New York Giants: Jerrel Jernigan

All this week, and then the week of July 14, we are taking a position-by-position look at the New York Giants' roster heading into training camp. Today, we look at the wide receiver group.

Starters: Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle

[+] EnlargeGiants
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsRueben Randle will try to grab a bigger role in the Giants' offense.
Backup candidates: Odell Beckham Jr., Jerrel Jernigan, Mario Manningham, Trindon Holliday, Corey Washington, Marcus Harris, Julian Talley, Preston Parker, Travis Harvey

Cruz is the only sure thing in this group, and the Giants are best when he's working as the slot receiver. That means they need to spend camp identifying their best options on the outside. Randle, the 2012 second-round pick, is the guy they'd like to see take the leap in his third season. He showed enough flashes last year to make them think he can be a big playmaker. They just need him to play and work more consistently.

Beckham was this year's first-round pick, and as such he'll get an opportunity to contribute as a starter as soon as he's ready to handle it. But the Giants don't rush rookies, and if he's not ready, they will wait and use other options until he is. Manningham is a wild card -- a player the Giants know and like but who's coming off knee problems that kept him from being a factor for the 49ers during his two seasons away from New York. Jernigan showed enough late last year to merit more of an opportunity, but regardless of what anyone says publicly, he's still viewed as Cruz's backup in the slot more than anything else.

Holliday was signed as a return man and is unlikely to make much of a contribution on offense, though they did use him there a bit in the spring with others injured, and he held his own. The rest of the guys on that list are long shots and/or practice squad candidates.
One last New York Giants Twitter mailbag before I start a too-brief summer vacation ... @DanGrazianoESPN: Yeah, I think that's a fair expectation, and I think you saw the Giants lean that way last year with Terrell Thomas as the regular nickel corner. They signed Walter Thurmond to play that position, and he's as good at it as anyone in the league. And they're thin at safety with Will Hill suspended and released, Stevie Brown coming off knee surgery and Quintin Demps having been signed primarily to return kicks. They have been talking a lot about keeping Antrel Rolle at safety, rather than using him all over the field as they've done in years past, and obviously sticking with a three-cornerback look would help with that. I honestly don't see the need for the old three-safety package, especially if Jon Beason is back healthy at middle linebacker early in the season. It worked well during that 2011 Super Bowl season, but that year they were thin at cornerback and linebacker and deep at safety. You're right if your point is that the scheme should be based around the personnel, and right now cornerback is a Giants strength. @DanGrazianoESPN: With Beason nursing a foot injury, the starting middle linebacker in training camp (and probably for Week 1) is going to be Jameel McClain. He projects as the starting strongside linebacker if Beason's healthy, but he's taking over in the middle while he's not. Jacquian Williams is the front-runner for the starting weakside linebacker spot, and the strongside position should belong to either Spencer Paysinger or rookie Devon Kennard, who impressed coaches with his minicamp performance. As for receivers, that's an interesting case. My first thought is that they keep six -- Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, Mario Manningham, Odell Beckham Jr., Jerrel Jernigan and Trindon Holliday. But Holliday isn't really likely to factor as a receiver, as he's pretty much exclusively a kick and punt returner. So that would leave them with five real receivers (four if Manningham's knee won't let him answer the bell). That opens it up for someone like a Marcus Harris, Julian Talley or Corey Washington to possibly sneak onto the roster with a good camp, but that's a long shot. @DanGrazianoESPN: Based on my conversations with Giants people (and with Will Beatty himself) last year and this spring, I think the main reason Beatty struggled was technique. He's not a big, monstrous, mauling left tackle who relies on strength and an ability to overpower people. Beatty's success, when he's had it, has had more to do with quickness and athleticism. I was told last season while he was struggling that Beatty was playing with his hands too low, giving away leverage and hurting his ability to dictate his matchups. That sounds like an easy thing to fix, but bad habits are tough to break, and as the year went along the struggles got into Beatty's head. He admitted in December that he'd felt the weight of his free-agent contract and let the pressure get to him, and I think he was looking forward to an offseason to clear his head. The problem is that Beatty's offseason has been about recovery from that broken leg he suffered in the Week 17 game against the Redskins, and he hasn't had time to practice getting back into good habits. I agree that a Beatty rebound would have a positive ripple effect along the rest of the line, but at this point you have to consider him a major question mark, and not just because of the injury. @DanGrazianoESPN: The firing of their longtime tight ends coach does rank among the more surprising moves of the Giants' offseason. But when they hired young Ben McAdoo as their new offensive coordinator, it was only fair to assume he'd want to bring in a few of his own coaches and help construct the staff. During those discussions, it was decided that Pope's position would be one of the ones to turn over. They moved wide receivers coach Kevin M. Gilbride (the son of the former offensive coordinator) to tight ends coach, Sean Ryan from quarterbacks coach back to wide receivers coach and hired Danny Langsdorf as the new quarterbacks coach. Pope was a Giants icon, and the only person whose name is on all four of the franchise's Super Bowl trophies. But there was an effort to get a bit younger on the coaching staff this offseason. Tight end Adrien Robinson spoke during OTAs about how he's felt a different kind of connection with the younger Gilbride than he did with Pope, and if that's the case with the rest of the group it might answer your question. Thanks for all of your questions. If you need me, I'm on the golf course.
The New York Giants ranked 26th in the NFL in punt-return average and 27th in kickoff-return average in 2013, so it's little surprise that they spent part of their offseason focus on those areas. They signed return men Quintin Demps and Trindon Holliday in free agency and drafted wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who has kick-return and punt-return experience, in the first round.

