30 Questions in 30 Days: What are the key competitions?

Posted Jul 26, 2016

Giants writers answer 30 questions in 30 days before the start of Training Camp:

Opening kickoff will be here before you know it.

With offseason workouts wrapped up, the New York Giants report back to the Quest Diagnostics Training Center on July 28 for the start of training camp. As we count down the days until then, staffers are answering 30 questions in 30 days to get you through the summer.

Question 2. What position has the most important competition to be decided before Week 1?

JOHN SCHMEELK: When the Giants are in their 4-3 base defense, we really have no idea who two of their three starters are going to be. I think there’s relative confidence Devon Kennard will be one of the starters, but who will be in the middle and on the other side? Jasper Brinkley, Keenan Robinson, Kelvin Sheppard and rookie BJ Goodson have all played in the middle. Robinson, Sheppard, Jonathan Casillas and JT Thomas have all taken turns outside. It will be a great competition to see unfold.

DAN SALOMONE: It hasn’t changed since offseason workouts: safety. Darian Thompson has stepped up so far, but there’s still a long way to go for the third-round draft pick out of Boise State. Nothing is ever easy in the NFL, especially for a rookie. The competition is far from over with some hungry players like Nat Berhe looking to bounce back from injuries in 2015. This will be the most important tryout as returning starter Landon Collins looks to make a big leap from Year 1 to Year 2.

LANCE MEDOW: Someone is going to have to line up next to Landon Collins as the other starting safety against the Cowboys and heading into training camp that competition is wide open with a great deal of youth in the mix including this year’s third round pick Darian Thompson. Finding the right player who complements Collins’ play and can set the tone for the secondary is extremely important heading into the season opener. The majority of the other positions on the roster involve battles regarding the depth chart, not so much a starting job like safety.

Question 3. Which team is the biggest threat to winning the NFC East?

JOHN SCHMEELK: Besides the Giants, I think the biggest threat to winning the division is the Dallas Cowboys. They finished 4-12 last year, but mostly because of injuries to Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. If those two players are healthy, and with the addition of Ezekiel Elliott behind the best offensive line in football, they should have one of the best and most balanced offensive lines in football. On defense they still have a ton of questions, especially when it comes to lacking a pass rush, but the offense should be enough to put them in contention. Of course, if they have injuries to Bryant and Romo, all bets are off and they could be picking in the top 5 again. The Eagles are starting over with a new coach. The Redskins, last year’s division winner, should be pretty good again, but they don’t have the upside the Cowboys have.

DAN SALOMONE: Before you even see one snap in the regular season, you have to go with the defending champs. It wasn’t necessarily the best year for the division in 2015, but give the Redskins credit for winning five out of their last six games to take home the crown. No one else was able to do that. Meanwhile, their core is coming back for a chance to become the first repeat NFC East champion in over a decade. They will be the biggest roadblock to the Giants in 2016.


LANCE MEDOW: I think the defending NFC East champs pose the biggest threat, given they’re bringing back the nucleus of their 2015 team and added a few key pieces. Kirk Cousins, who is coming off an impressive first season as the starting quarterback, has a wealth of talent to work with, including veteran receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon as well as young wideouts like Jamison Crowder and this year’s first round pick Josh Doctson. The Redskins also added tight end Vernon Davis to complement Jordan Reed, who is one of the most versatile players in the league at his position. On defense, they added corner Josh Norman from the Panthers and are getting linebacker Junior Galette back after he missed all of last season due to a torn Achilles. It’s also going to be the defense’s second season under coordinator Joe Barry, so you figure there will be a bit more comfort with the scheme across the board. The Cowboys have some big question marks on defense with three starters suspended for at least a quarter of the season, and the Eagles have a completely new coaching staff.

Question 4. What is the toughest non-divisional game on the schedule?

JOHN SCHMEELK: The obvious choices here are at Pittsburgh and Green Bay. But I think the sleeper tough game on the schedule is in Minnesota on a Monday night on October 3rd. The Vikings are in a new domed stadium that will be very, very loud. They have an excellent young defense that will only get better. On offense, Teddy Bridgewater will be entering his third year with a new wide receiver in rookie Laquon Treadwell. Don’t forget Adrian Peterson is still a dominating running back. The Vikings are going to be very, very good this year, and winning in Minnesota will be tough.

DAN SALOMONE: I’ll say Week 13 at Pittsburgh. The Steelers seem to be the trendy pick to come out of the AFC this year, and I wouldn’t necessarily bet against it. They’re led by a two-time Super Bowl champion in Ben Roethlisberger and have weapons all over the field starting with Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. Meanwhile, the rebuilt defense continues to improve and finished in the top five in sacks, rushing yards allowed and takeaways last season.

LANCE MEDOW: The Giants’ toughest non-divisional game is Week 13 at Pittsburgh. The Steelers showcased one of the best offenses in the NFL in 2015, finishing third in total yards per game and fourth in points per game, and that nucleus is still intact and should be healthier after Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell dealt with knee injuries last season. While the defense does have some question marks, last season that unit finished fifth against the run and third in total sacks. Week 5 at Green Bay is a very close second in terms of toughest non-division game.

Question 5. What is the defining philosophy of first-year head coach Ben McAdoo?

JOHN SCHMEELK: It’s the same phrase we heard a bunch of times from him this offseason: Evolution, not revolution. He knows Tom Coughlin did a lot of things right with the Giants, and there isn’t a need to make drastic changes. The same offensive and defensive systems return for another season, so there will be a lot of continuity in what the players will be asked to do from last year to this year. The Giants are not starting over with a new coach, rather they are moving in a different direction over the same general path.

