NFC East: New York Giants
PHILADELPHIA -- Ah, the good old NFC East, where up is down, black is white and you can trade your starting quarterback a week before the season and still find yourself in first place when October dawns.
Yeah, those are the Philadelphia Eagles undefeated and leading the division through three weeks. Yes, that's defending champion Washington, 1-2 by the skin of its teeth and the generosity of Eli Manning, sitting in last place. And in the middle we find the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, each of whom entered the year with major questions but have managed to start 2-1. The Giants hold the tiebreaker right now for second place because they won by a point in Dallas in Week 1, but Dallas beat Washington, Washington beat the Giants and the Eagles haven't played anyone in the division yet.
In other words, as always seems to be the case in the NFC East, nobody knows anything.
The Eagles look fantastic right now, coming off a 34-3 throttling of popular preseason favorite Pittsburgh on Sunday. They have yet to lose a game or turn the ball over. At some point (likely on the same day), they will do both. It won't be this week, since they're on bye, but tougher times do loom for rookie quarterback Carson Wentz and this squad. Four of their next five games are on the road, the one home game in that stretch is against fellow unbeaten Minnesota and the second half of the Eagles' season features road games in Seattle, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Add in the looming 10-game suspension of right tackle Lane Johnson, and it's fair to assume the Eagles will struggle at some point.
Which is fine. Philadelphia was prepared for a bit of a rebuilding year, given the state of the roster post-Chip Kelly. The Eagles are pleasantly stunned to be 3-0, and they're head over heels for Wentz, who looks like the real deal. You'd much rather go into an offseason believing you have your quarterback and needing to fill in around him with surer-handed wide receivers and younger offensive linemen than wondering who your quarterback is. So even if the Eagles' hot start fades, things look sunny there long term, and the early season success is a huge part of that.
But the rules clearly state that the NFC East must have a champion and field a playoff team this season. And if the Eagles turn out not to be as good as they look right now, the question of which team that will be is wide open.
The Cowboys already have won more games without Tony Romo this season than they did in 12 tries last year. Rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are keeping the offense afloat. In the whole NFL, they trail only the Eagles in time of possession, which means the plan to grind out clock and keep the undermanned defense off the field is holding up so far. Pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence returns from suspension in Week 5. They're still expecting Romo back around midseason. And while out-of-division trips to Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Minnesota don't look fun, it doesn't appear as if Romo's absence will crush this season the way it did the last. That's some reason for hope in Big D.
The Giants just had their best September in four years, but my goodness are they sloppy. They've turned the ball over seven times, only taken it away once and just committed 11 penalties for 128 yards in Sunday's loss to Washington. That was a game that could have stamped them as division favorites and sunk Washington into an 0-3 hole. Instead, they face October road trips to Minnesota, Green Bay and London -- and legitimate questions about the sustainability of their hot start. The Giants were 3-8 last year in games decided by a touchdown or less, so being 2-1 in such games so far is encouraging in the grand scheme. And at least until Romo returns (and possibly after), they still have the division's best quarterback. But things are about to get tougher, and Ben McAdoo's bunch needs to tighten up in a hurry.
In our nation's capital, the division's defending champ wonders whether Kirk Cousins can be the sharp decision-maker he was last year and in Sunday's second half or the scatter-armed mess he was for the season's first two and a half games. Cousins is going to have to carry Washington's offense, which can't run at all and doesn't look like it really wants to try. The only two teams in the league averaging more passing yards per game than Washington are the two that hook up in the Superdome on Monday night, Atlanta and New Orleans. If Cousins' team turns it around, he's going to have the stats to warrant that big contract extension the Redskins didn't want to give him this offseason.
There's a long way to go in this and every other division, but the only thing we ever know about the NFC East is that we have no idea what will happen. The division hasn't had a repeat winner since 2003-04, and only once in the past six years has one of its teams won more than 10 games in a season. You can make the case that the Eagles already are a third of the way home if you want to. And even if they win it with the North Dakota State rookie, it couldn't be viewed as a major surprise. But there are sure to be more surprises between now and then in the always wild and wacky NFC East.
The New York Giants open training camp on July 28 at Quest Diagnostics Training Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Here's a starting lineup projection:
Quarterback (Eli Manning): Same as it ever was. Manning hasn't missed a game since he became the starter during his 2004 rookie season. He threw a career-high 35 touchdown passes in 2015, and his completion percentage in two years with new head coach Ben McAdoo as offensive coordinator is 62.8 -- notably higher than his career completion percentage of 59.3.
Running back (Rashad Jennings): Lots of competition here, and Shane Vereen will replace the starter on third downs and in the two-minute drill. But while Jennings could eventually lose the job to rookie Paul Perkins, that's not likely to happen soon. After averaging 5.47 yards per carry over the final five games of 2015, Jennings heads into camp as the clear starter.
Fullback (Will Johnson): Johnson missed only one game in four seasons with Pittsburgh and is a player the Giants believe can line up in a variety of spots, including tight end. His versatility and his skills as a blocker likely give him the edge over Nikita Whitlock, who was one of the fun stories of 2015 after he made his mark as a substitute defensive tackle.