This gives them options for fixing one of their biggest problems, which they like.

"You've got three different types of returners when you talk about Beckham, Holliday and Demps," Giants special teams coach Tom Quinn said last week. "Obviously, with the speed of Holliday and the shiftiness, the undersized guy. And then you've got Demps, who's got a little more size and does that the straight-line speed. And then you've got Beckham, who's probably a combination of the two. We're real happy with all three of those guys."

Quinn said Beckham would work at punt returner and kick returner as the Giants figure out what the rookie can do and also prep him to play a major role on offense. He said they wouldn't be afraid to put him in the game as a returner just because they also play to use him at receiver.

"I think he'll be ready for anything we ask him to do," Quinn said. "A lot of times it gives those guys confidence and they progress on and they end up being offensive or defensive players down the road."

Quinn also said Holliday would work on both punt returns and kick returns, and he mentioned holdover receivers Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan as being in the mix. Demps, it would seem, is slated for kick returns only, and his role on the defense at safety could be larger than initially expected due to the suspension and release of Will Hill.

"Demps, we're real excited to have him," Quinn said. "He's been consistent in this league and explosive. He's a legitimate No. 1 kickoff returner for us. He runs with good size, and he has a real good understanding of the schemes. A real leader, coming in likely to start and contribute on special teams."

Holliday is only 5-foot-5, and while offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said he'd been a "pleasant surprise" as a contributor at wide receiver in the spring program, he's going to have to make the team as a return man. He has incredible speed but has had some issues with fumbling in his previous stops.

"His speed's an asset, that's for sure," Quinn said. "He's a strong guy for his size. Ball security obviously will be his biggest focus once we start putting pads on and start knocking him around a little bit. I haven't seen anything yet. I've been pleased with the way he's been tracking the ball. It's been a big focus on catching the punt and getting started, but I've been pleased with that."

Wideouts give thumbs-up to new offense

June, 14, 2014
Jun 14
New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin admitted Thursday that the progress of installing the new offense is "slow." But it hasn't taken the wide receivers long to get excited about it.

"I’m liking it, it’s going to be pretty exciting," Rueben Randle said Thursday, after the team's second-to-last organized team activity. "Coach [Ben] McAdoo has done a great job putting us in positions to make plays and using our abilities. We still have a lot of work to put in out there on the field, but as far as now, we’re in a good spot."

[+] EnlargeRueben Randle, Dwyane Harris
Ron T. Ennis/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCTRueben Randle says the scheme being installed by new coordinator Ben McAdoo is "pretty exciting."
Randle has a chance to establish himself as a starter this season, with Hakeem Nicks now a member of the Indianapolis Colts. Randle had 41 catches for 611 yards and six touchdowns in 2013, his second year in the league.

The offense being implemented by new coordinator McAdoo is less reliant on the wideouts making their own reads based on how the defense is playing, and that suits Randle just fine.

"Everything is pretty much black and white, it’s simple. What you have [called] is what you run," Randle said. "Just takes a lot of things off our minds and go out there and play football and just use your ability to get open. That’s what we’re doing."

Jerrel Jernigan sounds upbeat as well. The three-year veteran finally had a breakthrough late in 2013, with 19 catches for 237 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Giants' final three games.

Jernigan lined up as the team's third wide receiver during Thursday's OTA, and spoke positively about the new offense afterward.

"I think it’s an offense that fits my game," Jernigan said, "and also spreads the ball out to everyone and gives everybody the chance to make plays."

The Giants used a third-round draft pick on Jernigan back in 2011, but gave him very little playing time until the end of last season. He had just three catches in his first two years with the team.

The biggest difference for Jernigan this coming season might be mental. "It got my confidence back up," Jernigan said of his finish to last season. "Not because it was down, but you know, sitting on the sidelines for a long period of time, not really getting any reps here -- it just got my confidence up a lot for me to come in [with] this year."

