- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There's a tricky balancing act going on here in New York Giants training camp this summer. The team is trying its best to wash away the memory of a disappointing 7-9 season, but to do that they're asking for a lot of help from a lot of people who weren't even on that team.
"Obviously, we did a lot of work in the offseason and tried to turn the roster over a little bit," said Giants GM Jerry Reese, whose team signed more free agents than any other in the NFL this offseason. "But there are plenty of guys who were here last year for that 0-6 start and have a bad taste in our mouths."
Among those are quarterback Eli Manning, who threw 27 interceptions in the worst season of his career, and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who struggled through back and shoulder problems and recorded just two sacks in the 11 games he played.
They are the biggest keys to potential success on each side of the ball for the Giants, and each has a fresh energy in this camp. Pierre-Paul says he's "110 percent" because he's fully healthy for the first time since October 2012. Manning is invigorated by the new scheme being installed by new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
"It's different, and you come into the season a little nervous," Manning said. "It's a different feeling at this time of year than in previous years. We still have a lot of work to do, a lot to improve on, but I'm excited about that challenge."
Three reasons for optimism
1. The secondary: The Giants spent big to upgrade at cornerback, signing Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie from the AFC champion Denver Broncos, Walter Thurmond from the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and Zack Bowman from the Chicago Bears. They also re-signed Trumaine McBride, who was a starter for them last season, and still have 2011 first-round pick Prince Amukamara. The Giants believe the cornerback group is a strength, and, on paper, it appears to be so. "Now," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell asked last week, "can we get them to play together?"
2. Jason Pierre-Paul: The Giants had just 33 sacks last season, and Justin Tuck, who's now with the Oakland Raiders, had 11 of them. The pass rush has to improve in order for the secondary to thrive. That's why the Giants are so encouraged about the health and attitude of Pierre-Paul. Back surgery in June 2013 and a shoulder injury suffered in Week 10 last season combined to make it "a lost year" in Pierre-Paul's own words. But if he's back to full health, they have reason to hope he can return to the form he flashed in 2011, when he had 16.5 sacks and the Giants won the Super Bowl.
3. The line can't be any worse: The total collapse of the offensive line was the biggest reason for the Giants' 0-6 start and 7-9 record in 2013. With Chris Snee having retired the day before camp, they have a question mark at right guard, but they believe they're better with Geoff Schwartz at left guard and J.D. Walton at center than they were in those spots last season. Moreover, the signings of veterans Charles Brown and John Jerry and the second-round selection of Weston Richburg have the Giants convinced their backups are better in case the line is ravaged by injury again. The key might be a rebound season for left tackle Will Beatty.
Three reasons for pessimism
1. Is it all too much too soon? The Giants project to have six new starters on offense and six on defense, as well as a new offensive coordinator. They didn't dip their toe into the free-agent waters this offseason -- they dove in headfirst and stayed in until their fingertips wrinkled. Most teams -- including the Giants -- will tell you that big free-agent sprees aren't the way to build teams. They had to sign a lot of guys because their roster had hollowed out, but it's folly to think they could have possibly solved all of their problems in one offseason. There are likely to be lingering questions to answer next spring.
2. Inexperience on offense: Rashad Jennings has never been a No. 1 running back in the NFL. Odell Beckham Jr. is a rookie at wide receiver, and Rueben Randle is a starter for the first time there as well. They have no established starting tight end on the roster. They have inexperience at center and right guard, and right tackle Justin Pugh is entering his second NFL season. The new scheme is simple and quick and could be fun to watch, but there are reasons to wonder whether the Giants have the right personnel to make it all work.
3. Leadership void: Many of the players who left or retired were significant leaders on the field and in the locker room. Tuck, Snee, Terrell Thomas and Kevin Boothe were all players to whom teammates looked for guidance in good and tough times. Jon Beason and Antrel Rolle return to captain the defense, and Manning takes a leadership role behind the scenes on offense, but the absence of several of the players who helped keep chins up during last season's 0-6 start as well as they did during recent Super Bowl runs creates a challenge for Tom Coughlin and his coaching staff.
Jennings is the clear No. 1 back, but now that neck injuries have forced David Wilson to retire, the Giants are trying to sort out the running back depth chart behind him. Their preference is for rookie fourth-rounder Andre Williams to show enough to claim the No. 2 spot. He looks good running the ball but not so good catching it, and, as any rookie back would, he has work to do in pass protection.
Larry Donnell is leading the uninspiring pack at tight end, especially with Daniel Fells laid up with an injury. Donnell has the surest hands of the group and is a good downfield blocker, though he could stand to show more power at the point of attack in the run game.
Surprise young stars of camp include rookie fifth-round linebacker Devon Kennard, who could push for playing time at strongside linebacker, even after Beason returns from injury and Jameel McClain gets bumped back outside, and wide receiver Marcus Harris, who's making a strong push for the roster spot once thought ticketed for the still-gimpy Mario Manningham.
Beatty has done much more than the Giants expected him to do at this point in his recovery from his broken leg, and he's determined to put his disappointing 2013 season behind him. He has held his own against the revitalized Pierre-Paul in recent practices.
Jacquian Williams, once strictly used as a coverage linebacker in nickel packages, has progressed to the point where the coaches consider him their starting weakside linebacker in the base defense. His speed is a major asset.
2dDan Graziano and Adam Caplan