Wide receiver (Odell Beckham Jr.): A bona fide superstar in bloom. In 27 NFL games, Beckham has 187 catches for 2,755 yards and 25 touchdowns. His goal last year was to play all 16, and only the late-season suspension stopped him. Expect continued brilliance as long as he keeps himself on the field.
Wide receiver (Sterling Shepard): Tough to assume anything at this point about Victor Cruz's availability or effectiveness, and the Giants run out of three-receiver sets the majority of the time anyway. That means a lot of opportunity for rookie Shepard, whose experience in four years at Oklahoma has Giants coaches believing they can use him all over the formation.
Tight end (Will Tye): Another spot where the competition is too close to call among many candidates. Larry Donnell was the starter a year ago and is back from his neck injury. Rookie Jerell Adams looked good in the spring. But we'll call Tye the incumbent after he averaged 11 yards per catch while filling in for Donnell in the second half of 2015.
Left tackle (Ereck Flowers): He had his share of struggles as a rookie, but he would point out that he was playing hurt, as he sprained his ankle in Week 2 and it never had time to fully recover. Flowers' advancement as a pass protector will be a key part of the Giants' story this season, one way or the other.
Right tackle (Marshall Newhouse): Sure, they have been poking around for upgrades. And someone like Eugene Monroe could still be a possibility. But Newhouse heads to camp with the job, a chip on his shoulder and more faith from the coaching staff than he has from the fan base.
Left guard (Justin Pugh): The 2013 first-round pick is settled in after moving from tackle to guard a year ago. He's the backup left tackle if Flowers gets hurt, and in the meantime the Giants will count on him for reliable production on the interior.
Right guard (John Jerry): Brought in as a backup two years ago, Jerry has started 24 games the past two seasons and is a favorite of the coaching staff. I don't expect the Giants to look to upgrade at this position, even as they scope out the market at tackle.
Center (Weston Richburg): The 2014 second-round pick heads into his third full season as a starter and his second at center. This is the first time since 2013 that Eli Manning starts the season with the same center with which he finished the previous one.
Defensive end (Olivier Vernon): He had 29 sacks in four years with the Dolphins, but the Giants gave him a five-year, $85 million contract in the hope that he was about to make the leap into the elite echelon of pass-rushers. They're likely to line him up at right defensive end and send him to do battle with left tackles all year.
Defensive end (Jason Pierre-Paul): Everyone knows about the hand, but Pierre-Paul believes the surgery he had right after the season will allow him to play without that heavy club wrap and make him a more effective tackler. The Giants also believe the time that has passed since last July 4, and Pierre-Paul's presence in their offseason program, will pay dividends in their pass rush.
Defensive tackle (Damon Harrison): Rated as the best run-stuffing defensive tackle in the league, Harrison joins the Giants as part of their defensive spending spree. His former team, the Jets, thought $9.25 million a year was too much for a player who comes out of the game on third downs. The Giants believe the work Harrison does on first and second downs will put their opponents in longer and tougher third-down situations.
Defensive tackle (Johnathan Hankins): A year ago, Hankins was coming off a seven-sack season and hopes were high. Still just 24 and coming off an injury-shortened season, Hankins should form a potent run-stuffing duo along with Harrison and maybe even get in some pass-rush work if the new guy can eat up blockers.
Strongside linebacker (Devon Kennard): The Giants love what Kennard can do -- especially as a pass-rush helper -- when he's on the field. But he has missed 11 games during his first two years in a league, so he enters camp as a question mark. Keeping the 2014 fifth-round pick healthy could be essential for what the Giants want to do on defense.
Middle linebacker (Keenan Robinson): This could be anyone from a group that includes Robinson, rookie B.J. Goodson, 2015 starter Jasper Brinkley or newcomer Kelvin Sheppard. The Giants believe Robinson has the skills and the smarts to handle this very important job in Steve Spagnuolo's defense, but he has had health issues too. Wide-open competition here.
Weakside linebacker (Jonathan Casillas): A lot of options here, including some of the guys named in the paragraph above. Last year's starter, J.T. Thomas, is also still around and could keep the job with a strong camp. But Thomas has (broken record alert!) injury concerns after a year in which he missed four games, and Casillas goes into camp in the lead here.
Cornerback (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie): His speed and his coverage ability make him as good as anyone in the league when he's on the field, but he has frustrated coaches and fans alike by floating in and out of games with various unspecified physical ailments. The Giants hope he has one more good year in him with first-round pick Eli Apple waiting in the wings.
Cornerback (Janoris Jenkins): Another of the big-money additions from this offseason, Jenkins arrives with a five-year, $62.5 million contract and 10 career interceptions -- five of which he returned for touchdowns. He's an electrifying playmaker who should bring a lot of excitement to the back end of the defense.
Strong safety (Landon Collins): Thrown into the fire as a rookie, Collins struggled in coverage and with some aspects of the playbook. But he was clearly a helper against the run, and if the Giants can find someone reliable enough in coverage to man their other safety spot, they should be able to keep Collins up close where he can showcase his strengths.
Free safety (Darian Thompson): Another wide-open camp competition, with promising names from the past such as Nat Berhe, Bennett Jackson, Mykkele Thompson and Cooper Taylor in the mix if any of them can get/stay healthy. Darian Thompson, the rookie from Boise State, showed well in spring and has as good a chance as any of them to start.
