NFC East: Mario Manningham
Here's what I'll be watching extra closely about the Giants tonight:
- The running backs. Mixed reviews in the first game from the coaching staff on David Wilson's pass-blocking, which as we've discussed at length here is the real key to his seizing the starting running back job. Wilson's incredible to watch run -- effortless speed, more power than he gets credit for. And I think he's a willing and sufficiently physical pass-blocker. But in his second pro preseason, he admits he's still getting up to speed with the Giants' blocking schemes. And Tom Coughlin said last week he'd like to see him diversify his blocking repertoire a bit. I'm also taking a look at rookie Michael Cox, who's had a strong camp and is in the mix for kick-return duties if they take those away from Wilson. Cox could also get in the running back mix as a No. 3 behind Wilson and Andre Brown, and the Giants won't be shy about finding ways to get him the ball if they feel he can help them.
- Can Rueben Randle get open consistently? Randle's great with the ball his hands -- a long-striding downfield threat who could fill the Mario Manningham role the Giants couldn't fill in their wide receiving corps last season. The key for Randle is his ability to stay in sync with quarterback Eli Manning on the pre-snap read, so that he's (a) open and (b) in the right spot when Manning finds him in his progression. That's where the Giants say they've seen improvement with Randle this summer, and if he keeps it up, the passing game becomes much more diversified. No. 1 receiver Hakeem Nicks is also making his preseason debut tonight, so we'll see how the offense looks with him, Randle and Victor Cruz all on the field at the same time.
- The linebackers. We've joked a lot about how nondescript this crew is, and the thinking now seems to be that defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is going to use them in different packages and combinations depending on the game situation. Jacquian Williams, for example, may play more on passing downs because of his ability to cover tight ends. The Giants believe each of their linebackers has something at which he's good, and the challenge will be finding ways to maximize the positives in the group by running them on and off the field at the appropriate times.
- Justin Tuck. Also making his 2013 preseason debut tonight is Tuck, who's entering the final year of his contract and says he's eager to make up for two down seasons. Tuck was looking good in practice before his recent back problems, and it'll be worth watching tonight to see whether he gets handled by the Colts' offensive line or whether he looks as rejuvenated as the Giants need him to be in order for their pass rush to return to Super Bowl glory.
- Angry fans at the gates. Yeah, if you are going tonight, you really should read this on the NFL's new bag policy for games. The best advice is: Don't bring a bag at all. Seriously, not even a pocketbook. Especially not a pocketbook, actually, unless it's made of clear plastic. Because they're only going to let you bring in a bag if it's "clear plastic, vinyl or PVC, and does not exceed 12 inches by 6 inches by 12 inches." Or if it's it's a "small clutch bag, roughly the size of a hand, with or without a handle or strap." So like I said, best not to bring a bag at all if you can get away with that. But if you try and bring your backpack or pocketbook in and they won't let you, don't come crying to me. Cause I warned you.
I'm sure there's more, but that's what I've got for now. Say hi if you see me.
- DE Osi Umenyiora
- LB Chase Blackburn
- RB Ahmad Bradshaw
- RB Brandon Jacobs
- RB D.J. Ware
- WR Mario Manningham
- TE Jake Ballard
- TE Travis Beckum
- OT Kareem McKenzie
- G Mitch Petrus
- OT Tony Ugoh
- WR Devin Thomas
- K Lawrence Tynes
- CB Will Blackmon
- LB Michael Boley
- S Kenny Phillips
- S Deon Grant
- DT Rocky Bernard (still a free agent, could return)
- DT Chris Canty
- DE Dave Tollefson
- CB Derrick Martin
- LB Greg Jones
Some fairly significant names in there, and while I don't think any of their departures represents a bad or ill-considered decision on the team's part, I just felt like it was worth looking back and assessing the turnover in light of the Umenyiora and Blackburn departures.
This is the way things work in the NFL. The Super Bowl champion Ravens have turned over basically their whole defense, and their title was less than two months ago. So the Giants haven't been gutted or pillaged or anything like that. They view their roster as an organic, constantly evolving entity, and they're not going to hold onto guys they shouldn't keep just because those guys helped win them a Super Bowl (or, in some cases, two). Some of these players will be missed, others will not, but if the Giants get back to the Super Bowl again in the next couple of years, the team is going to have a much different look at many positions than it did in the Super Bowl they won just last year.
