Jason Pierre-Paul holds the key to the effectiveness of the New York Giants defense in 2014. That was the case a season ago, when for a variety of reasons Pierre-Paul fell flat on his face with a two-sack, zero impact season, and it remains the case entering this season.
In an article listing 'hinge' players entering the 2014 seasons -- players who have their team's whole season riding on them -- Mike Tanier of Sports On Earth puts the burden for the success or failure of the Giants on Pierre-Paul:
All of the familiar faces are gone from the Giants' defensive line. All that is left is JPP, JPP's expectations, JPP's injuries and JPP's disappointments, which makes for a troubling front four. OK, that's not quite true: Damontre Moore and Johnathan Hankins have upside, Cullen Jenkins is disruptive in spurts and Mathias Kiwanuka is still in the Kennedy rocker telling "how our front four single-handedly beat the undefeated Patriots" stories none of the youngsters believe. Without something close to the 2011 version of JPP, the Giants will have more trouble rushing the passer than the Cowboys.
I might argue with Tanier that Eli Manning shares as much, if not more, of that burden for the 2014 season. Defensively, however, there is little doubt that whether or not the Giants' defense is pedestrian or premier depends upon what version of Pierre-Paul they get.
The Giants have vastly upgraded their secondary with free-agent signees Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Walter Thurmond and Zack Bowman. You can't cover guys forever, though, and without a pass rush you can still get torched in the passing game.
The Giants will have middle linebacker Jon Beason from the beginning this season. That helps their leadership and their run defense, but Beason is no longer an elite play-maker. The Giants still don't have one of those at linebacker. Pierre-Paul is the guy on the front seven who can be a difference-maker.
The Giants lost defensive tackle Linval Joseph and defensive end Justin Tuck. Johnathan Hankins and Robert Ayers should be fine as replacements, Damontre Moore should grow into a role as a pass-rusher and third-round pick Jay Bromley could help the rotation. Pierre-Paul, again, is the only guy along the front who has shown he can be special.
Last July, I wrote "Jason Pierre-Paul and his surgically repaired back hold the key to the success or failure of the New York Giants defense in 2013."
Despite the improvements around him, that burden falls on Pierre-Paul once again. Will he be able to carry it, or will he and the Giants buckle once again?
Pierre-Paul said earlier this offseason that he has shed 15 pounds, down to 270, and that he is "going to go out there and play like I was 21 again."
Pierre-Paul is only 25, but to be honest it seems like an old 25. Maybe that's because we haven't seen his best in so long -- his breakout season was his 16.-5-sack All-Pro 2011 season. Maybe it's because Pierre-Paul sounds like an old man, saying things like "I can't hang with the young cats like I used to."
Whatever. If the Giants are going to exorcise the demons of two straight playoff-less seasons old man Pierre-Paul needs to find the Fountain of Youth, rise from the ashes of mediocrity and be spectacular once again.