By Paul Dottino
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General manager Jerry Reese was active in the offseason. He had to be. The Giants have missed the playoffs in four of the past five years — with one Super Bowl title — and franchise quarterback Eli Manning turned 33 shortly after the 2013 season ended with a 7-9 record.
The results of Reese’s efforts will begin their mission as the Giants run through conditioning drills during the opening day of training camp Monday (with the first practice being Tuesday). And it’s likely as much as half of the 2013 roster will be turned over by the time they visit the Detroit Lions to begin the season on Sept. 8.
If you believe in old-school football, you’ll find optimism in the Giants’ belief that they’ve added important upgrades to their defense, specifically in the back seven, and will receive improved play from their front four. On paper, the a secondary-oriented defense (which ranked eighth in the NFL last season) easily could become one of the best in the league.
They’ve attempted to spark their special teams with the signing of tiny-but-explosive PR Trindon Holliday (Broncos), who also must prove himself as a capable back-of-the-depth-chart wide receiver to stick, and dangerous KOR-SS Quintin Demps (Chiefs).
This brings us to the offense, which is littered with question marks, although the Giants are hoping that the most significant change — hiring West Coast-offense specialist Ben McAdoo as their coordinator — provides the biggest improvement of all. A less-complex playbook may lead to a higher level of execution, if nothing else.
Here are five of the most important things to watch during training camp:
1. Health and production of the offensive line. Don’t kid yourself. If this unit does not get it together, whatever improvements were made to the rest of the roster will go for naught and the Giants will miss the playoffs again. How well and quickly will LT William Beatty recover from his leg injuries and how well will he play? Can ex-Saint Charlie Brown or holdover James Brewer hold up at that position, if necessary? Might they bring in a late-arriving veteran to help? And what of RG Chris Snee, whose future is in serious doubt because of lingering elbow soreness. If Snee’s out, then an answer must be found from among promising second-round C/G Weston Richburg, third-year project Brandon Mosley and ex-Dolphin John Jerry. Can starting center J.D. Walton hold up over 16 games in his comeback from a broken ankle?
2. Tight end rotation. There are five on the roster, but none who have a strong enough resume that inspires much confidence, leading to them being rotated throughout the spring. The scheme asks the tight end to be a productive member of the passing attack, but the line might need additional blocking support. You know the Giants must be watching the waiver wire while hoping someone jumps up to earn a prominent role.
3. Man in the middle. It’s unknown how much MLB Jon Beason (toe) will do at camp, but he’s expected to be ready for Week 1. He provided a major upgrade against the run after he arrived from the Panthers early last season. Should there be a setback, free agent OLB Jameel McClain (Ravens) will slide into the middle, leaving Spencer Paysinger and fifth-rounder Devon Kennard to battle on the outside. No matter, they will need Beason to be at his best since he remains the heart of the run defense.
4. Throwing it around. So how quickly will QB Eli Manning & Co. learn this new offense, and will they all be on the same page? The scheme is designed to add safety values and take more advantage of the short game than the Giants have done in the past. Playbook aside, Rueben Randle must take another step forward and become consistent. In addition, first-rounder Odell Beckham Jr. and returning veteran Mario Manningham (49ers) need to produce as deep threats.
5. Ground attack. There are six running backs — not including fullbacks Henry Hynoski and John Conner — on the roster. Only Peyton Hillis has proven to be a workhorse back over a full NFL season – he did it once with the 2010 Browns — but he’s also battled injuries. However, there are numbers here. Rashad Jennings is a complete back, although they won’t want to test his durability by overworking him. Will David Wilson be cleared from his neck injury? Fourth-round rookie Andre Williams was an outstanding power back at Boston College, so he should provide some immediate assistance. Second-year pro Michael Cox has impressive tools, as does short-yardage specialist Kendall Gaskins (in Bills camp last year), but they are inexperienced and face a tough numbers crunch.
And if you will allow us to cheat …
5a. Defensive line production. How well will Jason Pierre-Paul (back, shoulder) rebound in his contract year? Can the combination of DEs Robert Ayers (Broncos) and second-year Damontre Moore replace the production of the departed Justin Tuck (Raiders)? And how quickly will inexperienced DTs Markus Kuhn and Johnathan Hankins develop in the absence of Linval Joseph (Vikings)?
As you can tell, there will be many training camp battles to keep an eye on. In most cases, the Giants have some numbers and potential answers to call upon. And their players will have five preseason games to show their wares, beginning with the Hall of Fame Game against the Buffalo Bills on Aug. 3.
I’ve already dusted off my binoculars …
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