Eli Manning seeks a comfort zone

ALBANY, N.Y. -- The Giants' receiving situation is sort of like that card-trick line: Pick a card, any card. Only with the Giants, you don't know if you'll come up with an ace, a jack or a joker.

"I don't know who our top three receivers are going to be right now," Eli Manning admitted Saturday.

He knows they won't be Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer. They're gone and not coming back.

"It's a little different," Manning said with a smile. "So many times you stepped into the huddle and you just knew they [Toomer and Burress] were going to be there for you to make a play in the fourth quarter."

The candidates to replace them are Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon, Mario Manningham, Sinorice Moss, Derek Hagan, David Tyree, Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden.

"I've had to be a bit more of a coach," Manning said of his role. "I'm not just teaching these guys the ins and outs of offense but also working with their confidence, making sure they don't get down and making sure they keep working."

Manning said he sees improvement in most of the young wideouts, but added that "it's kind of receiver by committee; we're moving guys around."

Manning confirmed that Manningham and Moss have made strong early impressions. That's a big deal for Manning, because he is convinced the Giants must be more explosive in their passing offense. He sounded confident about the chances to pull that off.

"Mario Manningham has had a great camp and the same for Sinorice Moss -- those guys have speed," said the quarterback. "You want to be a physical team, but we want to get more [passing] plays downfield. With this receiving corps, we have more speed to get downfield and get those corners scared."

Then Manning said something that should open some eyes.

"These guys do better [deep] than maybe some of the guys we've seen in the past," he said. "With Plax and Amani, we had more intermediate routes. We led the league with possessions inside the red zone, but we've got to hit the big play instead of just dinking and dunking. It's got to be run the ball and taking more big shots."

Also interesting is that Barden, the Giants' third-round pick from Cal Poly, appears significantly ahead of first-round pick Nicks of North Carolina. Barden, who is 6-foot-6, has impressed Manning.

"Barden has made some plays in camp," Manning said. "Nicks has fallen behind because he's been banged up. It's tough enough for a rookie receiver to step into a starting role because their heads are spinning, so when you miss four or five days of practice [like Nicks has], then you miss all those installations. And if you're not on the field making mistakes and learning by experience, it's hard to catch up.

"So, really, you expect guys like Hixon, Moss and Smith -- those third- and fourth-year guys -- to be more comfortable and take the next step up and really excel," Manning said. "I'm counting on that, and if Manningham keeps playing like he has, then we'll be good there."

Here's what else I learned at Giants camp, the 14th stop on my training camp bus tour:

  • Manning is clearly happy that he has arguably the NFL's best offensive line still intact, anchored by center Shaun O'Hara and Pro Bowl guard Chris Snee.

    "You take a line like we have that knows all our blocking assignments and protections -- not to mention our top two running backs [Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw] -- and it's a pretty secure feeling when you're the quarterback," he said.

  • While David Carr is the backup quarterback and the Giants drafted Rhett Bomar in the fifth round, the most improved quarterback -- by far, according to head coach Tom Coughlin -- is last year's fifth-rounder, Andre Woodson.

    "Did you see him?" asked Coughlin. "Totally different guy."

  • Despite the loss of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the Giants expect a smooth transition with the promotion of linebackers coach Bill Sheridan.

    Said defensive end Osi Umenyiora: "Honestly, I don't see why we won't be the same or even better than last year because Coach Sheridan knows what he's doing. It made sense. It's the same system."

    Umenyiora has no anxieties about playing Monday night against the Carolina Panthers (ESPN), his first real playing time after missing 2008 with a preseason knee injury.

    "I'm good, I'm healthy and I'm a football player," Umenyiora said.

  • As for Michael Vick joining the Eagles, Manning and Umenyiora said that while they strongly disapproved of Vick's criminal dogfighting enterprise, they were happy to see him get another chance. Will they be happy if Vick takes the field against them in a game?

    "Hey, we'll still punch him the mouth," Umenyiora said, laughing.

  • The Giants are convinced safety Kenny Phillips is headed to a high Pro Bowl level of play.

    Chris Mortensen is a senior NFL analyst for ESPN.