- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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The Plaxico Burress era in New York is finally and mercifully over, and one gets the feeling the daily soap opera for the enigmatic wide receiver was the major stumbling block in the team's bid to repeat as Super Bowl champion. The talented Burress shot himself in the thigh in November, and it was probably no coincidence the team limped to the finish of a 12-4 season, ultimately failing to win a playoff game.
Burress is gone, but his production certainly won't be forgotten anytime soon if the Giants can't find an internal replacement for the great catches and big plays. Sure, the Giants are a defensive-oriented running franchise, and how Brandon Jacobs and his new backup perform will go a long way toward deciding this veteran team's fate. But without the threat of a strong passing game, the Giants could struggle just as they did in their 1-3 December.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith were certainly contributors in 2008, as they combined for 100 receptions, but only three of those catches resulted in touchdowns. Hixon made a fantasy splash with 102 yards and a touchdown in Week 5 and became all the rage on fantasy free-agent wires when Burress' playing days ended, but he couldn't cash in on his momentum. Hixon's only other touchdown came in the final week of the regular season, and he didn't approach 100 yards in any other games, despite far more targets than he received early in the season. He is expected to be the team's top receiver, but he didn't play like the game-breaker he was made out to be. Of Hixon's 72 targets in 2008, five came inside the red zone, and he delivered only one play longer than 23 yards the final 10 regular-season games. Smith should start as the main possession option, with Hixon the deep threat, but it's likely that QB Eli Manning will miss Burress (that appeared to be the case in December) as well as underrated Amani Toomer.
The Giants will throw Sinorice Moss, Mario Manningham and a pair of rookies into the mix and see if they can unseat the presumed starters. Moss is a former second-rounder who always seems to be hurt. Hakeem Nicks was the team's first-rounder from North Carolina, where he parlayed one very good college season into a high draft slot. Ramses Barden came from Cal Poly in Round 3 and is another big, physical target.
Of course, with the running back situation looking deep, and Kevin Boss emerging at tight end, it's possible the Giants could win double-digit games again with no wide receiver stepping up.
Fitting in: The free-agent defection of Derrick Ward to Tampa Bay wasn't a big surprise, but being the main backup to Brandon Jacobs is a pretty important job. Consider that Ward did rush for more than 1,000 yards, though 215 of them came in Week 16. Still, Jacobs might be a fantasy first-rounder coming off a 15-touchdown season, but even his own coaches won't call him durable. It's critical that he gets help, and Ahmad Bradshaw will likely provide it in an increased role. Jacobs wears down opposing defenders, and Ward was also physical. Bradshaw has all of 90 carries in two seasons. He'll probably double that in 2009, if he beats out Danny Ware and fourth-round pick Andre Brown for change-of-pace duties. Look for that to happen and for Bradshaw to become very relevant in fantasy.
On the line: The top three running backs on the Giants each managed 5 or more yards per carry in 2008, and produced a pair of 1,000-yard seasons, further illustrating just how dominant this offensive line can be. Two members of the line come off a Pro Bowl appearance in Chris Snee and Shaun O'Hara, and it's not like David Diehl, Rich Seubert and Kareem McKenzie get pushed around. The Giants are not going to suddenly become the Indianapolis Colts. Manning is a fine quarterback and is probably capable of bigger numbers if the team's game plan changed, but for now look for the Giants to continue to rely on the running game, especially with the lack of wide receiver experience.
The bottom line
Officially parting ways and moving on from the Burress saga is a move the Giants needed to make, and even though the wide receiver corps brings questions, it's really the only potential weakness. This remains a top team capable of a Super Bowl run, with a smart quarterback who has been there, a strong running game buoyed by a standout line, and a defense expected to be among the league's best, as Osi Umenyiora returns from his season-ending knee injury and other parts of the defensive line have been fortified. The Giants aren't going to be fun for opponents to face, just as fantasy owners going up against Jacobs might not enjoy themselves.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. Check out his daily Baseball Today podcast at ESPN Podcenter. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
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1dEric D. Williams