Neither the Dallas Cowboys nor the Washington Redskins, who were both very active in free agency last year, received any compensatory picks.
The formula for determining these picks is not strictly a 1-for-1 equation. For instance, the Giants got a pick even though the number of compensatory free agents they lost (Mario Manningham, Aaron Ross and Dave Tollefson) was equal to the number they signed (Martellus Bennett, Sean Locklear and Shaun Rogers). The reason is that, according to the formula, what the Giants lost in free agency was more than what they gained. The formula, the league's official release says, is "based on salary, playing time and postseason honors."
The Eagles got the extra pick because they lost Juqua Parker and Steve Smith and signed Demetress Bell. It's safe to assume they wish Bell had performed well enough to prevent them from getting an extra seventh-round pick this year.
The Redskins will indeed need a new special teams coach in 2013, as Danny Smith is leaving to take the same position with his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers.
Ryan Kerrigan enjoyed his first Pro Bowl experience and left Hawaii determined to make it something he does more than once in his career.
New York Giants
Mario Manningham thinks his decision to sign with the 49ers after helping the Giants beat them in last year's NFC Championship Game was a decision a lot of people would have been scared to make.
And speaking of that NFC Championship Game, infamous 49ers return man Kyle Williams says he was shocked that the Giants' players weren't disciplined for the comments they made about targeting him due to his concussion history. I think his point is not without validity.
The question of whether to keep Anthony Spencer is multi-layered and rooted in the cost of the decision. ESPNDallas.com debates it in this week's Hot Button.
Calvin Watkins believes the Cowboys have the personnel to help them in their switch to a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Monte Kiffin, and he explains his reasoning here.
The Eagles are managing to conduct their search for a defensive coordinator in the utmost secret, with the help of at least one of the candidates who's here in town.
Chip Kelly's offensive staff, however, is taking shape, and it appears Virginia offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is coming aboard as quarterbacks coach.
London Fletcher's teammates expect the veteran leader of the Redskins' defense to take some time before deciding whether he'll return for another season in Washington or end his outstanding career.
The mayor of Washington, D.C. is wrestling with the question of whether or not he, as a Redskins fan, can cheer for the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.
New York Giants
Ohm Youngmisuk believes one of the most important things the Giants can do to return to the playoffs in 2013 is examine the areas in which they can add team speed.
Mario Manningham was a Giants Super Bowl hero a year ago, with a catch that will live throughout the ages. He's back again with the 49ers, though sidelined by injury and enjoying a bittersweet Super Bowl experience as a result.
Here's one Cowboys fan who's seriously rooting for a rapid and complete recovery by Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III.
Nick Eatman offers five stats from 2012 about which Cowboys fans should be encouraged. The issue, as Nick points out, is that they're all on the offensive side of the ball.
The Baltimore Ravens recently hired former Eagles offensive line coach and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo to oversee their running game. He's in town and talking about his difficult experience of this past year in Philadelphia.
Geoff Mosher says to keep an eye on Ravens backup quarterback Dennis Dixon, a former Oregon Duck, as a guy who could soon be added to the Eagles' quarterback mix.
Last season, when DeMarco Murray got 20-plus carries, the Cowboys were 5-0. When he got fewer or didn't play? They were 3-8.My take: Those who are still expecting a timeshare between Murray and Felix Jones aren't paying attention. If Murray's healthy, he is the running back in Dallas. The offense works best with him carrying the load, and I would expect Jones to be used only as an injury replacement or to give Murray a breather.
Last year, Mario Manningham had 12 red zone targets. And Jake Ballard had 13 red zone targets, tied for the team lead with Hakeem Nicks. What if a majority of those red zone targets go to Martellus Bennett?My take: A very interesting point. While the Giants don't throw to their tight ends as much as some other teams do these days, they do seem to like going to them in the red zone. The thing to remember, though, is that Bennett must show he can run his routes and catch the passes thrown to him, or Eli Manning will look elsewhere. (He does have quite a few good options, even with Manningham and Ballard gone.) Route-running and pass-catching were Bennett's problems in Dallas, and Giants GM Jerry Reese has said Bennett was brought in mainly to help as a run-blocker. So don't assume he becomes the new Ballard. It would be a surprise and a bonus.
