NY Giants' Toughest Roster Decisions
Summer is only starting to heat up in the Northeast, but in a little more than a month, that’s when things will really start to heat up for the New York Giants.
That’s right, the Giants will open what’s sure to be one of their most highly competitive training camps under head coach Tom Coughlin on July 30 at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
There will be players on the bubble, decisions to be made regarding how many to cover at each position and most importantly, ways to figure out how to add those young players who surprise the coaches once the pads go on.
It’s not going to be easy for Coughlin and the coaching staff to sort through the decisions, but it has to be done.
Speaking of what has to be done, here is a look at some of those tough decisions that are staring the Giants' coaching staff in the face.
Receivers: Who Are the 5th and 6th Receivers?
The Giants are projected to keep six receivers this year. Of those, Odell Beckham Jr., Rueben Randle, and Dwayne Harris are all locks, barring injury.
Victor Cruz, who by the end of the minicamp told Tom Rock of Newsday that he estimated himself to be at about 81 percent in his recovery, has also not backed down from his assertion that he’ll be ready for the start of training camp.
Cruz’s level of certainty doesn’t quite match that of Coughlin’s, the latter of whom was a bit more conservative regarding his top slot receiver’s chances of starting the summer on the PUP list.
“It is my understanding that he will be ready to participate,” the coach said in his final press briefing of the spring. “How limited, I can’t tell you. We aren’t going to throw him right out there, I can tell you that.”
Regardless of whether Cruz is on the PUP list to start training camp, there’s a better chance than not he’ll be ready for the start of the regular season, even if his initial snaps are limited.
That leaves two projected openings for several receivers, such as Preston Parker, Corey Washington, Geremy Davis, Julian Talley, Ben Edwards, Marcus Harris and Juron Criner.
Washington and Edwards have both looked good in spring practices, but Edwards is likely headed to the practice squad if the lower body injury he suffered on the final series of the spring minicamp isn’t serious enough to warrant him landing on the PUP list or IR.
Parker would appear to be a long-shot to make the 53-man roster, as his roles as a fourth receiver and as a return specialist seem to have been passed to Dwayne Harris.
The most interesting battle then of this group could come down to Washington and Davis, both tall receivers who will be asked to contribute on special teams.
If the Giants do end up going with six receivers, there might not be a competition at all between these two players, as they would appear to have the best chance of making the 53-man roster.
Linebackers: How Many to Keep?
The Giants will have a very interesting decision to make at linebacker this summer.
Currently the team has nine players at the position: veterans Jon Beason, Jameel McClain, Devon Kennard, J.T. Thomas, Jonathan Casillas, Mark Herzlich and Victor Butler, and youngsters Unai’ Unga and Cole Farrand.
Of that group, Beason, McClain, Kennard, Thomas, Casillas and Herzlich stand out as the six names likely to make the 53-man roster, assuming everyone stays healthy—more on that in a minute.
Here is the problem, though. If the Giants decide to keep six defensive ends—a very real possibility—do they “steal” a spot from the linebacker unit and go with only five? And if they do this, are they taking a risk?
Let’s explore the second question first. Beason’s injury history is well-known—since 2011, he’s only appeared in 24 regular season games.
This spring, the Giants have done everything possible to make sure he doesn’t have any setbacks, the biggest thing being that they limited his reps in the OTAs and minicamp.
Beason’s presence on the field is vital, what with a new defensive system being installed. He is perhaps the best candidate to serve as the on-field general in making sure everyone is lined up and doing what they’re supposed to do.
His injury history makes him a big gamble to be there for 16 games, and if he is not, that’s where the debate about having a sixth linebacker comes into play.
There’s only one problem. If the Giants keep six defensive ends, they’re going to have to steal a spot from somewhere, and linebacker would seem to be the most logical place to look.
Who then becomes the odd man out if they go that route? The most likely candidate seems to be Herzlich, who re-signed with the club for two years this offseason.
However, Herzlich is a staple on special teams, and the Giants would have to make sure that they have someone equally as capable to replace him in that role.
Might it be McClain, who is entering the final year of his contract?
That would be a stretch given how McClain has been the one rotating with Beason in the middle throughout the spring, a sure sign that the coaches are eyeing him as the backup to Beason.
It also helps McClain’s case that he has the most familiarity with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, with whom he shares a history from when the two were with Baltimore.
What will be the outcome? In a perfect world, Beason stays healthy and makes it through a 16-game season.
It would not be surprising if the Giants put one of Farrand or Unga on the practice squad as insurance—remember, Butler is set to serve a league-imposed four-game suspension so he’ll be available to the Giants after the fourth week of the season if they’ll have him back.
If Herzlich is the odd man out and isn't claimed elsewhere, he’d be the logical choice to come in and fill a spot if there’s an injury at any linebacker spot
Tight Ends: Who Goes If a Youngster Steps Up?
Last year the Giants tight ends—Larry Donnell, Daniel Fells and Adrien Robinson—did just enough to warrant bringing back the entire band for another look this summer.
Just because all three members are returning, though, doesn’t mean all three are destined for the 53-man roster.
The Giants also added a pair of intriguing rookies—Matt LaCosse from Illinois and Will Tye from Stony Brook—and first-year man Jerome Cunningham to challenge for roster spots.
