Under Tom Coughlin, the New York Giants have been the kings of the slow start and the big finish. In their Super Bowl years of 2007 and 2012, they ended the regular season with 10 and nine wins, respectively, catching fire at just the right time. In 2013, they compiled a big finish, too, but missed the playoffs for the second straight year. Coughlin's team lost its first six games before reeling off four straight wins and ending with a 7-9 record that turned out to be fairly impressive, all things considered.
With injuries along the defensive and offensive lines, the Giants were unable to play their usually fundamentally sound football, and that started with Eli Manning. New York's franchise quarterback had his worst season to date, leading the league in interceptions with 27 and posting his lowest yards per attempt total (6.9) since 2007. Of course, it wasn't all Manning's fault: The receivers were inconsistent, the line was porous at best, and a rushing attack that used to define the franchise as much as anything else fell to 30th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted rankings. The defense was more efficient and effective despite key injuries, but general manager Jerry Reese made wholesale changes on both sides of the ball to try to bring the G-Men back to prominence.
Reese jettisoned receiver Hakeem Nicks and replaced him with LSU's Odell Beckham, Jr., the 12th overall pick in the draft. Beckham is a dynamic speedster who can burn defenders in the slot and outside, and he should team with Victor Cruz to pose serious problems for secondaries over time. An underperforming offensive line was given talent injections with free-agent guard Geoff Schwartz and second-round center Weston Richburg. The run game got a shot in the arm with Rashad Jennings, who ranked in the top-10 in all kinds of efficiency metrics despite playing with a moribund Raiders team. And on defense, Reese added cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond — combined with Prince Amukamara, that secondary could be pretty special.
There are still questions at certain positions, and the quarterback situation is as undefined as it's been in almost a decade, but there's no question that the Giants were proactive to a fault. Now, they have to wait to see whether the moves made were the right ones.
Best acquisition: Geoff Schwartz, OG
This is a monumental upgrade. For the Giants last year, Kevin Boothe played the most games at left guard (nine) and ranked 51st in Pro Football Focus' positional metrics, allowing three sacks, five quarterback hits and 10 hurries. in 12 total games for the Chiefs, Schwartz ranked ninth in those same metrics, allowing two sacks, two hits and six hurries. Schwartz graded highly in pass-blocking and run-blocking, and if he plays as he did last season, he'll make the first year of his four-year, $16.8 million contract more than worthwhile.
Biggest loss: Linval Joseph, DT
Joseph was one of the few Giants defenders who stayed healthy all season and played at a very high level, amassing 26 run stops, eight quarterback hits and 11 quarterback hurries in addition to his 59 tackles and 3.0 sacks. The Vikings outbid for Joseph to the tune of $31.5 million over the next five seasons, and the Giants will press second-year man Johnathan Hankins into service as Joseph's replacement. That's one of many questions along the Giants' front seven, right up there with the health of end Jason Pierre-Paul and linebacker Jon Beason, and whether Robert Ayers can replace Justin Tuck. If Hankins can't step it up, opponents could find it all too easy to run inside against New York's defense.
Underrated draft pick: Devon Kennard, OLB, USC (fifth round, 174th overall pick)
Beason, one of the team's stars, suffered a foot injury in OTAs and is not expected to man the weakside and/or middle linebacker positions by opening day. Jameel McClain will move over from the strong side in the interim, leaving Spencer Paysinger as the ostensible starter over there. But Kennard, who impressed enough in those same OTAs to be in the mix for one of the three starting positions sooner than later, could help out a lot if he can just get past the injury concerns that dogged him in college. He missed the entire 2012 season with a torn pectoral muscle, and he also has had hip, knee and thumb issues. But he's fast and dynamic when healthy, and he'll see a lot of time at special teams right away at the very least.
Looming question for training camp: Is this the beginning of the end for Eli Manning?
Manning's two Super Bowl wins have some considering him a future Hall-of-Famer, but the here and now is more troublesome. This Manning has rarely shown the skill to transcend his surroundings — in other words, if the line and the receiver corps aren't at a certain level, this Manning finds it difficult to raise his offense out of it. And it's entirely possible that, at age 33, this Manning has shown us the best we're going to see from him. However, there is room for optimism, and it comes with the hire of first-year offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, who spent 2006 through 2013 on the Packers' staff and the last two seasons as Aaron Rodgers' quarterback coach. Former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride wasn't always as flexible as he needed to be with Manning, calling plays that required deep drops when when his quarterback was under siege from enemy defenses.
Manning and Philip Rivers will forever be linked due to the trade that set their fortunes in 2004, and Manning hopes that McAdoo can have the same transformative effect on him that Chargers head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt had on Rivers in 2013. Like McCoy and Whisenhunt did for Rivers, McAdoo intends to shorten Manning's drops, base the passing game on timing, and give him quicker and easier reads. Can Manning align himself historically with Rivers yet again? The Giants had better hope so; backups Curtis Painter and Ryan Nassib aren't exactly ready for prime time.