Evan Royster, Redskins (16th round): At some point this year, he will start. The question is ... will you have the guts to start him, too? By the way, don't be shocked if Alfred Morris gets a start. It's Mike Shanahan.My take: Matthew reads my stuff! I am flattered.
1. The wide receivers: With Hakeem Nicks still out with a foot injury, veteran Domenik Hixon will start opposite Victor Cruz. Hixon is competing, along with Rueben Randle, Jerrel Jernigan and Ramses Barden, for the No. 3 wide receiver spot, and Nicks' injury is opening an opportunity for all of them to get quality preseason reps. My hunch has been that Hixon, if he can keep his knees healthy, is the leading candidate because he's been around the longest and the Giants have been trying to give him a shot each of the past two years. But we'll see how he performs on the outside, especially compared to the rookie Randle. When the Giants go to three wide receivers, I think they still plan to use Cruz in the slot, so the No. 3 will have to be an outside guy like Mario Manningham was.
2. The running backs: Starter Ahmad Bradshaw says his feet feel better than they have in years, but I still expect the Giants to limit his preseason reps as a health precaution, and to get a look at the backs behind him. While they drafted David Wilson in the first round, I don't think that automatically makes him the favorite to be the No. 2 back behind Bradshaw. He'll have to show NFL-caliber ability as a runner and, maybe more importantly, in pass protection. The fact that Danny Ware has been in the system a few years works against Wilson, but the fact that Ware hasn't shown consistent production during that time opens the door for Wilson.
3. Prince Amukamara: With Terrell Thomas injured, the Giants' 2011 first-round pick looks as though he'll get the start at cornerback opposite Corey Webster. The Giants would like to see Amukamara take a big step forward this preseason, in case Thomas' health is going to be an issue all year and they have to use Amukamara as a starter. I'm also interested to see how they use their cornerback depth behind Amukamara. Will safety Antrel Rolle have to play the nickel corner spot again with Thomas out, or do they have another solution at that spot? And if not, who fills in at safety for Rolle when he moves to corner? A lot of those problems will look a lot smaller if Amukamara looks like he can handle the starter's job.
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Giants quarterback Eli Manning is keenly aware of the fact that he has two star wide receivers who do not carry themselves in any way that resembles the stereotype of the star wide receiver. Hakeem Nicks, who has been on the sideline for training camp practices so far as he recovers from his spring foot injury, and Victor Cruz, who is working on an encore to his brilliant 2011 breakout season, are as humble as they come.
Nicks, already established last year as the Giants' best receiver, took Cruz under his wing, and the pair became best friends, texting each other late at night on topics ranging from film study to parenthood. Where another star wide receiver might have feared the possibility of Cruz encroaching on his territory, or taking catches away from him, Nicks was determined to help Cruz get better. With several players, including rookie Rueben Randle, fighting for the No. 3 wide receiver spot vacated by Mario Manningham, Cruz now wants to pay that forward.
"I'm just putting myself in a position where, whatever young guys or whatever guys need help or want to talk or need any advice on the plays, I'm here for them," Cruz said. "Because I've been through the plays, I've gone through this offense, this is my third year, so I know a lot of this stuff. So I just want to be here and be a voice for the young guys or whoever needs help."
I wouldn't expect a letdown year for Cruz, or a slow start for Nicks following his injury. I think both of these guys are the real deal, are humble and driven and will continue to produce as long as they remain healthy. I also think their personalities are a key part of the leadership structure that allows the Giants to believe they can regenerate their roster from within. The young guys who come into this system learn how to play and how to carry themselves from the guys who are already there. And examples like the ones Nicks and Cruz set can only be helpful.
In a meeting on the first day of camp, Coughlin showed his team a few stats. Under the heading "Worst to Best," he reminded the Giants that they ranked last in the league in rushing offense in the 2011 regular season and 27th in total defense. He put up the number 400, which is the number of points the Giants allowed en route to a 9-7 regular-season record -- more than all but seven teams in the league, not one of which reached the playoffs.
"There's a lot of improvement to be made," Coughlin said after Saturday's practice. "And the challenge has been, 'Which team are we?' Are we the 7-7 team, or are we the Super Bowl champions?"
