Big Apple Turnover

As the Giants readied for their season opener in Philadelphia, they did so with a roster that hardly resembled what Giants fans were subjected to last season. <BR><BR>

The prevailing question of how many guys from a 4-12 team do you want back was answered swiftly and decisively by new coach Tom Coughlin. He's made no bones about the fact that too many Giants last year were too soft and/or too undisciplined. You'd have to figure that all those that have been jettisoned fall into one or both of those categories.

Giants fans are hardly going to recognize the defense, which has seven new starters among its 11 players, and the offensive line, which boasts three new starters and four players starting in new positions. Again, following a 12-loss season that consisted of terrible offensive line play and shoddy tackling, Coughlin obviously thinks he'll be better off with his own crop of Giants. Of the 53 Giants on this current roster, a shocking number – 23 – were not with the team in any capacity last season. That's 43 percent, close to half the team, a much higher figure than the usual annual NFL turnover rate.

What's yet to be determined is whether this crop is better than last year's bunch. There's no doubt they'll be better coached, more disciplined and certainly held more accountable for their performances. But the Giants didn't exactly sign any big-name free agents to ensure that they'll be decidedly better in 2004.

Five of New York's seven draft choices made the club, with only seventh-rounders OT Drew Strojny and DE Isaac Hilton falling by the wayside. Additionally, three rookie free agents made the club – CB Curtis Deloatch, OL Greg Walker and return man Mark Jones, who spent the summer in Tampa Bay's camp.

Let's take a closer look at the '04 version of Big Blue.

Quarterbacks (3) – Kurt Warner captured the starting spot, and he plans to keep it for a while. While almost everyone's main question regarding the Giants is: "When will Eli Manning take over?" that's certainly not the case for Coughlin and Warner. Many Giants have said they think Warner still has plenty left in the tank. Warner certainly does. He's gotten better during the course of the preseason and truly earned the job; a much better scenario than if he were handed the spot just because the Giants didn't believe that Manning was ready.

As for Manning, it is only a matter of time. It's very tough to envision the Giants having too much success early on this season. If that's the case, then the calls for Manning will start early and often.

Jesse Palmer, considered a goner early in the offseason after his starring role as The Bachelor, had himself his best offseason yet. He made a mockery of the so-called competition for the third quarterback spot between himself and Ryan Van Dyke.

Running backs (4) – The Giants waited until right before the season opener before they signed a third running back, Mike Cloud, formerly of the Patriots. He'll spell both Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne this season. While it appeared that Cloud would take over Dayne's role as the short-yardage back, both Coughlin and Dayne state that's not the case.

Regardless of Cloud's ability, the team will sink or swim with Barber, entering his eighth season in New York and looking to become New York's all-time leading rusher. He needs 1,489 yards to pass Rodney Hampton (6,897). If Coughlin gets his wish and is able to utilize Dayne effectively, Barber won't get nearly the amount of carries he'd need to reach 1,500 yards. No doubt the unselfish Barber wouldn't mind.

If and when the Giants realize that Dayne's running style doesn't match the typical short-yardage requirements, they'll slide Cloud into the mix.

It's still unknown why New York hasn't even considered fullback Jim Finn, the only FB on the roster, for the short-yardage duties. Granted, Finn isn't given many chances to tote the ball, but he's built more along the lines of a short-yardage runner.

Tight ends (3) – This might have been Coughlin's easiest position to assemble coming out of Albany. Starter Jeremy Shockey is joined by Marcellus Rivers and Visanthe Shiancoe, both of whom stepped up nicely when Shockey's been out of action. However, to say the Giants need Shockey on the field would be belaboring the point. His ability to either get open or draw the defense his way helps open things up for everyone else around him. But at least Coughlin knows that if his star TE is shelved again, Rivers and Shiancoe are much more ready to go than they were last year.

Wide receivers (6) – Tim Carter saved his skin with a late-camp surge, making everyone – except Coughlin, of course – forget a rough, injury-laden early part of camp for the former second-round pick. The speedster went from the doghouse to the coveted third receiver role. That's about all any receiver in Giantsland can hope for with the starting tandem of Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard back for yet another season.

