A REAL FIXER-UPPER
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
It's early August and the most important member of the 2015 Giants is running around the team's practice field, bouncing from one player to the next, wide-eyed and screaming. His arms gesticulate in some combination of a defensive swim move and the Nae Nae.
"SPAAAAGS!" a fan bellows from the bleachers.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has been away for a while, but his manic energy is a familiar sight for Giants fans. And the job he is tasked with—rebuilding New York's defense—is one he has previously accomplished.
When Spagnuolo first came to the Giants in 2007, as a coordinator, he inherited a unit that had ranked 24th in points and 25th in yards allowed the previous year. The Giants won a Super Bowl in his first season and had a top five defense the following year. In the six seasons since Spagnuolo left in '09 to become the Rams' head coach (his stint there lasted three unsuccessful years), the Giants defense has ranked, on average, 21st in points and 19th in yards.
Transforming the defense again won't be easy. Spagnuolo is known not just for his intensity but for his creative blitzes, and with the state of the Giants' defensive personnel, he will need that creativity. The team's longest-tenured defensive player and biggest star, Jason Pierre-Paul, is still recovering from an off-season fireworks accident that cost him a finger, and his timetable for return is uncertain. This means Spagnuolo will likely open the year without a player who has had a season with double-digit sacks, the first time that can be said about a Giants defense since 1984. He will rely on a rotation of edge pass rushers with modest track records: Robert Ayers (17 career sacks), George Selvie (13), Damontre Moore (5½), Kerry Wynn (1½) and rookie third-rounder Owamagbe Odighizuwa (UCLA). Moore, a third-round pick in 2013 who has yet to start a game, is a player that many—including Spagnuolo and coach Tom Coughlin—have pointed to as a potential playmaker.
Behind the front four are more unknowns. Middle linebacker Jon Beason, 30, was limited to appearances in four games last year due to a toe injury. The team's outside 'backers, second-year player Devon Kennard and J.T. Thomas, signed from the Jaguars, have a combined 18 career starts. Kennard—a fifth-round pick in 2014 who showed flashes as a rookie, with 4½ sacks in the team's final five games, will play a role in Spagnuolo's trademark second-level blitzes, while Thomas will be tasked more with coverage.
In the secondary, late camp signee Brandon Meriweather is the only safety who has started an NFL game, which could give second-round rookie Landon Collins (Alabama) the opportunity to live up to his boast that he will be named Rookie of the Year. On paper the unit's strength is its cornerbacks, with veterans Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. But Amukamara has only played a full 16-game season once (2013), while Rodgers-Cromartie is six years and three teams removed from his lone Pro Bowl appearance.
All that explains why general manager Jerry Reese said to reporters in August that "if you don't score 28 points in this league, it's hard to win."
The Giants' offense may very well be able to do that. Quarterback Eli Manning is coming off the greatest statistical season of his career, with bests in touchdown-to-interception ratio and completion percentage, and says he is even more comfortable in his second year in coordinator Ben McAdoo's West Coast system. Add in the lethal combination of Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz, seemingly healthy after his season-ending torn patella tendon last October, and skilled pass-catching back Shane Vereen, signed from New England, and the New York's air attack should be near the top of the league.
A troubling note, though, is that not one member of the team's heavily reshuffled starting offensive line—including rookie left tackle Ereck Flowers, the team's first-round pick, out of Miami—played last season at the position he is currently slotted to play. This group is bound to have, at the very least, early struggles. This means the defense will have to do much more than it did last year, and that's why Spagnuolo will be so important for the Giants this season. It's a tough ask for the frenetic 55-year-old, but it's nothing he hasn't done before.
SI'S PREDICTION: 5--11
ANDY BENOIT ON THE GIANTS' EXPECTED BREAKOUT
Entering year two under offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo and his Packers-style West Coast spread system, the Giants are expected by many to be the breakout offense of 2015. Eli Manning (above) last year adjusted his mechanics and was more often in sync with his receivers, even after losing slot ace Victor Cruz to a season-ending knee injury in October. If Cruz, a shifty, deceptive route-runner, can regain enough of his old form, New York will have the most feared receiving corps in football. Lining up with Cruz will be an improved—but still erratic—Rueben Randle, a tough one-on-one cover on in-breaking routes. Oh, and there's Odell Beckham Jr., perhaps football's freakiest raw talent. As last season progressed, Beckham was used in an increasing variety of ways. Expect more of that this year. Also, the Giants signed versatile free-agent RB Shane Vereen from New England and have a budding flex tight end in second-year starter Larry Donnell. With a brainy QB like Manning, McAdoo can align his chess pieces in myriad fashions. This will stress defenses that are already afraid of Beckham's big-play ability and are therefore even more susceptible to the quick-strike throws that this system is really all about.