They are both, of course. They are the team that went 7-7 in its first 14 games, playing inconsistent defense, running the ball into the backs of its linemen and asking quarterback Eli Manning to bring it back from behind in the fourth quarter almost every week. But they are also the team that galvanized itself after its Week 15 loss to the Redskins and won six in a row, including the Super Bowl. Coughlin wants his charges to remember both parts and give them equal weight. The latter part, he says, gives the Giants the confidence to know they can fight through any challenge. The former reminds them of how much work they have to do.
"I think last year was a tale of two teams," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "The first half was the tale of a team that didn't play well together, had egos, was injured, didn't have a full complement of players. And the second half was us coming together. 'All-in' became our slogan, and guys really checked their egos at the door and sacrificed whatever personal things we had to become that great team."
The knowledge that they're capable of being the best team in the league is a helpful thing for the Giants to carry with them. But the tone here at Giants training camp is not one of cockiness or a Super Bowl hangover. The Giants are a serious, professional bunch whose hope is to maintain the intense focus of those final six games and apply it over the course of at least 16 this time around. Tuck said the Giants can trust in "the mental compass of this team" to make sure the issues that plagued them last year don't resurface, and as they go through their preparations for 2012, that is the priority.
"We've got to find a way to get our work done," Tuck said. "That's the only way you win championships."
THREE HOT ISSUES
"That's definitely something that he's got to work at," right tackle David Diehl said. "When you miss that much time of football, you've got to get back at things, and he missed some time during minicamp due to a back injury, so he's got his work cut out for him to come into this season. But we all know he's physically capable."
2. Who replaces Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham? They weren't starters, but Jacobs had 167 touches last year and Manningham caught 39 passes. They will need to be replaced, and the candidates to do so are young and unproven. First-round pick David Wilson is competing with D.J. Ware and Da'Rel Scott to be the backup running back behind Ahmad Bradshaw. Second-round pick Rueben Randle is competing with Domenik Hixon, Jerrel Jernigan and Ramses Barden to be the No. 3 wide receiver. Training camp and the preseason will be a tryout camp for the guys at those positions. Starting wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are excellent, as is Bradshaw if he can keep his feet healthy all year. But this offense likes to spread it around, and some of the players in these competitions must step up as reliable options.
3. Is Terrell Thomas back? The Giants' secondary was more good than bad last year, but it did have its bad moments. Thomas, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason and missed all of 2011, believes he's healthy and ready to reclaim his position as an emerging star at cornerback. If he's not, the Giants will look to 2011 first-round pick Prince Amukamara to man the cornerback spot opposite Corey Webster. But Amukamara comes with plenty of his own questions, and the Giants need this camp to help them figure out exactly what they have on the back end of that defense. The pass rush remains excellent and the linebacking depth is improved, but if there's a spot at which the defense is a bump or a bruise away from being very wobbly, it's that secondary.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Where the Giants are strong, they are as strong as anyone in the league. The pass rush, led by defensive ends Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora, is fearsome when only two of that threesome are healthy. If all three can stay healthy this year, they should be devastating. "That's our strength, no question," Tuck said. "We know it. It's a lot of pressure on us, but we thrive on it, and hopefully we can build on last year and play 16 games together this year so we can see how scary that can be."
They're also obviously quite strong at quarterback, where Manning has established himself as the most clutch player in the league. He led seven fourth-quarter comebacks last year, including one in the NFC Championship Game and one in the Super Bowl. He never misses a game, works hard at making those around him better and has become the unquestioned leader of the team. In a quarterback-driven league, the Giants wouldn't trade their guy for anyone.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
"It kind of means, when you're doing that a bunch, that you're not playing real well the first three quarters," Manning said. "So let's step it up and play with that kind of energy and enthusiasm and that 'Hey, we need to score here' kind of attitude in the first three quarters. Obviously I still want it at the end, and there's going to be some games where you need it. But let's not overuse it, because sometimes you're going to get a bad break. Sometimes the ball's going to get tipped. Sometimes a bad play is going to happen and then you're just out of time. So let's not always put ourselves in that situation."
The Giants didn't actively go out and get many solutions to the problems that put Manning in those situations so often last year. They're relying on the guys they have to play better and stay healthier. And if they don't ... well, you just can't count on seven fourth-quarter comebacks every year, no matter how good your quarterback is.
