By Ernie Palladino
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The group of Giants one saw in the New Year’s Day locker room will undoubtedly look far different than the one that shows up in July for training camp.
New general manager Dave Gettleman has promised as much, and rightfully so. As he completed plans to go north to interview Patriots assistants Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia for the vacant head coaching spot, he promised the group that change was in the air. Change that will reach far deeper than the back of the roster and rid this 3-13 squad of the immature, the malcontented, the backstabbers, and the underachievers.
Literally everybody is vulnerable after a year like the Giants just finished. Some, like free agent offensive lineman Justin Pugh, could leave on their own accord. Others, like maturity-challenged, first-round failure Eli Apple, could be lopped off, relegated to wander the NFL ether until some other team takes a chance on them.
Others, perhaps previously untouchables like Odell Beckham Jr. or Jason Pierre-Paul, could be placed on the trade block to obtain more valuable pieces for the future. Janoris Jenkins might also fit that description.
It would seem everybody would go if Gettleman had his way. But no matter how deep the Giants’ new surgeon general plunges his scalpel, there are players the Giants simply cannot do without. Not many, mind you. Just a few. But Eli Manning, Landon Collins, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram, and Olivier Vernon should remain among the handful of keepers regardless of who coaches them next season.
Manning has to stand first and foremost on that list. Whether Gettleman decides he already has his quarterback of the future in backup Davis Webb or brings it in with the No. 2 pick in the draft, he still needs a durable and reliable veteran to handle the first part of the season.
That’s Eli. Yes, he wasn’t great this season. But neither was the rest of the offense. What he has always done well, however, is stand as an example of how a professional quarterback acts. Even if Gettleman lands Tom Brady-whisperer McDaniels, he’ll need time to develop the new face. Manning might bristle at a placeholder role, but it’s up to Gettleman to convince the 37-year-old that it’s the right thing for the quarterback’s legacy and the organization.
Collins is the easiest decision of the bunch. He had an off year by the safety’s standards, but still did enough to become the team’s only Pro Bowl selection. As the rest of the secondary fell to pieces both on the field — third-and-33, anyone? — and in the locker room with suspensions of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Jenkins, and Apple, Collins stood as the one voice of reason.
He had only two interceptions and two fumble recoveries, but his 104 combined tackles ranked 12th among all defensive backs. He was by far the best of a bunch that ranked 31st in the league in total defense and pass defense, and 27th against the run.
The rookie Engram and second-year wideout Shepard emerged as Manning’s only big-play options once Beckham and Brandon Marshall went down against the Chargers in Week 5. Engram dropped his share of balls, but his 64 catches for 722 yards and six TDs ranked him third among rookie receivers and sixth among tight ends got his career off to a promising start. Shepard found the end zone only twice, but he still had a respectable showing with 59 catches for 731 yards.
The fact that Engram and Shepard finished 1-2 among Giants receivers had more to do with Beckham’s injury than anything else, but quarterbacks still need targets. With the speed Engram and Shepard possess, the potential for big plays remains intact, with or without the ethereal Beckham.
Vernon fell one sack behind Pierre-Paul’s team-high eight, but he was more of a consistent presence up front than JPP. Both would be hard to move, as Pierre-Paul has $7.75 million of next year’s $11.25 million salary guaranteed, while Vernon has $12.75 million coming to him in 2018.
Both could return along with Damon Harrison, whose play in the middle should have put him in the Pro Bowl.
Every team needs a foundation, even a 3-13 mess headed for major alteration. Gettleman would be hard-pressed to find five better blocks than that quintet.
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