Dave Klein was the Giants' beat
writer for The Star-Ledger from 1961 to 1995.
He is the author of 26 books
and he is one of only three sportswriters to have covered all the Super Bowls.
Dave has allowed TEAM GIANTS to reprint some of his articles.
BREAKING DOWN THE GIANTS - OFFENSE AND DEFENSE
Well, Giant nation,
after my last column that detailed how the 2013 Giants had the worst AGL metric
(injuries to starters) of any team in the 32-team league since they started tracking
in 2002, and the 2014 Giants had the SECOND worst over that same time, out of
416 team-seasons on record, you probably would paint me a "pessimist" on this
team as a result.
Quite to the contrary,
I believe (the recent abysmal injury history aside) that there are unique and
compelling reasons for optimism in specific areas for the 2015-2016 New York Giants,
and specifically on offense, we might see wholesale performance improvement in
running backs, quarterback, wide receivers, and offensive line - leaving tight
ends and fullbacks as the only two looking roughly at "parity" with their 2014-2015
believe serious questions co-reside with some intriguing "up sides" as well on
defense, so a mixed bag of "potential" and "potential disaster" exists on that
side of the ball, where we have veterans returning from injury, free agents trying
to fit in, and first and second year players being asked to start in the defensive
backfield - making for a veritable "Tale of Two Cities" as we compare offense
to defense going into this coming season.
Let's start with the positive, shall we? The offensive prospects for 2015, as
1) Will likely have the best
set of "three wides" in team history, and quite possibly in the NFL today, in
Rueben Randle, Victor Cruz, and Odell Beckham Jr. Randle merely averaged 130 yards
per game his final three of last season, while we all know the game-breaker that
Cruz was before injury (having the most 60-plus yard TD receptions in 2011 in
a single season in the NFL since 1951). But the REAL star of this group is undoubtedly
OBJ, who once his "two game internship" was over (his first two games started)
merely played the final 10 at a yardage productivity rate that if he just maintains
that rate this coming season, would break Calvin Johnson's all-time single-season
2) The offensive line,
which was disastrous at times, last year, should be MUCH BETTER this season. With
Weston Richburg moving to his natural position of center (he was the consensus
top rated center in the draft two years ago), Justin Pugh moving to his natural
(for his body type) position of guard, the return of elite NFL free agent signee
Geoff Schwartz from injury after he was one of the top-5 rated guards in the NFL
with the Chiefs in 2013, and the drafting of one of the top three tackle candidates
in the first round (Ereck Flowers) - this line should blossom to being at least
"average," which is miles above where it was last season.
Add to this getting our top rated offensive
line performer (according to Pro Football Focus), Will Beatty back from an off-season
weight lifting incident about half way through the season, and the prospects for
dramatic improvement on this unit are tangible and within reach. (Note: to be
fair, there should be concern about Marshall Newhouse (PFF score -12.2) being
the starting right tackle until Beatty returns half way through the season, but
three of the four other positions look to be markedly improved)
3) The Giants have FINALLY gotten an elite pass-catching running back (Shane Vereen)
to give Eli a whole new "route tree" to think about, especially when under pressure
from heavy blitzing teams. Consider that David Wilson was made a No. 1 draft choice
specifically (among other things) to do this, so the team thought it had a solution
in this area. But, tragically, he had to retire due to spinal stenosis, so this
really marks the first time since Tiki Barber retired at the end of the 2006 season
(58 receptions out of the backfield that year) the Giants have a legitimate receiving
threat at RB.
the leading Giants' back out of the backfield has averaged only 28 catches per
season, and Vereen is probably as good as there is in the NFL catching the ball
from the RB position, look for a whole new element to open up in this Giants offense.
4) At running back, exclusive of the pass catching element discussed above, but
just for "toting the rock," between Rashad Jennings now having a year of experience
in this offense, Andre Williams having his rookie year (and the "deer in the headlights"
syndrome most rookies experience on occasion) behind him, and the addition of
Vereen, whose jitterbug style will be a nice compliment to power-backs Jennings
and Williams, it would seem to be the most versatile and deepest RB rotation since
the peak of the "Thunder-and-Lightning II" days of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon
5) Eli Manning will be playing
his second season in the offense he had to learn last summer under Giants' offensive
coordinator Ben McAdoo, and if his performances in the last four games are any
indication. The footwork changes he needed to make are behind him, with a full
season doing it the new way, his knowledge of the completely revamped playbook
is 10 times what it was this time last year, and the late season passing productivity
(even without a legitimate RB target or Cruz being available) in the last 4 games
(Giants were No. 3 in passing in the NFL the last quarter of the season) and he
could be set to have his finest season of his career, especially given factors
(#1) (#2), and (#3) above.
