NEW YORK GIANTS
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
After a 5-0 start during which they looked like one of the league's elite teams, the Giants fell apart, going 3-8 the rest of the way. Injuries were to blame in part: Once former first-round pick Kenny Phillips went down, their safety play was abysmal. Former Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora, returning from ACL surgery, wasn't himself and wound up losing his starting job. The team's other star defensive end, Justin Tuck, battled a partially torn labrum all year. Cornerback Aaron Ross was out for most of the season with a hamstring injury, middle linebacker Antonio Pierce missed the last two months with a neck injury, and $42 million free-agent signee Chris Canty missed half the year with a calf problem. The result was a defense that allowed 26.7 points per game, good for 30th in the league, and the dismissal of coordinator Bill Sheridan.
On the offensive side, the vaunted line didn't open holes the way it had for the last half decade, and running backs Brandon Jacobs (knee) and Ahmad Bradshaw (feet/ankle) struggled to find consistency.
Not all was lost, however. Quarterback Eli Manning (4,021 yards, 7.9 YPA, 27 TD, 14 INT) had a career year, and third-year wideout Steve Smith crushed the team's franchise record with 107 receptions. Moreover, rookie wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and second-year man Mario Manningham showed their big-play abilities, giving the team a dimension it's rarely had in its history.
Heading into 2010, Tuck and Umenyiora (should he remain with the team) are healthier, Phillips could be back if the microfracture surgery takes, and Ross and Canty should be 100 percent. Moreover, the team signed safeties Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant, and drafted Chad Jones in the third round to shore up its biggest weakness. First-round pick Jason Pierre-Paul provides even more pass-rushing firepower (though he's behind Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka and Umenyiora on the depth chart), and second-rounder Linval Joseph is a high-upside defensive tackle who could contribute right away. Pierce is gone, and Jonathan Goff, Chase Blackburn and Gerris Wilkinson will try to fill the void at middle linebacker.
On offense, Jacobs and Bradshaw should be healthy following their offseason surgeries, though the aging offensive line will need to play better. The Giants drafted guard Mitch Petrus in the fifth round, but he's hardly expected to be a game-changer.
The bottom line is, the Giants have the personnel to contend this year, but the offensive line needs to show its pre-2009 form, the defense needs to stay healthy, and Manning has to sustain the level of play he showed last year. The NFC East - with Donovan McNabb now on the Redskins, and the Cowboys and Eagles loaded with playmakers - doesn't look like a forgiving division.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (15) Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, South Florida-Tremendous athlete, huge upside - still raw.
2. (46) Linval Joseph, DT, East Carolina-Big, strong presence in the middle.
3. (76) Chad Jones, S, LSU-Could have a significant role if Phillips' knee doesn't heal.
4. (115) Phillip Dillard, LB, Nebraska-Could carve out role in unsettled linebacking corps.
5. (147) Mitch Petrus, G, Arkansas-Depth for an aging offensive line.
6. (184) Adrian Tracy, LB, William & Mary-Pass-rushing linebacker.
Antrel Rolle, S (Cardinals) Shores up the team's biggest weakness.
Jim Sorgi, QB (Colts) Same backup role, different Manning.
Deon Grant, S (Seahawks) More depth at last year's trouble spot.
Antonio Pierce, LB (FA) Aging, and injury prone linebacker had a good run.
Jeff Feagles, P (Retired) He was born in 1966.
WHO'S THE TEAM'S BEST RUNNING BACK?
Last year it was Ahmad Bradshaw, and that was while playing on two broken feet. In Brandon Jacobs' defense, he needed surgery to repair torn cartilage in his knee, too. Jacobs will head into the season as the starter, but Bradshaw is shiftier, more explosive and a far better receiver out of the backfield. Jacobs has the size and power to deliver body blows to opposing defenses and he's likely to get the goal-line work early on, but Bradshaw has surprising power for his size and could turn out to be the more capable goal-line runner at this stage of their respective careers. Both players will need the offensive line to play better than it did a year ago.
CAN Hakeem Nicks TAKE THE NEXT STEP?
Nicks showed game-breaking ability last year (five catches of 40-yards plus on 74 targets, 10.7 yards per target) despite playing with a broken toe. He doesn't have great timed speed (4.5 40), but he's got excellent burst and seems to run faster in pads, creating separation and rarely getting caught from behind. At 6-1, 210, he's got good size, big hands and excellent athleticism, so he could be a factor both down the field and in the red zone. Year Two is commonly when receivers take the leap to stardom, and if he does, it will open up room for the entire offense.
CAN Kenny Phillips MAKE IT BACK?
The team's 2008 first-round pick, Phillips was off to a great start - two picks, 13 tackles in two games - before damaging cartilage in his knee which required microfracture surgery last October. The Giants signed Deon Grant and Antrel Rolle and drafted Chad Jones in case Phillips can't make it back - the prognosis for that kind of procedure is far more uncertain than an ACL repair, for example. But Phillips is the team's playmaker in the defensive backfield - he has excellent range and is a vicious hitter - and his healthy return would elevate the quality of the secondary significantly.
WILL TUCK, UMENYIORA, KIWANUKA, PIERRE-PAUL AND SINTIM GET TO THE QUARTERBACK?
The Giants have a deep arsenal of pass rushers, but last year Osi Umenyiora played poorly, Justin Tuck was banged up most of the year, and Clint Sintim had a bit role. As a result, the Giants had just 32 sacks (tied for 18th). Now, all are healthy, Sintim is slated to be a pass-rushing strong side linebacker, and Jason Pierre-Paul gives them a unique athlete to plug in on passing downs.
CAN Eli Manning KEEP IT UP?
Manning posted career highs in virtually every passing stat from yards, to touchdowns to YPA, so one might expect some natural regression to the mean this year. Just keep in mind that this is probably the most dynamic corps of receivers he's ever played with, and they should only get better with more experience.
Rising: Hakeem Nicks should be healthy for the start of training camp, and with a year of experience under his belt could emerge as a star.
Declining: Brandon Jacobs could bounce back after having his knee repaired, but it's hard to know how much shelf life a 6-4, 264-pound back has.
Sleeper: The Giants Defense will be available later than usual, given its poor showing, but is still loaded with capable pass rushers.
Supersleeper: DJ Ware averaged 5.6 yards on a meager 13 carries, and if Jacobs and Bradshaw, who are both returning from injuries, prove ineffective or get hurt, Ware would be next in line.
Justin Tuck, DE When healthy, he's a great source of sacks and tackles from defensive end.
Kenny Phillips, S Massive upside if he makes it back close to 100 percent from knee injury.
Antrel Rolle, S Rolle is a solid tackling safety who picked off four passes last year.
RotoWire Rank: 3