Fellow wideout Odell Beckham Jr., the Giants' first-round draft choice last month, has been sidelined by a sore hamstring the past couple weeks. But the team is expecting big things from the 12th overall pick.

There is a learning curve for any rookie entering the NFL, and Beckham Jr. admits McAdoo's offense is more complex than the one he played in at LSU. But the hamstring injury doesn't limit him in terms of studying the playbook.

"It’s actually not that bad once you get into it and you break it down by formation and things like that," he said. "It’s really not that bad. It’s just a lot of memorization."

Beckham Jr. hopes to be cleared to participate in next week's three-day mandatory minicamp, which begins Tuesday.

Beckham sits out OTA on Thursday

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., the New York Giants' first-round draft pick, was held out of the team's OTA on Thursday with a sore hamstring.

Beckham said he first felt the pain at the end of practice on Tuesday. "Just sore. My hamstring is pretty tight," he said. "But it felt pretty good today, two days later. Just typical soreness."

The 12th overall pick did not sound very concerned about the hamstring issue, saying, "I'll probably practice tomorrow." But Giants coach Tom Coughlin was less optimistic.

"He may be [out] longer than that," Coughlin said. "You’re talking about a skilled athlete with a twinge, he may be longer than that."

Beckham Jr. was very durable in college, for what it's worth, playing in all 40 games during his three years at LSU.

Also missing in action: Fellow wide receiver Jerrel Jernigan was not present at the Giants' facility on Thursday, due to a death in the family.

Right guard Chris Snee was in uniform but sat out 11-on-11 team drills. Coughlin indicated it was a scheduled rest day, with Snee coming back from offseason hip and elbow surgeries.

Brandon Mosley, the team's fourth-round draft pick in 2012, played right guard with the first unit in place of Snee. Charles Brown played left tackle in place of the rehabbing Will Beatty. Center J.D. Walton, left guard Geoff Schwartz and right tackle Justin Pugh rounded out the starting O-line.

On the end: Eli Manning completed passes to three different tight ends Thursday during 11-on-11's -- Adrien Robinson, Kellen Davis and Daniel Fells.

Robinson in particular has looked good during the OTAs the media have been permitted to watch this spring, and Coughlin praised both Robinson and fellow tight end Larry Donnell following Thursday's practice.

"I think [Robinson's] done a really good job, in terms of just learning again, not many mental errors. I’ve been really impressed with that," Coughlin said. "[Larry] Donnell the same way. The guys have learned it, they’ve picked it up, they’re out there, they seem to be much more natural, not a lot of plodding. It seems like they’ve grasped what we want done, and let’s just hope they keep going."

The Giants desperately need one or more of these tight ends to step up. The five tight ends currently on the Giants' roster (including undrafted rookie Xavier Grimble) had a combined six catches in the NFL last season.

Return game: Wide receiver Rueben Randle, cornerback Walter Thurmond, and wideouts Victor Cruz and Trindon Holliday were the four players returning punts on Thursday, in that order.

(Thurmond muffed one punt, by the way.)

The three kick returners were safety Quintin Demps, Holliday and running back David Wilson.

Wilson was not yet been cleared for contact this week, as he had hoped, but he was a little more involved in Thursday's practice than he was a week ago. And Coughlin sounded optimistic about Wilson being cleared for training camp.

"Progress has been made, so it’s not a negative report at all in our opinion," Coughlin said. "He’s probably right where he should be."
All right. It's time. Well, it's not actually time, since NFL draft doesn't start for eight more hours and the New York Giants aren't likely making their pick at No. 12 for at least nine more hours or so. But it's time for me to tell you what I think will happen, for whatever that's worth.

My prediction is that the Giants will select Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin with the No. 12 pick in the draft.

Why Martin? I think he'll end up being the best player available, in their judgment, at No. 12. I think they see too many red flags with guys like Michigan tackle Taylor Lewan and North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron. I think they will decide (if they haven't already) that Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald is too small to play defensive tackle for them. I don't think they will or should be willing to pay what it would take to trade up for Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans. And while they went 13 years without drafting an offensive lineman in the first round before taking Justin Pugh last year, they recognize that they've let the offensive line erode to a detrimental extent. Martin is fine value at No. 12 and, like Pugh last year, can play a variety of positions along the line. So going forward, they can play him or Pugh at guard or center and the other at right tackle. Or if they decide to cut ties with Will Beatty next summer, they could play first-rounders Pugh and Martin at the tackle spots long term. The point is to load up on top talent at a vital and neglected position. Martin would represent the best player available at this point at a position of both short-term and long-term need for the Giants.

