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2009 team preview: New York Giants

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Inside Slant
When the Giants left their training camp headquarters in Albany, N.Y., they had almost as many unanswered questions as they had unpacked at the start of camp on Aug. 2. But the strange truth about that is easy to see and difficult to explain.

To wit: The Giants are going to be one of the top teams in the NFC despite a nagging question about wide receivers, despite an obvious shortage at the safety positions, despite the need for three staunch linebackers who can start week after week and despite an offensive line that is tissue-thin in its depth but rock-solid in its starting unit.

The plan is considered solid -- win with defense and the running game. And while there are questions about their safeties and linebackers, the front line is so strong that many of the problems that might surface with lesser depth might never materialize. They will utilize as many as eight linemen in a rotation system designed to wear out opposing O-lines and quarterbacks. There are two Pro Bowl players included in this group -- ends Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck -- along with well-above average players like Mathias Kiwanuka, Chris Canty, Rocky Bernard, Barry Cofield, Fred Robbins, Dave Tollefson and even a free agent rookie or two (notably Maurice Evans).

"I think the style is going to be effective," said new defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan. "We are going to concentrate on rushing the passer, on rushing into the backfield, and we have the speed and strength to do that well. Last season, under Steve Spagnuolo (now head coach in St. Louis), the linemen were at least partially responsible for pass coverage. But not now. It's pure rush, a fresh wave of quick, strong, smart football assassins in a never-ending flow.

One of the questions was centered on the wide receivers and how the Giants planned to replace Plaxico Burress (soon to be imprisoned) and Amani Toomer (the 34-year-old veteran who signed in Kansas City after no new contract from the Giants materialized).

The solution -- at least for now -- is once again built around numbers, much like the defensive line, and will utilize Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon, Mario Manningham, Sinorice Moss, David Tyree, Derek Hagan and a pair of exceptional rookies, Hakeem Nicks (first round, and he could start) and Ramses Barden (third round, and eventually he will start, too).

The running game, despite the free agent defection of Derrick Ward (Tampa Bay) is going to be a powerful weapon. The starter is 6-4, 265-pound Brandon Jacobs, backed up by the fleet Ahmad Bradshaw and a smaller Jacobs clone, Danny Ware, who is 6-0, 235 with more speed than B.J.

"I have been playing football since high school," said the 6-7, 310-pound Canty, the UFA prize from Dallas, "and I have never seen this kind of collection of defensive linemen. I don't think anyone can argue that it is the best line in the league and we are basically all young enough to get even better."

One problem might be the condition and aging of middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who showed some of those problems last season and has been held out of much of the work this summer as a precaution. He has a bad foot (no specific injury has been revealed) and did not play in the last two exhibition games. His backup is Chase Blackburn, with young Jonathan Goff behind him, and they should be able to fill the role once they gain some experience.

Do the Giants have questions? Yes, indeed. Will they win despite those questions? Indeed, they could.

COACHING: Tom Coughlin, 6th year (47-23); overall 14th year (68-58); Playoffs (8-7)

REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 12-4 (1st in NFC East); lost in second-round playoff game to Philadelphia, 23-11.

PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record: 11-5 (1st in NFC East); lose in Super Bowl 44.


Notes and Quotes
--Seventh-round draft pick CB Stoney Woodson was waived along with four FA hopefuls, TE Lee Vickers, OT Andrew Carnahan, OT Terrance Pennington and WR Taye Biddle. Woodson was waived as injured (ankle) and will receive some sort of injury compensation. Similarly, Vickers and Carnahan were waived injured as well.

--MLB Antonio Pierce practiced with the team for about half the time, and did individual drills on the sideline. He is nursing a sore foot, the nature of the injury has not been disclosed but he did say it should not be a problem for opening day.

--For the second consecutive season the Giants will open at home against their NFC East rival Washington Redskins. But following that game they embark for an unusual three-game road trip, to Dallas, Tampa and Kansas City.

--PK Lawrence Tynes, whose sore knee caused the Giants to sign veteran John Carney at the start of the 2008 season, has the job all to himself this year, but missed a 51-yard FG in perfect weather conditions last Saturday night. That sent warning signals throughout the personnel department, since as someone explained, a missed 51-yarder in ideal weather translates into a missed 41- or 42-yarder in the wind and rain.