- It looks as though Chase Blackburn will begin the season as the starting middle linebacker, though newcomer Keith Rivers could overtake him if he shows the ability to play the middle. The second-team middle linebacker right now is Mark Herzlich, who also could overtake Blackburn if healthy and leave Rivers in a utility linebacker role. This is suddenly a position of great depth for the Giants, who have four second-year linebackers they like as well as Rivers and starting outside linebackers Michael Boley and Mathias Kiwanuka.
- Don't assume rookie Wilson wins the backup running back job just because he was picked in the first round. The Giants love him, but they'll be perfectly willing to keep him in the background and develop him if he doesn't show enough in camp and someone such as Ware does. Wilson is getting a lot of practice reps, so they will be able to make a thorough judgment on him, but he's still behind Ware on the depth chart.
- Former Giants safety Deon Grant said last week that he expects to re-sign with the Giants at some point during camp, but I did not get that vibe from the Giants. They feel good about their linebacker and cornerback depth, and barring injury, I don't think they'll feel the need to bring back Grant and run all of those three-safety sets they ran the past couple of seasons.
- Beatty said he came to camp lighter this year (310 pounds) than last (319). He believes he can put the weight back on as muscle now that he's able to work out again. After he injured his back and developed a sciatic nerve problem during minicamp last year, he was unable to work out the way he usually does in the summer.
- While the Giants' pass rush is keyed around their defensive ends, they believe second-year defensive tackle Marvin Austin can help them generate more pressure up the middle on first and second downs. "He's a fast-twitch guy, especially for a 320-pounder," Tuck said of Austin, who missed his senior season at North Carolina in 2010 due to suspension and his rookie NFL season in 2011 due to injury.
- Should something happen to Beatty or Diehl, the Giants hope 2011 fourth-round pick James Brewer can be a reliable first option as backup at either tackle position. Their hope is that he develops into a reliable right tackle who can eventually replace Diehl, though they're not expecting that this season.
- Fullback Henry Hynoski caught passes out of the backfield early in camp. He's good at it, and especially given the Giants' questions at tight end, it's an option you should probably expect them to use in the passing game.
Perhaps for that reason, the Giants are rotating which receivers get the first-team reps. With Hakeem Nicks out for a few more weeks with a foot injury, Hixon and Jernigan got most of the first-team reps opposite Victor Cruz on Saturday. And there were plays on which both Hixon and Jernigan were in the game with Manning. I don't recall seeing Randle with the first team, but it's possible he got some action there, too. And if they're going to give everybody the same chance, I think he ought to going forward.
Some other things I saw/thought/learned on the second day of Giants training camp:
- Rookie running back David Wilson should sleep well Saturday night. With Da'Rel Scott sitting out practice, Wilson got the bulk of the reps with the second-team and the third-team offense, and they used him a lot. They handed off to him. They threw the ball to him out of the backfield. He ran and ran and ran. And yeah, he looks fast, but remember -- there's no hitting yet, so every running back is getting through the line and bursting upfield looking good. We'll see what happens once the pads go on, but it's obvious they want to get Wilson up to speed quickly.
- Wide receiver Ramses Barden is also in that No. 3 wide receiver mix, and he looked good in practice. They used him on a couple of underneath routes, which is a smart way to use him, since his size is his advantage and he can use it to shield the ball from defenders in traffic. Remember, Barden usually has been hurt and not even on the field this time of year, so he's ahead of where he normally is in training camp.
- With Chris Canty out, Shaun Rogers is getting a lot of first-team reps at defensive tackle. This is what defensive end Justin Tuck told me about Rogers today: "He seems to be as focused and hungry for a ring as I've seen anybody. He's in his 12th year, and he's told me personally, 'That's why I came here, because I want to taste what that feels like.' So hopefully his mind stays the way it is, because that guy's an absolute monster to handle. I'm already thinking about packages that will put him over that nose, and if you single him up, he's going to destroy your center, and if you double him, you've got me, Osi and JPP possibly singled up. So there's a lot of matchup problems we can create." Now, I don't know if Rogers, who doesn't have the greatest reputation, will make the team, but with Canty out he has an opportunity and he's impressing some people so far.
- Jason Pierre-Paul went down with some kind of leg injury at one point and limped off the field but only missed a couple of plays. Could have just been a cramp.