What if Martin is gone already? My sleeper pick for the Giants at this point is LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. I think that's the guy they'd take if Martin were taken in the top 11, and I think there's an outside chance they could take him even if Martin is still there. Beckham has incredible speed and is known as a playmaker with the ball in his hands. New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is installing a system that's likely to resemble Green Bay's West Coast-style offense and lean on the idea of getting its playmakers the ball and letting them function after the catch. Like current Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, Beckham fits this description and would be a fun toy for McAdoo and Eli Manning. I personally don't love the idea of Beckham at No. 12, since he seems a little too much like Cruz and Jerrel Jernigan. I think this is a very deep wide receiver draft and that the Giants could find good value at the position in the second or third round if they really want one, and that they would do well to draft one with size. Rueben Randle hasn't yet shown that he can handle the outside job full time, and Manning has shown in the past that he would benefit from a taller receiver on the outside. I think they need that more than they need a guy like Beckham. But that's just my opinion, not theirs.

What if they're both gone? I guess maybe Ebron, though I still don't think so. Maybe a trade down, though that's going to be tough at that point in the round with so many other teams thinking along the same lines. If they stay put at 12 and can't get either of their top two choices (assuming those are Martin and Beckham), your guess is as good as mine. But just to throw one out, I'll say Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Yes, I still believe they need to address offensive here. But Clinton-Dix would be good value at No. 12, and Cooper Taylor is the only Giants safety currently under contract beyond 2014. The Giants have taken a defensive back with their first pick in four of their last nine drafts, so it would also be in character, as fallback plans often are.

Victor Cruz, one year later

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
Victor CruzAP Photo/Bill KostrounVictor Cruz's consistent play in 2013 meant far more than his absence from voluntary workouts.
A year ago, as the New York Giants opened their offseason program, star wide receiver Victor Cruz was not present. Cruz and the Giants were working on a long-term contract extension, which they eventually would complete, and Cruz made the decision to stay away from the voluntary portion of the offseason program as long as the deal was not yet done.

This was Cruz's perfect right, as it is the right of every player this time of year not to participate in the voluntary workouts. The criticism of players for their personal decisions not to attend the portions of the offseason programs that aren't required of them is one of my least favorite things about the NFL. "Voluntary" means voluntary, and when coaches and writers and fans get on guys for taking the time off that's available to them, I think that's just plain lousy.

But it happened to Cruz, as everyone from Tom Coughlin right on down to the fan base made it clear they were upset with Cruz for not attending non-mandatory practices. There was concern expressed about his absence's potential effect on the season and what it said about Cruz as a person, a player and a teammate.

Well, the season was a wreck all the way around, and it's hard to say anything that happened in April or May was the reason. But here's what Cruz's absence from voluntary work a year ago said about him as a person, a player and a teammate: absolutely nothing.

As the Giants' mess of a 2013 season unfolded, Cruz was one of the few consistent positives. Yes, I am well aware he didn't catch a touchdown pass after September. But he was playing in an offense that was, in the words of the team's owner, broken. The line couldn't protect the quarterback; the quarterback couldn't stop throwing it to the other team; the running game didn't exist; and the top outside receiver didn't want to play. Once defenses realized Hakeem Nicks no longer cared about trying to get open, they double-teamed Cruz and took the Giants' passing offense's one remaining threat out of the game.

Cruz's reaction to this terrible situation was to continue to play hard, fight his way open whenever possible and work to improve the parts of his game that needed work. For example, Cruz was a liability as a downfield blocker in his first two seasons in the league but a vastly improved one in 2013. He went to his coaches in training camp and told them he wanted to improve that critical and often overlooked aspect, and he did it, earning praise from the coaching staff and teammates behind the scenes. He worked hard in practice, even helping mentor backup slot receiver Jerrel Jernigan and helping develop him behind the scenes to the point that Jernigan was effective in place of an injured Cruz in December.

The injury is the only thing that kept Cruz from a third straight 1,000-yard receiving season, and it came on an effort play as Cruz was leaping to catch a pass in the third quarter of a hideous 23-0 loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Seahawks. Not only was Cruz still trying to make something of a lost game and a lost season, there were times when it looked as though he was the only one who was.

Why bring this up now? Because it hasn't been brought up very much. And if Cruz had gotten his big contract and then loafed through the Giants' season -- especially after they started 0-6 -- that would have been brought up a heck of a lot, and in very damning ways. Cruz went the other way, though. He went through the negotiation dance this time last year and ended up getting his money, and he reacted by working even harder and trying to get better so that everyone could see he deserved it.

