As training camp draws closer, the New York Giants remain favored to win the NFC East Division championship.
But considering that the only valid team in the four-club grouping is Philadelphia, that doesn't really say much.
The Eagles have lost more than they have gained, especially defensive end Hugh Douglas, and there are still questions about their running game.
So that leaves the Giants, a team not without questions of its own, but with the capability for a highly explosive offense and a stingy defense.
One of the defensive requirements, despite the high level of expectations, is a solid front four with reliable backups. That was not the case last season, and when tackle Keith Hamilton was lost for the season on Oct. 13, the deterioration of the defensive front began. Erosion continued throughout the season, with the only available replacement, second year free agent Lance Legree, playing in the right tackle hole. He proved to be unsatisfactory in the extreme, and then when a few others were nicked and bruised as the season progressed, the front became a gateway for running backs.
It reached its zenith in the playoff game in San Francisco, when the Giants held a 38-14 lead only to lose, 39-38, as the defense collapsed. Without Hamilton and, in the second half, right end Kenny Holmes, players who had no business on the field were sent in to stop the bleeding. It was hopeless, as Legree, Frank Ferrara, Dwight Johnson and Matt Mitrione tried and failed.
Now? They still seem a day late and a dollar short along the D-line, indicating that another veteran free agent might be in the crosshairs of general manager Ernie Accorsi. But despite reports/rumors that he has expressed an interest in free agent Darius Holland (6-5, 330, six years) of the Minnesota Vikings, he insists that nothing is on the table.
"We aren't planning any trades or major signings," he said. "All we can do is wait and see how a couple of last season's injuries heal. There are two guys, (defensive end) Sean Guthrie and (safety) Clarence LeBlanc, and we have to make sure they have a chance to make the team. If not, we might have to release them and bring in some other players, but it won't be anything major."
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--There has been no movement on the court appearance of defensive tackle Hamilton (6-6, 290, 12th year), who was charged with possession of marijuana, cocaine and drug paraphernalia, as well as driving with an open container of an alcoholic beverage, on May 22 in Morris County, N.J. He was to have had a hearing late in June but that came and went with no announcement, nor do the Giants have any additional information.
"We haven't heard a thing," says Accorsi, "and we don't comment on legal issues. All we know is that Keith is planning to come to training camp (which opens July 24) and is continuing with his rehabilitation until then."
Hamilton, who has spent his entire NFL career with the Giants (he was a fourth round pick way back in 1992), has had one previous violation involving controlled substances. He was stopped in May of 1999 (May appears not to be a good month for him) and the NFL imposed first-violation sanctions, a fine and the need to submit to random drug tests.
If this is his second violation, which won't become official until the NFL says it is, he could be suspended for the first four games of the season and fined an amount commensurate with his paycheck for those four games. But if he had failed a spot check at any time it could have been entered as a second violation without being announced, and this would then become his third violation which requires a one-year suspension.
That could throw the Giants' defensive line, which is already short-handed, into total chaos.
There could be a consideration toward the installation of a more permanent 3-4 defensive front in case Hamilton is lost and the rookies don't respond quickly. For the moment, tackle Cornelius Griffin would become the nose tackle with Michael Strahan and Kenny Holmes continuing to start at the ends. The linebackers might work out to the three starters -- Mike Barrow, Brandon Short and Dhani Jones -- with second-year Nick Greisen joining the starting quartet. At the moment, Greisen is the backup for Barrow in the middle and has shown continued improvement, narrowing the gap between himself and the 10-year veteran.