- Cornerback Terrell Thomas, who missed the 2011 season after tearing his ACL, had 2,400 "T2" T-shirts made up and distributed them to fans at practice. "Because they always kept me a part of it last year, regardless of a win or a loss," Thomas said of his fans. "You kind of get lost in the shuffle when you get hurt, and some fans were just there week in and week out supporting me. My mom always taught me to be thankful and to give back, so this is just a small gesture." Nice one, though.
- I am heading home now to spend a night there before heading out again Sunday night for Virginia. I will be at Redskins camp Monday and Tuesday, then at Eagles camp Wednesday and Thursday. I'm going to Oxnard for Cowboys camp Aug. 6-7. Didn't run into any of you up here, and I'm sorry about that. But if you see me at any of those other stops, please feel free to say hi.
Man, Sean Lee sure gets it about Penn State. In spite of his loyalty to his alma mater, Lee actually believes the most important part of this whole sad mess is the victims, and he's fine with the heavy sanctions and the removal of the Joe Paterno statue as long as it all helps make sure nothing similar ever happens again.
Dez Bryant's college coach says "we were with him all the time every step of the way" at Oklahoma State. Obviously, that's tough for the Cowboys to do, but the trick to fixing what ails Bryant is finding ways to better monitor what he's up to when he's not with the team. Not sure how that can work for a grown professional athlete (as opposed to a collegiate one), but that's surely at least part of the team's goal.
New York Giants
Ohm's position-by-position camp preview looks at tight ends, including the possibility that Christian Hopkins is this year's Jake Ballard. We've not touched on Hopkins much here when discussing the Giants' tight ends, but given the team's and Eli Manning's record of developing guys on the roster into productive players, we can't overlook Jerry Reese's assertion that Hopkins might be one this year.
Not catching one single pass during his rookie season is not what Jerrel Jernigan expected, and he tells Paul Schwartz that troublesome stat got his attention. Jernigan understands he's not at Troy anymore, and says he wants to work to earn that No. 3 receiver spot vacated by Mario Manningham.
The Eagles announced this morning that they have signed former Cowboys punter Mat McBriar to a one-year contract. This is interesting because they appeared to like punter Chas Henry last year during his rookie season and because the reason the Cowboys hadn't yet brought back McBriar was health. One of the best punters in the league before last season's foot injuries, McBriar obviously showed the Eagles he's healthy enough to kick during camp. The move could simply be for camp depth and/or to push Henry. But given McBriar's track record when healthy, it at least raises the possibility that the Eagles could make a change at the position this year.
Special teams coach Bobby April says the team may use DeSean Jackson less as a punt returner this year. Not for nothing, but Jackson's punt-return totals over his four-year career have been, in order, 50, 29, 20 and 17. So it kind of looks as though they've been using him less as a punt returner every year. And honestly, if you're going to cut his returns from 17... why put him back there at all? Personally, I think he's the best in the league and should return every punt. But they just signed him and, I'm sure, don't want to get him hurt if they can help it.
Brandon Meriweather says "don't nobody have a job yet" at safety for the Redskins, but the strong safety spot is actually his to lose. As Mike Jones writes, this is a big question-mark area for the Redskins as they open training camp today.
Chase Minnifield's agent says the reason for the move the Redskins made Tuesday to cut Minnifield was related to a procedure he had done recently on his knee, and that Minnifield isn't going to be able to play for anyone this season. The Redskins hope to get Minnifield through waivers and put him on injured reserve so they can try and work him into the mix again next year. They do like him, but they knew his knee was the big question mark going in.
Ron Jaworski's daily "SportsCenter" series counting down the top 30 quarterbacks in the NFL reached the top 5 this morning, and No. 5 on the list was New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. The segment has been airing all morning around the bottom of the hour on "SportsCenter," so it's possible you could still catch it.
Jaworski says the biggest area of improvement he saw in Manning in 2011 was in progression reading. He cited and broke down two examples:
2. A touchdown pass to Manningham in the wild-card game against the Falcons. On that play, Jaws says, the play was designed to go first to Hakeem Nicks, who was taken away by a safety, then to Victor Cruz, who was also covered. Manningham was Manning's third read, but his pre-snap awareness and his ability to progress calmly through his reads helped him deliver.
