With all due respect to Eli Manning, his 2013 season very well could've been summed up as the good, the bad and the ugly. Sure, his offensive line faced injuries and decreased form, while his wide receivers, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, had down years, but Manning was a shell of his former self. A career high in interceptions and a quarterback rating that mirrors his disastrous rookie year, were the absolute low-points for the two-time Super Bowl MVP. You couldn't find a week where Manning was not making a bone-headed play to the opposing team. In a nutshell, he represented mostly what was wrong for the Giants last year.
Luckily for Manning, a new season is upon us and those dreadful numbers from 2013 are reset to zero for 2014. The Giants have made some improvements at offensive line, such as the signing of Jeff Schartz to play guard and added depth at running back with the drafting of Andre Williams and signing of Rashad Jennings. Both moves, among a laundry list of acquisitions during the offseason, should considerably improve the play of two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.
Here, we'll look at the good, bad and ugly for the Giants in 2014, which hopefully for the Giants, will be devoid of Eli Manning's name.
The Good: Revamped Secondary
Immediately following the 2013 season, the Giants made it a point to improve on a passing defense that ranked a solid 12th in the National Football League. The adage, that 'This is a passing league' cannot be understated and general manager Jerry Reese took that to heart, as evidenced by the signing of Walter Thurmond, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and jack of all trades special-teamer and defensive back Jeff Demps. Thurmond, who was drafted by the Seahawks in the fourth-round of the 2010 draft, had his best season as a pro in 2013. Widely regarded as the best slot-corner in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, Thurmond allowed a paltry .85 yards per snap in the slot and the overall quarterback rating on passes intended his way was 74. When he was covering slot receivers, the QB rating dropped further to 69. Look for him to continue to usurp the slot receivers in the league, as the game has gravitated towards getting the ball to quick receivers, adept at option-routes in short spaces.
When looking at Rodgers-Cromartie, we see a player who bounced back very well from his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, 'Dream Team' in 2012. According to Pro Football Focus, in 2013, 'DRC' allowed receivers to catch only 30 of 68 passes thrown into his coverage zone, while adding 14 passes defensed and three interceptions. His coverage grade was the fourth-best of any cornerback in the league and he allowed only one reception per 15.7 snaps in coverage. It was a career year for Rodgers-Cromartie, whose been touted heavily since he first entered the league in 2008 as a rangy, athletic corner. The Giants will overlook Rodgers-Cromartie being a poor and unwilling tackler, as long as he can put up the same of numbers from last season.
The additions of Thurmond and 'DRC' make the Giants secondary undoubtedly better. This will allow Perry Fewell to revert back to the pressure blitzing schemes he is used to, as he can leave his corners on an island. Pair these offseason additions with the improving Prince Amukamara and the tremendous safety tandem of Antrel Rolle (who had a terrific Pro Bowl-caliber season) and Stevie Brown (coming back from an ACL injury, but had 8 interceptions in 2012), and the Giants have the makings of an elite secondary. I didn't even mention Will Hill, who is facing a potentially lengthy suspension for another violation of the league's substance abuse policy, but if he is back, that adds another element to a potentially dominant secondary, as Hill can play multiple positions in the back-end.
The Bad: Depth at Defensive Line and Pass Rush
We all know the importance that Eli Manning had on the Giants two Super-Bowl championships as evidenced by his recognition as the Super Bowl MVP in 2007 and 2011. But many within the Giants brass and media know that the backbone of both championship-winning teams was the depth at the defensive line position — in particular, the ability to rush the passer. The Giants have always been able to go six to eight men deep in the defensive line, allowing the big guys in the trenches the ability to stay fresh.
In 2007, the Giants led the league with 52.0 sacks and in 2011, recorded a third-best 48.0 sacks. Those teams featured the likes of Fred Robbins, Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Linval Joseph and Chris Canty. Many of those players have been jettisoned or retired. During this five-year period, the Giants ranked first, seventh, 19th, second and third in sacks, in large part due to accumulated depth at the position. In 2012 and 2013, the Giants ranked 23rd and 25th respectively.
Giants record with their ranking in sacks during the season (last seven seasons)
10-6 (Won SB)
12-4 (Lost Div)
8-8 (No playoffs)
10-6 (No Playoffs)
9-7 (Won SB)
Analysts attributed that to a line that got older, with grizzled veterans like Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora losing a step or two. And While Jason Pierre-Paul had a tremendous 2011 sophomore season with 16.5 sacks, injures and a perceived lack of motivated relegated him to a meager 6.5 and 2.0 sacks in 2011 and 2012. The Giants defensive line was not able to provide support neither for their aged players nor for 'JPP', as the depth that had propelled them to having one of the best rotational front-four's in the league, had vanished.
