Outlook: In the first season of the Tom Coughlin era, the Giants got off to a surprisingly quick 5-2 start and seemed poised for a playoff run. Soon thereafter, the team hit the skids, losing eight straight games – their second such streak in as many seasons – and found themselves home for the playoffs yet again.
This offseason the "G-Men" were very active in free agency, acquiring a big-time wideout for second-year QB Eli Manning to throw to and two linemen, one who will start and one who adds needed depth to the unit, as well. Last season, the Giants ranked 23rd in overall offense (11th in rushing, 26th passing), but with an improved line the hope is that they can rely on the running game even more while lightening the load on their young signal-caller.
Defensively, the Giants finished 13th overall (28th against the run, 8th against the pass) and the team did their best to address their woeful run defense through free agency. The biggest acquisition this offseason was MLB Antonio Pierce from their division rival, the Washington Redskins, but the return of All-Pro DE Michael Strahan from a torn chest muscle could make the biggest difference to the stop unit. Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis runs an aggressive scheme that depends on press-coverage from his corners and pressure up front with the linebackers shooting gaps and wreaking havoc. Look for the Giants to be even more aggressive with their blitz and coverage packages.
Quarterback: When the Giants traded away Phillip Rivers and three draft choices, including their 2005 first rounder to the San Diego Chargers for the rights to Manning, the pressure was on for Manning to perform quickly. Behind veteran Kurt Warner, the Giants got off to their quick start only to plummet to the bottom of the standings due to injuries and mistakes. When Manning took over in week 11 against Arizona, the torch was officially passed and it turned out to be a rocky start.
Manning completed only 48.2% of his passes for 1,043 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions, but he improved immensely over the last half of the season. He put together three solid efforts at the end of the season, giving teammates, coaches and fans the hope that he is the franchise quarterback this team has been searching for over the last several seasons.
One of Manning's biggest problems was his lack of trust in his pass-protection. When he was on the bench he watched the more experienced Warner run for his life, hold the ball too long and turn the ball over when the pressure got to him. Also complicating matters for the rookie was that all too often his receivers let him down by dropping catchable passes and running bad routes.
With a better running game, better protection and more experience Manning should be able to display all of the talents that made him the number one overall selection in 2004. He has an above-average arm, decent mobility and excellent leadership skills. As he grows into the position, he will be able to read defenses better and be a leader in the huddle as well as on the practice field. He has already started to assert his leadership role this offseason by calling on third-year TE Jeremy Shockey to make his presence felt in the team's offseason workouts, something Shockey has not been known for in his short career.
Behind Manning will be three players battling for the right to back him up. Veteran Tim Hasselbeck was brought in to add a veteran presence to the unit and Coughlin likes his grittiness. Jesse Palmer, entering his third season, has all of the skills to be a starter, but hasn't been able to put it all together to establish himself as the lead backup. He and Jared Lorenzen, who has reportedly dropped 30 pounds and is in good condition, will battle it out for the third spot. Lorenzen has a chance to stick on the practice squad with a good camp.
Running Backs: Like a fine wine, RB Tiki Barber just keeps getting better with age. Last year, at the age of 29 and behind a suspect line, Barber rushed for a career-best 1,518 yards, a 4.7 yard average and 13 touchdowns. Over the course of his career, he has been known as a fumbler, but last season he seemed to rectify that problem only fumbling five times on 322 carries.
Barber is a tough runner, who gains more of his yards between the tackle, but he has deceptive speed, allowing him to break runs to the outside when needed. He is also an excellent receiver out of the backfield, catching 52 passes for 578 yards and two more touchdowns. He's in the best shape of his life and last season he broke the franchise career rushing record previously held by Rodney Hampton.
One player to keep an eye on this year is rookie RB Brandon Jacobs. The Giants spent a fourth-round selection on the former Southern Illinois Salukis in the hopes that he can do for the short-yardage game, what former Giant Ron Dayne never could, get the tough yards when the team needs it most. Jacobs is huge (6'4", 260), but also has good speed and an ornery streak.
The other backups are Derrick Ward, Mike Cloud and rookie free-agent Ryan Grant. Grant could be the wild-card as he has decent size and enough skills to challenge the two veterans.
At fullback, Jim Finn is the starter. He is an excellent blocker and reliable receiver when called upon to do so. Finn's backup right now is Luke Lawton, but the team may look to add another option if the right player becomes available.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: Offensively, the biggest acquisition this offseason was the signing of former Pittsburgh Steelers WR Plaxico Burress. Burress has impressive size (6'5", 225) and speed and possesses good hands. What he's lacked over the course of his five-year career has been consistency.
Burress is also an excellent blocker, coming from a system in Pittsburgh that demanded he block downfield for the backs. If he can gain the necessary concentration and produce on a game-to-game basis he can be an elite wideout and the much needed go-to target for Manning.
Opposite Burress will be nine-year veteran WR Amani Toomer. Toomer was hampered by a nagging hamstring injury last year and for the first time since his rookie season, he went without a touchdown. Even with his injury, he still managed to lead the Giants in receiving yardage with 747 yards on 51 catches. He should benefit from Burress' presence as teams won't be able to roll coverages to his side.