It bears mentioning that a player whose priorities and focus were being questioned this time last year ended up being one of the best and most reliable players on the team. Of all the things that happened last year, signing Cruz to a long-term contract appears to have been one of the few the Giants absolutely got right.
The New York Giants have been the NFL's most active team so far this offseason, adding 14 free agents from outside their organization and re-signing 10 of their own. But free agency is no cure-all, as we've all heard countless times. So each day this week, we'll take a look at one question that still remains following the Giants' spring splurge. Today we ask:

Do they have enough at wide receiver?

Hakeem Nicks was a huge disappointment in 2013. Counted on to be a do-it-all No. 1 receiver on the outside, he was a non-factor in the passing game. He couldn't win against single coverage, which allowed teams to devote double-coverage to Victor Cruz and take him out of the game as well. Rueben Randle benefited to some degree with six touchdown catches, but Randle had his own struggles to read defenses in concert with quarterback Eli Manning, and the times when they weren't on the same page resulted in some bad interceptions.

Nicks is gone now, off to Indianapolis as a free agent, and the only receiver the Giants signed is former Giant Mario Manningham, who spent the past two years fighting injuries in San Francisco. Manningham can't be counted on, which means Randle is the top candidate to step up and fill the role they hoped Nicks would fill last year. Randle hasn't yet shown the kind of ability Nicks showed when he was at the top of his game, but the Giants hope that a third year of development will elevate Randle to that level.

So, can he? Randle has the size and the physical skills for the job, but he struggled with the intricacies of the old offense. It's possible that new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is implementing a simpler system that won't rely as much on the ability of the receivers to read defenses the same way Manning does at the line of scrimmage, and that simplifying things in that way will make it easier for Randle. But we don't know that for sure, and if Randle continues to run different routes than Manning expects him to run, Manning's not going to keep throwing him the ball. Randle remains the most important question mark at receiver.

There's also Jerrel Jernigan to consider. He had a couple of big games in relief of an injured Cruz at the end of 2013 and could be in line for a bigger role this year. In the old offense, he was seen strictly as a slot receiver, and therefore wasn't going to see the field unless Cruz got hurt. But McAdoo's offense, if it bears any resemblance to the one he helped run in Green Bay, is likely to operate closer to the line of scrimmage and rely more on the ability of its playmakers to catch the ball quickly and operate in space. That could allow for Jernigan and Cruz to be on the field at the same time, and could result in more opportunities for Jernigan.

Much of this also depends on what the Giants end up doing at tight end, and the success they're able to have throwing the ball to running backs in the screen game. Those are questions that have yet to be answered, and those answers will go a long way toward determining whether they have enough at wide receiver. But to me, a lot of it depends on Randle. If he can be a viable downfield threat, it'll open up more possibilities along the way for Cruz, who could be a monster in a West Coast-style offense. If he can't, then they could end up muddling along again as teams focus on Cruz as the one viable threat the Giants have at the position.

What does everyone else think?
Always remember to use the #nygmail hashtag on Twitter, and you have a chance to have your New York Giants question answered here each Saturday morning. Thanks.

Big Blue Morning: Just a fantasy

March, 21, 2014
Mar 21
After a dizzying early portion of the week, things have hit a bit of a lull with New York Giants news over the past couple of days. While perusing our site I happened to notice Christopher Harris has put out a set of fantasy football rankings based off the league-wide free-agent activity so far. Yes, fantasy football six months before the season starts. Anybody who knows me knows I love it.

So here's a look at where various Giants players fall in Christopher's rankings, which I imagine are at least somewhat subject to change between now and September:

QB: Eli Manning, No. 21. Yeah, one spot ahead of the Rams' Sam Bradford and two spots ahead of Michael Vick, who is not even on a team yet. Yet, this is not an ungenerous ranking. Manning finished 21st in quarterback scoring (just behind Geno Smith!) in his 27-interception 2013 season, and his roster currently includes no viable tight end and only one receiver who has ever caught more than 60 passes in a season. He could be easy to get and could represent strong value if he bounces back, as he has before. But he's going to be a tough guy to count on for fantasy numbers.

RB: Rashad Jennings, No. 23. Again, just ahead of a guy (Knowshon Moreno) who is currently unemployed. No respect, right? Jennings finished 22nd in running back scoring in 2013 in Oakland, and he didn't even have the job for the full season. I actually think Jennings could be the back who leads the Giants in carries in 2014. But there is no way to know that from this far out, and as a fantasy player I tend to stay away from Giants running backs anyway because of the unreliable manner in which Tom Coughlin distributes carries. New offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo is a factor here as well, but he comes form Green Bay, where recent history hasn't exactly produced too many star fantasy running backs.