DAN SALOMONE: In addition to the “evolution, not revolution” mantra, McAdoo laid out what he wants his team to look like: sound, smart, tough, committed to discipline and poise. From tweaks in the weight room to naming drills after Chris Snee and Lawrence Taylor, two of the toughest players to come through the organization, McAdoo is putting his stamp on the new era as the 17th head coach in franchise history. The Western Pennsylvanian obviously has a decorated background on offense, but the Giants know they needed to turn around the defense and took steps to do so this offseason. Time to see it all come together.

LANCE MEDOW: When Ben McAdoo was introduced as Giants head coach earlier this year, he immediately laid out his philosophy: “Evolution, not revolution.” That phrase was figuratively on full display during the spring with a heavy focus on fundamentals across the board. Sometimes tweaking the little, subtle things can make a difference in the long run and that’s been a big theme during the early stages of McAdoo’s tenure as head coach. New music at practice, a fast-paced feel and built-in timeouts to simulate real games are just a few of McAdoo’s new wrinkles. Every first year head coach wants to put his stamp on a team, but McAdoo also understands there’s already a strong infrastructure in place.

Question 6. Will Eli Manning surpass his 2015 season totals in yards and touchdowns?

JOHN SCHMEELK: He will come close but fall just short. Here’s why: he won’t have as many opportunities. The Giants are committed to running the ball a little more this year, and they shouldn’t be trailing in as many games if the defense is playing better football. Manning might not get to 600 pass attempts, and the Giants hope the running backs account for more touchdowns in the red zone. I think Manning has a more efficient season in terms of quarterback rating but his counting stats might not be as impressive.

DAN SALOMONE: He’s improved on his previous season totals the last two years, so why not a third? He’s only getting more comfortable in Ben McAdoo’s offense, which has already produced 8,842 yards and 65 touchdowns for Manning in the first two campaigns. On top of that, Odell Beckham Jr. isn’t slowing down, Victor Cruz is looking to come back, Sterling Shepard could turn out to be a steal in the second round, and the offensive line is getting stronger and stronger together.


LANCE MEDOW: Last season, Eli threw for 4,436 yards and a career-high 35 touchdowns. With plenty of more talent surrounding Odell Beckham this season, on paper, it’s not a stretch to say he could surpass both of those totals but the Giants are looking for more balance on offense this season and I think that will limit Manning’s opportunities. In 2015, the Giants threw the ball 623 times compared to 403 rushes. That was the biggest disparity in the last five years. They’re going to try to bring those numbers closer together in 2016.

Question 7. Who is the frontrunner to start opposite Landon Collins at safety?

JOHN SCHMEELK: How can the answer be anyone other than Darian Thompson? He moved into first team reps in the spring, ahead of players with more experience, and made some plays along the way. He is the highest draft pick among the players in the safety meeting room competing for that spot, and put up impressive production at Boise State taking away the football. He seems to have the skill set to play centerfield alongside Landon Collins, who can then be aggressive closer to the line of scrimmage.

DAN SALOMONE: Last year, Landon Collins became the first safety in franchise history to start a full 16-game schedule as a rookie. Darian Thompson could be the second. The third-round pick out of Boise State impressed defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo right out of the gates in rookie minicamp and turned that into a spot with the first team for most of OTAs and mandatory minicamp. There’s a long way to go -- the Giants haven’t even put on the pads yet -- but he’s put himself in a prime position heading into training camp.

LANCE MEDOW: At this time last season, there were two openings at safety and one of them was filled by 2015 second round pick Landon Collins. This year, I think another rookie will claim a starting job in third rounder Darian Thompson. The Boise State product is coming off an impressive spring when he essentially picked up where he left off in college as an opportunistic player who has a knack for finding the ball. Thompson is clearly an effective centerfielder which would be the perfect complement to Collins’ style of play. He’s going to have plenty of competition from a trio of players who were injured last season (Nat Berhe, Bennett Jackson, Mykkele Thompson) but, based on his production since rookie minicamp and his vocal leadership, Thompson is by far the favorite to win the starting job.

Question 8. What is the most underrated unit on the roster?

JOHN SCHMEELK: This is a really difficult question since it is hard to say what constitutes being underrated. The corners, defensive line and wide receivers have gotten a lot of press this offseason due to the new additions at those groups. With those three out of the running, I’ll go with the running back position. The Giants are set with reliable veterans in Rashad Jennings and Shane Vereen. Behind them are a number of players that are young with potential (Andre Williams, Paul Perkins, Orleans Darkwa) or veterans with a decent track record (Bobby Rainey). The Giants are deep and are going to have a very tough time cutting some quality players from the roster at this position at the end of training camp.  

DAN SALOMONE: How about that offensive line? The fact that the configuration stayed the same this spring says something, and on top of that, the team didn’t draft an offensive lineman for the first time since 2008. The consistency will only help a unit that paved the way for a top-10 offense and allowed only 27 sacks in 2015 (only three teams allowed fewer last season). The group is made up of two first-round picks on the left side, a second-rounder in the middle, and two veterans on the right. That’s a lot of stability for Eli Manning in the pocket.


