The Giants are defending Super Bowl champions, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have holes to fill and questions that need answering.
Thursday marks the official opening of their training camp, back at the University at Albany for the first time in two years thanks to last year’s lockout.
Remember, this is the same Giants team that was 7-7 at one point last season, and needed to win its final regular season game just to qualify for the postseason. It’s also the same team that finished dead last in rushing and had to rely on the heroics of their now-elite quarterback, Eli Manning.
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While the Giants know they are capable of pulling rabbits out of their hats when needed, Manning confirmed they’d “rather not wait to win games in the fourth quarter every time. … When we do so it just means we didn’t play well enough in the first three quarters.”
That being said, the Giants need to improve in many facets. How well they smooth the rough edges will determine if they’re poised for a repeat.
Below are camp battles and storylines to keep an eye on:
The left tackle position is up in the air, as last year’s starter, Will Beatty, has battled injuries to his eye and back. He missed the final six games last season and wasn’t able to participate during spring workouts. If he can’t recover then it throws the rest of the offensive line rotation out of whack, as it’ll mean either right tackle David Diehl — who was supposed to replace the now-departed Kareem McKenzie — would go back to the left side or the Giants would have to entrust less experienced options such as James Brewer, Mitch Petrus, Jim Cordle or Selvish Capers. Then there are always veteran retreads like Sean Locklear, Stacy Andrews, and Tony Ugoh.
Save for last season’s NFC Championship game, when the 49ers savagely beat up Manning, pass protection has never really been a problem as Manning possesses savvy pocket awareness and a quick release. But the Giants must find a way to jell and kick-start an anemic running game if they’re going to find balance and not rely so heavily upon their quarterback.
The No. 1 tight end position is up for grabs for the second consecutive season, as Big Blue has once again lost the starter from the previous season. The 2011 training camp featured the departure of Kevin Boss to free agency, while this year’s competition is wide open thanks to the loss of Jake Ballard to the Patriots and Travis Beckum to an ACL injury. Even if the Patriots didn’t claim Ballard, he wouldn’t have been a factor this year anyway, as he’s coming off a torn ACL suffered in the Super Bowl. His backup last season, Beckum, suffered the same fate in the same game but his recovery time seems ahead of schedule. Beckum has great speed, quickness and agility for a tight end but he’s never been known as sure-handed and is a subpar blocker. He’s largely been a non-factor during his young career, so the Giants signed former Cowboys backup Martellus Bennett as insurance.
Bennett showed flashes of brilliance in Dallas, but was never thought of anything more than Jason Witten’s understudy. Now he’ll have the chance at being the No. 1 tight end, should the 6-foot-6 Bennett find a way to keep his weight down to the 270-pound range. He’s currently at a reported 290 pounds. Bennett says it’s all muscle, but that number still didn’t sit well with head coach Tom Coughlin.
If neither Beckum nor Bennett impress during camp, look for old standby Bear Pascoe to swoop in and become Manning’s security blanket. Pascoe has played both fullback and tight end in the same game before and Manning is very comfortable utilizing him and trusts his blocking skills.
Veteran practice squad player Christian Hopkins, built much like the hulking Boss and Ballard, and fourth-round draft pick Adrien Robinson, are considered longshots.
As Hakeem Nicks continues to mend the broken fifth metatarsal bone in his foot, the Giants need to find out which career backup can hold down the fort. Not to mention, find out who will fill Mario Manningham’s all-important slot receiver position. Nicks swears he’ll be back by Week 1, but no one can be certain. Manningham, who signed with the 49ers, was a Super Bowl hero and reliable third option for Manning.