RB: David Wilson, No. 45. If he's healthy and has a big preseason, you're going to hear a lot of the same stuff you heard last summer about his big-play potential and how he can win you matchups by himself with one big run. And that's all true. But like the Giants, you're going to want to see it before you believe it with this guy.

WR: Victor Cruz, No. 19. Yeah, I mean, this is the state of the Giants' offense, right? Cruz finished 28th in wide receiver scoring in 2013, catching only four touchdown passes all season as he played under constant double-teams because of the lack of a threat posed by a loafing Hakeem Nicks. As currently constructed, the Giants' roster offers no other receiving options that would draw the extra coverage away from Cruz. Until they add something exciting on the outside, I don't imagine he's got a chance to rise back to his once-elite fantasy level in anyone's preseason rankings. But if it makes you feel any better, Christopher ranked Nicks, who is now with the Colts, No. 42.

WR: Rueben Randle, No. 36. We'll see. Everybody loved him last year, too, but he didn't break out as a fantasy scorer in spite of six touchdown catches. He's still developing, and he could get a great opportunity. But this seems high to me without seeing any more than we've seen.

WR: Jerrel Jernigan, No. 66. I think he's still best suited as Cruz's backup in the slot, but his strong showing late in the 2013 season could encourage the Giants to give him more chances, and McAdoo could have some cool new plan for him that we don't know about yet.

TE: Adrien Robinson, No. 40. But I'll betcha if they draft that Eric Ebron kid out of North Carolina they throw him into the top 10. I'll betcha.

K: Josh Brown, No. 26. You just can't draft a fantasy kicker on an offense that doesn't score. Brown had some big games last season, but still only finished 27th in kicker scoring.

Team defense/special teams, No. 14. They were No. 16 in fantasy scoring last season and have added two dynamic return men in Quintin Demps and Trindon Holliday. But I think what holds them back in a team defense ranking are questions about where the sacks will come from.

Giants looking at Jacoby Jones

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
The New York Giants' kick and punt return units were among the worst in the NFL last year, and improving them ranks among their priorities as they undertake a major offseason roster rebuild. According to ESPN's Josina Anderson, Baltimore Ravens free agent Jacoby Jones is scheduled to visit the Giants on Wednesday, and that could help solve this particular problem.

Jones would serve the dual purpose of solidifying the return game while also being able to help as a wide receiver. He wouldn't necessarily be a Hakeem Nicks replacement at receiver, but he could help add depth at a position that didn't offer much last year. (i.e., he probably offers more than Louis Murphy does)

Josina reports that Baltimore is still in the mix to re-sign Jones, so this isn't like the Geoff Schwartz or Rashad Jennings deals that are agreed to and need only signatures to complete. But if the Giants and Jones can come to an agreement, he'd be a nice pickup.

Jones ranked sixth in the league with 892 kick return yards last year and fourth with an average of 28.8 yards per kick return. He split punt return duties in Baltimore with Tandon Doss, but his 12.5-yards-per-punt-return average also ranked among the league leaders. He also caught 37 passes for 455 yards and two touchdowns in just 12 games as a receiver. He has at least 30 catches in four straight years, with his career high of 51 coming in Houston in 2010.

Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan are the only two wide receivers on the Giants' roster right now for 2014. They're likely on the lookout for a top wide receiver in free agency or the draft, though it's possible that Randle could develop into Nicks' long-term replacement.

Big Blue Morning: Happier returns?

February, 14, 2014
Feb 14
Mentioned this on NFL Insiders on Thursday, but it bears noting as the New York Giants get going on their offseason that they are determined to upgrade their kick-return and punt-return game. The Giants ranked 27th in the league in kick-return yardage per game and 26th in punt-return yardage per game in 2013, and when free agency opens March 11 they could have their eyes on some guys with return experience. They're looking for wide receiver help anyway, so free agents like Julian Edelman, Golden Tate and Dexter McCluster could rank higher on their wish list than they might as receivers alone. They looked into signing Josh Cribbs last year and didn't do it, so you know this is on their radar.

Running back David Wilson was a great kick returner for the Giants in his 2012 rookie season. And a source close to the situation told me this week that Wilson is recovering very well from his neck surgery, lifting weights and working out and that there's "no reason to believe he won't be playing" in 2014. That's good news, but even if Wilson does come back 100 percent, they won't want to run him out their as a kick returner. They weren't going to do that in 2013 before he got hurt, and the neck injury that ended his season in October surely rules it out for the future. Michael Cox, Jerrel Jernigan and Wilson were the primary kick returners this year, to little effect. Wide receiver Rueben Randle was the primary punt returner, and even if he'd done well, the likelihood that he'll assume a larger role in the offense could mean they'd want to wean him off punt-return duty in 2014.
New York Giants coach Eli Manning doesn't know who his offensive coordinator is going to be next year. More than once, when asked about potential coaching staff changes Monday, Manning repeated the same line.