Kicker (Josh Brown): Brown has made 54 of 58 field goals the past two years, including 19 of 22 from 40 yards or longer and 7 of 7 from 50 yards or longer.
Punter (Brad Wing): Odell Beckham's college teammate and good friend just signed a three-year contract to stick around after a promising first year with the Giants.
Long snapper (Zak DeOssie): As there must always be a Stark in Winterfell, there must always be a DeOssie in East Rutherford. The Giants missed him when he was out with an injury in the second half of the season. Fellow Ivy Leaguer Tyler Ott could give him a push in camp, but I think DeOssie sticks it out.
The New York Giants report for training camp on July 28 at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Here's a closer look at the Giants' camp, which wraps up on Aug. 15.
Top storyline: How healthy will they be? Unlike last year, when the Giants lost their starting left tackle and best defensive lineman to freak spring/summer injuries, the Giants have made it through the offseason relatively unscathed. So all eyes will be on Jason Pierre-Paul to see how he looks following a full offseason and without that big, ugly club on his right hand. And many of those same eyes will be on wide receiver Victor Cruz to see whether he can make it through camp healthy and return to the field for the first time since October 2014. The Giants carry many question marks as they try to finish at .500 or better for the first time since 2012, but health has been their biggest issue in recent years.
If Eli Manning... just stays the same, that puts the Giants' offense in the best position to succeed. Manning has done well in two years with Ben McAdoo as his offensive coordinator, and the offense will stay the same with McAdoo moving to the head coach's office. With major question marks at wide receiver, tight end, running back and on the right side of the offensive line, Manning is one of the few steady pieces in the Giants' plans.
Player who will have fans buzzing: Rookie wide receiver Sterling Shepard. The Giants' second-round pick looks like a sure bet to see a lot of action in the team's preferred three-receiver sets, especially because there's no way to know how much Cruz will be able to offer. Shepard is a sharp route runner who impressed the team in organized team activities and minicamp and will be fun to watch on the field during practices and preseason games.
Position battle worth watching: It's not necessarily a "battle," but it will be worth watching how first-round pick Eli Apple's role develops. The Giants' starting cornerbacks are Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins. They need a slot corner, but that's not a natural fit for Apple. It might take a while (or an injury) for Apple to get into the mix, and the Giants have to figure out the best way to use and develop him as a rookie.
That rookie should start: How about third-round pick Darian Thompson? The Giants still don't have a natural free safety to pair with Landon Collins, and Thompson got some run there in the spring as part of an inexperienced group of candidates. It shouldn't be hard for him to rise above the likes of Nat Berhe, Cooper Taylor and Mykkele Thompson if Darian Thompson shows he can make the calls on the back end.
Veteran whose job is in jeopardy: The Giants aren't deep, and they aren't loaded with established veterans, so this one is tough. And I still doubt they'd give up on a draft pick after only two years. But the running back room is extremely crowded, and if third-year back Andre Williams doesn't show he has advanced from last season's disappointment, he could lose his spot to someone such as Orleans Darkwa or Bobby Rainey.
Can Larry Donnell bounce back? The tight end position is up in the air. Will Johnson came over from Pittsburgh as a versatile H-back type, but Donnell, Will Tye, Matt LaCosse and sixth-round pick Jerell Adams all are in the mix for serious playing time. Donnell was the starter last season, but Tye performed well after Donnell hurt his neck. Who will emerge from this group?
Watch the right side of the line: The Giants left minicamp with John Jerry and Marshall Newhouse still projected as the starting right guard and tackle, but they were talking with free-agent tackle Eugene Monroe and clearly are open to other options. Can 2015 seventh-rounder Bobby Hart work his way into the mix? Will they continue to look outside for help? Are they as satisfied with Jerry and Newhouse as they say they are?
What fans will be saying after camp: "The Giants' pass rush is back!" The starting four defensive linemen absolutely look like a strength of the team on paper, and if Pierre-Paul looks as good as he has so far, that will only help newcomer Olivier Vernon on the other side. As long as those two and defensive tackles Damon Harrison and Johnathan Hankins can stay healthy, Giants fans will enter the season fired up about the defensive line.
For daily updates at camp, check out the New York Giants clubhouse page.
The New York Giants start training camp in 10 days. On Monday, I asked my Twitter followers for some questions I could answer here. Right away, these came in all at once:
@DanGrazianoESPN Do you see Cruz being the #2 or #3 receiver and if you think he'll have more than 45 catches this year
— Ben Resch3ã (@bresch2394) July 18, 2016
@DanGrazianoESPN does Cruz play all 16 games if you had to guess?
— GMEN (@ChrisNYGfan) July 18, 2016
@DanGrazianoESPN is cruz going to be ready for the start of the season??
— J.Pisani (@pisani_john) July 18, 2016
Yes, even after all this time and with all of these news players, fans remain fascinated by wide receiver Victor Cruz. He did more in minicamp than was expected, and his and the team's hopes are high that he can finally complete his comeback from the torn patellar tendon he suffered in Week 6 of the 2014 season in Philadelphia.