"Eli Manning is one of the smartest, most aware quarterbacks in the NFL," Jaws says at the end of the segment. "His development over the past three, four years has been steady and consistent. He is now one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was 10th on Jaworski's list, which I guess means he disagrees with Amani Toomer. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was 12th, and Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III was, like Colts rookie Andrew Luck, left out of the survey entirely.
The only four left on the list are, in some order, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. I guess you could argue Eli over Peyton on the strength of the two Super Bowl titles and the fact that Peyton hasn't played an NFL game in a year and a half. But there's obviously no shame in being fifth on a list behind that quartet.
In the second, which is on running backs, Christopher mentions Giants first-round pick David Wilson. What Wilson has going for him, Christopher says, is that he's very fast, that starter Ahmad Bradshaw has health concerns and that there is "no more Brandon Jacobs or any other running back of note in New York" outside of Bradshaw. So he forecasts a split in which Bradshaw gets two-thirds of the carries and Wilson gets one-third of them, which I think is optimistic for a 2012 Wilson projection. Christopher also points out that Wilson isn't likely at this point to be an asset in the passing game as either a blocker or a receiver, and that leads me to my central point here.
The Giants' roster is a meritocracy. Whoever earns the playing time will get it. And just because Da'Rel Scott, D.J. Ware and Andre Brown haven't been "running backs of note" to this point doesn't mean Wilson's ahead of any or all of them on the depth chart. If one or more from that incumbent group shows enough in blitz pickup or as a pass-catcher, it's likely that he would get the playing time while Wilson continues to learn in practice.
Randle's in a similar situation. He could be outplayed by Ramses Barden or Jerrel Jernigan or Domenik Hixon in camp and open the season as the Giants' No. 4 or 5 receiver instead of the No. 3. And if Wilson is the No. 3 or 4 running back and Randle's the No. 4 or 5 receiver, neither will have much fantasy value at the start of the season.
I personally see Wilson as a guy who will need to do some learning this year, and is unlikely to accrue enough carries to make a major fantasy impact in 2012. If he does, it's more likely due to failure by one or two or all of those three incumbent backups I mentioned earlier. I think Wilson's an exciting down-the-road player, but I'm not sure he's a real fantasy asset in 2012. Randle, I believe, can be, and to further the Nicks comparison I'd go back to Nicks' rookie season, when he became more and more a part of the offense as the season went along. I'm still betting on Hixon opening the season as the nominal No. 3 receiver if he's healthy. But I think Randle has the talent to put himself in a position to take over that job at some point during the season.
After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot-on?
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: As disappointing as last year's Eagles were, they managed to win eight games. Upgrades to the linebacker corps, a tightening-up of the coverage schemes and an improved comfort level in the new defense all stand as reasons to believe that things will be better in Philadelphia this year. They appear to be loaded with top athletic talent at every position, and on paper (yes, we've heard those words before) they look like the best team in the division and one of the best in the league. After last year, I am far from sold, and I think a lot of this uncertainty rides on quarterback Michael Vick and his ability to limit the turnovers that were so costly during September's slow start.
As for the schedule breakdown, Clayton has the Eagles going 4-2 in the division. They were 5-1 in the division last year, and I don't see any good reason to think they should do much worse. I guess the Redskins should be better, but it's hard to see how the Cowboys (who weren't in either game) or the Giants will be much tougher to beat than they were a year ago. And out of the division, Clayton has the Eagles 6-4. Tough road trips to Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Arizona loom, but road games in Cleveland and Tampa Bay don't look so tough.
More or less? You guys know I don't like to make predictions this early, but because I must, I'm saying Clayton's number for the Eagles turns out to be a bit low.
NEW YORK GIANTS: This would, of course, match the Giants' win total from last year, when they became the first team to win the NFC East and the Super Bowl with fewer than 10 wins in a non-shortened regular season. It also would be one fewer than their win total from 2010, when they missed the playoffs. With Eli Manning at quarterback, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz back at wide receiver and all of those great pass-rushers back for another year, the Giants are strong where it counts, and that's the reason for their year-to-year consistency. But within the confines of the 2011 regular season, they were anything but consistent. They looked terrible twice against the Redskins but beat the Cowboys twice when it counted, then of course got on that January roll that carried them to their second championship in five years.