So, and don't
laugh, Giant fans, but it is POSSIBLE, injuries of course as the wild-card factor
(especially with this team, don't we know) that ALL major units with the exception
of fullbacks (a marginalized position in the 2015 NFL) and tight ends might be
(markedly) better than last year, and that could result in McAdoo's offense rising
to the "top five" stratosphere.
the defense is another matter. Between JPP blowing his finger off in a foolish
fireworks accident, our one star free-agent signing (Robert Ayers, third-best
PFF rating for a 4-3 defensive end in the NFL) coming off a season ending injury,
Antrel Rolle bolting for the Bears in free agency, Jon Beason coming off a horrible
injury-filled year, and both stud cornerbacks (Prince Amukamara, Antonio Rodgers-Cromartie)
coming off injuries, to say this unit's prospects are "uncertain" is the understatement
of the year.
Yet there are guys on this
defense that are already NFL stars (JPP, Jonathan Hankins), guys that have been
"top 10" at their position and gone to Pro Bowls (Jenkins, Ayers, Beason, Rodgers-Cromartie),
and up and coming stars that could go to the Pro Bowl this season (Amukamara,
Kennard, and believe it or not, rookie Landon Collins).
Yet there is so much peril in other perspectives,
Nation, to keep Spagnuolo up at night, to be sure. So let's do a quick "pro-con"
analysis of the defensive units, shall we?
Ends: "Pro" - IF JPP can recover reasonably, then this unit could be special.
I have heard several hand surgeons say that the type of amputation they did on
his finger (called a "ray amputation," which takes out the supporting bones in
the hand for that missing finger), allows the hand to spread out such that the
middle two fingers slide towards the thumb, and that the "grab and rip" functionality
can be well over 95 percent of what it originally was.
Add in Ayers being a pass-rushing revelation, last year, Damontre Moore still
being a savant rusher (while not so great against the run), and this new kid from
UCLA, Owa Odighizuwa, who looks like the second coming of Justin Tuck - at least
physically - and we might well have the best pass rushing quartet at defensive
end since the 2007 monster year of Michael Strahan/Osi Umenyiora/Tuck that played
THE key role to that championship.
Ends: "Con" - Between JPP's brain-state and missing digit, Ayers coming off a
serious injury that cut his season in half, Moore continuing to battle with the
demands of playing the Giants preferred method of "two-way" defensive end (run
and pass), and Odighizuwa never having played an NFL down, there are questions
that need answering from top to bottom of this unit, and some of those answers
Giants Nation just might not end up liking very much...
Defensive Tackles: "Pro" - Jonathan Hankins, whose selection in the second round
over Eddie Lacy of Alabama I highly criticized at the time he was selected, has
grown into a MAN, and has effectively made me eat my words. We all knew Hankins
was a "space eater" in the run game, requiring a double team if people are serious
about running in his gap, but his eight sacks and 21 QB pressures were "top five"
numbers of an interior lineman last season in the entire league.
is a force, and only getting better, it would appear. So the Giants have a likely
Pro Bowler at right defensive tackle. Oh, and if JPP comes back and is just 85
percent as good as he was in the final five games last season, the entire right
side of the Giant DL could be the best in the NFL.
Defensive Tackles: "Con" - Now, on the shoulder of the emerging force that is
Hankins, playing left defensive tackle, we have a different story, with the starter
unknown at this point. Whether it is one of our returning players, be it Cullen
Jenkins (once a star, but getting on in age), Markus Kuhn (gym rat, strong as
an ox, but not athletic), Mike Patterson (probably won't make the team), Jay Bromley
(only 113 snaps played all year as a No.3 draft pick last year, free agent signee
Kenrick Ellis from the Jets, who was hurt last season, but who had a very respectable
(plus 11.8) PFF season score the previous season playing NT.
In any event, more "questions" about left defensive tackle currently exist than
"answers" about the rotation that will exist next to Hankins.
Linebackers: "Pro" - Well, let's start with the fact that with long time defensive
team leaders Justin Tuck and Antrel Rolle leaving in successive seasons, the closest
thing the defense has to a "been there, done that" veteran leader out there is
Jon Beason, who is a savvy formation aligner, caller of signals, and communicator
- and a tackling machine in the run game.
is a three-time Pro Bowler at the MIKE position, and while he is not what he once
was physically, his mental game having played at that high a level is unassailable.
Probably the biggest total surprise after the emergence of rookie superstar OBJ
was the fine play down the second half of the season of USC rookie Devon Kennard
at the SAM position last year, and he should only get better with a year of experience
under his belt.
