Friday, September 01, 2006

New York Giants Preview


By John McMullen

In Gotham, people are already whispering Super Bowl after a season that saw the New York Giants reach 11-5 and break the Philadelphia Eagles’ stranglehold on the NFC East. But, while the Giants are clearly the most talented team in the division, their 23-0 drubbing at the hands of the Carolina Panthers in the playoffs exposed some hard and indisputable facts. The G-Men lack depth on defense, have too many immature skill position players and sport a quarterback that looks as green as ever. So, the Super Bowl talk is probably a little lofty but a second straight division crown should certainly be on the radar.

QUARTERBACK

Intervention time for the people and press of New York -- Eli Manning has been a disappointment to this point and the Giants won despite their signal caller last season -- not because of him. In a league designed to help the quarterback in every way, Manning’s completion percentage hovered around a woeful 53 percent. Average quarterbacks should be in the 58-60 category and the top-tier guys can easily reach 65 percent in a league that looks more and more like the AFL each season. So, it’s not a question of will the real Eli Manning stand up? -- as so many in the national media has opined. Manning is what he is, an inaccurate guy who has been vastly overrated because of his last name. Outside the organization, most thought Manning was on his way to prominence until his late season swoon but inside, the word bust has been mentioned more than once and the Giants are gravely concerned about the rate of his development. Accuracy, poor mechanics and a sloppy work ethic are the key concerns with Peyton’s baby brother. That said, Manning is in no danger of losing his job with the lightly regarded Tim Hasselbeck set to be his backup.

RUNNING BACK

You are not supposed to have a career year at the running back position when you hit age 30 in the NFL. In fact, you are supposed to be entering a quick, downward slide into oblivion. But, Tiki Barber was the Giants’ MVP last season and if it wasn’t for Shaun Alexander, likely the NFL’s MVP. A wonderful all-around player, Barber can do it all, including run between the tackles despite his diminutive size but at 31, you have to think New York would like to limit his touches a little more in 2006, at least early in the season. It’s clear the team would like 6-foot-4, 260-pound Brandon Jacobs to handle the bulk of the short-yardage and goal line work but Jacobs looked tentative and scared as a rookie. In short, nothing like a 260-pound back.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

No one will question the Giants talent outside but you can certainly question some of the attitudes, specifically with wide receiver Plaxico Burress and tight end Jeremy Shockey. Both are top level playmakers but tend to sulk when things don’t go their way. And, with Manning’s accuracy problems, a blowup could happen at any time. You can bet Tom Coughlin hopes these guys will grow up and support their young quarterback but maturity has never been a word thrown around when talking about either player. Supporting Burress on the outside will be underrated veteran Amani Toomer, speedster Tim Carter and promising rookie Sinorice Moss. Those names should give the Giants one of the most dangerous receiving corps in the league if Manning can get them the ball.

OFFENSIVE LINE

A couple of years ago this was a disaster area but now it’s an underrated group that keeps improving. When you have a running back that goes for 1,800 yards and an inexperienced quarterback who only hits the turf 28 times, you better start giving some credit to the big uglies up front. The real strength is in the middle where Shaun O’Hara, Chris Snee and David Diehl have developed into one of the best interior lines in the NFL. Snee, particularly, looks like a Pro-Bowl level player. Things aren’t quite as good outside where left tackle Luke Petitgout and right tackle Kareem McKenzie are pedestrian players who get by on technique and guile.

DEFENSE

DEFENSIVE LINE

The real strength in New York is on the defensive side of the ball, especially the front seven. In a league where making the opposing quarterback uncomfortable is of prime concern, no one does it better than the Giants who sport the best pair of pass rushing defensive ends in football, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Both are elite pass rushers and Strahan is probably still the best two-way end in the game. The Giants also possess outstanding depth outside with Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, a pair of great pass-rushing prospects. Inside, things aren’t as pretty. New York’s best interior lineman in 2005 was journeyman Kendrick Clancy and he moved on leaving the team counting on enigmatic former first round pick William Joseph and Fred Robbins inside. It wasn‘t pretty in the preseason opener as both players got pushed around so this will be an area of concern that will be closely monitored. Other options inside include a former undrafted free agent -- Damane Duckett -- and fourth-round draft pick Barry Cofield.

LINEBACKERS

Injuries crippled this talented unit late last season and the lack of depth showed up in the playoffs. Middle linebacker Antonio Pierce is the leader of the New York defense and probably the team’s defensive MVP. A tough, instinctive linebacker with the speed to run sideline-to-sideline, Pierce’s ankle injury late in the season, crippled the Giants' defense but he will be back at 100 percent and sandwiched by a pair of big play outside linebackers, Carlos Emmons and free agent signee LaVar Arrington. Both Emmons and Arrington have had recent injury problems and haven‘t been able to practice much early in the preseason. New York did bring back Brandon Short to provide some veteran depth but he has also been slowed by injuries early in camp.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

The Giants didn’t like the way their secondary performed last season and revamped the unit saying goodbye to former starters Will Allen and Brent Alexander. Veteran Sam Madison replaces Allen at the corner opposite Corey Webster. Madison has better ball skills than Allen but is not nearly the player he was in his prime with Miami.. Webster is a promising second-year player who improved dramatically down the stretch last season. Former Baltimore Raven Will Demps replaces Brent Alexander at one safety spot. The Giants feel they stole Demps in free agency but that may be overstating things. Demps does pack a wallop in run support but is so-so in coverage. He will be flanked by another hard-hitter, Gibril Wilson, who regressed a bit last year, especially in pass coverage. Veteran corner R.W. McQuarters and safety prospect James Butler look like the top reserves.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Giants have a couple veterans who may not possess huge legs but rarely make a key mistake. The ageless Jeff Feagles may be the best directional punter in the game and that’s meaningful when the winds are swirling at the Meadowlands. At kicker Jay Feely received a lot of criticism in his first year with New York and likely cost the Giants a first-round playoff bye with an awful day in Seattle but, overall, he was more than adequate.

TRAINING CAMP BATTLES:

Like most talented teams, the Giants are set at virtually every position with the possible exception of defensive tackle where Joseph and Robbins continue their long history of underachieving. That might open the door for Dockett who lacks their physical ability but is a harder worker and a more consistent run stopper. Also keep an eye on outside linebacker where injures to Arrington, Emmons and Short could open the door for Chase Blackburn.

2006 OUTLOOK

The Giants are clearly one of the NFC’s most talented teams and another NFC East crown and a return trip to the playoffs should be everyone’s goal but so much hinges on their enigmatic quarterback Eli Manning. The Giants have surrounded the young signal caller with a plethora of offensive weapons and have rebuilt an excellent, albeit underrated line in front of him. Now it’s time for Manning to stop making excuses and started learning from his mistakes. A greater attention to detail and a more structured off the field regimen would do wonders for Manning. He certainly has the arm and physical gifts to be an upper echelon player but he is nothing like his brother, Peyton, above the shoulders. It’s tough to say a season hinges on one player but the Giants have built quite a team and the only thing missing right now is a solid, competent quarterback who can take them to the next level.

-You can reach John McMullen at jmcmullen1@comcast.net or john@phillysportsline.com

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