The wild card among the receivers is rookie Jamaar Taylor, who showed some of his vast potential during the preseason finale. Taylor estimates he's still only about 85 percent recovered from knee surgery less than a year ago. If he can become a regular contributor, the Giants would welcome his blend of size, strength and speed. While blowing by numerous Ravens in the secondary, Taylor also showed some blocking ability.

The final two receivers – David Tyree and Willie Ponder – made the roster mostly because of their special teams prowess. Tyree is an accomplished gunner, while Ponder won the kickoff return job, perhaps by default. Regardless, it's his job for now, and with a little success and an injury or two in the receiving corps, Ponder might end up with a larger role than anyone figured.

Offensive line (9) – The starting unit of Luke Petitgout, Jason Whittle, Shaun O'Hara, Chris Snee and David Diehl might actually turn out better than most think. They might not be the Cowboys of the ‘90s, but they certainly do have some toughness and ability. Whittle was brought in for last-minute help and Snee is a rising star. The unit improved as the preseason went along and appears to be pretty evenly capable of pass-blocking and run-blocking.

In reserve, Wayne Lucier filled in well at left guard, well enough that Coughlin seriously considered him for the starting unit until shortly before the season kicked off.

Brandon Winey was brought in during camp to back up either of the tackle spots.

Rookie free agent Greg Walker and fourth-year man Marques Sullivan round out New York's season-opening nine-man OL.

Defensive line (8) – For as much as the offensive line will be closely scrutinized, the D-line is going to have nowhere to hide if they don't up their play from last year. The reason? The Giants let every starter not named Michael Strahan leave town and replaced them with what they obviously consider upgrades. Next to Strahan is behemoth tackle Norman Hand, who should give the Giants a serious run stuffer for the first time in a while. The right side of the line is more in question – right tackle Fred Robbins had about as non-descript camp and preseason as possible and Keith Washington's specialty is run defense. The first guy off the bench, and likely third-down pass rusher, is second-year man Osi Umenyiora. He didn't capture the starting RDE job, but has enough speed and ability that they'll unleash him often in passing situations.

Reserve tackles William Joseph and Lance Legree have both been taking plenty of snaps at end. Kenderick Allen was inked right before the season to round out the D-line.

Linebackers (6) – All offseason the Giants were looking for a middle linebacker to replace Nick Greisen. Who knew they had the man they were looking for already on board? While Greisen is still headed for an excellent career, Kevin Lewis is the man getting the nod for opening day. Lewis has certainly waited long enough and worked hard enough. Flanking him is two of New York's biggest free agent acquisitions this offseason – SLB Carlos Emmons and WLB Barrett Green. They're expected to provide a significant improvement over Brandon Short and Dhani Jones.

The key to the unit very well could be fourth-round pick Reggie Torbor. Like Umenyiora, he has excellent speed and pass-rushing skills. Look for him to enter games in passing situations, at least until he better learns the position. Wes Mallard, who's a special teams terror, played so well down the stretch of the preseason that Coughlin couldn't possibly have let him go.

Defensive backs (10) – Another area in need of major improvement from last season, the secondary will be bolstered by the signing of free safety Brent Alexander, who narrowly edged Omar Stoutmire for the starting spot. Heavy-hitting Shaun Williams will line up next to both Alexander and Stoutmire, as all three safeties will receive plenty of significant playing time. Jack Brewer showed he can play a little safety as well, in addition to being a difference-maker on special teams. If he can earn the coaches' trust, rookie Gibril Wilson could also play himself into the mix.

New York stocked up on corners, perhaps because of the injury concerns surrounding starters Will Allen, whose knee is still a little banged up, and Will Peterson, who's returning following season-ending back surgery last year. The third and fourth CBs are Frank Walker, who impressed during camp, and offseason signee Terry Cousin. Curtis Deloatch was the most notable longshot to make the roster, especially considering he dropped the ball literally and figuratively as a punt returner. His toughness and size – 6-2, 217 – helped earn him a roster spot.

Special teams (4) – Jeff Feagles was never challenged and will return as New York's punter. However, the club's kicker, Steve Christie, wasn't even a thought as New York reported to training camp. Coughlin chewed up and spit out three kickers before settling on the seasoned veteran. Ryan Kuehl reclaimed his rightful spot as the Giants snapper, which he lost last year due to a season-ending injury before the campaign even started. The punt return merry-go-round finally stopped at Mark Jones. The rookie free agent, while listed as a receiver, is here solely for his return ability.

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