By Steve Silverman
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The NFL draft has long been the lifeblood of the sport. The ability to assess players at the college level and predict how well that talent will play in the NFL was vital to any team that wanted to get near the top of the league and stay there for the long run.

But there have been subtle and major changes in the draft over the last 10-15 years that have made this part of team-building even more important than it was in past generations. Teams are far more capable of turning things around in a short time because of the draft. A full and complete class of rookies can help the bottom-feeders become playoff contenders in one year.

Look at the 2012 Indianapolis Colts. During the 2011 season, the Colts were 2-14 as Peyton Manning was forced to sit out with spinal stenosis and the team fell apart. A thorough housecleaning went on in the offseason and the Colts got rid of head coach Jim Caldwell and Manning. They hired inspirational head coach Chuck Pagano and drafted quarterback Andrew Luck.

The 2012 Indianapolis Colts finished with an 11-5 record. Luck was the centerpiece of the draft, but he was far from their only rookie contributor. They also selected tight end Dwayne Allen, wide receivers Coby Fleener and T.Y. Hilton, running back Vick Ballard, nose tackle Josh Chapman, and a valuable backup and special teamer in LaVon Brazil.

The Colts climbed the ladder in dramatic fashion as Luck demonstrated he had superstar talent at the quarterback position and was also an indomitable worker. That’s what allowed him to bring out his talent and help the Colts climb.

However, it wasn’t just Luck. The Colts had a change of mindset with the positive-minded Pagano, who underwent chemotherapy treatment and saw his spot on the sidelines taken by Bruce Arians (now the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals) for more than half the season. The rookie class responded to the coaching staff and the Colts played winning football.

The Colts needed a huge draft class in 2012 and got it. The New York Giants need to have a huge draft class of their own in 2014.

While the Colts were laughable in 2011, the Giants were on top of the football world that season. They won three of their last four games to finish with a 9-7 record, and that was good enough to win a very mediocre NFC East.

The Giants used that division championship to beat the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers in the postseason. That earned them a spot in Super Bowl XLVI against the New England Patriots, and Tom Coughlin got the best of Bill Belichick as the Giants pulled out a 21-17 victory.

However, since that victory, the Giants have lost their dynamic characteristics and they have turned into an ordinary team. They had a chance to make the playoffs in 2012 but they lost five of their final eight games and were left on the outside, even though they had the same 9-7 record that was good enough to earn them a postseason ticket the year before.

That was a lot better, however, than last season’s performance. The Giants’ final record of 7-9 didn’t look awful, but they started 0-6 and the season was all but over before the end of October.

The Giants had a team of sorry, tired players and they probably wouldn’t have recovered to the point that they did if not for Coughlin’s coaching ability.

If the Giants are going to recover in 2014, general manager Jerry Reese is going to have to bring Coughlin talent during the draft weekend. Reese has to hit a home run with the 12th overall pick.

His recent record has not been good in this area. The Giants haven’t drafted in the top 15 since 2010, and they hit a home run when they selected Jason Pierre-Paul out of South Florida with the 15th pick in the draft. Since that time, their first-round picks have been Prince Amukamara, David Wilson and Justin Pugh. The bottom line is that trio has had eye-opening potential, but ordinary production.

The Giants could select North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan (despite character questions) or Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert with their first-round pick.

Last year’s draft class for the Giants was simply not good enough. The Giants did not get the infusion of lifeblood, excitement and talent with Pugh, Johnathan Hankins, Damontre Moore, Ryan Nassib, Cooper Taylor, Eric Herman and Michael Cox that they needed.

This falls on the shoulders of Reese and his staff. Top-level general managers find talent at every stage of the draft and can also bring in undrafted rookies who can compete and make contributions. This has not been Reese’s strength.

It’s one thing to demand rebound seasons from Eli Manning, Victor Cruz and Pierre-Paul, but the Giants must have a powerful draft class if they are going to get back to the postseason in 2014.

Reese has done fairly well by adding outside linebacker Jameel McClain, safety Quintin Demps, offensive guard John Jerry and kick returner Trindon Holliday and several others through free agency, but it is the young talent the team must have to get the fortunes of the franchise back on track.

The pressure is on Reese. He must hit a home run with his first-round pick and follow with solid hits throughout the draft weekend.

Coughlin knows it. Giants fans know it, and so does Reese.

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