LANCE MEDOW: I can’t think of a better group that fits this label more than the linebacker corps.  They may not be household names but there’s a nice mixture of veterans and youth in this unit.  Jasper Brinkley is coming off an impressive second half of 2015, Keenan Robinson has experience in the middle and the outside given his experience in a 3-4 defense with the Redskins. Meanwhile, Jonathan Casillas, Kelvin Sheppard and J.T. Thomas have all played in a variety of defenses.  Devon Kennard is entering his third season in the league, which for many is considered a potential breakout year, and this year’s fourth-round pick B.J. Goodson has looked impressive in the spring.  Given the lack of name recognition, it’s easy to overlook this group.

Question 9. Who will be the Giants’ starting middle linebacker in Week 1 at Dallas?

JOHN SCHMEELK: I’m going with veteran Jasper Brinkley. He is the best run stuffer of the middle linebackers on the roster, and the Giants will be very concerned with slowing down Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys running game in week 1. I expect they will come out in base personnel on defense to start the game, and all indications so far is that Brinkley will be the man in the middle with the starters.

LANCE MEDOW: Since the beginning of the offseason, I’ve said Jasper Brinkley is the frontrunner to start at middle linebacker and from what I’ve seen in the spring I have no reason to change my opinion.  The Giants rotated first team linebackers in the spring but Brinkley saw plenty of work in the middle and, unlike Brinkley, Keenan Robinson, who was brought in as competition, was moved around a bit receiving reps on the outside.  Last season, after Jon Beason was placed on IR in early November, Brinkley took over and didn’t disappoint finishing third on the team in tackles and first in forced fumbles with four.

Question 10. Which second-year player is poised for a breakout campaign?

JOHN SCHMEELK: How can you not say Owa Odighizuwa? The Giants' 2015 third-round pick couldn’t get on the field last year due to injury. He has an NFL body and the athleticism to play on this level. He was never a dominant pass rusher at UCLA but stopped the run well. The Giants hope both parts of his game come together this season. I would expect to see him as an interior pass rusher on third down when he isn’t rotating at end to give the starters some rest.

DAN SALOMONE: How can you not say Landon Collins? He led the team in tackles last year and became the first Giants safety to start a 16-game schedule as a rookie. Sure, he left some plays out there, but keep in mind that he rarely had the same front seven from week to week. That’s asking a lot out of a rookie. Meanwhile, he has a history of breakout campaigns once he gets his legs under him. In his second full season as a starter at Alabama, Collins was named unanimous First-Team All-America for one of the best defenses in the nation.


LANCE MEDOW: Considering he gained the most experience out of the entire rookie class in 2015 by starting all 16 games, I think Landon Collins is in the best position to improve upon his numbers in year two.  Last season, Collins led the team in tackles and had a team-high seven for a loss.  With the game slowing down for him, a better understanding of Steve Spagnuolo’s defense and an improved defensive line, Collins is set to make plenty of noise in 2016.

Question 11. What late-round draft pick will have the biggest impact on the team?

JOHN SCHMEELK: I’ll consider “late round” picks anyone that was picked on Day Three of the draft. With that being the case, I think it would be hard to pick anyone other than BJ Goodson. With starters at linebacker up in the air, he’ll have a chance to compete for playing time right away. He showed the ability to be around the ball a lot in the spring, and by all accounts, he has picked up the defense fairly well. Paul Perkins is behind too many veterans at running back, and the same goes for Jerell Adams at tight end.

DAN SALOMONE: He’s playing catch-up right now after missing most of the spring while fulfilling academic obligations at UCLA, but Paul Perkins could turn out to be a major steal in the fifth round. From general manager Jerry Reese to offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, the Giants think he has all the tools to be a three-down back in the NFL after climbing to third on UCLA’s all-time rushing yards list (3,491) and fifth on the all-purpose yards list (4,236). Just look at some of last year’s running backs who made the Pro Bowl: Devonta Freeman (fourth round), Chris Ivory (undrafted), Latavius Murray (sixth round). You can find quality backs in late rounds.


LANCE MEDOW: I’ll go with sixth-round pick Jerell Adams, mainly because he had plenty of special teams experience at South Carolina and that’s where he’ll likely see most of his action as a rookie.  Adams has also said he loves playing special teams and is well aware that’s where he can make his presence felt early in his NFL career.  His 6-5 frame can’t hurt as well.

Question 12. How will Eli Apple fit into the cornerback rotation?

JOHN SCHMEELK: The rookie is going to be on the field a lot, but I’m not sure he is ready to play the slot full-time his first year. He didn’t do it much at Ohio State, and adjusting to the NFL is hard enough without throwing a position change into the mix as well. With that said, I think Apple will play a lot outside and play more than 50% of the snaps over the course of the season. He was a first round pick for a reason.

DAN SALOMONE: If you have two corners, you’re short one these days in the NFL. Teams use three wide receivers more often than not, so you’ll see the Giants’ first-round pick more often than not in some capacity. Throughout the spring, the Giants looked at a variety of combinations with Apple, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins playing outside and inside.


LANCE MEDOW: The Giants will likely use Eli Apple inside and outside, depending on the matchups.  During the spring, the team rotated corners at both positions so that, one, they’ll have a versatile secondary and, two, they’ll be able to evaluate who is more effective in each spot.  In today’s NFL, you need three starting corners because more often than not the opposing offense lines up at least three wide receivers.  That’s why Apple will see work all over the field.

Question 13. What will be the most hyped game on the Giants’ schedule?