Victor Cruz is a solid No. 2 wideout when Nicks is healthy but with Nicks out, the burgeoning star slides to the No. 1 spot. Second-round pick Rueben Randle is about as NFL-ready as any rookie in the draft but he still has tons to learn. Randle impressed in minicamps but also showed the coaching staff enough mental errors to have pause inserting a rookie into the starting lineup. Veterans Domenik Hixon and Ramses Barden figure to get the first crack at starting with Cruz, but Hixon hasn’t been able to stay healthy — he’s suffered torn ACLs in back-to-back offseasons — and Barden has been an epic disappointment since being a third-round pick four years ago.
Longshots include second-year pro Jerrel Jernigan, who looks to contribute to being more than just a special teamer, and free agent pickup Dan DePalma, an unknown local product (Verona, N.J.), who many inside the locker room believe can be the next Cruz.
The Giants somehow overcame a rash of injuries to their secondary last season, including as many as eight players on the injured reserve list before the calendar turned to November. Veteran cornerback Terrell Thomas is seemingly all the way back from his torn ACL last preseason and is ready to again join Corey Webster as the starting tandem. Should that happen, last year’s first-round pick, Prince Amukamara, figures to be the all-important nickelback corner. Amukamara, however, has yet to be fully healthy during his brief career.
When healthy, Amukamara probably has more physical talent than anyone else in this unit, but if his foot progresses slowly, he may find himself fighting for that spot, as the Giants added secondary depth over the offseason. The team drafted cornerback Jayron Hosley in the third round, re-signed veterans Justin Tryon, Michael Coe and Bruce Johnson and added free agent Antwaun Molden, who garnered experience as a one-time starter for the Patriots last season.
The need to fill this position seems to be on continuous loop since Antonio Pierce was let go midway through the 2009 season, due to what turned out to be a career-ending neck injury. The Giants have since used a half-dozen bodies to fill the void, but none who have made the impact Pierce used to make. Big Blue thought they had their man last summer after Jonathan Goff enjoyed a solid 2010 campaign, but a shredded knee in the preseason ended that thought. Goff has since signed with the Redskins.
Last season the Giants skirted around this need by rotating guys at the position, including then-rookies Greg Jones and Mark Herzlich, veteran Chase Blackburn, who rejoined the Giants late in the season after sitting out training camp and most of the season because nobody wanted him, and even customary weakside linebacker Michael Boley. To help mask this deficiency, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell scrapped the usual 4-3 look and decided to play mostly nickel defense (four down linemen, two linebackers, and a fifth defensive back — usually an extra safety). Boley excelled in this role, serving as the quasi-middle linebacker, and may do more of the same this season. If that becomes the norm, the Giants will plug in veteran Keith Rivers, obtained from the Bengals for a mid-round draft pick in April, to play the weak side and subsequently substitute the remaining aforementioned players in various roles — including the invaluable Mathias Kiwanuka and last year’s surprising rookie Jacquian Williams.
The talent is certainly there, as the Giants have arguably the best rotation in the league. Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora can decimate a gameplan. Add in Kiwanuka, who plays Fewell’s coveted “Joker” position when the team goes to its speedy and vaunted “NASCAR” pass-rush package, and Big Blue has the best depth in the league at the position.
The problem shouldn’t be on-field performance, however, but perhaps chemistry. Umenyiora is fresh off a second-consecutive contractual protest and has gone from one of the most feared starters in the league to a backup behind Tuck and Pierre-Paul. Sure, Umenyiora got his money (a one-year, $7-million reworked contract) and his freedom (he’ll be a free agent at season’s end) but will he play the good teammate and not gripe about not being a starter anymore? He professes he will be a model citizen but only because he “loves” his teammates so much. “Had it been any other guys I was backing up, I’d be mad, but those guys are my brothers,” Umenyiora said following his new deal. Time will tell. While he’s engaging most of the time, and guys in the locker rook openly say he’s a great teammate, Umenyiora has also been known to be moody and surly over the smallest perceived slights. And not starting is usually a slap in the face, especially when it’s a guy like Umenyiora who used to be a perennial Pro Bowler.
Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8 for more offseason news from Big Blue.