Looking ahead

As the season that took a surprising disturbing turn on Nov. 7 winds down, it has become painfully apparent that what awaits the Giants in 2005 is much more meaningful than what lies ahead against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Dallas.

Unfortunately for Giants fans frustrated by an abysmal conclusion to a season so full of promise merely six weeks ago, they cannot look forward to an overhaul of the linebacking corps or the offensive line that accompanied Jim Fassel's dismissal. Because not only do the Giants not possess a first-round draft choice in four months, they won't have much roster flexibility once the offseason starts, either. Unlike Sept. 12 in Philadelphia, when the Giants aligned seven new defensive starters and five different offensive starters than they did during their previous season opener, you'll see almost all of the same faces for the 2005 opener.

Many of the players with which Tom Coughlin could be disappointed cannot be released due to salary cap ramifications and will at least be granted an opportunity to secure starting positions in training camp come July.

Below, we'll play armchair general manager and predict which players Ernie Accorsi and Co. will want to keep or ship.

QB: Their starter obviously has been chosen, but it is anyone's guess who will serve as Eli Manning's backup in his second season. Kurt Warner won't come back to hold a clipboard, even though he has been a complete professional since his demotion last month. There are simply too many average quarterbacks starting in the league for the former two-time MVP to accept second-string status at age 33. Jesse Palmer is one of New York's very few upcoming unrestricted free agents. He should at least be considered for the No. 2 job, but he'll have to beat out another veteran.

RB: Tiki Barber has definitely demonstrated that he can take a licking and keep on clicking throughout his sensational season, but it would probably be wise to bring back Mike Cloud, if he's healthy. Ron Dayne, meanwhile, has shown signs of improvement in the second half of the season, after failing repeatedly earlier at Coughlin's insistence. However, the soon-to-be free agent the Giants chose instead of Shaun Alexander nearly five years ago will not be back for a sixth season. They're set at fullback, too, with Jim Finn, a reliable blocker and capable receiver out of the backfield.

WR: Split end Amani Toomer and flanker Ike Hilliard have both signed contract extensions within the last two years, but the third receiver position could be snagged by rookie Jamaar Taylor, who has displayed his deep speed when given the opportunity through 13 games. By Jan. 2, talented-but-injury prone Tim Carter, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason, will have missed 26 of a possible 48 regular season games since he was drafted in the second round in 2002. And at tight end, although Visanthe Schiancoe, a third-round pick in 2003, hasn't developed rapidly enough to fend off Marcellus Rivers, he'll still likely be granted another opportunity to be their No. 2 tight end behind Jeremy Shockey.

OL: They paid Luke Petitgout left tackle money after the 2002 season (six years, $30 million), but he absolutely must stop committing so many penalties. And they need more consistency in pass protection from Petitgout and right tackle David Diehl, a converted guard. Otherwise, though, they should remain committed to center Shaun O'Hara, rookie right guard Chris Snee and left guard Jason Whittle, all of whom have played pretty well this season. Their most difficult decision here will be whether they can afford to bring back Rich Seubert, who had become their most efficient offensive lineman before a leg injury midway through the 2003 season stunted his career growth.

DL: About the only positive thing that stemmed from Michael Strahan and Keith Washington sustaining season-ending injuries in the same game was the maturation of Osi Umenyiora. He looks like he's ready to start opposite Strahan next year, although Washington was solid before he got hurt. They've got a tackle rotation returning under contract, too (Fred Robbins, Norman Hand, 2003 first-rounder William Joseph). Free-agent addition Kenderick Allen has shown flashes as a pass-rusher and run-stopper at the defensive tackle position, too.

LB: Neither strongside linebacker Carlos Emmons (five years, $16 million), nor weakside linebacker Barrett Green (five years, $13 million) have justified the Giants' monetary commitments to them thus far. Green, of course, has dealt with knee and ankle injuries, in addition to a coaching conflict. Kevin Lewis, meanwhile, has been serviceable in replacing Mike Barrow in the middle, but they might need linebacker depth if Nick Greisen gets the restricted free-agent opportunity his 2004 play probably warrants. Rookie Reggie Torber, a fourth-rounder out of Auburn, has showed speed, athleticism and instincts at times this season.

DB: Will Peterson's contract has been extended and Will Allen is under contract for 2005, so their starting corners will be back. There should be a safety shakeup, though. Rookie Gibril Wilson was proving himself to be the real steal of the 2004 NFL Draft before being sidelined with a burner a month ago, and showed the surprising speed and playmaking ability to start at free safety. That should mean at least one of three other safeties who are scheduled to make more than $1 million next season - Brent Alexander, Omar Stoutmire and/or Shaun Williams - will not be back in 2005. They simply cannot afford to have two reserve safeties making seven figures.

ST: Jeff Feagles, their 38-year-old punter, has been brilliant at times this season and veteran kicker Steve Christie has rewarded Tom Coughlin's confidence in him by being steady since that disastrous day in Green Bay two months ago. Coughlin could still find competition for Christie, however. Wideout Willie Ponder and running back Derrick Ward have shown promise on kick returns, but Mark Jones hasn't been especially effective in the thankless role of punt returner. They should probably look elsewhere to improve in that area. David Tyree obviously is operating on a different level on return coverage, thus that seems like a sixth-round draft choice that was definitely well spent.

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