BY THE NUMBERS: 24 -- The number of draft choices officially made by new general manager Jerry Reese before one, CB Stoney Woodson, was cut. All eight selections made the team in 2007 and all seven last year (with QB Andre Woodson on the practice squad and DE Robert Henderson on injured reserve). Nine picks were made last April.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "We might have lost the game (vs. the Jets Aug. 29) but basically we played a good game. I thought we showed progress in the areas where we had to and listen, if this was a game that counted, our regulars would have been in all night, and you saw how well our 'ones' played." -- Giants' DT Fred Robbins.


Strategy and Personnel
PLAYER NOTES

--DE Osi Umenyiora, the Pro Bowl veteran who sat out all of last season with a knee injury, missed practice last Monday, an unexcused absence. He had appeared at the stadium in the morning, attended meetings and then just left. Apparently he was "offended" when D-coordinator Bill Sheridan singled him out for a missed play during the Saturday exhibition against the Jets. He has since issued an apology and will apparently be fined by head coach Tom Coughlin.

--It is still speculative whether starting RCB Aaron Ross (hamstring) will be ready for the season opener Sept. 13 against the Redskins. He has missed most of the preseason games and was given clearance to return to practice two weeks ago only to re-pull the hamstring. There is some thought that he might be a candidate for the enriched-plasma treatment currently being used on DT Chris Canty.

--Rookie OT Will Beatty has made progress and seems to be ready for the next step, which is to determine whether he can safely be listed as the backup to the two starters, Kareem McKenzie and David Diehl. He was drafted as a LT (Diehl's spot) but he is not thought to be close to starting status yet.

--While the Giants have experimented with the "Wildcat offense" it is not thought ready to become part of their arsenal just yet. "We have some plays," said head coach Tom Coughlin, "but our offense will not see many changes from what we know works for us." This year, it could be short passes and the running game until some of the young WRs display enough potential for a deep aerial game.

--WR Hakeem Nicks, the No. 1 draft pick, had six catches for 144 yards and two TDs against the Jets Aug. 29 but shrugged that off. "I'm doing only what I'm supposed to do, what I've been coached to do," he said. "My job is to help the team win and to run the routes called for in the plays."

--WLB Michael Boley returned to practice for the second day after being removed from the Active-PUP list and showed no loss of movement or quickness. He was one of the prizes signed during the UFA period, along with DTs Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard.

The only subject up for speculation is whether the Giants are satisfied with their stable of wide receivers or are considering making an offer for unhappy Denver star Brandon Marshall.

He is, in many ways, a clone of Plaxico Burress -- both in size Marshall is 6-4 and 230 -- and in the fact that he appears to be a magnet for off-the-field troubles. Nevertheless, he caught 104 passes last season for 1,265 yards and six TDs, and that kind of production can withstand several coaches' headaches.

PLAYER TO WATCH: SS Travonti Johnson, a free agent, was originally signed by the Giants in 2007, released and then re-signed and place on the practice squad in 2008. He spent the 2007 out of football. Johnson has been a revelation in training camp and plays a position where the Giants are painfully thin. So the 6-2, 190-pounder from Central Florida has a chance not only to make the roster and help on special teams but to see some game action as well.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/29, WR Hakeem Nicks, North Carolina -- Had a breakout game in the third exhibition against the Jets with six catches for 144 yards and two TDs, including a 71-yarder. Shows size and speed, a quick study in terms of the playbook and should challenge for the starting split end job in the next few weeks.

Rd. 2/45, SLB Clint Sintim, Virginia -- According to G.M. Jerry Reese, "Sintim is a full-grown man," and he has played like that. At 6-2 and 256, he has flashed pass-rushing skills, ball-tracking skills and a genuine knack for making each tackle as hard as possible. He will challenge for the job currently held by veteran Danny Clark.

Rd. 2/OT Will Beatty, Connecticut -- He showed up at a slight disadvantage because of the level of competition to which he was accustomed, or was it just the fact that he had to go against Pro Bowl DE Osi Umenyiora from the start? Beatty has the size and athleticism to win a job next season and help out more than a little right now.

Rd. 3/85, WR Ramses Barden, Cal Poly -- The prototype of departed Plaxico Burress, the 6-6, 226-pound Barden -- "with hands like cartons," according to one scout -- will develop into a genuine red zone weapon and has shown enough speed to get downfield in a rush.

