As mini-camps and OTA's begin wrapping up and most players are on vacation prior to training camp, the next month begins one of the few relatively slow periods in the NFL. However, coaches and GM's will be using this time to review what they saw from their players thus far to get a sense of whether or not the team has filled it's identified needs going into the offseason.
This column will be the first of three articles recapping the Giants offseason moves and making initial (and premature) judgements on whether or not the team filled it's needs for the upcoming season. This article will review the offensive side of the ball followed by an article on defense. The third article will address Special Teams. While often overlooked special teams play can have a radical effect of the outcome of a game and a season so I only see it fitting that that aspect of the game be addressed seperately.
Quarterbacks: Eli Manning has been a model of durability having not missed a start since he became the starter. He's brought the Giants to the playoffs four consecutive years, winning a Super Bowl in the process. However, Giants GM Jerry Reese saw first hand with the division rival Cowboys how not having a reliable back-up QB can hijack a teams' season and made the steady move to resign 2008 primary back-up David Carr.
Carr showed fairly well in the 2008 season finale against the Vikings. Having experience as both a starter and back-up Carr can be relied upon to hold the fort if Manning does miss some time. Youngsters Andre Woodsen and rookie Rhett Bomar vie for the third QB spot and inside position on the back-up QB slot should Carr move on after this season.
Runningbacks: Going into the offseason team officials knew it would be near impossible to resign both Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. However, there was never really a decision on which back the team would resign. While Ward brings and excellent skill set to the position as a runner, pass catcher and picking up the blitz, finding a replacement with a similar skill set at running back is not overly difficult. However, Jacobs has proven to be a very unique type of running back whose combination of size, speed and physicality change the face of the game and simply cannot be duplicated. As such Jacobs was resigned to be the starter again while the team looks to incumbants Ahmad Bradshaw and Danny Ware along with rookie Andre Brown to fill in the void left by Wards departure.
Bradshaw displayed excellent running skills during the teams' superbowl run however, it's unknown if he's improved on his deficiencies in blocking and pass catching. Ware displayed some skills in the 2008 pre-season and in spot duty but doesn't have a large enough body of work to be a known comodity. Brown has a similar size and running style as Ward but similarities in college doesn't always translate to the next level. The team is confident that they'll find the best combination of backs to keep the running game rolling. One thing is certain, there will be plenty of carries for the back-ups as the team tries to limit Jacobs workload and keep him healthy for the whole season. Sledgehammer Madison Hedgecock returns as the teams Fullback after emerging over the past two seasons as one of the best lead blockers in the league. His offseason goal should be to improve his pass catching skills as he dropped too many gimmes coming out of the backfield.
Tight Ends: After all of the attention surrounding the trade of Jeremy Shockey last offseason, replacement Kevin Boss put together a very solid season as a first time starter, emerging as the teams' best redzone threat (Team High 6 TDs') and showing marked improvement in his blocking. Coming from a small school it's obvious how much Boss has improved under the tutelege of Tight Ends coach Mike Pope. He has all the tools to be one of the best in the league at his position and it will be interesting to see how much more he is integrated into the passing attack, especially in the redzone.
There are four players behind Boss vying for the back-up role, which the team has traditionally used almost as an extentsion of the offensive line in it's power running attack. Last years' incumbant Michael Mathews is a blocking specialist with little pass catching skills. However, unless there is a change in the offensive philosphy he will remain in that role due to his blocking prowess. Beyond that there is alot of uncertainty over how the tight end group will round out. Last years' third tight end Darcy Johnson showed some promise as a pass catcher, although his blocking skills are sub-par. The team signed Lee Vickers in the offseason as a big bodied blocker and may factor into the equation if the team decides it needs a bulldozer as it's third TE rather than another pass catcher.
However, the biggest anomoly is rookie Travis Beckum. Drafted in the third round out of Wisconsin, at 6'3" and 240lbs he's very small for a TE that's expected to make holes at the point of attack but is an exceptional pass catcher. As such, it seems that the team will plan to use him in the rare role of an H-back, which is best described as a tightend/fullback hybrid who lines up off the line of scrimmage who's more of a pass catcher than a lead blocker. With the loss of Plaxico Burress the team may be looking at Beckum as a unique weapon to use in the redzone. As such it may be a misnomer to even include Beckumm in the group with tighends as the team may opt to keep three traditional tightends and keep Beckum as an H-back/backup fullback.