As the 2014 season looms, Tuck (11 sacks in 2013), the former captain and leader of the Giants defense has defected to Oakland and up-and-coming lineman, Linval Joseph (3 sacks in 2013, but he took on many double teams), signing in Minnesota 'JPP' must revert back to his 2011 form. Cullen Jenkins returns as a solid interior defensive lineman able to cause disruption at the point of attack, but he's not someone who can consistently get to the quarterback. Jonathan Hankins will be inserted into the starting lineup in the hopes to replace the production of Joseph, but he is still very raw and unproven as a second year player out of Ohio State. He also grades poorly as a pass-rushing interior lineman.
At the defensive ends, opposite of 'JPP', Damontre Moore (two sacks in 2013) and Mathias Kiwanuka (six sacks in 2013) will be asked to shoulder the load. The former showed nice flashes on special teams and as a situational pass-rusher, but he must improve in run-defense — an area that many young defensive ends struggle at — while improving his primary and secondary go-to pass-rushing moves. The latter, Kiwanuka, has never been more than a rotational player and should be not expected to replace the production of Tuck. Outside of those four, the Giants also signed Robert Ayers, who has a total of 12 sacks in five seasons and 72 games played - a rather pedestrian sack rate of 16% for a player who was once a first-round draft choice in 2009. Mike Patterson played for the Eagles for his first eight seasons and became a solid contributor last year in his first campaign in Big Blue.
From the championship Bill Parcells teams that feature the dominant Lawrence Taylor, to the Tom Coughlin squads that defied the odds, the Giants modus operandi has always been to rush the passer. The depth of the current unit will be tested, as there are many unproven pieces. And while the secondary, from a talent standpoint, is very good, the back-end generally does take time to gel. In this NFL, which is so heavily predicated on the pass, regardless of how good your secondary is, if you cannot rush the passer, you will be dead in the water defensively. The Giants must find a way to recapture the pass-rushing prowess that made them one of the most revered defensive fronts in the league. That means a banner year from JPP will be imperative to make up for the lost depth. It also means that the Giants will have to get secondary pass rushing from Moore, Ayers and the interior of the line. No one is asking them to become the second coming of the Big Blue Wrecking Crew of the 1980's, but improvement from last season is imperative.
The Ugly: Experience at the Tight End Position
In the last seven seasons, Kevin Gilbride's offensive schemes showed that the tight end is an important part of the offense, whether he is in movement (as was the case with Martellus Bennett and Jeremy Shockey) or as an in-line blocker (like Kevin Boss and Jake Ballard). Between 2007 and 2013, the starting tight end for the Giants has averaged 44 catches, 550 yards and nearly five touchdowns. Not world-beater type numbers, but you could do far worse. The position has always had good talent, but is continuously in flux. Along with aforementioned Bennet and Shockey, the Giants have had the likes of Brandon Myers, Jake Ballard and Kevin Boss in those seven years.
This season, again, the Giants dealt with turnover, as leading pass-catcher, at the position, Brandon Myers was not retained. Big Blue opted against picking a tight end in the early rounds of the draft (although Eric Ebron likely would've been picked had he lasted until the 12th spot) and with a little more than two months until training camp, are not likely to sign another tight end via free agency. If the season started today, the depth chart at tight end would be Adrien Robinson (no catches in two seasons), Xavier Grimble (2014 undrafted free agent), Larry Donnell (three catches last season) and Kellen Davis (previously a veteran backup tight end for the Bears who caught three passes last season). The lack of experience is a major concern, especially with new offensive coordinator Bob McAdoo deploying a West-Coast offensive scheme that will rely heavily on the tight end. The prevailing thought is that Robinson could potentially run away with the competition having been on the team for two years and the team does like his skills. The Giants passed up on drafting a tight end in the 2014 draft because they felt comfortable in the position. Outside of Robinson, there is confidence in 2013 special-teamer Larry Donnell and recently signed undrafted free agent, Xavier Grimble out of the University of Southern California. The former Trojan is seen as a player who can emerge in that 'move' tight end role due to his athleticism and length.
Optimism aside, there is a severe lack of experience at tight end. We saw what happened last season when you have a tight end that cannot block in Brandon Myers and a mediocre offensive line. It led to a lack of holes in the running game as well as Eli Manning getting constant pressure because there was no additional help from the tight end. It will be imperative for the Giants to find a complete player at the position.