Rd. 3/100 -- TE Travis Beckum, Wisconsin -- Good size and improving blocking skills make Beckum the backup TE behind Kevin Boss and will probably allow for the Giants to carry only two at the position, probably waiving Darcy Johnson and Michael Matthews.

Rd. 4/129 -- RB Andre Brown, North Carolina State -- He showed a lot of flash and dash until rupturing an Achilles tendon during practice at training camp and has been placed on the preseason Injured Reserve list, thereby rendering him unavailable for the season.

Rd. 5/151 -- QB Rhett Bomar, Sam Houston State -- Bomar started his college career at Oklahoma as one of the nation's top recruits, choosing the Sooners over Texas and Florida State. But an NCAA infraction in which he accepted a no-show job caused his suspension from the team and he subsequently decided to transfer. He has shown tons of promise and should stick.

Rd. 6/200 -- CB DeAndre Wright, New Mexico -- Could make it as a special teams contributor and has an outside chance to develop. Needs much work.

Rd. 7/238 -- CB Stoney Woodson, South Carolina -- He was released on Sept. 1.

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACK: Starter -- Eli Manning. Backups -- David Carr, Rhett Bomar, Andre Woodson.

Manning recently signed the biggest contract extension in the history of the NFL, and with the inclusion of this year's contract, he will earn approximately $15 a year for the next seven years. The extension was six years at $97.5 million, with $35 million guaranteed. He has grown since earning his first full starting season in 2005 and while he won't be able to pile up statistics as flashy as his older brother Peyton, he is becoming a formidable tactician, managing the game and not making mistakes that take the team out of the chance to win.

Carr is a veteran backup who might be playing his final year for the Giants. His contract runs out at the end of this season and the one-time first overall pick in the draft (Houston-2002) still thinks he can start for another team. He may well be right. Bomar seems to have the edge over Woodson for clip-board and headset details.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Brandon Jacobs, FB Madison Hedgecock. Backups -- Ahmad Bradshaw, Danny Ware, Allen Patrick.

Jacobs had 1,089 yards last year and is confident he'll do better this year. All he has to do is remain healthy. But the way he runs and the force with which he crashes his 6-4, 265-pound body into tacklers almost guarantees a few nicks and bumps along the way. Hedgecock, 6-3 and 265, is one of the NFL's top blocking backs and helps made the running game as effective as it is.

Bradshaw has speed and quickness and is an effective change of pace from the bullish Jacobs. Ware is in-between at 6-0 and 230; he can run with power and he shows sufficient quickness to turn the corners. Patrick probably won't make the final 53-man roster but could be used on the practice squad.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Kevin Boss. Backups -- Travis Beckum, Michael Matthews, Darcy Johnson.

Boss was the replacement for Jeremy Shockey near the end of the 2007 season and played his way into the Super Bowl (making a key 45-yard catch). He is big (6-6, 265) and has good speed, and with Shockey traded away in July of 2008, the job became his to keep.

The rookie Beckum will be his backup, showing good size and hands while learning to be a better blocker. One of the other two will possibly make the team but the Giants could go with just two at the position.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon. Backups -- Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, Ramses Barden, Sinorice Moss, David Tyree, Derek Hagan.

It is entirely possible that Hixon will not keep his starting job. He has continued to drop passes and run less-than-precise routes, opening the door for the first round draft pick Nicks. Smith is a quality possession receiver with speed, and despite his drop of a clear 90-yard score vs. the Jets Aug. 29, will remain sure-handed all season. Nicks has more strength than Hixon and is clearly a better receiver.

Barden, the 6-6, 226-pound rookie, should fight for playing time with Manningham, last year's No. 3 draft pick. Tyree, one of the heroes of SB 42 (the helmet catch) may not stick around this year after missing all of last season with knee surgery. Moss has had numerous chances and may be out of luck. Hagan has been impressive.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT David Diehl, LG Rich Seubert, C Shaun O'Hara, RG Chris Snee, RT Kareem McKenzie. Backups -- LT Will Beatty, LG Tutan Reyes, C/G Adam Koets, RT Guy Whimper, RG Kevin Boothe.

