Biggest questions for Giants as training camp opens
Who are the Giants linebackers?
The Giants were once a franchise known for its linebackers. From Lawrence Taylor to Sam Huff, New York has long been a home to elite players at the position. But the NFL has changed. Pass-happy attacks have limited the usefulness of linebackers, as teams move away from the ground games they were needed to contain, defenses have favored using an extra defensive back to protect the secondary.
But the Giants have seemingly taken this approach to something of an extreme. Though they kept veteran Jon Beason on a three-year deal this offseason, the injury-prone middle linebacker was promptly injured and is expected to msis the start of the season. Former Raven Jameel McClain was brought over to add support to Beason, only to have this happen on Tuesday:
Jameel McClain carted off, something up with left leg or foot.- Paul Schwartz (@NYPost_Schwartz) July 22, 2014
McClain's injury doesn't look serious, but the immediate concern raises an important question. Who is there behind him? In recent years, the Giants have rarely invested heavily at linebacker, but they've always had someone. Whether it be Antonio Pierce or Michael Boley, Big Blue has counted on at least one impact player among its linebacker corps. But if Beason is going to be limited, they'll be counting an awful lot on youngsters like Jacquian Williams, Spencer Paysinger and Mark Herzlich, players who have all shown flashes but have yet to prove they can be defensive stalwarts.
The Giants may very well be thin at linebacker by design, but it's a plan that carries a decent amount of risk.
Is Jason Pierre-Paul still a premier defensive player?
The Giants once made up for a dearth of talent at linebacker with a dominant defensive line. New York rode its pass rush to a pair of Super Bowl wins in 2007 and 2011. But Osi Umenyiora left the team a year ago, followed by Justin Tuck this offseason, leaving just Jason Pierre-Paul behind to anchor the defensive front.
Three seasons ago, this may have been an appealing proposition, as Pierre-Paul racked up 16.5 sacks in 2011 to establish himself as one of the game's premier defenders. But JPP has battled injury and ineffectiveness over the last two seasons and enters 2014 almost as an unknown. New York hopes that being in a contract year will ignite its talented pass rusher, which was one of the reasons they opted against matching Oakland's two-year, $11 million deal for Justin Tuck. The Giants will not only miss Tuck's 11 sacks from as season ago, but he was also one of the team's unquestioned leaders and his departure was one of those, "Oh right, this is a business" moves that depress one's inner 13-year-old.
New York replaced Tuck with Robert Ayers, a servicable veteran to buttress longtime Giant Mathias Kiwanuka, but neither can be considered a difference-maker. The team is high on youngster Damontre Moore, who was a beast on special teams a season ago, but hasn't proven he is ready for a full-time role. All of which puts an enormous burden on Pierre-Paul. New York spent heavily to fortify its secondary, inking Dominique Rogers-Cromartie to a long-term deal among other additions, but all their best intentions for the defense could go up in smoke if JPP isn't able to regain his dominant form of seasons past.
Tom Coughlin won't be on the hot seat again, will he?
Tom Coughlin has now spent 10 seasons as the Giants head coach, almost all of them while seemingly on the hot seat and not looking particularly pleased about it. But Coughlin has made a habit of responding to that pressure in the best possible way, by guiding his team to improbable Super Bowl runs. At this point, it seems hard to imagine that Coughlin is working on anything other than a contract for life, but this is sports. Two straight playoff-less seasons shouldn't mean Coughlin is coaching for his job, but he very well could be.
The Giants have a long-standing policy of avoiding head coaches being lame ducks, so Coughlin signed an extension following the 2013 season, but only for one year. Now, this may have been in deference to Coughlin, who at age 67 may well be taking it year-by-year. But it was also not a ringing endorsement from team brass, who would be loathe to say farewell to one of the most successful coaches in the team's history in anything other than a celebratory manner, but whose actions certainly left the door slightly ajar to do just that.
Do the Giants have a replacement for Hakeem Nicks?
There's a strange yearly ritual with the Giants to worry about who's going to be the tight end. It's perhaps some remnant of the angst following the departure of Jeremy Shockey, who never missed an opportunity to let us know how valuable he believed himself to be. But New York has won Super Bowls with Kevin Boss and Jake Ballard at tight end so we're not going to take up much space discussing it. They'll find someone.
