Most likely, the entire New York Football Giants family is looking forward to the official opening of training camp this week. Big Blue was certainly in the news throughout the off season, but not in a preferable way. Injuries to offensive tackle Will Beatty and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul led the list of difficulties faced by the team after the season concluded.
Continued contract negotiations and player movement will also impact the roster heading into the 2015 NFL season. Initially, four key training camp story lines will shape the success or failure of the team this season:
1. Jason Pierre-Paul’s Hand: The idea that JPP will be a New York Giant beyond 2015 has become the longest of long shots, but there is also this season to consider. Pierre-Paul does not want to sign his franchise tender because that will give the team the right to medically examine him.
As Dan Graziano of ESPN.com reported on Sunday, “Until they see him, they can’t make plans for his rehab and a timetable for his return. Which means they have to treat him as an injured player who’s out indefinitely and plan around his absence.” Considering that number 90 is or was the G-men’s best defensive lineman, his self-inflicted injuries are potentially catastrophic for the franchise.
The Giants’ defense was not particularly stellar last season and graded (-35.5), as a unit, by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and the pass rush was a serviceable (+17.3) on the season. Individually, Pierre-Paul was graded at (+16.9) good for seventh among defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme.
Robert Ayers was one of general manager Jerry Reese’s successful free agent signings, until a pectoral injury shelved him for the final four games of the regular season. But Ayers alone will not be enough in the pass rush even if he comes back immediately at 100 percent.
Reese inked former Cowboy George Selvie, who was anticipated to be a depth signing, but will have to play a greater role, as will inconsistent Damontre Moore. This year’s third round draft pick Owamagbe Odighizuwa will likely get a greater opportunity than he normally would, as will 2014 undrafted free agent Kerry Wynn. If the Giants move Cullen Jenkins to the outside, then players like Jay Bromley and Marcus Kuhn will have to take over at defensive tackle.
Given all of the moving parts, most without a track record, the team will have to rely on defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo making magic with the tools he has been given. Obviously this is not a great scenario for a team looking to get back to the playoffs after a three-year hiatus.
2. Starting Safeties: In the new NFL, the safety position has taken on added significance from a production and leadership standpoint. There was no doubt that the play of veteran Antrel Rolle deteriorated last season, as he was graded 81st out of 87 safeties by Pro Football Focus. Quintin Demps (-5.1) and Stevie Brown were not much better, so New York decided to blow up the position and start anew.
Uncharacteristically the team moved up to draft Landon Collins (Alabama) with the first pick in the second round, and he is penciled in for one starting position. But the Giants need Collins to be more than a warm body, they absolutely need him to be an on-field leader.
Paul Schwartz of the New York Post wrote yesterday, “The first camp practice is Friday, and Collins will undoubtedly line up with the starting defense. After his first taste of the NFL in the spring, Collins labeled his transition as ‘fantastic,’ saying he was ‘playing up to the level and just trying to earn these guys’ trust and just being the best guy I can be for the team’.”
Third-year man Cooper Taylor will likely start camp as the second starting safety, but second-year player Nat Berhe will get a long look too. Taylor was making strides last training camp before a broken foot suffered against the Indianapolis Colts curtailed his 2015 season before it started.
Plan B likely includes converted cornerback and 2014 draft pick Bennett Jackson, who appears to have superior ball skills and untested veteran Jeromy Miles, a free agent signed last week. And while the lack of incumbent starters makes for interesting camp competition, it will also be a serious soft spot for defenses to exploit.
3. Eli Manning’s Contract: Ever since their victory in Super Bowl XLVI, the franchise has been followed around by a black cloud. Injuries and time have robbed New York of its superior depth, especially along the offensive line. Even the emergence of the dynamic Odell Beckham, Jr. last season only made the Giants respectable, as the team scuffled through a 6-10 season.
Why is the Manning contract so important?
Over the past several seasons, the franchise has shown the door to several productive Giants like Linval Joseph, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Antrel Rolle. While these players may have been past their prime, the team has also not replaced them adequately either through the draft or free agency. Securing Manning through an extension will provide continuity, and allow for the focus to be placed in other areas of need.
Looking at conversely, not extending Manning this summer creates another item on the to-do list, at a time when replacing Jason Pierre-Paul has now popped up on the to-do list. If Manning hits the open market, there will be many teams vying for his services. In a quarterback-driven league, finding a replacement will not be easy. Need proof? Just ask the New York Jets.
4. Offensive Line: Even with Will Beatty in the fold, the o-line was not going to be a well-oiled unit to begin with, but his injury only complicates matters. Second-year man Weston Richburg will take over for unimpressive J.D Walton, who was released.
Meanwhile, Justin Pugh is shifting from right tackle to left guard. Geoff Schwartz has hopefully put his injuries behind him, and he will line up at right guard, while journeymen Marshall Newhouse and John Jerry are in the mix for the fifth position, with Newhouse starting out as the right tackle.
Top draft pick Ereck Flowers will be the starting left tackle, as the rookie will undoubtedly get a baptism by fire. Beatty may return this season from a pectoral injury, but that may or may not happen, so regardless of the configuration, depth will be a problem.
Rookie Bobby Hart and veteran Brandon Mosley will have to emerge from the shadows in order to make an impact in the position race, and no one should hold his breath that the entire unit will mow opponents down in 2015.