After the starters the Giants have a bunch of question-marks. Ike Hilliard, the other starter last season was allowed to leave via free agency, and the other players have little in the way of experience. Fourth-year WR Tim Carter has the most experience and he ranked fifth on the team with 12 receptions for 182 yards and one touchdown.
Mark Jones, Willie Ponder, Jamaar Taylor and David Tyree will battle it out for the other two spots.
Shockey struggled with back troubles most of last season and was unhappy with his role in the new offense. He was asked to stay in to block far more than he was under the previous coaching staff and the thought is if the Giants can find a solid blocking tight end, Shockey would be freed up to be more of a threat downfield, putting his excellent athleticism and hands to good use. He still managed to lead the team with 61 receptions and six touchdowns and finished second in receiving yards with 666.
Chris Luzar is the best candidate to take over the blocking tight end job and third-year pro Visanthe Shiancoe is in the mix as a receiving option when needed. Darius Williams is an intriguing prospect that the team signed as an undrafted free agent. He's got a big body and runs well, keep an eye on him.
Offensive Line: This unit needs to show the biggest improvement this season if the team hopes to improve on their 6-10 finish last season. The team spent big on former New York Jets RT Kareem McKenzie (Seven-years, $37.75 million) and he immediately makes the unit better.
McKenzie has excellent feet for a man his size (6'6", 325) and he will combine with RB Chris Snee to form one of the better right sides in the league. Team officials see stardom on the horizon for Snee who is entering his second season out of Boston College. He is an excellent run-blocker, but he needs to improve in his pass-blocking.
C Shaun O'Hara is a solid pivot man, entering his second season with team after spending his first four seasons with the Cleveland Browns. He's smart, strong and plays with a mean streak. Wayne Lucier is the backup.
One of the biggest reasons the offensive line became stronger when they signed McKenzie was because that allowed David Diehl to move from tackle to his more natural left guard position. Diehl is an excellent drive-blocker who keeps a good base and mauls defenders. He and LT Luke Petitgout should form a solid blindside for Manning.
Petitgout struggled big-time last season. In 2003 Petitgout tried to play at a lower weight and lacked the strength to keep defenders at bay. Last season, he added too much weight and was slower and struggled to get out on pass-rushers. This year, the plan is that Petitgout will play at somewhere in between and should regain the form that had coaches from the last staff excited about his potential.
The team signed T Bob Whitfield in free agency hoping he would add depth to the tackle spots and with versatile Jason Whittle and solid Rich Seubert returning, this line looks to be much improved from last season.
Defensive Line: As stated above, the return of Strahan to the fold improves this unit ten-fold. He plays the run and rushes the passer with equal effectiveness and he is the emotional leader of the defense. He is expected to be fully recovered from his injury and ready to take over games as he has in other seasons. He's still widely considered the most completed defensive end in the entire league.
Opposite Strahan the team has an interesting player in Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora showed excellent speed and quickness in substitute duty last season and he also showed he can hold strong at the point of attack as well. He led the Giants in sacks with seven, while forcing three fumbles and posted 58 tackles.
Since the depth behind the two starters was practically non-existent, Coughlin and company selected two players who can provide quality minutes immediately if needed. Justin Tuck, selected in the third round, was an excellent value at that point in the draft as he was the most proven pass-rusher in the draft. He is a bit of a tweener because he is undersized (6'4", 256), but his results speak for themselves (Notre Dame record 24.5 sacks for his career). Had he stayed one more season he probably would have been a late first-rounder in 2006.
Moore has the same build as Strahan and the same style. The problem for Moore hasn't been ability, it's always been consistency. Regan Upshaw is also in the mix as a veteran to challenge the rookies.
At tackle, the Giants have Fred Robbins who is entering his second season with the team. Robbins had a solid first season in New York posting 40 tackles and finishing second on the team in sacks with five. He also recorded an interception and three passes defensed. He uses a quick first step to split the double-team and does well in holding strong at the point of attack.
Next to Robbins the Giants have a quandary. Former first-rounder William Joseph will get the first shot at that spot, but he has been a huge bust thus far. Joseph has all the talent, but no one is sure if he has the drive to live up to all the expectations. If the he doesn't pan out the rest of the group will have to fill in.
The team seems to be satisfied with its tackle rotation that also includes Kendrick Allen and the recently signed Kendrick Clancy. Clancy is the fireplug who doesn't get a lot of pressure on the passer, while Allen is the better pass-rusher but struggles to stay low against the run. Also in the mix at tackle are Davern Williams and Damane Duckett.
Linebackers: Pierce was the big addition defensively and he immediately upgrades the linebacking corps.
Pierce is a playmaker, leading the Redskins in tackles last season with 110. He flies to the ball, is a sure tackler and is above average when asked to drop into coverage. Besides all of his skills, his biggest contribution will be as the leader and organizer of the defense.
OLB Carlos Emmons mans the strongside spot and came on late last season. Emmons led the team in tackles last season, recording 97, while also posting one sack and three passes defensed. If Emmons falters in any way, look for promising Reggie Tobor to take over and not miss a beat.