But the questions above are unanswerable, because since Week 6 of 2014, no one has seen Cruz play a single play in a game situation -- not even in a preseason game. Cruz's rehab from the knee injury was going well last summer in training camp, but he didn't participate in any of the preseason games. By the time the season started, he had torn a calf muscle in the opposite leg.
I get why people want to know, but I'd be guessing if I were to answer any of the above questions. My guesses, in order, are no, no and probably not, but I don't think any of the three questions are the most important one. And until we see how Cruz performs in a game situation, it's a mistake to try and answer any questions about his projected availability or production.
See, it's not about whether the knee has healed fully from the significant injury he suffered at Lincoln Financial Field 21 months ago. It's about whether that right knee can ever be the same again. The issue with a torn patellar tendon is whether the knee can regain its power and explosiveness -- two short-area elements that were vital to Cruz's game when he was at his peak. And until you see him in a game situation -- reacting to unexpected events that he and his team can't control, against an opponent that's trying to prevent him from succeeding -- there's really no way to accurately assess that.
You'll go to training camp practice in a couple of weeks, and you'll likely see Cruz running well, cutting well and catching the ball well. We saw all of that last July and August. But until the Giants see him in a game and can assess whether he can play with the same kind of quickness, power and explosiveness with which he used to play, there's no way for them or us to know what to hope for.
I think Cruz will play in a regular-season game this year. I'm willing to predict that much. I think the Giants will figure out a way to avoid a weird ancillary injury as catastrophic as last year's calf muscle pull. But anyone who tells you how or how much he's going to play is guessing. Because at this point, the evidence we need as a basis for that type of guess just doesn't exist.
The New York Giants replaced former Super Bowl champion punter Steve Weatherford with Brad Wing at the end of training camp last year. Having liked what they saw in his first year with the team, the Giants moved Monday to sign Wing to a long-term contract.
The team announced that the deal runs through 2019. A source with knowledge of the deal said it includes $6.45 million in new money and $3.725 million in guarantees -- a nice deal for a punter who made $510,000 last year and was scheduled to make $600,000 this coming season.
Wing, 25, was fifth in the NFL last year with 33 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. Of the four punters in front of him on that list, only one had fewer punts than Wing's 76. So while his gross (44.5) and net (38.9) averages were far from eye-popping, Wing pinned the Giants' opponent inside the 20 on more than 43 percent of his kicks.
It's also worth noting that Wing is probably star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.'s best friend on the team. The two were teammates at LSU. Not that you'd sign a punter long term just to keep your superstar happy, but I'm sure it occurred to someone there during the process that it would have that effect.
The Giants got Wing from Pittsburgh last fall in exchange for their seventh-round pick in this year's draft.
The New York Giants wrapped up their offseason program Thursday and open training camp on July 28 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Here’s a 53-man roster projection.
Running backs (4): Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams, Shane Vereen, Paul Perkins. Tough break for Orleans Darkwa, but as much as fans may want to move on from Williams, it's tough to see the Giants giving up on a draft pick after two years.
Fullback (1): Will Johnson. This would mean no more Nikita Whitlock, who played defensive tackle in addition to fullback last year. But Johnson can play tight end and move all over the formation. His versatility earns him the job.
Wide receivers (6): Odell Beckham Jr., Dwayne Harris, Sterling Shepard, Victor Cruz, Myles White, Geremy Davis. Lots of cutting going on here, as the Giants currently have 13 wideouts on their roster. Undrafted Roger Lewis could steal a spot from White or Davis in camp, and Cruz's health also could open up another spot.
Offensive line (9): Weston Richburg, Ereck Flowers, Justin Pugh, John Jerry, Marshall Newhouse, Bobby Hart, Ryan Seymour, Byron Stingily, Shane McDermott. Obviously, if they add Eugene Monroe in free agency, that's bad news for Stingily, who's on this list for now as one potential swing tackle from the current roster.
Defensive line (9): Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, Johnathan Hankins, Jay Bromley, Owa Odighizuwa, Ishaq Williams, Kerry Wynn, Louis Nix. The last backup defensive tackle spot could go to Montori Hughes instead of Nix. Williams has been impressing coaches during spring workouts.
Linebackers (7): Keenan Robinson, Jasper Brinkley, Jonathan Casillas, J.T. Thomas, Devon Kennard, Mark Herzlich, B.J. Goodson. Kennard's or Thomas' health could open a spot elsewhere on the roster, and Brinkley could be in jeopardy if Robinson seizes the middle linebacker job. But everyone else here is safe.
Cornerbacks (5): Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, Trevin Wade, Donte Deayon. Don't be surprised to see the Giants add a body or two here as they need to find someone to handle the slot.
Safety (4): Landon Collins, Darian Thompson, Bennett Jackson, Cooper Taylor. The problem here continues to be health and inexperience. Nat Berhe and Mykkele Thompson are already hurt, as is Taylor, who gets this last spot by default. If all three are hurt again, Justin Currie could make the roster and they could add from the outside as they did year ago.
Kicker (1): Josh Brown. No brainer.
Punter (1): Brad Wing. Sure thing.
Long-snapper (1): Zak DeOssie. They do like Tyler Ott, who will go to camp to compete for this job. But as there must always be a Stark in Winterfell, there must always be a DeOssie in East Rutherford.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- At New York Giants' minicamp on Tuesday, second-round pick Sterling Shepard operated as a first-team wide receiver and third-round pick Darian Thompson worked as a first-team safety.