JOHN SCHMEELK: This is hard to anticipate because you don’t know what teams' records will be at the end of the season. I know the opener against Dallas will be hyped because it’s the first of the season against a hated division rival. I would also expect one of the final three games against NFC East rivals over the final four weeks of the season will be hyped if a division title is on the line. People will get excited to see the Giants play Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, too. All that said, I know the first game will be hyped so I’m going with the opener. The Giants need to get off to a good start, and winning in Dallas would be a great start.

DAN SALOMONE: We’ve waited 22 years to see New York vs. Los Angeles again in the NFL, so why not go all the way to London for it? Primetime games come and go every year, but the London game is an event with the full force of the NFL driving the buildup. From international media to promotions around the city, it’s a major deal on the league calendar. And if you remember, there was already plenty of juice the last time these two teams played -- on U.S. soil.


LANCE MEDOW: Aside from the divisional games, Giants-Packers in Week 5 is clearly the matchup to circle on the calendar. In his first year as an NFL head coach, Ben McAdoo goes up against his mentor Mike McCarthy at Lambeau Field on Sunday Night Football. That storyline alone will give the media plenty of material leading up to the game. McAdoo spent eight seasons in Green Bay, first as the tight ends coach (2006-11) and then the quarterbacks coach (2012-13), so the bulk of his NFL coaching career, thus far, was spent in the Cheese State. He’s built numerous relationships within that organization, which I’m sure will make it an emotional game. On top of that, the Giants and Packers have recently played in some classic contests in both the regular season and playoffs. There’s more than enough substance on and off the field that you might as well start up the hype machine now.

Question 14. Who will lead the Giants in interceptions this season?

JOHN SCHMEELK: I’m going to go with Janoris Jenkins. Usually a safety is a safe (no pun intended) bet to lead a team in interceptions, but this year I like Jenkins. He is a gambler and is an expert at anticipating where a quarterback is going with the ball due to superior film study and instincts. In practice this spring he has played the ball in the air exceptionally well, and I think we’ll see a lot of big time plays from him in the fall.

DAN SALOMONE: Take your pick between Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins, two of the biggest play-making corners in the game. They both had five over the last two seasons, but I’m going with the newcomer Jenkins who will be looking to make his mark with the Giants. He was the MVP of spring and we saw why he was one of the most coveted free agents on the market this year. Whether he leads the team in picks or DRC does, we’ll see. But what we do know is that when they get the ball in their hands, they can take it to the house. They have 11 interception return touchdowns between them.

LANCE MEDOW: In three of the last four seasons a safety has led the team in interceptions and I think this year’s third round pick Darian Thompson will continue that trend.  He only set a Mountain West Conference record with 19 career interceptions at Boise State and once again showed his knack for finding the football during OTAs and minicamp. With that defensive line playing in front of him, it will only help Thompson’s cause to lead the team in interceptions.

Question 15. Who will lead the Giants in tackles this season?

JOHN SCHMEELK: Landon Collins, and it won’t be very close. The Giants will rotate their linebackers too much for one of them to lead the team in tackles. Collins will be on the field every down, and will play close to the line of scrimmage a bunch with Darian Thompson emerging as a center fielder. He will have plenty of opportunities to make a lot of tackles, especially if he improves on the angles he takes down the field.  

DAN SALOMONE: I think it could be a race down to the wire between middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley and safety Landon Collins, last year’s team leader in this category. In his nine games as a starter in 2014, Brinkley notched 65, which would come out to around 116 if he started all 16. Meanwhile, Collins had 112 as the first rookie safety in Giants history to start an entire 16-game schedule. With that said, I’ll go ahead and give the edge to Collins, who could be in line for a big Year 2.


LANCE MEDOW: In three of the last five seasons, a safety has led the team in tackles, and I think that position will continue to set the tone in 2016 with Landon Collins staying atop the leaderboard.  Last season, Collins had 112 tackles (84 solo, 28 assisted) in 16 games as a rookie.  With more comfort in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense and, potentially, this year’s third round pick Darian Thompson lining up next to him as a centerfielder, Collins will be in position to make plenty of plays this season.

Question 16. Which 1-on-1 matchup are you looking forward to seeing at training camp?

JOHN SCHMEELK: This one is easy for me: Ereck Flowers vs. Olivier Vernon. I watched Odell Beckham Jr. take on Janoris Jenkins in the spring, but now I want to see the big guys go at it. My favorite part of training camp is watching the one-on-one O-Line/D-Line drills. Flowers is coming into his second season and is healthy after playing on a badly sprained ankle as a rookie. Vernon is a premier pass rusher. It will be a great test to see if Flowers is ready to take a big jump from his first year to his second.

DAN SALOMONE: Weston Richburg vs. Damon Harrison all day long. The best part of training camp is the first day of pads, and those two will be the center of my attention. That’s 648 pounds of action right there. We saw them go at it last year as opponents in the Giants vs. Jets game, but now they’ll be fortifying their respective lines as teammates. An underlying storyline is both are on the verge of breakout seasons that could lead to individual honors down the road.


LANCE MEDOW: During training camp, my focus will be on the trenches where there will be plenty of battles between the offensive line and the new-look defensive line.  The one matchup to watch is defensive end Olivier Vernon against left tackle Ereck Flowers, which will be a preview of what to expect in practice all season long.  It will be a great test for Flowers, who is entering his second year in the league and looking to solidify the left side of the offensive line.

Question 17. Who is the most improved team on the Giants’ schedule?