Tobor has excellent quickness, defends the run well and can drop back into coverage when needed. Last season, because of injuries, Tobor was asked to line up as a defensive end during passing downs and that experience rushing the passer will benefit him in his second season.
On the weak side, the biggest question mark is the health of Barrett Green's knee. Green is coming off ACL surgery and if the knee has problems recovering the Giants have two experienced backups in Nick Greisen and Kevin Lewis. Both filled in at times for Green and both contributed on special teams.
Defensive Backs: While the front seven is pretty much set, there are concerns in the secondary that must be worked out during training camp or the Giants could be in a world of hurt.
The safety position is the biggest concern as they have one sure starter in second-year S Gibril Wilson, but no sure thing to line up on the opposite side.
Wilson had an excellent rookie season giving the coaching staff hope that he will progress to the point of becoming a Pro Bowler in the very near future. Wilson started seven games as a rookie, but still managed to record 55 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and three interceptions. He has a nose for the ball and loves to make big hits. He could be better in coverage, but that is something that should improve with time.
At the other safety spot, the Giants would prefer veteran Shaun Williams to win the job. Williams has struggled with knee injuries the last two seasons and it remains to be seen whether he has totally recovered physically. In Lewis' system, the safeties are interchangeable and it remains to be seen how Williams and Wilson would split up their duties as both have roughly the same skill-set.
Also in the mix at safety are Brent Alexander, Jack Brewer and Curry Burns. Alexander tied Wilson for the most interceptions on the team with three of his own. In the end the other safety spot may be given to the man who doesn't lose the job because no one wins it outright.
The corner spot is much more clear as Will Allen and Will Peterson are the unquestioned starters. Allen has a history of being an excellent corner with hands of stone, dropping several sure interceptions. In 2004, Allen posted 81 tackles, one sack, one interception and 19 passes defensed. He should have had at least three other interceptions and the team is hoping for more big plans from the athletic fifth-year player from Syracuse.
Peterson is a solid, not spectacular starter on the other side. He doubled Allen's interceptions hauling in two of his own and posting 14 passes defensed. He is also the bigger of the two, but he isn't quite as fluid as Allen.
In April, the Giants spent their first draft choice, the 11th choice in the second round, on LSU CB Corey Webster, who they hope will win the third cornerback spot in camp. Webster had an excellent sophomore season in the Tigers' run to the National Championship, but struggled with injuries in his junior season. If he had stayed for his senior year, he could have worked his way into a top ten selection, so the Giants may have gotten a steal. Webster is also being looked at as the possible replacement for Allen as the veteran is in the final year of his contract.
Huge Curtis Deloatch (6'2", 215) was the third corner last season and he won't give up that spot without a fight. He is a little stiff, but he has good speed and solid skills when the ball is in the air. Frank Walker is the other corner in the mix. He has decent speed and in limited action posted two interceptions and three passes defensed last season.
Special Teams: On paper the Giants have one of the better combinations at kicker in the entire league. 17-year veteran P Jeff Feagles just continues to be a consistent presence, downing 23 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line – his specialty – while averaging 41.5 yards per attempt. He could still work on his hang time as teams managed 9.4 yards per return, but you can't argue with his results.
Even though Steve Christie hit 78.6% of his attempts and scored 99 points the team wasn't satisfied with his kickoffs and went out and signed the best kicker on the market in former Atlanta Falcons K Jay Feely.
The thought is that with Feely's strong leg, the kickoff units will have a better chance to pin teams deeper in their own territory. However, Feely has been kicking in perfect conditions for four years (the Georgia Dome) and it remains to be seen how consistent he will be in the swirling winds of Giants Stadium. Excluding his outstanding season in 2002, Feely was 11 of 22 from 40-49 yards with the Falcons and was just 1 for 6 from beyond 50 yards in his last three seasons.
Kickoff returns are handled by Ponder and Ward. Both had solid seasons under first-year special teams coach Mike Sweatman, who designed imaginative return schemes and blocking assignments.
Punt returns were a different story. Jones has the speed to be an excellent return man, but he lacks the shiftiness needed to make the first man miss.
Final Projection: This team has some solid talent on both sides of the ball. Manning will prove to be an excellent leader and quarterback in the near future; Barber is an underrated star; and the acquisition of Burress and the presence of Shockey make the passing game dangerous. The key is the offensive line and they could take half the season to really gel into a solid unit.
Defensively, the Giants have studs up front, solid tacklers at linebacker and solid cover-men in the secondary. What they lack is the playmaking ability that can turn games around and that needs to change for the Giants to challenge for a playoff spot.
This team is a rising force in the NFC East, but with Philadelphia all but assured of the top spot and the Dallas Cowboys being arguably the most improved team in the entire NFL, it could be a year or two before the Giants are ready to challenge for a playoff spot. Six to eight wins is probably the best Giant fans can hope for this season, but with Manning growing and the defensive unit improving, this could be a playoff team in 2006, but probably not 2005.
Scott Eklund writes and reports for Seahawks.NET and Dawgman.com. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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