J.T. Thomas, a free
agent WILL signee out of Jacksonville, is a natural weakside player who was used
out of position at MIKE for much of the season last year, but when he was playing
his "natural" position of WILL LB, he had the seventh best coverage score of any
outside LB playing in a 4-3 scheme.
So we have a wizened, and now healthy, veteran Pro Bowler at MIKE, an up and coming
athletic star second-year player at SAM, and an established "top 10" cover guy
playing WILL this year - which sounds a lot better than the hodgepodge the Giants
had to play within this banged-up unit last season.
Linebackers: "Con" - Anyone care to guess how many games Beason has missed due
to injury in the past four seasons? How about 42? When you have a guy who is your
signal caller who has AVERAGED over 10 games per season missed due to injury over
a four-year period, who among you would expect Beason to be around and healthy
all season? Anyone?
Oh, and Beason (known
as a run-stopping force, but never an outstanding "cover" LB) had his worst total
PFF "run defense" score of his career last year - in only 162 snaps (minus 3.5).
Devon Kennard I see no "cons" for, other than he just needs to keep gaining more
experience, but J.T. Thomas, while admittedly an excellent pass cover LB, had
a PFF run defense score of (-11.9) last season, splitting his time between MIKE
and WILL, so the guy was not very effective against the run - something that needs
fixing on this defense after 2014 (ranked 30th in the NFL).
top backup LB Mark Herzlich was outstanding against the run (plus 12.3) - so don't
be surprised if you see plenty of him at WILL (or even Kennard switching from
SAM to WILL, and Herzlich going in at SAM) against strong running teams.
"Pro" - Can anyone think of a more talented duo of CB's in the NFL than Prince
Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, when they are both healthy? Well -
maybe only two teams can make that claim legitimately: the New York Jets (Darrell
Revis, Antonio Cromartie), and the Denver Broncos (Aqib Talib, Chis Harris Jr.)
That is how good these two are, and they are among the few CB tandems in the league
with positive PFF scores for both run AND pass defense - so they will stick their
nose in there in run support, and generally "wrap up" the ball carrier, particularly
Cornerbacks: "Con: - With
the departures in the past two seasons of Corey Webster, Terrell Thomas and Walter
Thurmond III - there is a frightening lack of "depth" in terms of established
cover corners who can come in and at least play "nickel" CB. Trumaine McBride
has shown glimpses of real talent, but he missed half the season due to an injury
last season. Jayron Hosley led the entire NCAA in interceptions one year, but
the "light" simply has not gone on for Jayron as a professional, and he is entering
his fourth season with a career total of ONE interception, and earned a ridiculously
bad PFF score of (minus 6.7) based on only playing 153 snaps last season.
Bottom line: I love the "top" of this talent pyramid - but what is underneath
it scares the life out of me if we sustain injuries at this position.
"Pro" - Well, I can say we will have more speed and athleticism in our deep secondary
than possibly any Giants unit in history. With Landon Collins being the top rated
safety in the entire draft, he is the one "sure thing" as a starter back there,
as the defections of Rolle, Quintin Demps, (and troubled but talented Will Hill
before them) have left the unit in "complete make-over" mode.
although Collins was the third fastest safety in his draft class in the forty
at the Combine (4.52), he is actually the slowest of the four young men contending
for play at the safety position on this team. Whoever pairs with him, between
Cooper Taylor (who, even at 228 pounds ran 4.49 the previous rookie class, and
is a "Jason Sehorn" type all-around athlete) and Nat Berhe (who ran as fast as
4.43 at his "Pro Day" at San Diego State University).
There is a long-shot that rookie Mykkele Thompson of Texas might squeeze into
the mix, but his forty time was 4.47, so three of the four candidates are "4.4-split"
guys. So whoever the starting two will be, they will undoubtedly be the fastest
pair of safeties ever to start as a unit for the Giants in franchise history.
Moreover, it might not be this year, but Collins has the look of a superstar,
as a three-year starter for a two-time National Champion team, coming out of the
most "pro-like" defensive scheme (Alabama) in the draft, so he could end up climbing
the learning curve with surprising alacrity.
"Con" - What about 37 total snaps of NFL experience playing safety gives Giants
Nation any kind of confidence going into this season? Berhe (32 plays), Taylor
(five plays), and the two rookies Collins and Thompson at zero (by definition)
- when you consider that normal formations include two safeties, this is just
slightly more than one football quarter of TOTAL playing experience among the
entire quartet. To call this unit "green" is an insult to "green" safety units
everywhere, so it will have to make up in speed and athleticism what it sorely
lacks in experience.
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