JOHN SCHMEELK: This is a really tough question. I’ll have to go with the Dallas Cowboys. They were not themselves last year due to injuries to their two best offensive players, Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, and their best cover cornerback, Orlando Scandrick. If those three players come back healthy, along with the addition of Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys should be closer to their 12-4 record two years ago than their 4-12 season last year. The Baltimore Ravens getting healthy in the same way, including the return of Joe Flacco, puts them in this conversation as well.

DAN SALOMONE: The past two seasons haven’t been great for the Saints, but don’t sleep on a team that is used to double-digit win totals. Drew Brees is still Drew Brees and led the NFL in passing yards last season. But the main concern has been the defense, which finished last in scoring and second-to-last in yards in 2015. They addressed that side of the ball in three of the first four rounds of the draft, including Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and Ohio State safety Vonn Bell. In between, they picked up wide receiver Michael Thomas, another Buckeye, in the second round. He joins a passing attack that was half of the most prolific quarterback duel in NFL history (Brees and Eli Manning combined for a league-record 13 touchdowns in last season's matchup in New Orleans). The Giants see the Saints again in Week 2, but this time at home.  


LANCE MEDOW: I think the most improved team is the Chicago Bears.  They finished 6-10 and in fourth place in the NFC North last season but in the offseason addressed one of their major issues in 2015: stopping the run. They signed free agent defensive tackle Akiem Hicks (Patriots) and linebackers Danny Trevathan (Broncos) and Jerrell Freeman (Colts).   It will also be the defense’s second year under coordinator Vic Fangio, so there should be more comfort with the scheme after he implemented his philosophies in year one.  As far as the offense goes, last year’s first round pick, wide receiver Kevin White, will pair with Alshon Jeffery after White missed all of 2015 due to a shin injury. The Bears also signed free agent tackle Bobbie Massie (Cardinals), which allows the team to move Kyle Long back to right guard.

Question 18. Who is one undrafted rookie to keep an eye on in training camp?

JOHN SCHMEELK: I’m going to go with Ryan Malleck, who earned more and more snaps late in OTA’s and minicamp. The 6-5, 249-pound old school tight end from Virginia Tech showed good enough hands in the spring, and his body indicates he could be a good blocker on the edge. I want to see how physical he is once the pads come on.

DAN SALOMONE: I have to go with former Boise State cornerback Donte Deayon, subject of the best quote of spring. “He is 150 pounds or whatever,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said last month, “but I reminded him that power is mass times speed. So if he goes really fast, he is just as powerful as anyone.” The Giants currently boast two of the top three interceptors in Mountain West history. First is safety Darian Thompson, the all-time leader with 19, and third is Deayon with 17. In between is All-Pro safety Eric Weddle, who had 18 at Utah.


LANCE MEDOW: If you’ve already caught the eye of the defensive coordinator during the spring, then you’re clearly doing something right.  That description would fit corner Donte Deayon, an undrafted free agent out of Boise State.  He had an impressive spring, highlighted by an interception return for a touchdown, and despite his small stature (5-9, 158), he’s one of the toughest players in camp.  I’d keep my eye on him during training camp if you’re looking for a wild card to make the 53, as well as wide receiver Roger Lewis from Bowling Green and defensive end Romeo Okwara out of Notre Dame.

Question 19. Who had the best spring (OTAs, minicamp, etc.) for the Giants?

JOHN SCHMEELK: Sterling Shepard and Darian Thompson certainly showed a lot in the spring, but I always hesitate to say a rookie was the best at anything in their first spring with the team. It’s also too easy to say one of the stars on the team.  I’m going to go with a real sleeper and go with Will Tye. I thought he did a wonderful job all of OTA’s and minicamps adjusting his body to make difficult catches. He caught everything that came in his direction and showed remarkable consistency for a second-year player.  

DAN SALOMONE: Newcomer Janoris Jenkins looked as good as advertised coming over from the Rams, but that’s to be expected from one of the most coveted free agents on the market this offseason. So I’m going with rookie safety Darian Thompson, the third-round pick out of Boise State. The Giants are counting on one of their young safeties to step up opposite Landon Collins, and the Mountain West’s all-time interceptions leader could be that player. He impressed defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo out of the gates at rookie minicamp and built on that momentum throughout OTA's and minicamp. More importantly, Spagnuolo liked that he wasn’t afraid to make a mistake going against veteran starters. We’ll learn more about the rookie in the preseason, but Thompson set himself up for an intriguing training camp.


LANCE MEDOW: There are a number of players who had impressive springs. Geremy Davis, Donte Deayon, Janoris Jenkins, Matt LaCosse and Darian Thompson, to name a few.  If I had to pick one who I thought stood out from the rest of the pack, it would be Janoris Jenkins.  His transition from the Rams to the Giants has been very smooth in terms of learning the playbook and meshing well with his new teammates in the locker room.  Throughout the spring, he showcased the skills that made him an attractive free agent to the Giants, highlighted by his ability to cover and take away the football.

Question 20. What is the key offensive stat the Giants must improve in 2016?

JOHN SCHMEELK: The Giants have to run the ball better, but that’s not more important than being better in the red zone. The Giants were 23rd in the league last year in touchdown percentage (48%) in the red zone. Running the ball better will make the team much better in the red zone, but as long as they get it in the end zone more, no one is going to care.

DAN SALOMONE: Back at the beginning of the offseason workout program, offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan identified two key areas to improve in 2016: red zone and third down. The former is the primary concern due to a variety of reasons last season, the most important being turnovers. The Giants gave the ball away eight times inside the 20-yard line, tied with Atlanta for most in the NFL while the rest of the league averaged three.

