As the New York Giants open their 2017 NFL season let’s look at who the team’s most important players will be as the year unfolds. This list will be based partially on talent, obviously. More than that, though, it will be based on what the player means, or could mean, to the Giants.
1. Odell Beckham Jr.
I am not buying any argument that says a wide receiver can lead a team to a Super Bowl title. Plaxico Burress was incredibly important to the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl run, but he didn’t lead them. Eli Manning and the defense did. That’s how it works. Quarterbacks and defenses are the most critical elements to titles.
The Giants, though, aren’t winning big unless Beckham is Beckham. He’s the game-wrecker, the guy who opposing defense have to plan and account for on every snap.
2. Eli Manning
Manning’s start Sunday night will be his 200th straight in the regular season. Debate all you want where Manning stands when you rank his contemporaries, whether he’s a Hall of Famer, or whatever. The Giants aren’t winning a Super Bowl this year with Geno Smith or Davis Webb behind center.
3. Landon Collins
Defensive captain Jonathan Casillas calls him “the play maker” of the defense. I prefer to call him the tone setter. His energy, play-making ability and crunching hits set the tone for a terrific defense. Collins, also, is a guy who impacts every level of the defense — from the pass rush to defending the deep ball.
4. Ereck Flowers
Remember when I said the list wouldn’t be based on talent? Well, Flowers is obviously not the fourth-most talented player on the roster. He is, however, the most important non-star player the Giants have.
GM Jerry Reese has, basically, drawn a line in the sand and said that Flowers is the Giants left tackle in 2017 for better or for worse. If it’s for better, and Flowers is at least adequate protecting Manning’s blind side, the Giants could do big things on offense. If it’s for worse the offense will suffer. Worse, we could end up watching Smith or Webb play quarterback.
5/6. Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul
How do you separate these two? I couldn’t. Put the two star defensive end book ends in whatever order you like. They both defend the run exceptionally as as well rush the passer. Neither is a perfect player, but together they form a dynamic combination. Each played too many snaps last season, but it’s understandable that the Giants wouldn’t want guys this good to be standing on the sidelines.
7. Damon Harrison
An extraordinary player. A 350-pound man who moves like a guy 100 pounds lighter, but anchors the middle of the defense like a Sumo wrestler. No one else does what Harrison does.
8. Janoris Jenkins
Every great defense needs a No. 1 shut down corner. That is what Jenkins was for the Giants in 2016. They need him to be that guy again.
9. B.J. Goodson
The biggest change on the Giants’ defense is that Goodson, a second-year player, is now the middle linebacker and signal-caller. Coaches and teammates alike have been praising Goodson for months. They need to be right that the 2016 fourth-round pick can handle the job. You can’t have a great defense with a hole in the middle.
10/11/12. Evan Engram/Brandon Marshall/Sterling Shepard
I’m lumping these three receivers together because, while they have different skill sets and will be asked to do it in different ways, they all have the same job and are of equal importance to that job. What is that job? Provide the Giants play-making options in different parts of the field to spread defenses and either get them out of or make them pay for the Cover 2 look that bedeviled the Giants offense last season.
13. Aldrick Rosas
Simple. Placekickers win and lose games in the NFL. The Giants are gambling that Rosas, who will kick in a real NFL game for the first time Sunday night, will be up to the challenge. He needs to be.
14. Eli Apple
As terrific as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was last season, at 31 he can’t stay at the top of his game forever. The Giants drafted Apple because they thought he could turn into a top-flight cornerback. They need him to stay healthy and make progress toward becoming exactly that.
15/16. Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg
By reputation, these are the Giants two best offensive linemen. In 2016, the Giants didn’t get enough from either player. Pugh played really well until missing five games with a knee injury. Richburg was hampered all year by a hand injury. Good health and solid play all season from these two will go a long way toward helping the Giants improve on offense in 2017.
17. Paul Perkins
The Giants need to run the ball more effectively than they have the past couple of seasons. Much of that will be about the blocking. Perkins, though, has to show that the Giants were right in making him their lead back.
18. Bobby Hart
Hart expects to be better this season, and the Giants need him to be. The Giants will face a number of extraordinary pass rushers this season — Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Jose Bosa among them — and often times those guys will be lined up over Hart. Like Flowers, the Giants are counting on him to handle them.
19. Rhett Ellison
The tight end/H-Back won’t put up gaudy stats. That’s not what the Giants signed him for. He was signed because he gives the Giants something they didn’t have a year ago — a tight end they can depend on as a blocker. Ellison’s job will be to help the tackles and to either help seal the edge or occasional lead block in the running game. He can also be a decent safety valve for Manning in the passing game.
20. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
This isn’t commensurate with his talent — he would be higher on the list if it was. DRC’s work in the slot, his play-making ability, and his ability to play on the outside when necessary, remain important to the Giants.