Facing a make-or-break year for the coaches and front office, the Giants better hope their off-season acquisitions move the needle.
The Giants have won two Super Bowls in the last eight seasons, the only team with more than one title in that span, and despite that elite status, the franchise finds itself in quite a pickle. Tom Coughlin's team has made the playoffs just once in the last six seasons and has lost more games than the previous year three years running.
Last season's 6–10 mark was the worst record under Coughlin since his first season as the team's coach in 2004. Injuries played a part, to be sure—the secondary was particularly affected—and an offensive line that was once the strength of the team was severely depleted. While the G-men kept up their sack-happy tradition of recent years—their 47 quarterback takedowns were the third-most in the NFL—they ranked 21st in Football Outsiders's pass defense metrics and 24th in overall opponent-adjusted defense. The offense turned around to an impressive degree in Ben McAdoo's first season as coordinator, with Eli Manning enjoying a career year in many respects. Still, a disappointing third-place finish signaled that changes needed to be made.
The Giants made a prominent and necessary move at the defensive coordinator position, replacing Perry Fewell with Steve Spagnuolo, who also held that title with the Giants in 2007 and '08, when New York's NASCAR defensive front bewildered its opponents. It will be Spagnuolo's job to resurrect a defense that has fallen off over time and try to match the results put up on the other side of the ball by McAdoo, who replaced longtime Coughlin lieutenant Kevin Gilbride last year.
“The energy, enthusiasm and strong personality that we saw before in Steve Spagnuolo, all of that was very evident again," Coughlin said in mid-January, when “Spags” was re-hired. "His desire to be a Giant again was very, very obvious.”
In an attempt to help the offensive line, the Giants made a controversial and head-scratching move on the first day of the draft, selecting Miami offensive tackle Ereck Flowers with the ninth pick. The 6'6", 329-pound Flowers fits the Giants' desire for aggressive and physical blockers, but his technique is, to put it kindly, a little raw. Coughlin compared Flowers to a battleship and an aircraft carrier after picking him, which would be great except for the fact that Flowers occasionally resembles these two giant structures when he's trying to pass-block.
The Giants also added Alabama safety Landon Collins in the second round, UCLA defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa in the third, and do-it-all defensive back Mykkele Thompson from Texas in the fifth. Those picks aimed to inject young blood into the defense of a team that could see a lot of change in the near future. The Giants gave Coughlin a one-year extension in March, and Manning is entering a contract year, as well. Team owner John Mara, who says he considered “firing everyone” after Big Blue's Week 13 loss to the Jaguars, could also be looking to replace general manager Jerry Reese if things don't turn around in 2015.
Those factors make it a make-or-break year for one of the NFL's most storied franchises. We can only wait and see if the key characters have the horses to stave off their own professional extinction.
Best acquisition: Shane Vereen, RB
The Giants aren't necessarily scrapping the running back rotation of Andre Williams and Rashad Jennings, though that duo proved to be a relative disappointment in 2014, as Williams led the team with 721 yards and seven touchdowns. But Vereen, the former situational standout with the Patriots, could wind up being more than the third-down back he was originally projected to be when the Giants signed him to a three-year, $12.35 million deal in March. Vereen is outstanding out of the backfield as a receiver, and he understands the no-huddle sets McAdoo prefers from his New England days. If the Giants want to go to a more spread-out offense—and every indication is that they do—Vereen is the optimal back to be on the field more often, because he can line up all over the formation and contribute as a runner and a receiver.
“You can see why Shane has had some of the success he has had,” McAdoo said last week. “He can be a quarterback’s best friend in a way in the passing game. Similar to the way tight ends can be. He has great body language coming out of the backfield. He usually does not fool the quarterback and they seem to be on the same page and it happened pretty early.”
Biggest loss: Antrel Rolle, S
The Giants selected Collins and Thompson in the draft to solidify their safety rotation, but the loss of Rolle in free agency to the Bears could be a big hit in the short term. The 32-year-old Rolle regressed a bit from his amazing 2013 season, in which he picked off six passes and proved to be outstanding in coverage, but he was still a relative bastion of stability in a very shaky secondary. Thompson has a decent shot to take the starting free safety spot vacated by Rolle, if the Giants don't decide to use him more as a hybrid defender in the slot as well.
Underrated draft pick: Owamagbe Odighizuwa, DE, UCLA (round 3, pick No. 74)
Odighizuwa slid in the draft for two reasons: the hip surgeries that caused him to miss the Bruins' entire 2013 season and his somewhat undefined fit as a pass rusher. At 6'3" and 267 pounds, he can set the edge from the end position, but he can also use his upper-body strength to play the run very well at end or tackle in certain packages. The Giants, who have long wanted their defensive linemen to display this kind of versatility, loved the tape of “Double-O” and were happy to get him in the third round.
“This guy is a great effort player,” Coughlin said of Odighizuwa on May 1. “When I got on the phone he was crying. He was so happy, so excited. He brings a lot to the table. His testing, his gym numbers out at the combine are out of sight. 11 [inch] hands. Strong, very, very strong. We think he can rush from the inside or the outside. We think he can play certainly a 9[-technique] and a 6-I on first and second down. I am not sure he will be a five-technique. He is a strong player. Gives great effort. He is fast and can play on special teams. He will be a contributor that way. He gives us that force that could be a left end. I am not going to nail that down just yet. He certainly can play on that side. We are excited to have him.”
Odighizuwa compares well to another Giants lineman who played very well in multiple gaps and was selected 74th overall: Justin Tuck, who came out of Notre Dame in the 2005 draft and eventually became the team's pass-rushing mainstay, putting up MVP-level performances in both of Coughlin's Super Bowl wins. Odighizuwa is in the perfect spot to make the same kind of impact.
Looming question for training camp: Can the Giants hold their offensive line together?
The plan was for the aforementioned Flowers to play right tackle in 2015 as he got his technique up to speed, but the devastating pectoral injury suffered by left tackle Will Beatty in May turned everything upside down. Beatty could be out until November, which puts Flowers at the all-important left tackle position and Marshall Newhouse at right tackle. Newhouse had a pretty nice season for the Bengals in '14 after some outright disasters for the Packers, the team that drafted him in '10. Justin Pugh, who the Giants selected in the first round two years ago, will likely move to left guard after proving to be a relative washout at right tackle. Geoff Schwartz at right guard and Weston Richburg at center round out the projected starting five.
The problem here is that Beatty's ability to protect Manning's blind side—he allowed just three sacks in 1,141 snaps last season—will be sorely missed. And Flowers's coaches appear to be treating him as a project at that crucial spot.
“I use the term that I really feel and still feel that Ereck is going to be a very good player for the New York Giants for a long time,” offensive line coach Pat Flaherty recently said. “I thought in a couple years he would be very good. Well, that couple years now is September.”
If that's the case, the gains Manning made as the 2014 season progressed could be in jeopardy. The Giants cut their sacks allowed from 40 in '13 to 30 in '14, and any reversion could easily upset the delicate balance of this offense, which could in turn potentially send quite a few people packing after the 2015 campaign.