The New York Giants training camp opens this Friday, and as a result, we get to talk about real, honest to goodness football again. Over the course of this offseason, plenty of questions have arisen with many answers lying ahead in the grassy weeds of training camp. How will first-round rookie Ereck Flowers perform in live action? Will Victor Cruz return to full power? How will our cornerbacks hold up? These our a few questions worth pondering, but today is all about the glorious back-page fodder of humid August football. Starting on offense, and working our way to the other side of the ball, we are going to take the pulse of a few training camp battles to keep an eye on over the coming weeks.
The fight to be TE2 may be the one with the highest stakes heading into camp. Adrien Robinson was drafted to be a developmental tight end, yet heading into his fourth year has yet to show much progress. The contender, the crafty veteran out of UC Davis, is Daniel Fells; a player who caught a career-high four touchdowns last year with the Giants despite having accrued six seasons in the league already.
Neither player will give this place up without a fight, and we all know what an August darling that Robinson can be. Coaches will rave about how this is the year that he's finally taken that leap forward. Well, if it doesn't happen, he could be out of a job. The second TE spot is usually either a developmental player, or a capable veteran. Developmental veteran has no use in the league, and capable players are everywhere.
If neither Robinson nor Fells make a definitive impression, one of three undrafted players could sneak in as possibilities. Jerome Cunningham was with the Giants last year, and spent most of the year on the practice squad but did see some special teams work late in the season. Joining him in the fight at the roster fringe will be a pair of rookies, Matt LaCosse and Will Tye. Realistically, it will take a Cruz-like performance in the preseason to get the TE2 spot, but it's not like anyone here is up against Mark Bavaro in his prime. It's all do-able. It's open. It's worth watching.
Should anything happen to Larry Donnell, the Giants need someone who can step in and be reliable. Robinson hasn't proven he can be that guy. Fells has, and seems like the logical choice. Whomever loses out of the top two will likely be cut, so that Cunningham can stay on the active roster for special teams contributions with either LaCosse or Tye landing on the practice squad.
The fourth receiver spot is a tricky one, because it's often dictated by what you can bring to the team elsewhere in the game. Special teams, punt and kick returns and even veteran knowledge are all factors that go into determining who gets this job. The fourth receiver doesn't play many snaps per game, but they need to be trustworthy for the precious minutes they do see the field.
Right up until the moment that players reported for camp, it looked like this role had Dwayne Harris written all over it. The Giants gave him a $17 million contract so, having him stick purely to special teams isn't getting the most out of their investment. He also makes a lot of sense in the slot opposite Cruz, with Odell Beckham Jr. and Reuben Randle on the outside for four-receiver sets.
Another key point to watch is that the Giants may give Cruz limited snaps for the first few weeks. In such situations, Harris is the ideal candidate to spell the player while he continues his recovery; a process which is not over simply because he has started playing again.
However, with the team about to sign James Jones to a one-year deal, all of that goes up in smoke. Jones is head and shoulders above Harris as a receiver in terms of career production and his addition completely changes the landscape of this receiver group. Jones will get the job, and Harris will predominantly work as a returner.
Corey Washington, Preston Parker and the remaining receivers now compete almost certainly for bragging rights in a contest of survival. Considering the team also spent a sixth-rounder on Geremy Davis in this past draft, it means that even if they were to keep six receivers for next season, it probably wouldn't be Washington or Parker.
Jones gets the job as the fourth receiver and handles the red-zone duties that Washington may have had, while Harris is a returner who sees action in garbage time. I don't think they keep Davis on the active roster. He wasn't even projected as a sixth rounder so sneaking him past waivers and back to the scout team shouldn't be a problem. Right up until Thursday, this looked like the most interesting camp battle to watch. Now, with one extra player involved, it seems all but sewn up. That said, could Jones potentially show enough to push Randle for snaps as the third receiver?
After the draft, it looked like the Giants had one of the most stacked defensive lines in the league. Skip forward to now, and the buzz has considerably died down as both presumed starters at defensive end have suffered damages. Robert Ayers injured his ankle in OTAs and Jason Pierre-Paul is missing a finger, a contract and any kind of communication skills. News about Ayers is few and far between, but there are plenty of reports regarding Pierre-Paul, though none offer any indication of when, or if, the team can expect to see him.
So it looks as though the Giants will head into camp with Damontre Moore as one of their starting DEs. The third-year pro showed significant progress last year and the team hope he can continue to develop into a well-rounded player over the next season. This was expected to be a battle between Moore and Ayers for the starting spot opposite Pierre-Paul, but now it looks as though Moore has been gifted the opportunity of a lifetime.
