the season.
However, there is some debate as to whether Pierre-Paul’s success had more to do with him finally shaking the effects of an early-season "stinger" that Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News reported the defensive end suffered in Week 1 or if it was the level of competition he faced.
Regardless, the Giants are playing it smart with Pierre-Paul by letting him play out the franchise tender this year. If Pierre-Paul can’t build on last season’s production, they probably won’t retain him after this year.
Another pass-rusher is Damontre Moore, who is entering his third season. At as 6’5”, 250 pounds, Moore is a bit of a mystery in that he doesn’t quite have the ideal size the Giants look for in their defensive ends, but he has some pass-rushing potential Spagnuolo can no doubt work into various sub-packages.
The Giants added George Selvie from the Dallas Cowboys to a group that also includes Robert Ayers Jr., rookie Owa Odighizuwa and Kerry Wynn.
Of those three, Wynn has shown himself to be the closest to being the most complete in terms of playing the run and the pass.
Besides the defensive ends, Spagnuolo has been experimenting with several blitz packages this spring, packages that have usually included the linebackers, a group whose speed was upgraded in the offseason, thanks to the additions of Casillas and Thomas.
If the Giants can get the blitz going on a consistent basis, that could go a long way toward taking some of the onus off the defensive backfield, where one-half of the projected starters have yet to start an NFL game.
Last season, the Giants' return game was abysmal.
That’s probably why the Giants were more than willing to drop a small fortune on return specialist Dwayne Harris, formerly of the Cowboys.
Harris averaged 24.7 yards per kickoff return and 9.2 yards per punt return, both significantly better than the Giants’ team averages last season.
In addition to planning for Harris to revive the sagging return games and, as a result, help win the starting-field-position battle, Harris also figures to be a part of the offense, though in what role still remains to be seen.
During the spring, he lined up outside and in the slot, depending on the matchup. He also tried running a reverse, his usage in the offense reminiscent of how the Cowboys used receiver Cole Beasley last year.
Back in the day head coach Tom Coughlin, like many other old-school head coaches, was reluctant to use his rookie players unless he absolutely had to.
As time changed, so too did Coughlin, who over the last three seasons, has had to turn to his rookie draft class more and more to fill critical roles on the team.
This year won’t be any different. First-round pick Ereck Flowers is already among the five best offensive linemen who will get to start for the team.
While he’s projected to fill in at left tackle with Will Beatty sidelined until late in the fall, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the coaches try Flowers at right tackle during the summer.
Landon Collins, the second-round pick, is penciled in to be one of the starting safeties. Collins was by far the most polished looking of the draft picks, and despite his lack of NFL experience, he has developed at a rapid pace this spring.
As for the rest of the rookie draft class, third-rounder Owa Odighizuwa, a defensive end, could see a role in that defensive end rotation if his knee issues subside by the start of camp.
So too could fifth-rounder Mykkele Thomson, a safety on whom safeties coach David Merritt heaped a generous helping of praise during his press briefing with reporters.
“Mykkele, I knew was a smart kid. He came here, and he is a cerebral kid, that is for sure. He is going to take what I say literally and take my word for it and go out and try to execute it,” Merritt said.
“Now I am starting to see that the kid actually has some football awareness, where I didn’t think he had much of it when we first started off. The [missed assignments] that started at the beginning of rookie mini-camp and OTAs have drastically gone down. Mentally, he has excelled past my expectations.”
Receiver Geremy Davis, the team’s sixth-round pick, has looked very promising on special teams, particularly as a gunner.
Davis told me during the rookie minicamp that he thrives on the physical nature associated with special teams and that he hoped to use his size to his advantage in that role.
Offensive lineman Bobby Hart, a college tackle, will be working on transitioning to guard, so he could still be a year away from fully contributing.
Other rookies worth mentioning include offensive lineman Brett Jones, the CFL import who is trying to add guard to his repertoire; tight ends Will Tye and Matt LaCosse, the latter of whom has a reputation as being a solid run-blocker; and receiver Ben Edwards, who has looked intriguing as both a slot receiver and as a punt returner.
It wouldn’t be Giants football without a fresh batch of injuries, the most serious of which was suffered by left tackle Will Beatty (pectoral) during a weightlifting session.
Beatty, who underwent surgery, is not expected back until early November. He will likely be heading to the physically unable to perform (PUP) list where he’ll remain after the final roster cuts are made.
The second-most concerning injury involved receiver Victor Cruz, who is working his way back from a torn patellar tendon suffered last October.
While everyone with the Giants is optimistic about Cruz’s recovery and chances of being ready to start training camp on time, head coach Tom Coughlin wasn’t quite ready to go there.
“It is my understanding that he will be ready to participate. How limited, I can't tell you,” Coughlin said, adding, “We aren't going to throw him right out there, I can tell you that.”
Speaking of injuries to the receivers, Odell Beckham Jr.’s hamstring acted up again this spring, though it was not the same side as what dogged him all of last year.
Still, the Giants weren’t taking any chances with their top offensive weapon, promptly shutting him down for the spring and taking things very slowly with the newly crowned Madden 2016 cover boy, who this week taped a segment for NBC’s Sunday Night Football opening theme.
“He just continues to do whatever the plan is for them in the training room,” Coughlin said regarding the plan for Beckham until the start of training camp.
“He has been running, but most of it has been straight ahead, but he has been doing that. He will maneuver into the cutting, and so on and so forth as he goes forward. He feels better, but he needs to feel a whole lot better.”
Two other injuries that also bear watching moving forward include the Achilles tendinitis suffered by tight end Larry Donnell, and the hamstring and ankle tweaks that affected linebacker Devon Kennard.
Neither injury is believed to be serious, but it bears watching as to how much those two players will be able to do out of the chute when training camp does begin.
All eyes are no doubt on former defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s replacement, Steve Spagnuolo, the energetic and charismatic hero from the 2007 and 2008 seasons whose defenses took no mercy on opponents.
While Spagnuolo certainly has the expertise to fix what ails the Giants defense, he cautioned people at the rookie minicamp not to expect miracles:
This isn’t a on and off switch where, boom, all of a sudden we’re back to 2007 and we pick up where we left off. It doesn’t work that way and so to me I treat them differently. It would be no different than if I had left Baltimore and went to another team. It’s a different challenge. It’s a different year. It’s different personnel and we’re talking about all of these things right now.
I’m not a magician; no coaches are magicians. Things aren’t going to happen like they may have happened in a different time, but hopefully something exciting will happen. At least that’s the goal.
He might not have a choice but to become a magician. To that end, Spagnuolo has been trying to generate some excitement in his players by showing them tapes of old Giants defensive units and former Giants greats.
He’s also been preaching buy-in in order to get his guys to feel like they have a sense of ownership and has drawn rave reviews from players for being more accessible and overall more approachable.
It all looks great and sounds great, but the bottom line is results. Does Spagnuolo have what he needs to turn this Giants defense around?
On paper, it appears to be so, but when your assets include two rookie safeties, a middle linebacker with an extensive injury history and a question mark at both defensive end spots, Spagnuolo is right to urge people not to expect the defense to pick up where things left off in 2008.
Patricia Traina covers the Giants for Inside Football, the Journal Inquirer and Sports Xchange. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes, observations and information were obtained firsthand. Follow me on Twitter.