New-look Giants could struggle

9/3/2004 - New York Giants

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

When a team owning playoff aspirations bottoms out to 4-12 and loses its
last eight games, changes are expected.

The Giants are a changed team.

Easygoing head coach Jim Fassel was replaced by the all-business Tom
Coughlin. QB Kerry Collins was replaced by the intriguing duo of Kurt Warner
-- for the present -- and Eli Manning -- for the near future. Nearly the entire
defensive front was jettisoned. Most of the offensive line was sent packing.

Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, taking a page from New England's
successful offseason blueprint, went for quantity in replenishing the
roster, signing more than 20 free agents, eschewing marquee names for
practical additions. Coughlin arrived stating his goal is the "restoration
of Giants pride," and players accustomed to Fassel's lighter touch were
instantly introduced to the rules, regulations and restrictions implemented
by the new coach.

Despite the dismal 2003 showing, Coughlin did not inherit a bare cupboard.
With Jeremy Shockey, Tiki Barber, Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard there are
offensive playmakers in place. As long as young CBs Will Allen and Will
Peterson make successful returns from serious injuries, the defensive
backfield has the necessary building blocks.

Still, the Giants, in an improved NFC East, are viewed by most outside
observers as a bottom-feeder, with questions hovering around both their
offensive and defensive lines. Even if Warner can recapture some or most of
his past glory as the starter to open the sason, it will be a tenuous hold
at best. Manning won't be held back for long, as his talent, pedigree and
understanding of the game -- as befitting a Manning quarterback -- impressed
his new teammates and all but assured the Giants' hierarchy that they made
the correct move in giving up five draft choices in trading for him.

Quarterbacks: Quite a collection the Giants have assembled. Warner is on
board for a one-year audition, hoping to resurrect a career that includes
two MVP awards and one Super Bowl title. Named the starter, Warner is
expected to add a veteran presence while keeping the seat warm for Manning,
the prize rookie on whom the Giants have pinned their future hopes. Manning
gets to learn while waiting in the wings, which the Giants prefer to tossing
the talented youngster immediately into the fire. Manning, though, will play
before long, as he's simply too talented and poised to keep off the field.
Jesse Palmer should be called The Survivor. The star of the TV series "The
Bachelor" defied the odds and stuck as the No. 3 quarterback with a strong
summer. Grade: B.

Running backs: Coughlin figures to adore Barber's versatility, but the coach
won't tolerate a repeat of Barber's past fumbling problems. Barber is
holding the ball higher and tighter for better ball security, and he'll
likely see his rushing attempts cut to make room for Ron Dayne, the former
Heisman Trophy winner stuck in Fassel's doghouse. The slimmed-down Dayne
will get a chance to share the load with Barber, a la the 2000 "Thunder and
Lightning" backfield. The two had better come through. There's no experience
behind that duo and no proven runner to succeed in short-yardage situations.
Jim Finn returns at fullback. Grade: B-minus.

Receivers: As the offense sagged around him, Toomer took a dip in production
from a career-high 82 catches in 2002 to 63 last season. He's the most
prolific receiver in team history and the primary deep threat, relying more
on strength and body positioning than raw speed. Hilliard is finally rid of
the myriad of injuries that always seem to wear on his body. He's a cagey
veteran who knows all the angles. The Giants are desperate to get speedster
Tim Carter on the field, but he has to prove he can remain healthy after yet
another health-impaired training camp. Like the RB position, depth is
virtually nonexistent. Keeping Shockey on the field is essential, as the
Giants are 0-8 the past two seasons when Shockey is out of the lineup.
Physical ailments are the only way to keep him down. He had a pin inserted
to stabilize a stress reaction in his right foot, a procedure that slowed
him throughout training camp. If healthy, he's a terror for defenses and the
emotional spark every team needs. In Marcellus Rivers and Visanthe Shiancoe,
the Giants have two understudies with fine pass-catching abilities, but
there's no dominant blocker in the bunch. Grade: B.

Offensive linemen: This is a revamped unit after a miserable showing in 2003. Luke Petitgout remains at left tackle, but there's change elsewhere. David Diehl started as a rookie last year at right guard, but he moved outside to right tackle. Diehl got experience playing outside in college at Illinois, but this obviously is a step up. Imported as free agents from the Browns are C Shaun O'Hara and OLG Barry Stokes. Neither was a particularly dominating player in Cleveland. ORG Chris Snee, a rookie from Boston College and Coughlin's son-in-law, rounds out the starting lineup. Coughlin wants more of a power-running game, but it is no guarantee this group can accommodate his wishes. As a result, the team traded a draft choice to Tampa Bay for OG-C Jason Whittle, who had spent five years with the Giants, and signed former Cowboy-Lion OT Solomon Page. Other than Petitgout, everyone else has plenty to prove. Grade: C-plus.

Defensive linemen: The only returnee is DLE Michael Strahan, who will be
asked to move around more in defensive coordinator Tim Lewis' more versatile
system that will show a 3-4 front at times. Strahan, who had 181z2 sacks
last season, will at times stand up and even move inside to cause more
deception. The Giants made a determined effort to get bigger in the middle
and came away with DTs Norman Hand and Fred Robbins, who combine for more
than 650 pounds of girth. They're supposed to stuff the run. At the DRE
spot, veteran Keith Washington and second-year speed rusher Osi Umenyiora
offer contrasting styles, with Umenyiora an especially intriguing prospect
and athlete. Grade: C-plus.

Linebackers: The Giants are gambling that third-year LB Nick Greisen is
ready to step in as the starter in the middle, replacing Micheal Barrow.
Greisen has one career start and, at 240 pounds, must prove he can hold up
to the pounding. He went down midway through training camp with a strained
hamstring, hampering his development. If healthy, Greisen will be flanked by
two veteran free-agent newcomers, Carlos Emmons on the strong side and
Barrett Green on the weak side. Emmons is coming off a broken left leg and
was slowed this summer. If healthy, Emmons is solid vs. the run and rangy
enough in coverage. Green is an undersized, aggressive tackler who can get
overrun at the point of attack. A rookie to watch here is Reggie Torbor, who
will be a factor immediately as a third-down rusher. Quincy Monk and Wes
Mallard provide some measure of experience in reserve. Grade: B-minus.

Defensive backs: The gang is all here, but can they remain healthy? If so,
the Giants have a fine, athletic CB tandem in Allen and Peterson, who both
missed extensive time with injuries a year ago. The Giants believe greatly
in Peterson -- they gave him a five-year contract extension -- and Allen, a
former first-round pick, has great coverage skills but must make more
game-turning plays. A lighter, quicker Shaun Williams returns at strong
safety, and Brent Alexander, a veteran import from Pittsburgh, arrives to
hopefully provide some ball-hawking skills at free safety. Omar Stoutmire
serves as depth at safety, and CBs Terry Cousin and Frank Walker give the
defense a chance to be effective against the pass. Grade: B-plus.

Special teams: Coughlin surprised a lot of people when he chose untested PK Todd France over Bill Gramatica as the replacement for Matt Bryant. France made all of his attempts in the preseason, including a 51-yarder, after spending the past two years on the Vikings' practice squad. P Jeff Feagles, at 38 years old, readies for his 17th NFL season and second with the Giants, having played in 256 consecutive games, an NFL record for a punter. Feagles remains one of the league's best directional punters. The return game is a work in progress. The Giants would like Carter to handle kickoff returns, but he can't stay on the field. There's no clear-cut favorite to return punts. Mike Sweatman, the respected assistant coach who was with the team under Bill Parcells, returns to add some stability to this unit. Grade: C.

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