First-round pick Eli Apple? His role is a bit less clear at this time.
Apple spent Tuesday's practice more or less rotating in and out of the lineup with starting cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Both of them worked some on the outside and some in the slot. (The other starter, Janoris Jenkins, seemed to work almost exclusively on the outside.) When people ask how Apple looks, the appropriate answer right now is, "Like a 20-year-old rookie," which is what he is. He's swimming a bit as he gets acclimated to the NFL game, and he's making mistakes as you would expect.
But Apple's progress will be one of the more interesting stories of training camp. Remember, the Giants didn't set out to take a cornerback with the No. 10 pick. They took Apple because two of their top three choices went No. 8 and No. 9, the other one scared off the entire top 12 with an ill-timed gas mask video, and Apple was the top choice left on their board. So while first-round picks are generally expected to play right away, the Giants don't really have an open spot for Apple.
They could use him in the slot, where they don't have a clear answer right now. Trevin Wade gets the slot corner work when it's not Apple or Rodgers-Cromartie. But Apple isn't experienced in the slot, and it might be a bit unfair to ask him to learn the intricacies of that new spot while also getting up to speed on pro football. That's why the Giants are trying different combinations.
"We want to train a variety of the guys inside," Giants coach Ben McAdoo said. "I think it helps with versatility, and it also helps to teach them the complete picture of the defense. If they can play outside and inside, it helps them understand what the other positions are going through. We have a variety of guys who can do both."
That remains to be seen. Obviously, if Apple is a quick study as a slot corner, that solves a lot of problems and keeps the Giants versatile in their secondary. If he doesn't look good in the slot but looks like he can help on the outside, who knows? Maybe they make a move with Rodgers-Cromartie, who's not in the 2017 plans anyway.
Drafting Apple gave the Giants depth and, ideally, flexibility at a very important position. The details of his first-year role remain to be seen, and depend on what he shows them in the months ahead.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants begin a three-day mandatory minicamp Tuesday -- the last time the team will practice together before training camp opens July 28. Here are three things we will be watching closely over the next three days:
Hey, rookie: There's an unusual number of players in the Giants' rookie class who could press for significant playing time in 2016. The one everyone's talking about is second-round wide receiver Sterling Shepard, who should get plenty of reps as a starter this week alongside Odell Beckham Jr. while Victor Cruz continues to take his recovery slowly. Undrafted free-agent Roger Lewis is another rookie to watch in the receiver group. On defense, third-round pick Darian Thompson is in the muddled mix for starter's reps at free safety along with Nat Berhe, Bennett Jackson and Mykkele Thompson, and fourth-rounder B.J. Goodson could work his way into the mix at middle linebacker. But of greater intrigue may be the role of first-round pick Eli Apple. With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins locked in as starters on the outside and Apple's experience as a nickel corner limited, this week could help determine what kind of role they have in mind for Apple in training camp and beyond. The Giants also get their first long look at fifth-round running back Paul Perkins, who was unable to attend earlier workouts because his UCLA spring semester had not yet ended.
Lining up the 'backers: The four projected (and very expensive) starters on the defensive line are set, but who will line up as starters at the three linebacker spots? The Giants signed Keenan Robinson hoping he could man the middle, but Jasper Brinkley is the incumbent there and rookie Goodson could move quickly. Jonathan Casillas looks like the favorite on the weak side, though J.T. Thomas is obviously in the mix along with others. And will they be able to count on Devon Kennard at the strong side, or have his injuries done damage to his ability to function as a full-time starter and a helper in the pass rush?
Game simulation: New coach Ben McAdoo is trying to make practices feel as much like games as possible in terms of tempo and rhythm, so he builds in "TV timeouts" and other breaks, and the team tailors its musical selection around those breaks. The coaches also will run two-minute drills and end-of-game scenarios in intricate detail. The Giants lost six games last year in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime, and being better in critical late-game situations is a point of emphasis this spring and summer.
PHILADELPHIA -- It would be a mistake to write off Rueben Randle. The former New York Giants second-round pick just turned 25 last month. Very few healthy players are washed up at 25, even in the unforgiving NFL.
But the Giants were done with Randle. They let him leave as a free agent after four frustrating, up-and-down seasons, and he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, who opened their mandatory minicamp here Tuesday. Randle, who had missed a chunk of the offseason program after having his gallbladder removed, is making a strong impression.
"Rueben has been a pleasant surprise," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "He's a guy that's a big, tall, smooth receiver that understands what we're asking him to do. He knows his role."
That's the impression Randle struggled to create with Giants coaches, with whom he often clashed during his time in New York. Randle was benched for parts of two games in 2014 for being late to meetings, and the coaches grew frustrated with his laid-back demeanor and his struggles to consistently remember and execute his assignments. There were moments, and whole games, where he was brilliant. And there were long stretches where he disappeared from the offense.
"There was some miscommunication going on," Randle said Tuesday. "I guess they didn't like some things about my demeanor and things like that. I was judged wrong and read wrong, and I've got to be better about that. I've got to learn from my mistakes in the past and try to move forward here."