Short would move to the strong outside position with Barrow and Greisen the inside linebackers and Jones the weak outside starter.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When we left the minicamp (June 2-5) I was struck with a feeling that this team is going to do something special, and nothing I have seen or heard since then has changed my mind. I can't wait to get to camp. This is a new experience for me, to be with a team that is favored from the start." -- Giants' quarterback Kerry Collins.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers): LS Trey Junkin (not tendered as UFA); WR Tony Simmons (not tendered as UFA); CB Reggie Stephens (ERFA tender of $375,000 withdrawn); RB Damon Washington (not tendered as ERFA).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
DRAFT CHOICES SIGNED: OG David Diehl (5th; $1,018,500/3 yrs, $108,500 SB; 2003 cap: $261,667); CB Frank Walker (6th; terms unknown); WR Willie Ponder (6th; $966,000/3 yrs, $56,000 SB; 2003 cap: $243,667); WR David Tyree (6th; $953,500/3 yrs, $43,500 SB; 2003 cap: $239,500); S Charles Drake (7th; terms unknown); WR Kevin Walter (7th; $934,250/3 yrs, $24,250 SB; 2003 cap: $233,083).
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: C Chris Bober (RFA; $605,000/1 yr); OT Barrett Brooks (UFA; $655,000/1 yr, no SB; 2003 cap: $450,000); CB Ralph Brown (RFA; $609,800/1 yr); WR Ron Dixon (RFA; $605,000/1 yr); DE Frank Ferrara (ERFA; $379,800/1 yr); QB Jason Garrett (UFA; $780,000/1 yr, $25,000 SB; 2003 cap: $475,000); WR Ike Hilliard (UFA; $12.78M/5 yrs, $2.5M SB/$1M SB option '04; 2003 cap: $1.03M); LB Dhani Jones (RFA; $605,000/1 yr); S Clarence LeBlanc (ERFA; $300,000/1 yr); LB Kevin Lewis (RFA; $1.975M/3 yrs, $450,000 SB; 2003 cap: $600,000); TE/LS Dan O'Leary (ERFA; $375,000/1 yr); OT Luke Petitgout ($30M/6 yrs, $9.75M SB; 2003 cap: $2.155M); CB Kato Serwanga (UFA; $530,000/1 yr, no SB/$25,000 base guarantee; 2003 cap: $454,800); LB Brandon Short (RFA; $605,000/1 yr); OG Omar Smith (ERFA; $300,000/1 yr); S Omar Stoutmire (UFA; $3.2M/3 yrs, SB unknown).
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: P Jeff Feagles (UFA Seahawks; $4.32M/5 yrs, $500,000 SB; 2003 cap: $855,000); FB Jim Finn (not tendered as RFA by Colts; $985,000/2 yrs, no SB; 2003 cap: $450,000); CB Ray Green (not tendered as RFA by Dolphins; $985,000/2 yrs, no SB; 2003 cap: $454,800); PK Mike Hollis (UFA Bills; 5 yrs, terms unknown); LS Ryan Kuehl (UFA Browns; $3.62M/5 yrs, $325,000 SB; 2003 cap: $595,000); RB Dorsey Levens (UFA Eagles; $2.48M/3 yrs, $300,000 SB; 2003 cap: $755,000); KR Brian Mitchell (UFA Eagles; $3.55M/4 yrs, $500,000 SB; 2003 cap: $880,000); DE Keith Washington (FA Broncos; $684,400/1 yr, $25,000 SB; 2003 cap: $479,400).
PLAYERS LOST: P Matt Allen (cut); TE Dan Campbell (UFA Cowboys; $4M/3 yrs, $1.47M SB); DE Byron Frisch (not tendered as RFA/49ers; terms unknown); DE Dwight Johnson (cut); DT Ross Kolodziej (ERFA tender of $375,000 withdrawn/49ers; $375,000/1 yr); WR Herman Moore (cut); PK Owen Pochman (cut); OT Mike Rosenthal (UFA Vikings; $1.8M/2 yrs, $500,000 SB); CB Jason Sehorn (cut); LB Clayton White (cut); OG Jason Whittle (UFA Buccaneers; $8.2M/5 yrs, $1.8M SB); FB Adam Wright (cut); C Dusty Zeigler (cut).
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.