As a result, the main competition could come from Owa Odighizuwa, the Giants' third-round pick from UCLA. He had a couple of big hip injuries in college which caused him to fall in the draft, but his production last year did a lot to quell some of those doubters. What he has working for him is a position group in flux, a new defensive coordinator without any pre-existing favorites, and most importantly, a promising ability to defend the run.
When healthy and present, it's probable that Ayers and Pierre-Paul are the starters, but Odighizuwa and Moore will compete to be the top replacement. Moore's run defense was noticeably lacking in 2014, so if he doesn't improve, it'll prompt a move to the rookie or either of the unspectactular, but reliable players Kerry Wynn and George Selvie.
The only fully healthy player I think could play really well in all phases of the game is Odighizuwa. Moore's experience will give him a head-start, but his chances of staying ahead begin and end with how well he can stop the run. Selvie and Wynn are good insurance policies, but if we see either of them starting, it means this position group has been hit by further injuries, or worse, poor draft analysis.
It wouldn't be a New York Giants training camp without some questions surrounding their linebackers. Last season, we saw Devon Kennard put in a brilliant effort which restored some kind of hope in this team's capacity to assess talent at this position. This year, it's a trio of free agents duking it out for starter's honors.
J.T. Thomas seems like he'll get first crack at the job, and I'm basing that purely on his absurd contract rather than last year's performance. Thomas had multiple really bad games in 2014, but played well against the Giants, so I can only assume that that was why they signed him to a contract no team was going to match. He's a player whose aggressiveness gets in his own way, and needs serious coaching to be worthy of the starting position he's likely to inherit.
That's why my money is on Jonathan Casillas to start on opening day. Over the course of his six-seasons, Casillas has shown flashes of being more than just a role player and special teams ace. The Giants have a strong duo in Devon Kennard and Jon Beason with Mark Herzlich and Jameel McClain as solid backups. They don't need a flashy player to line up alongside them. Casillas would be the safer, more dependable choice.
I think Thomas runs with the first team hrough camp and the preseason, eventually loses the job as the year stretches on. He was an underwhelming player on an underwhelming team last year. Hopefully, his raw talent can be focused and polished, but if Spagnuolo thinks he's a weak link here, Thomas will be relegated to a more-fitting situational role.
No Giants article would be complete nowadays without mentioning the massive overhaul at the safety position. Regardless of who wins this job, New York will have two new brand new starters. The move comes at a time when the team is transitioning (back) to Spagnuolo's style of defense. Despite being known as the man who unleashed an unrelenting pass rush on Tom Brady during the Patriots' perfect season, Spagnuolo is actually a very specialized defensive backs coach; a specific title which he has held seven different times in his career.
Maybe this is the perfect time to overhaul the position. We can pencil in Landon Collins as the strong safety, but that pushes a bunch of potential starters there into the competition for snaps at free-safety. The two designations are not as different as they used to be, thanks in part to a larger reliance on the passing game, but it's not as simple as one player on the left and one on the right. Collins will handle the in-the-box tackling duties and act as an extra linebacker in run support.
The Giants have a pair of extra strong safeties in Cooper Taylor and Nat Berhe. Both were fifth round picks, and both have shown potential, but neither has the pedigree to be handed the job. Berhe should be the early choice for transition as he has some experience at both iterations of the position, and he finished the year as the team's leading special teams tackler, a trait not to be overlooked in a defensive back.
Taylor on the other hand is more of a natural strong safety. Early on, there was even talk about playing him at linebacker, but his string of injuries meant just getting on the field at all made it difficult. He had a strong pre-season in 2014, and will look to replicate that, but it will be difficult to trust him as a starter until he proves he can even survive as a role-player.
Ideally, whoever starts opposite him would be an experienced veteran who can pick up the slack for a maturing rookie, but the Giants don't really have that option on the table. The only possibility to take that direction would be pushing Jeromy Miles into the line-up. Miles played well in limited action under Spagnuolo's tutelage in Baltimore, earning a bunch of positive grades from Pro Football Focus, but it remains to be seen whether he has the gusto to be the leading man on the tail end of the defense.
Berhe will definitely be prioritized considering the draft capital invested, but Miles' history with Spagnuolo may prompt a switch to a more seasoned player while Collins finds his footing at the pro level. This isn't an area where early reports will indicate who will start in the regular season. The team needs to experiment and find a balance that works. It's a steel-sharpens-steel situation. A strong rotation with an open competition where each player gets a chance to prove themselves with the first team will benefit the team as a whole.