Randle never struck me as a lazy player, but he definitely has a laconic personality and doesn't play or interact with people with the same kind of energy that more successful ex-teammates such as Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz exude. He believes that's one of the key lessons he has to learn from his time with the Giants.
"I'm not going to change my personality or who I am," Randle said. "But just little things like body language, facial expressions, make sure they know I'm excited to be here."
That would help, sure. But to be fair to the Giants, not all of Randle's issues were body language-related. There were too many times in games when he ran the wrong route or he and Eli Manning weren't on the same page and the result was a critical interception or incomplete pass.
Randle has a great opportunity with the Eagles. Their best receiver, Jordan Matthews, plays in the slot and they're basically holding an open competition for the two outside receiver spots. But in order to succeed in Philadelphia, he has to do a better job than he did in New York of consistently remembering and executing his assignments on Sundays. Randle always looked great this time of year with the Giants, but he never carried his offseason work into the season with the kind of consistency they needed from him.
"Different path, new opportunity for me, and I just have to learn from the past," Randle said. "I think I can do it all."
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For the record, the 25 pounds Nikita Whitlock has put on since last year is not an effort to convince the New York Giants to use him at defensive tackle -- though he wouldn't exactly mind if it had that effect.
"I'm praying every night," Whitlock said after Giants' OTA practice Monday.
You might remember Whitlock as the fullback who got into a few games as a defensive tackle for the Giants in 2015. He played nose tackle in college at Wake Forest and always hoped to play that position in the NFL, but when he went to camp as an undrafted rookie in 2014, the Bengals told him they wanted to use him as a fullback.
That's how he got down to 240 pounds, which was his weight this time last year, when he appeared to be the No. 2 fullback on the Giants' roster behind Henry Hynoski. He weighed 265 in college and had to work to keep the weight off -- cutting out carbs, red meat and the like. So getting back up to the 260-265 range was actually kind of fun.
"That's my natural weight, 260," Whitlock said. "Cincinnati wanted a smaller guy to run routes and stuff, but then I'm here last year and I'm looking around. Henry was like 270 at one point. I can play fullback at the higher weight."
Whitlock says he was up to 255 last season before a knee injury ended his season in December. At that time, the Giants' run game had begun to click. His final game was the Week 15 loss to Carolina in which the Giants rushed for 161 yards on 27 carries. Ben McAdoo and the coaching staff have said multiple times that Whitlock's development as a fullback was one of the keys to the improvement, and Whitlock agrees.
"I would say between Weeks 5 and 6, I really started to understand a lot more things," Whitlock said. "Angles, gap entries, when to throw a hard block instead of a finesse block. Just a lot more comfortable in the offense and understanding what the expectations were for the fullback on every play."
So Whitlock knows fullback is his position and his ticket to playing time in the NFL. He put on the weight because he knew he could do it responsibly, because he's more comfortable at the higher weight and because he believed it would help him be a better fullback.
But that doesn't mean he's not hoping for more work on the defensive line. To this point, he's worked exclusively on offense in the offseason program. And the Giants went out and spent big on new defensive line starters Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon, which you'd think would make it tougher for Whitlock to see the field on that side of the ball. But he holds out hope.
"Last year, they used me in a very specific situation," Whitlock said. "Second half, third-and-long, not in the red zone. No one ever came out and said that, but that's where they used me. So I hope that I could do more. They haven't said anything, but they didn't say anything last year either. It just happened."
Whitlock is still a defensive tackle at heart, but he honestly just wants to find any way he can to get on the field and help the Giants win.
"I just look at myself as a tool," Whitlock said. "On offense, I've got the hammerhead, and on defense, I've got the nail remover. So whatever job they need done, I'll do it."
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Jason Pierre-Paul was ready for the question. Started answering it before it reached its end. After New York Giants OTA practice on Monday, someone asked Pierre-Paul what he was doing this year for Fourth of July.
"I'll be gone," he said. "I won't even be in the United States. Where I'm going, they don't even celebrate the Fourth of July."
Pierre-Paul declined to say where he'd be going. But it's hard to blame the guy for wanting a clean break with the holiday that changed his life last summer. July 4 will be the one-year anniversary of the fireworks accident that cost Pierre-Paul his right index finger and severely damaged the rest of his right hand. As has been the case since his midseason return from the accident, he's not hiding from it.
"It'll be a year," he said. "I've overcome a lot of things in my life, and that's something I overcame and put behind me. It hasn't even been a year. It seems like longer."
Of course, this time last year, Pierre-Paul was not at Giants offseason practices. Even before the fireworks accident, he was opting out of the voluntary portion of the offseason and missing the June minicamp because he had not signed his franchise player tender and was still hoping for a long-term contract. As a result, even if he'd returned whole, he'd have been behind in learning and practicing defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's defense. This year, he has been present since the start of the offseason program.
"He's able to hit the weight room and he's able to go out and practice the fundamentals, so he's ahead of the game that way," Giants coach Ben McAdoo said. "You can tell he's definitely improved his fundamentals. He's always been a very disruptive player, and we expect that to continue."
Pierre-Paul has lined up predominantly on the left side of the defensive line during OTAs, which makes sense given that he can play there with his uninjured left hand on the ground and since they spent so much on free-agent defensive end Olivier Vernon to play right defensive end. Giants right tackle Marshall Newhouse, who lines up against Pierre-Paul in practice, raved about how good he looked on the field.