"I'm going to assume everything is the same until I hear differently," he said.

[+] EnlargeCruz/Manning
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesEli Manning wants to get in sync with his receivers this offseason.
Which is fine, and what he should be saying, since he's got to work with whoever ends up coaching him. But Manning did talk a little bit more about the Giants' situation at wide receiver, which was thorny all year and remains so as they head into the offseason. Victor Cruz played well before injuring his knee in Week 15, and Jerrel Jernigan performed well as his replacement in the slot. But on the outside, Manning struggled all year to find consistency from and with Hakeem Nicks and second-year man Rueben Randle, who said he thought Manning and the receivers were "not on the same page from time to time" in 2013.

Cruz and Nicks both missed offseason practice time last year due to the way they were handling their own personal health and contract issues, and both said that they would make sure to put in a full offseason this year (for Nicks, that assumes he doesn't leave via free agency). Manning said he'd appreciate that, no matter who his wide receivers are.

"I think the offseason is very important," Manning said Monday. "That’s where you kind of set your fundamentals and you get on the same timing with a lot of things. If there are things from the season before you needed to improve on, that’s the time where you kind of can dedicate those hours and you have time in the offseason to make those improvements, to talk things over and to make sure if you have bad habits, you can fix them. So I think that’s what the offseason is for because once you get into the regular season, everything has got to be in place. It’s got to be kind of set in stone. You can make little improvements here, but the practices are more. ... You’re going against the scout team and you don’t get as much live coverage like you do in the spring and during the offseason."

Nicks seems likely to leave as a free agent, but whether he's back or Manning's working with a new guy, he's going to need more consistency and reliability from the position as a whole if he's to rebound in 2014 from his very disappointing 2013.

Nicks leaves, with future unknown

December, 30, 2013
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- With a box in his hands, wearing a red and black jumpsuit, Hakeem Nicks walked out of the New York Giants locker room for the final time this season Monday.

It could be the final time he makes that walk in his career.

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
AP Photo/Bill KostrounFive-year veteran wide receiver Hakeem Nicks leaves the New York Giants' locker room, for what could be the final time.
After five seasons with the Giants, filled with more highs than lows, Nicks is entering free agency and it's not a given he will be back with the team. The receiver has said he wants to return, but it's not known yet if the two sides will be able to come to an agreement.

"Really don't know," Nicks said, of Monday potentially being his last day in the Giants' locker room. "It's some decisions to make in front of me. I'm going to pray about it and I think whatever is going to happen is going to happen the way it's supposed to."

As the Giants try to regroup after missing the playoffs two straight years, Nicks' situation will be one of the biggest storylines for the team. While it once would've seemed foolish to allow Nicks to leave without any compensation, the Giants now may feel it's in their best interest to part ways. They've already devoted significant cash to Victor Cruz, and have a 2012 second-round pick at wide receiver in Rueben Randle.

A 2009 first-round pick, Nicks had a stellar start to his career, catching 24 touchdowns in his first three seasons and dominating during the Giants' Super Bowl run. Since then, though, Nicks has played more like a No. 2 or No. 3 receiver than a dominant outside threat.

Last year, he missed three games due to injury and caught just 53 balls for 692 yards and three touchdowns. This season he missed just one game, but caught 56 passes for 896 yards and zero touchdowns.

"It didn't go the way for me I planned it, but it never kind of goes the way you planned it. Might have injuries or you might have other issues," Nicks said. "I just take everything in stride, learn from it, and I still know what I'm capable of doing. I still consider myself one of the top receivers in this league. I'm going to go out and prove it. Just want to continue to have fun with this game and continue to play it."

Nicks said despite his struggles, he believes other teams will still view him as a top receiver because of his past success.

While Nicks maintained he played this year injury-free and healthy, Giants owner John Mara said Nicks played through injuries all year.

"He competed hard. It's shocking to me he didn't get into the end zone," Mara said. "He was out there trying to make plays."

If Nicks leaves, the Giants will need Randle and Jerrel Jernigan to step up. Randle said Monday he believes he could be the No. 1 outside receiver next year. Jernigan played well at the end of the season in Cruz's absence. Even the owner wondered why Jernigan hadn't seen the field more.

"I'm not sure why it took us three years to find out that Jerrel Jernigan could play," Mara said. "We finally put him in the game and he starts making plays."

Coughlin plans could fall apart over OC

December, 30, 2013
Kevin GilbrideAP Photo/Bill KostrounKevin Gilbride has been a member of Tom Coughlin's coaching staff for the past 10 years.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants headline of the day is that Tom Coughlin said he wants to stay on as coach and owner John Mara said he's told Coughlin he wants him back. And that all sounds very simple, especially because it's what was expected all along.

