Where to start with the defending champions? Despite only sneaking into the playoffs with a 9-7 record, the Giants turned it on when it mattered during an amazing postseason run and took home the Lombardi trophy. As is their way, they largely stayed away from the free agent market, instead looking to the draft to replace their departing players.
The NFC East appears to have improved around them however, and the Giants are going to need to win more games against divisional opponents in 2012 to return to the playoffs. Time to look at some causes for optimism and concern.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Emerging from his Brother’s Shadow
Sometimes we put too much stock into winning Super Bowls when analyzing quarterbacks, but Eli Manning’s 2011 performance should be an exception. Despite terrible offensive line play (we’ll get to that later) and a struggling running game, he was able to lead his team to four playoff road wins in a row, amassing an astounding +20.0 grade in that time. To put that in perspective, he only earned a +23.3 grade in the entire regular season. If Manning can carry that form into the 2012 regular season, the Giants will be very difficult to stop, without even considering the rest of the team.
2) The Dangerous Duo
There’s a strong argument to be made that Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are the league’s best pair of WRs. The speedy Cruz acts as the perfect complement to Nicks and his physical style of play. Both players are young too, so they may not have even reached their peak. With 29 forced miss tackles between them, they’re a danger to make things happen after the catch and had a habit of making defenders look silly in 2011. If there’s one area they can improve, it’s with their concentration. Nicks (8) and Cruz (11) need to cut down on the drops to improve even further.
3) Depth and Dominance at Defensive End
Jason Pierre-Paul’s stat line is simply ridiculous: 17 sacks, 16 hits, 39 pressures and an unbelievable 10 batted passes (only one other DE had more than five). That athleticism everyone talked about pre-draft has translated to the football field and he’s become one of the most completed DEs in the game. Despite struggling with injuries in 2011, Justin Tuck also had a productive season, even if he didn’t reach the lofty standards he’s set for himself. The prototypical LE graded positively in every category and saved his best play for when it mattered most (9 combined pressures in the Super Bowl). Finally to Osi Umenyiora, perhaps the best pass rusher off the bench in the entire NFL. To get 13 sacks in just 542 snaps is remarkable and he was rewarded for his efforts with a new contract this offseason. If that wasn’t enough, the loss of Dave Tollefson is actually addition by subtraction, considering the superior Mathias Kiwanuka is likely to see more rush snaps in his place.
4) One of the League’s Best Safeties
No one talks about Kenny Phillips when discussing the NFL’s top safeties, but they should. Among free safeties there are few better and his QB rating allowed of just 43.4 is testament to that. He’s more than able to hold his own against the run too, where he grades well above average. The Giants will need Phillips healthy (something he’s not renowned for) to have a good defense next year because there’s very little depth behind him. Tyler Sash has been suspended for the first few games of 2011 and Will Hill is just a rookie.
5) Bennett the Blocker
The Giants love to use lineman as extra TEs in power situations, but they won’t have to do that this year with Martellus Bennett in the fold. Despite never realizing his potential as a receiver, Bennett has developed into a great in-line blocker. He graded significantly better than all other tight ends in the blocking aspects of the game in 2011, and will be given plenty of opportunities to improve on that in Kevin Gilbride’s offense. Giant tight ends coach Mike Pope has done more with worse athletes than Bennett too, so don’t rule out a contribution in the passing game from the former Cowboy.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) The OL is Terrible
There’s really no other way to put it. Kareem McKenzie’s decline was dramatic (he went from being one of the best RTs in the league to one of the worst) and as such he’s no longer on the team. David Diehl is starting at that position in camp, the only problem being he’s even worse. It’s amazing the Giants were able to win the Super Bowl with him at LT. The problems don’t end there, though, with Chris Snee, David Baas, and Kevin Boothe combining for a -48.9 grade. Even William Beatty struggled in his first year starting and, to make matters worse, he’s got back issues. Depth is also a concern with Sean Locklear the only experienced vet behind them.
2) Coverage on Early Downs
The Giants are currently running with a trio of Kiwanuka, Chase Blackburn and Michael Boley in the base defense. While that should help when teams run on first downs, running backs and tight ends may be able to take advantage in the passing game. Everyone remembers his interception in the Super Bowl, but Blackburn normally struggles when the opposition drop back to pass. Its unsurprising Kiwanuka struggles in coverage considering he’s a converted DE, but Boley (-10.4) was surprisingly poor. As the lone three-down LB, that’ll be a concern for the Giants.
3) Who Starts Opposite Webster at Corner?
Last season’s starter Aaron Ross is gone. That’s not a problem in itself, Ross was below average, but it does mean the Giants have a hole opposite Corey Webster. Terrell Thomas was scheduled to fill in, but he’s damaged the same ACL he has already twice torn and can’t really be counted upon. Last year’s first-round pick Prince Amukamara is probably next up, but he struggled in limited snaps as a rookie. After him things get very shaky, especially considering third-round rookie Jayron Hosley isn’t expected to contribute.
4) Who Mans the Slot? Surely not Antrel Rolle?
Having sung the praises of one Giant safety, it’s now time to do the opposite for another. Rolle talks the talk, but his poor play speaks for itself. He consistently blows coverages and is almost always beaten, whether in man or zone. As mentioned previously, there’s very little depth behind him and no reasonable replacement on the roster. With Thomas hurt, it may fall to Rolle to play the slot. The Giants are severely lacking in other options considering they’ve been reluctant to sign Deon Grant and all their reserve corners are so inexperienced. Speaking of inexperience…
5) Relying on Youngsters for Crucial Roles
Three young guys will likely see important snaps for the Giants this year. With the departure of Mario Manningham to San Francisco, second-round rookie Rueben Randle will likely see his preparation accelerated, so he can handle the third wide receiver role. In the backfield, Brandon Jacobs is gone and David Wilson will have to contribute behind Ahmad Bradshaw. Finally Marvin Austin, who hasn’t played for two full seasons, may find himself the primary backup to Chris Canty and Linval Joseph. Shaun Rogers and Rocky Bernard were added just in case, but the Giants will hope Austin is ready to contribute.
What to Expect?
It’s difficult to say with the Giants. Last year they came out of nowhere to win the Super Bowl, and this is largely the same team. There’s no reason to think they couldn’t repeat. Then again, it wouldn’t be surprising if New York missed the playoffs altogether. How Manning survived behind that line in 2011 is anyone’s guess, but if he can do it again the Giants may well be one of 2012’s best teams. With the weapons on offense and pass rushers on defense, they’ll keep most games close. They won those contests last year, but what about 2012?