LANCE MEDOW: For the key defensive stat question, I said stopping the run and for the key offensive stat, I’m singing the same tune: running the ball.  The Giants finished 18th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (100.6), but the running game was inconsistent throughout the season and didn’t truly click until the last quarter of the year.  This season, the Giants will look for more consistency across the board, specifically on first and second downs considering the Giants were 22nd in the league in third down efficiency (38%) and in the red zone where the Giants scored touchdowns just 44% of the time (tied for 29th in the NFL).  An efficient running game will help to improve both of those stats.

Question 21. What is the key defensive stat the Giants must improve in 2016?

JOHN SCHMEELK: Sacks or passing yards allowed is the easy answer here, but I’m going to go in a different direction and say third-down defense. The Giants were the second-worst third-down defense in football last year, allowing teams to convert nearly 47 percent of the time. This starts with better run defense on first and second down, and ends with better coverage and pass rush on third down. It doesn’t matter how they get it done, the Giants need to be better on third down if they want to win more games this year.

DAN SALOMONE: There’s no way around it: total yards allowed. There are hundreds of stats you could pull out for this, but they all funnel into the main one where the Giants finished at the bottom in the NFL last year. Whether that comes from more sacks, a stout run defense, the ability to get off the field on third down or anything else in between, they all go into the main issue for the Giants.   


LANCE MEDOW: A popular answer to this question will be getting to the quarterback, but I think it starts with the run defense.  The Giants finished 24th in the NFL against the run (121.4 yards) in 2015 and that stat specifically impacted their third-down defense, which was dead last in the league.  Opponents converted on third down 47 percent of the time.  Stopping the run on first and second down is key because it will force your opponent into unmanageable third downs and aid your pass rush.  When the former doesn’t happen, the opposing offense won’t feel the pressure.

Question 22. Which new Giant will become a fan favorite at training camp?

JOHN SCHMEELK: Fans love offense, so how can it not be Sterling Shepard? He is fun to watch, very quick, and will make plays. All the other newcomers are on defense, which doesn’t get the same love offensive players get during camp. Shepard will get plenty of full-time reps, and lots of opportunities to show Giants fans why he was worth the second pick in the draft.

DAN SALOMONE: I have to agree with Schmeelk and say Shepard as well. Nothing draws cheers at training camp like a good catch, and the rookie wide receiver will have plenty of those while running with Eli Manning and the first-team offense. Like Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz, who have taken him under their wings, Shepard has a star quality to him.


LANCE MEDOW: I think undrafted free agent corner Donte Deayon could become a fan favorite at training camp.  He’s already caught the eye of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who spoke very highly of the Boise State product during minicamp because of his toughness.  At 5-9, Deayon reminds me of Charles James, who plays the same position and made a name for himself when he was with the Giants at training camp in 2013 and 2014.

Question 23. Which player are you most excited to see for the first time with pads on?

JOHN SCHMEELK: I can’t wait to see Snacks Harrison get the pads on and see all the power he has to stop the run. You can’t really see how good he is in shorts and t-shirts with all the limitations on contact during spring practice.  He was made to hit people and it will be fun to see him allowed to do that in August.

DAN SALOMONE: I’m going with rookie linebacker B.J. Goodson. Remember a few training camps ago when another late-round draft pick made everyone turn and locate where the sound of those hits were coming from? That was Devon Kennard. I think Goodson could do something like that again this summer. He was a thumper at Clemson, leading one of the best teams in the nation in tackles. While contact wasn’t allowed this spring during OTAs and minicamp, Goodson showed off other skills and came away with a few interceptions. It’ll be interesting to see how those two things come together in training camp.


LANCE MEDOW: The one player I’m anxious to see in pads during training camp is this year’s third round pick, safety Darian Thompson.  He was known as an opportunistic player in college at Boise State, and that translated over to OTAs and minicamp as he seemed to be in the right place at the right time quite often.   Thompson is clearly effective as a centerfielder, but once he puts the pads on, it will give the coaching staff an opportunity to further evaluate his ability as a tackler and, perhaps, someone who can play closer to the line.

Question 24. What is one offseason move that isn’t getting much attention but should be?

JOHN SCHMEELK: This is a tough question since so many of the Giants’ moves this offseason have been of the high profile variety. From a player perspective, I think the signing of middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard is underrated. He played a lot in Miami and could be a real factor for the Giants this offseason. The super sleeper signing is cornerback Leon McFadden, who could provide good veteran depth in the secondary. From a coaching perspective, I love the decision to hire Mike Solari. Pat Flaherty was a fantastic coach, and they found a good one to replace him. Solari’s lines in San Francisco played tough, smart football.

DAN SALOMONE: I’m going in a different direction and saying the coaching staff that Ben McAdoo assembled isn’t getting enough attention. He made it clear that no one was retained and that he sat down with everyone on the staff. McAdoo, in his first year as an NFL head coach, has three offensive coaches with coordinator experience at the professional level: Mike Sullivan, Frank Cignetti Jr. and Mike Solari. Their backgrounds will be invaluable to McAdoo as he puts his stamp on the team. Meanwhile, McAdoo also overhauled the strength and conditioning department with Aaron Wellman, who is a “forward-thinker” but also has an “edge” to him. “That’s hard to find in this business these days,” McAdoo said.