But while I still think the strong likelihood is that Coughlin returns to coach the Giants in 2014, I'm not all the way to 100 percent certain yet, and there are a number of reasons you shouldn't be, either.

First of all, no one actually said Monday that Coughlin would be back coaching the team next year. Mara and GM Jerry Reese both said they wanted that to be the case, and Coughlin did, as well. But all were careful not to say with certainty that it would work out that way. There are meetings yet to come about the length of Coughlin's contract, which has only one year left on it, and the makeup of Coughlin's coaching staff, which could be a major sticking point before this is all said and done.

I've spoken to multiple people in recent days who are close to this situation, and they have said they have found Coughlin to be unusually pensive and quiet about his situation lately. They also said that it would be very difficult for Coughlin if the team told him it wanted him back but that he had to make changes to the coaching staff. One of the people said there was "no way" Coughlin would agree to fire offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride.

And that last part could be a major sticking point. Mara was crystal clear Monday in assessing blame for a 7-9 season he called "as disappointing as any in my memory."

"I think our offense is broken right now, and we need to fix that," Mara said. "We can't go into next season with the same personnel."

He didn't explicitly mention Gilbride, though he made some other pointed comments that could have been directed at the offensive coaches, including, "I'm not sure why it took us three years to figure out that Jerrel Jernigan can play." Mara spoke about the need to make the reconstruction of the offensive line the top offseason priority. And out of respect to Coughlin and the meetings they're all planning for later in the week, he declined to be specific about whether he expected or would demand coaching changes.

"I certainly have my opinion, and I'm sure Jerry has his and Tom has his," Mara said. "I'd like to think that, at the end of the day, we're all going to be on the same page. I don't think it will come to that."

But it could. If Mara's opinion is that the offense is stale and stalled and that Gilbride must go, how far will Coughlin go to stand up for a coach who was on his original 1995 Jacksonville Jaguars staff and has been on his Giants staff for every one of his 10 seasons here? If Mara insists that Gilbride must go, would Coughlin quit before agreeing to fire him? And if Coughlin insists that Gilbride must stay, would that jeopardize his chances to have his contract extended beyond 2014?

Mara could certainly tell Coughlin that he has the right to construct his own coaching staff but that the blame will fall on him if it fails again. He acknowledged that the Giants, as a rule, don't let their head coaches work on one-year deals, but he also said that could change.

"That has been our philosophy in the past, there's no secret about that," Mara said. "Whether it continues or not has yet to be decided."

Basically things sounded more ominous Monday about the Coughlin situation than I expected them to sound. I think there remains a chance this could still come to a head and that the end result could be a change at head coach for the Giants. I think the chance is a slim one, but I believe it exists. And I think Coughlin does, too.

"Everybody wants to know what's next for me," Coughlin said. "I hope it's coaching the New York Giants."

He did not sound like a man who was wavering. He was defiant in his defense of his record, which includes only one playoff appearance in the past five years. "How long ago was 2011?" he asked, referring to the Giants' most recent Super Bowl team. "Did the [defending champion] Ravens make the playoffs this year?" And he expressed clear support for his coaching staff without naming specific names.

"Everything will be evaluated, but I have great confidence in this group of men we have as a coaching staff," Coughlin said. "And I believe in them very strongly."

The problem is, it had been nine years since there was a losing season around these parts, and when losing seasons happen people demand change. NFL team owners demand change. As Coughlin spoke Monday, news was rolling in about head coach firings in Detroit, Tampa Bay, Washington and Minnesota, to go with those that already had happened in Cleveland and Houston. Coughlin has two Super Bowl titles and thus is something of a "made guy" in NFL coaching circles. He'll get to coach the Giants as long as he wants to coach them. But what if the landscape and the power structure shift just enough that he can't coach them on his terms? Will he then decide it's not worth it anymore?

Mara was asked whether and when it might be time to talk to Coughlin, who will be 68 next season, about what comes after him -- to make a "succession plan" of sorts for an inevitable coaching transition. Mara said it was a worthwhile thought, though not a realistic one.

"I'll probably have that discussion with him, but I'm not sure what value there is there," Mara said. "I don't know how much longer he wants to coach. I'm not sure he knows how much longer he wants to coach. It's very tough to have an exit strategy in the National Football League."

Which means things almost can't help but end ugly, no matter how great they have been in the past. Whenever it's time for Tom Coughlin to not be the Giants' coach anymore, the parting is likely to be awkward and uncomfortable. And while I still don't think it happens this week, it would be a mistake for anyone to hear what was said Monday and assume it can't.