This past spring, the tight ends primarily worked as receivers, this because of the lack of pads and the non-contact nature of the drills. When the tight end depth chart is filled out, the Giants figure to keep three on the 53-man roster and one of the youngsters on the practice squad.
That is, of course, unless one of the younger players shows he can be as effective at blocking.
Right now, Cunningham appears to have a leg up in the competition, if for no other reason than because he was in this system last year and he had performed well in the spring.
If one of the younger players does make the roster, the next question would be about the odd man out.
The most likely candidate would be Fells, who is also the oldest of the group and who probably isn’t regarded as a long-term solution given that he is going to turn 32 years old in September.
However, it might be hard to justify parting with Fells, who, per Pro Football Focus, was the Giants’ best overall tight end last year in both blocking and receiving.
Defensive Line: How Many to Keep at Each Position?
In the linebackers slide, I mentioned there was a possibility the Giants might keep six defensive ends. The reason why the Giants are likely to keep six—Jason Pierre-Paul, George Selvie, Robert Ayers, Owa Odighizuwa, Damontre Moore and Kerry Wynn—has more to do with 2016 than it does this year.
In 2016, Pierre-Paul, Ayers and Selvie will all be unrestricted free agents, and the chances of all three being back are slim.
While the Giants this year won’t dress six defensive ends if they keep everyone—Odighizuwa could be inactive to start the year if he continues to miss time due to a knee issue—it would be surprising if they trim one from this year’s crop.
Assuming then the Giants keep six defensive ends, the next question the coaches must answer is how many defensive tackles they will keep.
Typically, they keep four defensive tackles. Since Ayers, Pierre-Paul and Wynn can be moved inside in certain packages, might the coaching staff roll the dice and go with just three defensive tackles instead of four? And if so, who are the most likely candidates?
Let’s assume they go with three defensive tackles for a moment. The most obvious to make the roster would be Johnathan Hankins, Kenrick Ellis and Jay Bromley—the latter being the backup to both the 3-technique and the plugger.
That would mean veterans Cullen Jenkins, Markus Kuhn and Dominique Hamilton would be on the outside looking in.
If the Giants decide to keep four defensive tackles, that final spot likely comes down to Jenkins and Kuhn, and whoever wins that competition is probably going to have to be able to play the 3-technique and the plugger.
Jenkins, who can also play defensive end, played the plugger in the past, even though the role wasn’t exactly an ideal fit for his skill set. Kuhn, meanwhile, added bulk after being listed at 303 pounds last year—Kuhn told reporters he thought he could play as high as 320 pounds.
That added weight would suggest that the coaches are going to continue looking at him as the plugger, the role he mostly played in the spring. If Kuhn can handle that extra weight, he could end up as the backup to Ellis in that role.
Offensive Line: Do They Have What They Need?
And now for what might be the biggest decision the Giants coaching staff has to make, we come to the elephant in the room: the offensive line.
The coaching staff stuck with the same offensive line configuration all spring—Ereck Flowers at left tackle, Justin Pugh at left guard, Weston Richburg at center, Geoff Schwartz at right guard and Marshall Newhouse at right tackle.
However, that configuration is in no way a lock to start the 2015 season, this according to Coughlin, who at the start of OTAs, told reporters that the plan was to try different combinations.
The question that must be answered is whether they have enough already on the roster to eventually arrive at the right combination.
One possibility might be to move John Jerry into the lineup—he can play guard or tackle. The only problem is that last year, Jerry was the Giants’ worst-graded run blocker, per Pro Football Focus, and it wasn’t even close.
Another possibility might be to move Pugh to left tackle, Flowers to right tackle and hope that either Brett Jones or Brandon Mosley might be ready to step in at left guard.
The problem with that scenario is that Pugh—who was a college left tackle—projects better at guard or at right tackle, the latter being the position he played for the first two years of his career.
According to B/R’s Ryan McCrystal, “Pugh’s athleticism is modest for a left tackle,” which is why when he was drafted in the first round out of Syracuse two years ago, there was never any thought of him eventually moving to left tackle.
Mosley? He’s shown some flashes of athleticism at guard, but injuries have gotten in the way of him achieving any sort of consistency.
It also spoke volumes how last year, the coaches stuck with Jerry despite his deficiencies as a run blocker instead of turning to Mosley when he was finally over an early season back ailment.
What about Jones, the CFL import? Jones has shown that he is a fast learner, but the fact remains that he’s primarily been a center for most of his career.
To move him to guard, a position he only really started to delve into, might be a recipe for disaster—for proof of that, just look at how Richburg struggled last year at left guard when he was pressed into action at that position due to injuries.
The other option that the team might consider—and this would probably be a longshot to happen if the Giants think they’ll have left tackle Will Beatty back by the start of the second half of the season—is to add help from the outside.
Pro Bowl guard Evan Mathis is also still out there, but there is some question as to whether the Giants will want to commit anything more than the one-year veteran minimum to an unsigned veteran, a deal that Mathis is unlikely to accept.
The Giants might not have any choice but to stick with what they have at the offensive line and to hope that the unit comes together quickly.
Of course, the last resort is to scan the waiver wire once cuts are made in the summer, which is probably what they will do regardless.
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.