"He has bulked back up and you can see he's getting more accustomed to using the hand in the state that it is in," Newhouse said. "He's still quick, still long-limbed, just still a really instinctive defensive end and I feel like he's making me better," Newhouse said. "I hope I'm making him better."
The main thing that's likely to make Pierre-Paul better this year is that he won't have to play with that heavy club wrap on his right arm. Pierre-Paul said the surgery he had on his hand immediately after the season will allow him to play with a four-fingered glove on his hand instead of the club, and he believes the club was a big reason he wasn't more productive as a pass-rusher when he returned last year.
"Playing with a closed fist, you're not going to be able to do anything like that," Pierre-Paul said.
Pierre-Paul agreed with McAdoo's assessment that being at practice this time of year will benefit him, his understanding and his performance in Spagnuolo's defense. He seems completely at ease and comfortable with his new defensive line teammates. He is in shape, and in a positive frame of mind, and appears ready to live up to the Giants' hopes that he plays like his old self again.
"I will never be completely back to normal," he said. "But I'm doing everything they ask me to do."
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- We spend a lot of time here assessing the numerous question marks dotting the New York Giants' roster. And there are plenty of them. But seeing the team on the field the past couple of weeks, I've been struck with one very positive impression.
The Giants' defensive line should be really good.
"We are going to make the line what we make it," newcomer Olivier Vernon said Wednesday. "Whatever we put in is what's going to come out of it. So I can't tell you right now what we're going to be. That is something you're going to have to wait and see on game day. Everybody has potential, but I see that we have a lot of good young guys as well. So we have a lot of talent, we just have to make it work."
Vernon is right, of course. Until we see the newly configured Giants defensive line play together, we shouldn't assume. Vernon is being paid like a top-flight pass-rusher but has to prove he is. Jason Pierre-Paul, projected to start at the other defensive-end spot, has to show he can play better with his damaged hand than he did last season. Defensive tackle Damon Harrison has to continue to be the best run-stuffing lineman in the league in order to justify his own monster free-agent deal. Fellow defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins is coming off an injury.
But the signs indicate strong hope that all of those things can and will happen. And if there's a position group that looks, on paper, like the strength of this team, it's that defensive line.
As any Giants fan or recent Super Bowl historian knows, this is what defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo needs to make his defense work at its best. A dominant defensive line that can collapse the pocket from all angles and pressure the passer without having to blitz. The Giants have young reserve linemen, such as Owa Odighizuwa and Kerry Wynn, who they believe can help on passing downs when Harrison comes off the field and someone -- likely Pierre-Paul -- moves inside. They think they might have found an undrafted gem in Ishaq Williams. The Giants feel extremely good about their line, and the vibe around the starting four is very positive.
Last week, they all ganged up on Harrison to try to get him to run a lap after he made a mistake in practice. The starting four do a lot of work as their own group throughout practice. And they're all looking up to Pierre-Paul, who has somehow become the line's elder statesman.
"He's a great guy," Vernon said of Pierre-Paul. "I can see why he's been good for a long period of time. He's very talented and is a good leader as well. He makes everyone feel comfortable. He's been here the longest. A lot of guys look up to him, and I see why. He's been to the big show, he's been to a couple of Pro Bowls and he's done a lot for this organization."
Pierre-Paul, back on a one-year contract a year after losing his right index finger in a July 4 fireworks accident, is on a mission to show he can still be a dominant pass-rusher and earn the long-term free-agent contract he craves. Looking at the group projected to play around him on the defensive line this year, you can talk yourself into liking his chances.
Quick: Name the New York Giants' projected three starting linebackers for 2016.
Yeah, neither can I.
Middle linebacker could be Jasper Brinkley, Keenan Robinson or even rookie B.J. Goodson. The starter on the weak side could be J.T. Thomas, Jonathan Casillas or Kelvin Sheppard, the last of whom also could be a candidate to start in the middle.
On the strong side, the picture seems clearer, with third-year linebacker Devon Kennard the clear projected starter ... as long as he stays healthy. But that last part is critical and uncertain enough to throw even that part of the Giants' linebacker plan into question.
Kennard has missed 11 games over his first two NFL seasons due to a variety of foot and leg injuries. There is legitimate concern in the Giants' braintrust about Kennard's ability to stay healthy, and some concern that the injuries he's already had may have deprived him of the explosive ability he showed in his 2014 rookie season. And if that's the case, they have a problem, because Kennard at his best offers something the Giants don't have anywhere else in their linebacker corps.
When healthy, Kennard represents an additional pass-rusher who can get after the quarterback from the defense's second level and can move up to the line on obvious passing downs. This is an important position in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's defense. It is the position they had in mind for Georgia's Leonard Floyd when they were considering using their first-round pick on him last month. And one of the reasons they had their eye on Floyd, who went to the Bears one pick before their first-round selection, was their concern about Kennard and his ability to stay on the field.
"I'm really not worried about the past," Kennard said in April. "Everybody wants to put that statement on me. There were some unfortunate deals, some hamstrings, but that's all behind me now and I'm not worried about any of that."