LANCE MEDOW: When it comes to offseason moves, household names usually get all the attention, but for the Giants, an under-the-radar transaction that could prove to be extremely valuable is the re-signing of linebacker Jasper Brinkley.  For a player that joined the team right before the start of the 2015 season, he wound up playing an integral role in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense in the second half of the season, after Jon Beason was placed on IR.  Brinkley led the team in forced fumbles (4) and finished third in tackles, but his leadership in the locker room and vocal presence in the huddle could prove to be overlooked assets.

Question 25. How will the Giants split carries at running back?

JOHN SCHMEELK: Rashad Jennings is likely to be the primary running back on first and second downs, given his ability to run, block and catch out of the backfield. I would expect him to get around 15-18 carries a game. Shane Vereen will be the primary third down back, and get some action on earlier downs as well. He’ll probably get around 5-10 carries a game. Whoever the third running back is will get a few depending on the game. I expect the rotation to be shorter than it was last season.

DAN SALOMONE: There’s still a lot to sort out before we get a good sense of how the carries will be divvied up. Orleans Darkwa, who provided a boost at times last year, was sidelined this spring with a leg injury. Paul Perkins, the fifth-round draft pick who has all the skills to be a three-down back, missed OTAs while fulfilling academic obligations back at UCLA. Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said to keep an eye on Bobby Rainey and coach Ben McAdoo said don’t sleep on Andre Williams. All we know is Rashad Jennings will get first crack and Shane Vereen will catch a bunch of passes out of the backfield. Everything else is fluid at this point, and Ben McAdoo isn’t going to tip his hand anytime soon.

LANCE MEDOW: I think the Giants will look to pick up where they left off last season with Rashad Jennings being the main ball carrier and Shane Vereen as the change of pace/third down back.  In the last four games of the season, Jennings recorded 79 total carries for 432 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry.  To put that in perspective, in the first 12 games of the season, Jennings tallied 116 carries and averaged 3.7 yards per carry.  Based on those numbers, when he received a bigger bulk of the carries late in the season and the Giants’ pounded the ball consistently, he clearly was much more effective.  As far as the other running backs’ roles go, that will depend on how the preseason plays out because there will be plenty of competition between Andre Williams, Paul Perkins and Orleans Darkwa.

Question 26. What is the most improved unit on the Giants’ roster?

JOHN SCHMEELK: How can you not say the defensive line? JPP is back, and hopefully a bit better with the club off his hand. Owa Odighizuwa will play after a lost rookie season. Johnathan Hankins is back and healthy. Oh yeah, and did you forget the two beasts added in free agency: Snacks Harrison and Olivier Vernon? Just a season after the Giants defensive line struggled mightily getting after the quarterback, this could be one of the strongest defensive lines in the NFL.

DAN SALOMONE: I’m going to lump the cornerbacks and safeties together and say the secondary. Yes, it all starts up front, and the Giants improved the roster there with Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison. But the Giants allowed the most passing yards last season. That won’t be the case this year. The Giants now have two of the league’s biggest playmakers at cornerback with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins. Then they went out and drafted defensive backs in two of the first three rounds with cornerback Eli Apple and safety Darian Thompson. It’s reasonable to expect a major leap from Year 1 to Year 2 with safety Landon Collins, who did exactly that at both the high school and collegiate levels.  


LANCE MEDOW: I’m going with the unit that received an influx of talent: the defensive line.  The additions of Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison will help both the pass rush and the line’s ability to stop the run.  On top of those two new faces, Jason Pierre-Paul should be much more comfortable on the field and will have an entire offseason program and training camp period under his belt by the time the season starts.  Johnathan Hankins is also back to full health after missing seven games due to a torn pectoral muscle, as is last year’s third-round pick Owa Odighizuwa, who was limited to just four games as a rookie.

Question 27. What do you expect from Jason Pierre-Paul this season?

JOHN SCHMEELK: I expect him to be a better tackler than last season, and for him to be around double-digits in sacks. He has had more than 6.5 sacks twice in his six-year career, so that would be a very positive season. Until we see him tackle in a preseason game, there is no telling how much better his grip will be without the club on his hand. We’ll have to wait and see.

DAN SALOMONE: For him to close his unfinished business, like he said he wanted to do upon re-signing with the team in March. Look, it’s been a life-changing year for JPP, something most of us can’t even imagine. But here he is with another opportunity. I think he’ll make the most of it as the accident gets further in the rearview mirror, both physically and emotionally. We saw the explosiveness was still there last season, and don’t take anything away from the fact that his lone sack was against Cam Newton, the league MVP. The defensive additions, including Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison, will only help him get back to being the disruptive force that he was.


LANCE MEDOW: I expect JPP to be much more comfortable on the field this season, given he already had an opportunity to adjust by playing in eight games last season while wearing a club on his right hand.  As far as production goes, in those eight games, we saw he still has a knack for getting to the quarterback and that should only improve in 2016, especially with Olivier Vernon playing opposite him.  The one area that JPP has never received enough credit for during his career has been stopping the run.  Since he’s now wearing a glove, that should help his cause, but there still may be an adjustment period for him to return to that Pro Bowl form.

Question 28. Which draft pick will start the most games in his rookie season?

JOHN SCHMEELK: I’m taking Eli Apple out of the equation here because he won’t surpass either Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie or Janoris Jenkins on the depth chart. He might still get some starts if the team opens up in nickel defense, but that remains to be seen. Sterling Shepard should get his share of starts, but if he ends up being the third receiver, his starts could be limited, too. That’s why I’m going with Darian Thompson. He zoomed up the depth chart in spring work and is the highest draft pick of the players competing for the starting safety spot next to Landon Collins. If he wins the job and stays healthy, he’ll get 16 starts.