Instead, the real question with the Giants' pass catchers, is who is going to replace Hakeem Nicks on the outside. After a pair of down seasons, mostly due to nagging injuries, Nicks bolted for the Colts on a pretty reasonable one-year, $3.975 million deal.
With New York unwilling to meet even that modest demand for Nicks, they opted to replace him via the draft, spending their first-round pick on Odell Beckham Jr. out of LSU. Beckham is by all accounts an explosive player, and the Giants believe he has the ability to be a consistent deep threat despite being only 5' 11". New York is banking on an immediate impact from Beckham, who they hope to pair with Victor Cruz and Reuben Randle to potentially form a trio of dangerous receivers for Eli Manning.
Who will carry the load at running back?
The Giants brought in the sturdy Rashad Jennings, and drafted Heisman finalist Andre Williams to bolster last season's anemic backfield, but they are still hoping for a return to health of former first-round pick David Wilson. Wilson played in just five games last season, struggling with fumble problems early on, before injury ended his season. New York received good news this week when Wilson was cleared to resume football activities but he has yet to prove that he can be a feature back the team can rely on.
Adding Jennings gives the Giants a capable backup plan should Wison falter, as the four-year vet averaged 4.5 yards per rush in 2013 on his way to 733 yards and six touchdowns. But Jennings is something of a journeyman and New York can't expect him to shoulder the entire workload. The dark horse for the starting job could well be rookie Andre Williams, who fell to a fourth-round pick despite an eye-popping 2,177 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior at Boston College. How well Williams can pick up the offense will certainly be a factor in how large a role he carries this season.
Can Ben McAdoo fix the Giants' offense?
About that offense, what is it exactly? Under former coordinator Kevin Gilbride, the Giants won a pair of Super Bowls and played some of the best offense in team history, but no one was ever that happy about it. The much-maligned Gilbride was finally replaced this offseason when the veteran play-caller opted for retirment (and was totally not forced to leave).
In comes Ben McAdoo amid raves from the folks in Green Bay. But how much credit McAdoo gets for a Packers' offense led by Aaron Rodgers remains to be seen. McAdoo is known as a disciple of the west coast offense, a phrase that has lost some of its meaning in the modern NFL, but suggests New York may be looking to get rid of the ball quicker, instead of relying on the long-ball of the Gilbride era. However he does it, reviving New York's passing game will be priority No. 1 for McAdoo.
Can the Giants replace Chris Snee, protect Eli Manning?
Of course, all McAdoo's best intentions may well be for not if the Giants can't protect Eli Manning. Manning was sacked 39 times last season, a career-high and up from 19 in 2012. But that number doesn't even fully convey the pressure the quarterback faced last season, as New York's backfield spent most of the year under siege.
With Chris Snee announcing his retirement this week, New York has one more hole to fill but spent much of the offseason trying to address it. The Giants drafted Weston Richburg out of Colorado State, and signed J.D. Walton and Geoff Schwartz as free agents to try and fortify the team up front. Second-year tackle Justin Pugh showed promise as a rookie, but New York is still counting on a bounce back year from left tackle Will Beatty. Signed to a lucrative contract after 2012, Beatty regressed badly a season ago and was perhaps one of the weakest left tackles in the sport. But who needs a left tackle anyway ... what's that? Oh, everybody.
Is it time to worry about Eli Manning?
And now we come to THE question with the Giants. How much of last year's 27-interception disaster was Eli Manning's fault? Giants fans spent most of the season making excuses for the franchise QB, and for good reason. Not only because he's won two Super Bowls and everyone loves him, but also as an acknowledgement of the way the offense collapsed around him.
Manning's career defies easy description. At his best, he's among the very best in the sport, but his worst is probably the worst of any top quarterback. Which is also a pretty accurate description of the Giants over the last decade.
The Giants will obviously hope that an improved offensive line, and a few new toys at receiver and running back will restore Manning to the upper echelon of the league. But another down season could force the team to ask some pretty difficult questions, given that the two-time Super Bowl MVP's contract is up after the 2015 season. Two Super Bowl wins buys a lot of sentimentality, but what price would New York put on a 34-year-old quarterback showing signs of decline when it comes time to talk extension?