Until Kennard gets on the field and shows he can play the way he did in 12 games in his rookie season, the Giants have one more puzzle to solve at linebacker.
They signed Robinson, who also has an injury history, in the hope that he could start in the middle. But they drafted Goodson in the fourth round because they believe he has the ability to develop into the on-field leader Spagnuolo needs his middle linebacker to be. Goodson might need some time before he's ready to be an NFL starter, but the Giants started Uani Unga there in Week 1 last season because they didn't have any other options. If Robinson isn't healthy, it's not out of the question that Goodson could overtake incumbent Brinkley for the starting role.
Thomas and Casillas both played for the Giants last year, and while Thomas had injury issues himself, he's earned respect in the locker room and could be an on-field leader from his spot if he's out there.
But the best player in the jumbled group of Giants linebackers is Kennard, who has shown the ability to be a difference-maker at a position where the Giants haven't had many in recent years. As much as any player in camp this spring and summer, Kennard is one whose health is worth watching.
Memorial Day weekend mailbag rolls along, with all the appropriate offseason angst:
— Ian Rabin (@IanRabin) May 27, 2016
I understand the temptation to compartmentalize and check off by position. The pass rush looks good, there's depth at running back, they think they have their long-term answers at center, left guard, left tackle, etc. This is how much offseason analysis is done. For some teams, it works.
But I really think the biggest concern with the New York Giants entering training camp will continue to be roster depth. And no, that's not a cop-out answer.
As we have discussed here many, many, many, many times over the past three years, the Giants' problems are the residue of a too-lengthy run of unproductive drafts that left the roster hollowed out because not enough players developed to replace the ones that got old. They are still in the process of rebuilding that roster, and the idea that a team that went 19-29 the past three seasons could fix all of its problems with one big free-agent spending spree is naive. So if I'm the Giants, what I want to see in training camp is not just who my 22 starters are going to be, but how many of the younger players are developing to the point of being reliable backups.
The problem, for example, on the offensive line is not that John Jerry and Marshall Newhouse failed to exceed expectations last year. They didn't. They were signed as backups and forced to be starters because starters got injured and the Giants had to rely on free-agent backups to replace them. This is because the Giants haven't filled their offensive-line pipeline with homegrown replacements. The same can be said at many other positions on the roster, which is why your question could simply be answered by saying "linebacker" or "wide receiver" or "nickel cornerback" just as easily as the two examples you cited.
The Giants have four young candidates for the free safety spot, but none has proved anything. One was in college last year and the other three all missed the whole season (and a season's worth of development) to injury. Yes, 2015 seventh-rounder Bobby Hart could put himself in the mix for a starting spot, but that's a lot to ask of a seventh-rounder who barely played as a rookie. The fact that it's even possible speaks to the state of the Giants' roster. There should be 2012, 2013 and 2014 draft picks ahead of Hart for playing time. Other than the first-rounders and second-rounders on the left side of the line, there aren't.
So while I get where you're coming from, I think the Giants' biggest concerns lie beneath the starting lineup and in their foundation, which still isn't all the way back to where it needs to be. The problems here are long-term ones that are still being worked on.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- When you put up the kinds of numbers Odell Beckham Jr. has during his first two seasons, you can make people forget a lot of things. Like, how you missed huge chunks of offseason prep time for both of those seasons due to hamstring injuries.
Beckham was injured around this time each of the past two years. Hamstring injuries in 2014 cost him much of the New York Giants' offseason program, all of training camp and the first four games of his rookie season. Yet, he still managed to catch catch 91 passes for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Last year, a hamstring injury in organized team activities cost Beckham the entire June minicamp. But he was fine in training camp and ended up catching 96 passes for 1,450 yards and 13 touchdowns to make the Pro Bowl again.
This year? Well, knock on wood or throw salt over your shoulder if that's your thing, but as of now, Beckham is healthy and working with the team in OTA drills. And as great as he has been with limited offseason practice time his first two seasons, imagine what could happen if he has a full offseason of practice.
"It's just good to have him in that third season and healthy and going to all of the OTAs and being able to move him around in different spots," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said Monday. "You kind of have a controlled set of plays, just because you don't want to overload him and you want to make sure that what he does, he does it well, and then you can expand him in that and put him in different spots with matchups.
"I think now he can handle all of that. We put him in different routes and make sure he's doing them correctly. I think there's an understanding of the offense, how things are supposed to go and the timing of things, and I think that third year, he should start really picking up on that."
The notion that the Giants have been somehow limiting Beckham's role in their offense the first two years while he acclimated himself to the league is mind-boggling. In the 15 games Beckham played last year, he was the target of 27 percent of Manning's passes and the recipient of 26 percent of his completions. Only five players in the league had more targets per game than Beckham's 10.5.
But Giants coach Ben McAdoo, who was the team's offensive coordinator the past two years, wants to be able to move Beckham around the formation as much as possible. And Manning's comment indicates they've held back a bit on that the first two years and that they expect to expand the number of roles Beckham can play in the offense in Year 3. If that's the case, and if he stays healthy and it works, then it's entirely possible that Beckham's 2016 numbers could make his 2014 and 2015 numbers look pedestrian in comparison.
Fun to imagine, for sure.