DAN SALOMONE: This is where starts can be deceiving. Apple will likely play a lot, but in terms of being on the field for the very first snap, that designation will go to DRC and Jenkins. Thompson is probably the easy answer right now based on his impressive spring, but if the NFL teaches us anything, it’s that nothing comes easy, especially when we haven’t even seen the team practice in pads yet. So I’m going to land in between the first and third picks and go with Shepard, the second-round choice out of Oklahoma. Tell me if you’ve heard this story before: rookie wide receiver goes on to have a monster year for the Giants.


LANCE MEDOW: I’ll go with third-round pick Darian Thompson.  I think he’s going to win the starting job next to Landon Collins and since more often than not there are always two safeties on the field to start a game, this will increase Thompson’s chances of topping all rookies in that category.  Eli Apple and Sterling Shepard will have their fair share of opportunities to start, but it could fluctuate depending on how many corners and wide receivers line up to start a game.

Question 29: Which free agent signing will have the biggest impact on the team in 2016?

JOHN SCHMEELK: Olivier Vernon. For the final eight games last year, some of the advanced stats and metrics say that Vernon was the best defensive player in football. Even though his performance didn’t show up in sacks, which is not unusual, he was constantly around the quarterback and forced a ton of hurries. You get the sense that, more than any other player on the roster, this could be a breakout year for him from a statistical standpoint. If he plays for 16 games like he did for the final eight last year, he could potentially eclipse 15 sacks and be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. How he plays will have a profound impact on the Giants’ defense and record this year.

DAN SALOMONE: I’m going with O.V. as well. He was a man on a mission in the second half of last season, recording 5.5 sacks, 29 quarterback hits and 12 tackles for loss in the final eight games. As a starter, he’s averaging 8.5 sacks per year and has never missed a game in four NFL seasons. Coupled with Jason Pierre-Paul on the outside and 670 pounds between Damon Harrison and Johnathan Hankins on the inside, Vernon is just scratching the surface as he enters the prime of his career. On top of that, take a few minutes to read up on his time before the Giants. He’s extremely dedicated, lets his play do the talking, and he’s a student of the game. He’ll be an immediate leader in the locker room.

LANCE MEDOW: I think Damon Harrison will have the biggest impact on the team this coming season. The Giants finished 24th in the NFL against the run (121.4 yds) in 2015 and have added, arguably, the best run stopper in the league in Snacks. It’s also important to note that Harrison’s arrival won’t just impact the run defense but also aid the pass rush. With he and Johnathan Hankins applying pressure from the inside, that should open up opportunities on the edge for Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon.

Question 30: What was the biggest storyline of the offseason?

JOHN SCHMEELK: Free agency. How can it not be given the amount of resources spent and the amount of talent brought in during the first couple days of free agency? Olivier Vernon, Snacks Harrison and Janoris Jenkins have the talent to completely change the way one side of the ball plays. It could turn the team’s biggest weakness last year, its defense, into a strength in 2016. How that free agent class contributes, along with the re-signing of Jason Pierre-Paul, will go a long way to determining how this season goes.


DAN SALOMONE: The free-agent haul of Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Janoris Jenkins definitely stole the spotlight in March, but the biggest story was the Giants finding their 17th head coach in franchise history. After 12 seasons, 110 victories and two Super Bowl titles, Tom Coughlin stepped down and Ben McAdoo was named his successor. The former offensive coordinator, who drew up two of Eli Manning’s best statistical seasons, preached “evolution, not revolution” throughout his first months on the job and even kept all the clocks in the building on TC Time, five minutes fast. This is the first time the Giants went through an offseason like this since 2004.

LANCE MEDOW: The biggest storyline of the offseason was the free agent splash the Giants made to address their defense. They added defensive end Olivier Vernon from the Miami Dolphins to aid the pass rush, Jets free agent defensive tackle Damon Harrison to stop the run, and corner Janoris Jenkins from the Rams to take over for Prince Amukamara, who signed with the Jaguars. All three players were considered among the top players at their respective positions to hit the market.

Will Eli Manning surpass his 2015 season totals in yards and touchdowns?

JOHN SCHMEELK: He will come close but fall just short. Here’s why: he won’t have as many opportunities. The Giants are committed to running the ball a little more this year, and they shouldn’t be trailing in as many games if the defense is playing better football. Manning might not get to 600 pass attempts, and the Giants hope the running backs account for more touchdowns in the red zone. I think Manning has a more efficient season in terms of quarterback rating but his counting stats might not be as impressive.

DAN SALOMONE: He’s improved on his previous season totals the last two years, so why not a third? He’s only getting more comfortable in Ben McAdoo’s offense, which has already produced 8,842 yards and 65 touchdowns for Manning in the first two campaigns. On top of that, Odell Beckham Jr. isn’t slowing down, Victor Cruz is looking to come back, Sterling Shepard could turn out to be a steal in the second round, and the offensive line is getting stronger and stronger together.

LANCE MEDOW: Last season, Eli threw for 4,436 yards and a career-high 35 touchdowns.  With plenty of more talent surrounding Odell Beckham this season, on paper, it’s not a stretch to say he could surpass both of those totals but the Giants are looking for more balance on offense this season and I think that will limit Manning’s opportunities.  In 2015, the Giants threw the ball 623 times compared to 403 rushes.  That was the biggest disparity in the last five years.  They’re going to try to bring those numbers closer together in 2016.