Team Giants


Special Report

Sent: 07-24-15

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.


By Scott Landstrom
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 previous counterparts.

Conversely, I 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 follows:

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 receiving record.

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.

       Since 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 Jacobs.

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.

Now 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,

Giants 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?

Defensive 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.

Defensive 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.

He 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.

Beason 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).

Meanwhile, 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.

Cornerbacks: "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 Amukamara.

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.

Safeties: "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.

Crazily, 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.

Safeties: "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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