The Giants' starting unit is hailed as one of the top such in the league, but there are still doubters who insist that Diehl would be better served -- and would better serve the offense -- if he played guard. He has been the LT for the past two years and hasn't embarrassed himself. Last year he allowed 6.5 sacks, which put him somewhere in the middle of all LTs in the NFL. Snee made the Pro Bowl, as did O'Hara, while McKenzie is usually troubled with back spasms and Seubert with a sore shoulder. McKenzie's problem is one reason why the Giants drafted Beatty (as his eventual replacement). Reyes is a 10-year veteran signed to replace another veteran reserve, Grey Ruegamer, who signed in Seattle. But he has since been released and might re-surface with the Giants.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Justin Tuck, LT Barry Cofield, RT Fred Robbins, RE Osi Umenyiora. Backups -- DT Chris Canty, DT Rocky Bernard, DE Mathias Kiwanuka, DE Dave Tollefson, DE Maurice Evans, DE Tommie Hill, DT Jeremy Clark, DT Leger Douzable, DT Anthony Bryant, DE Robert Henderson, DT Jay Alford.

Tuck and Umenyiora, both veterans of the Pro Bowl, will alternate pass-rushing duties with Kiwanuka and possibly Tollefson while Robbins and Cofield slowly give way to UFA prizes Canty and Bernard. Canty may start once he gets his torn hamstring mended with enriched-plasma transfusion therapy. Evans is an impressive undrafted rookie who should stick. Hill has had his moments. Clark has the edge over Douzable and Bryant, though none of them may wind up on the final 53. Henderson is a long-shot DE reserve while Alford, who is a near blue-chipper, suffered knee injuries vs. Chicago and might be placed on Injured Reserve. In all, however, this collection of D-linemen might be the best in the NFL.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- SLB Danny Clark, MLB Antonio Pierce, WLB Michael Boley. Backups -- SLB Clint Sintim, MLB Chase Blackburn, MLB Jonathan Goff, WLB Bryan Kehl, WLB Gerris Wilkinson, SLB Zak DeOssie, WLB Kenny Ingram.

Clark is barely holding off the charge mounted by No. 2 rookie pick Sintim, who should win the job sooner than later. Pierce is fighting his own battle -- with loss of speed, and while he has been troubled by a sore foot (no specific diagnosis has been made available) he seems to be in position to hold his job. Boley won't be able to play until Game 2 (NFL suspension for one game) and missed all of training camp with hip surgery. Still, as a prize UFA acquisition, he'll get every chance to start based on his speed and tackling. Blackburn is a versatile performer with great size and range but not likely to hold a starting job. Goff has more of a chance to unseat Pierce, but not this year. Kehl has moved ahead of Wilkinson while Ingram has virtually no chance at all.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Corey Webster, RCB Aaron Ross, SS Kenny Phillips, FS Michael Johnson. Backups -- CB Kevin Dockery, CB Terrell Thomas, CB Bruce Johnson, SS Travonti Johnson, SS Vince Anderson, FS C.C. Brown, FS Sha'reff Rashad.

The corners present talent and depth, once Ross returns from a lingering hamstring pull. Webster is a solid cover corner and the tandem of Thomas and Dockery could probably start on many other teams. If Johnson makes it at all it will be as a special teamer; similarly, that is Wright's only chance. Anderson and Johnson will both be difficult to cut, and as free agents they have waged a spirited battle for attention in training camp -- and earned it. Brown was an unrestricted free agent product but has not impressed. Rashad has little or no chance.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Lawrence Tynes, P Jeff Feagles, LS Zak DeOssie, KOR Ahmad Bradshaw, PR Domenik Hixon, PR Sinorice Moss, KR Mario Manningham.

Tynes is a flawed PK who will miss easy ones and nail longer ones. He will drive the coaches crazy. Feagles is the opposite, a reliable, dependable veteran entering his 22nd season and probably a master at directional and out of bounds punting. DeOssie was the snapper on punts, Jay Alford on kicks, but Alford may well be placed on Injured Reserve (knee) and DeOssie will inherit both jobs. Similarly, there is still confusion as to the identity of the return guys, since head coach Tom Coughlin likes to make sure they aren't starters. Hence, Hixon may or may not return punts and Manningham may or may not return kickoffs.

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