The New York Giants have, in recent years, become a passing offense behind star quarterback Eli Manning and their elite wide receivers. But in their hearts, the Giants still yearn to run the ball effectively to set up the pass and maintain balance on offense. For this reason, it's worth taking some time to examine the state of the Giants' running game heading into 2013.
The Giants cut running back Ahmad Bradshaw earlier in the offseason. They did this for a number of good reasons, including the chronic foot problems that drastically limited Bradshaw the past couple of years and the fact they selected a running back, David Wilson, in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft. But the fact remains that the Giants said goodbye to a player who was on the field for 611 snaps last year (per Pro Football Focus) and have to replace him.
How will they do it? Well, they have said they believe Wilson, who was on the field for 125 offensive snaps last year in addition to his kick-return duties, can handle the full-time workload. Surely, they would not have used a first-round draft pick on him if they didn't think he could ultimately do that. The question now is whether he'll be ready to do it in this, his second season, after only 125 offensive snaps as a rookie. If not, they have to look at Andre Brown, who was on the field for 225 snaps last year, as a candidate to share significant snaps with the speedy young Wilson.
Brown started the Week 3 game last year in Carolina when Bradshaw was injured, and he memorably ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. But as the year went on and Bradshaw returned to regular duty, Brown was used effectively as a goal-line back. He had eight touchdowns before breaking his leg in the Week 12 game against the Packers and missed the rest of the season.
The Giants' roster also includes veteran running back Ryan Torain and third-year man Da'Rel Scott, either or both of whom could factor in before all is said and done. And they could sign someone else. They recently had veteran Tim Hightower in for a visit, so we know they're on the lookout.
The reason is that replacing Bradshaw won't be easy. Pro Football Focus gave him an overall rating of 14.2 for the year, which ranked him fifth among all running backs in the league -- behind only Adrian Peterson, C.J. Spiller, Alfred Morris and Marshawn Lynch. He rated a pedestrian 3.7 as a runner, but as a blocker Bradshaw's 6.2 rating was easily the best in the league. (Morris was second at 3.8.) Bradshaw was also PFF's ninth-ranked running back in the passing game.
For comparison's sake, Brown got a 5.4 overall rating from PFF, 5.8 as a runner, 1.2 as a blocker and -1.8 in the passing game. Wilson rated -0.5 overall, including a -0.6 as a blocker.
So you can see why someone like Hightower is appealing, since he's known as a very good pass blocker. The Giants are justifiably concerned about replacing Bradshaw's contributions in pass protection, so it's tempting to look at veterans they know can do it, even if they have rebuilt knees. Ultimately, I think the answer to the oft-asked question, "Who's going to be the lead back for the Giants this year?" lies in the ability of the backs currently on the roster to show more than they have shown so far as blockers. I think regardless of whether the Giants add another back, Wilson is going to get first crack at the job in training camp but will have to show he values pass-protection and blitz pickup among his top priorities. And if he doesn't, they'll mix and match with Brown and Torain and maybe some other guys to make sure they protect Manning as best they can. Because as I mentioned right at the beginning of this post, the Giants may want to run the ball, but they're smart enough to know they're going as far right now as their passing game will take them.