Widereceivers: This group is the biggest question mark on the team, and also the group with the most turnover in personnel. Gone are starters Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer, both tall possession style receivers. In their place is a number of candidates currently lead by third year receiver Steve Smith and the player that stepped in for Burress after the night club incident Dominik Hixon. However, their positions at the top of the depth chart may change at anytime as there is a true open competition occuring at widereceiver as the team tries to find the right combination of players to put a spark in a passing game that stalled after the loss of Burress.
Steve Smith was one of the most consistent slot receivers in the league last season working the underneath routes and picking up first downs. He faded down the stretch last season as teams, without fear of a deep threat, began jumping his routes and pressing him at the line. He'll get first crack at a starting spot showing if he's able to play as an outside threat as well. Hixon was a man of many trades last season playing as a receiver, kick and punt returner and gunner on special teams. Considering his limited experience he played fairly well when he stepped in for Burress on the outside, one notorious dropped pass aside. He's improved every year with the team and has the size (6'2") and speed to be a playmaker on the outside. He'll have to show more consistency in getting off the line of scrimmage and fighting off physical DBs' if we wants to take the next step.
Following Hixon and Smith are a bevy of players with thin resumes' but lots of potential. At the top of that list is first round draft pick Hakeem Nicks. Nicks is not a towering target, nor does he have blazing speed, but his route running is polished and he's excellent at fighting for the ball. He will be counted on early to make an impact if not as a starter then as a 3rd or 4th receiver. The team also drafted Ramses Barden who has similar size to Burress at 6'6", but needs alot of coaching before he can be a consistent threat. The two rookies have showed well at mini-camp thus far but have a long road ahead before making an impact.
Filling out the group are former draft picks Mario Manningham and Santana Moss and superbowl hero David Tyree. Manningham saw little playing time as a rookie last season as injuries in training camp stunted his growth. He will essentially be playing his rookie year over again this season. Moss is likely on his last chance to make it with the team after three unproductive seasons marred by injuries and inconsistency. The speedy receiver had been very good in min-camp before once again being sidelined by a hamstring injury. He'll have to recover quickly and show he can stay health through training camp if he's to stay on the team. Tyree missed all of last season recovering from knee surgery. He's the veteran of the group but hasn't shown to be more than a bottom of the depth chart receiver although his skills as a special team gunner has earned him a pro-bowl berth and has value to head coach Tom Coughlin.
The team will be using training camp to sort out that the depth chart will look like during the season. In a perfect world enough players will step up from the group to allow Hixon to maintain his role as KR/PR and special teams gunner, as role he excelled at last season before beign thrusted into the starting lineup. Only time will tell if this comes to pass. This group will be the most closely watched in training camp.
Offensive Line: Last season this group receiveed recognition as one of the best units in the league. With all five starters returning again for a third straight season, there's little reason to see why it won't remain that way. Starters David Dehl (LT), Rich Seubert (LG), Shaun O'Hara (C), Chris Snee (RG) and Kareen McKenzie (RT) all excel in run blocking, however the unit has had problems pass blocking when the team is faced with long yardage situations. Also McKenzie may be beginning to decline as he missed parts of games last season with back problems.
The goal this offseason was to bolster the depth of the unit and the team took a big step in drafting tackle William Beatty in the second round. Beatty will be looked to be the primary back-up at the tackle positions where incumbants Guy Whimper and Adam Koets haven't shown much after being drafted by the team in 2006 and 2007 respectively and natural guard Kevin Boothe struggled when filling in for McKenzie in spot duty last season. The team opted not to resign Grey Ruegamer, who showed to be a valuable back-up being able to play both guard and center. He is replaced by veteran Tutan Reyes (FA/JAC) who will be asked to fill the same role as the teams' primary back-up interior lineman.
The Giants training camp may not be packed with as much of the drama as previous seasons, but there are a bountyful of football related stories that are waiting to be played out. General Manager Jerry Reese has done an excellent job of gathering young talent through the draft and unheralded signings. It will be interesting to see if those acquisitions are able to help the team return to the top of the NFC and make another playoff push.