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Giants-Lions: 5 things to watch in preseason opener

What should we be looking for in the Giants’ preseason opener?

Syndication: The Record Chris Pedota, / USA TODAY NETWORK

The New York Giants will be back on the football field Friday night as they open their preseason against the Detroit Lions.

The is the first of three preseason games and how teams navigate the three-game preseason will be one of the overarching storylines this August. After all, this is only the second three-game preseason and teams will likely try to incorporate lessons learned a year ago.

Preseason is always an interesting time of year as the games don’t count, but they certainly matter. We don’t know what coaches are looking for in each game, or what points they want to emphasize or evaluate.

We do know that we won’t see the full offense or defense in the preseason as teams try to keep as much off of tape as they can for the regular season. Likewise, we know that nobody is really game-planning or scheming specifically for their opponent in the pre-season. Wins are nice, but they don’t really matter. I always try to keep in mind that Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts only had three winning records in preseason (1998, 2000, and 2003), and two winless preseasons (2005, 2010).

So if we aren’t looking for wins and losses and don’t really know what specifics the coaches are looking for, what can those of us on the outside watch for in tonight’s game?

Who doesn’t play, who does, and how much?

This is probably the biggest thing to watch in all of the preseason games. Who plays, who doesn’t play, and how much those who do play will be very telling.

The Giants have been paid close attention to player health, workload, and recovery, sprinkling veteran rest days throughout camp. Player health a huge strategic advantage over the course of the regular season, and the teams that can stay healthiest the longest often put themselves in the best position to win. But also, the Giants are well aware that they’re relying heavily on a number of players with significant injury histories.

It seems unlikely that players who have been dealing injury or were recently activated off of the PUP list will play. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect important veterans like Daniel Jones, Andrew Thomas, Darren Waller, or Saquon Barkley to play more than a series or two. On the flip side, we could (or perhaps will) see players in the middle of the depth chart who could be important role players get significant work.

We also saw the starters played sparingly a year ago and it will be interesting to see if that trend continues in 2023. On the other hand, they could get more work in anticipation of the Giants’ difficult schedule to start the season.

Rookie watch

The Giants are going to be leaning pretty heavily on their rookie class this year. Deonte Banks will be one of their starting cornerbacks, John Michael Schmitz will almost certainly be the starting center, Jalin Hyatt will play a significant role in the passing offense, Eric Gray could be their primary punt returner and their RB3, and Tre Hawkins III might even see snaps with the starters at points this year.

This will be our first chance to see them on the field at full speed in live game conditions. I’m not expecting highlight reel plays, but this is our first look at those young players and a strong baseline will be encouraging.

How much of the offense do we see?

This is one of the bigger questions facing the coaches. We shouldn’t expect to see anything like the full offense or any of the wrinkles the Giants are planning for the Dallas Cowboys. However, I’m interested in seeing what aspects the coaches want to work on with the speed and chaos of live game conditions.

The joint practices were a decidedly mixed bag for the Giants’ offense. The first day they seemed to concentrate on a more vertical offense, and it was rough going. The second practice reportedly featured more quick passes and running plays. A year ago the Giants’ coaches first attempted to install a more vertical offense that Ed described to me as resembling Kevin Gilbride’s offense. They failed to get traction with it and were forced to discard it in favor of the RPO and run-based offense we saw in the first half of the 2022 season.

The Giants clearly want to add a more significant vertical element to the offense. It’s why they traded for Darren Waller, signed Parris Campbell, and drafted Jalin Hyatt, and the rookie receiver recently said as much.

So I’m interested to see which aspects of the offense the Giants choose to work on in this game. Will the Giants want to try and address the vertical aspects of the offense, or will they lean into what they know to be their strengths and formed their identity last year?

That said, I’m less interested in the actual results. Neither team is actually trying to win and the starters are unlikely to play significant snaps. Likewise, the Lions will be working on their own points of emphasis and won’t be scheming coverages to counter the Giants’ plays.

This is more about the high-level hints at what the coaches are looking to accomplish in the game than the results of any given play.

The defensive depth

There are a few ways we could go for things to watch on the defensive side of the ball. We could watch how the run defense plays — after all, that has been a point of emphasis in the Giants’ roster construction. Or we could look at how the secondary performs against the Lions’ potent passing attack.

But we need to keep in mind that this is the first preseason game. We don’t know who will (or won’t) be playing for either team, and both will be playing things close to the vest. There probably won’t be anything like scheming or game-planning involved, and players who see significant snaps might not even make their respective rosters.

Instead, I want to keep an eye on how the defensive second team plays, particularly at the edge and in the secondary.

Right now the Giants are rolling about 10 deep with defensive tackles, but their depth beyond Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari is fairly questionable. Jihad Ward did his job well enough last year, Tomon Fox was a nice surprise as a UDFA, and Oshane Ximines is back. But there’s a definite step down from the starters and I’d like to see Fox up his game from a year ago, or for players like Habakkuk Baldonado or Tashawn Bower push the players further up the depth chart.

We also know how important the secondary is to Wink Martindale’s schemes. He performed wizardry a year ago with a secondary that was held together with the football equivalent of bubblegum and duct tape. We know that Martindale’s love of sub-packages will have five, six, and even seven DBs on the field at a time — and there’s also the specter of injury to worry about. I want to see how young players like cornerbacks Tre Hawkins III and Cor’Dale Flott, safety Jason Pinnock, defensive back Nick McCoud, and cornerback Gemon Green play.

The Giants also have veterans like Darnay Holmes, Bobby McCain, and Amani Oruwariye who are largely known quantities, but the defense will be relying on youngsters throughout the year.

The roster bubble

I want to circle back to the first point for our last point and I almost included it up above. However, when the players on the roster bubble enter the game and how many snaps they get should be particularly telling.

Last year we were surprised when Devery Hamilton played almost every snap in the first preseason game. But as August wore on, it was pretty clear that he was destined for a roster spot and turned into a pretty important player.

It would be telling if linebacker Troy Brown got on the field before Carter Coughlin or Cam Brown and played more snaps than either. Likewise, if we see Hawkins on the field with Adoree’ Jackson moving into the slot, and then Cor’Dale Flott coming onto the field before (or more than) Holmes, we should probably take notice.

On the offensive side of the ball, Eric Gray seems to be the Giants’ preferred punt returner, so which of Gary Brightwell or Jashaun Corbin gets earlier or more snaps could be a glimpse into the coaches’ thinking. Similarly, what kind of personnel packages the Giants use throughout the game could be worth watching. For instance, if the Giants use more 12 personnel packages with Lawrence Cager and Chris Myarick or Tommy Sweeney getting plenty of snaps, that could bode poorly for both Brightwell and Corbin, or the wide receiver depth.

We should probably pay attention to the players at the extremes of the playing time bell curve. If a player we aren’t expecting sees extended snaps, it would suggest that the coaches are higher on him than we suspect. Likewise, if a player either doesn’t play or only gets a couple snaps, he might not be long for the roster.

Extra point: No injuries!
This one really should go without saying: Regardless of whatever else happens in this game, the most important thing is for both teams to come away healthy. Strategic concerns aside, it’s always terrible to see a player suffer a long-term injury in a game that doesn’t count.