Clayton has the Giants 3-3 in the division, which is a fair expectation. (I mean, we can't assume they'll beat the Redskins until we see it, right?) And he has them 6-4 outside the division, where they play at San Francisco (they were 1-1 there last year, of course, in two very close games), and have back-to-back trips to Atlanta and Baltimore in December. Free agency ate at their depth, and the Giants will need to do some work to replace the production of important 2011 pieces such as Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs. I guess the question is whether they'll be the playoff-tough team we saw in late December and the postseason or the team that struggled so badly in November against the tough part of its schedule.
More or less? From this far out, this just doesn't strike me as a Giants team that should win as many games as it won last year. For that reason, I say John's nine-win figure is a bit high. But I fully acknowledge the folly of picking against the Giants.
DALLAS COWBOYS: The Cowboys' defense -- particularly their secondary -- imploded completely during the final month of the season, and that and the two losses to the Giants were the reasons they finished 8-8 and missed last year's playoffs. They attacked the secondary by signing Brandon Carr and trading up to draft Morris Claiborne, and they added an inside linebacker in Dan Connor. But the rest of the team looks basically the same -- a potentially elite offense with Tony Romo throwing to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant and handing off to DeMarco Murray, but the same old questions in the middle of the offensive line and on defense.
Clayton has the Cowboys going 3-3 in the division, which again seems fair for a team that looks to be around the middle of the league pack. And with out-of-division games against the Bears, Falcons, Ravens, Steelers and Saints, it's not hard to imagine that a 6-4 record outside the NFC East is possible. If the upgrades at cornerback really do help the pass rush and put less pressure on the safeties, the Cowboys could make a leap. The Romo-led offense should score more than enough points. I just don't feel as though this Dallas team has elevated itself to the top echelon of the league's defenses.
More or less? Clayton's number seems about right to me. I don't think the Cowboys will go 0-2 against the Giants again.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS: The Redskins' biggest need was, of course, quarterback, and they dealt four high draft picks to get one. Robert Griffin III carries the hopes of a desperate fan base and the promise of being better than Rex Grossman, even as a rookie. The Redskins also outfitted him with a pair of new free-agent wide receivers, Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, and will team him with a young defense. Will it be enough to vault Washington into actual playoff contention? Clayton thinks no. And in fairness, as great as Griffin projects to be, he is a rookie, and rookies tend to struggle. Questions remain in the running game, on the offensive line, at receiver and in the secondary. There's more work to be done in Washington before the Redskins can threaten to reach the playoffs, most likely.
As for the breakdown, Clayton has the Redskins at 2-4 in the division, which is what they were last year, and 4-6 outside of it. They feel as though they should have won both of the Cowboys games, and it's not ridiculous to think they can win one this year, but regardless of the joke I made earlier, it's hard to imagine them beating the Super Bowl champs twice in the same year again. I just don't think their non-division schedule looks all that terrifying. A road game in Pittsburgh and home games against the Ravens and Falcons, sure. But I think the opener in New Orleans looks ripe for a fired-up team with a new quarterback, what with the Saints' coaches all suspended and especially if the Jonathan Vilma suspension holds up. It's not too hard to squint and find five or six potential non-division wins if the Redskins play slightly better than they did last year.
More or less? I think the Redskins will win more than six. But again, it's June, and I reserve the right to make my real predictions at the proper time.
Projected starters: Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz
Reserves: Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden, Jerrel Jernigan, Rueben Randle, Isaiah Stanback
Potential weakness: The Giants got by at times without Mario Manningham on the outside last season, but they were clearly better when he was there. Since Manningham has left for San Francisco as a free agent, the Giants will need to find a replacement. Cruz can certainly function on the outside, but moving him there would deprive the Giants of the remarkable mismatch advantage he gives them in the slot. They'd prefer to see someone like Hixon or Barden or the rookie Randle assume the role of Manningham replacement, but if none of those guys can step forward and do that they may need to move Cruz around and find a different solution in the slot.
Keep an eye on: Randle. The Giants' roster is a meritocracy, and it does value experience, so Hixon and Barden, and maybe even Jernigan, begin the offseason with an edge on the rookie out of LSU. But with Nicks sidelined until mid-August with a broken bone in his foot, there will be plenty of catches to go around in the offseason and in training camp. And if Randle, who didn't have a very good quarterback situation at LSU, can quickly develop a rapport with quarterback Eli Manning, he could show enough to overtake some of the more experienced options on the roster and claim that Manningham spot for himself.