The Giants.com crew is counting down the start of training camp with 30 questions in 30 days. The full squad reports on Wednesday, July 24 for meetings and the conditioning evaluation. The first open practice session will take place the following day, July 25, at 2:45 p.m. ET at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
25. What is one storyline not getting enough attention?
Lance Medow: There are three facets to a football team, yet special teams always seems to be an afterthought. Overshadowed by the Giants' 5-11 record in 2018 was their improvement in several special teams' categories, specifically the return game and placekicker Aldrick Rosas' Pro Bowl campaign. Last season, the Giants finished tied for seventh in the NFL in average yards per kickoff return (24.4). If you don't think that's something that jumps off the page, they ranked 28th (19.6) in that category in 2017. On top of that significant jump, following a rookie season of ups and downs, Rosas converted 32 of his 33 field goal attempts and 31 of his 32 extra point attempts.
While I don't think Rosas looking to build off his strong 2018 season is a storyline that needs more attention, I do think there should be more focus on the competition in the return game for both kickoffs and punts. The Giants have a number of new faces who will provide special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey with options. Jabrill Peppers, Corey Coleman, Golden Tate, Cody Latimer, Russell Shepard, Bennie Fowler and Brittan Golden all have NFL experience as return men, and rookie Darius Slayton has also been in the mix during the offseason program. When McGaughey addressed the media earlier this month, he even noted that the additional competition and experience can go a long way in helping the team get through the grind of the season: "It's a lot of different scenarios, and it's good to have options. Last year, we didn't have a lot of options. Now, we've got a bunch of options, and we look forward to be able to execute at a high level, and do those things. Once we get put in those situations, we'll work them, but it's good to have those options."
Peppers is considered the frontrunner to serve as the team's main kickoff and punt returner, but that doesn't mean there won't be opportunities for others to contribute. You can never go into a season thinking all you'll need is one player to get you through 16 games. All you have to do is look at 2018. Eight different Giants returned at least one kickoff and six returned at least one punt. This is why the competition, performance and decision making of players at those positions throughout training camp and the preseason will be something to monitor. As mentioned earlier, the Giants made huge strides in kickoff returns last season but were just 28th in the league in average yards per punt return. Personnel at those spots will be key in determining whether certain stats are maintained or improved upon in 2019.
26. Who will be the leader in the following categories? Receiving yards, tackles, interceptions, sacks, catches.
Dan Salomone: For receiving yards, I'll start with Sterling Shepard. The longest-tenured Giant in the wide receiver room has increased his yardage total in all three years he's been in the league, culminating with 872 last season. The team made a commitment to him this offseason with a contract extension, and I think he repays them with his first 1,000-yard season. Here are my other predictions:
Tackles -- LB Alec Ogletree. Even though he's coming off a career-high five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, Ogletree is a tackling machine at heart. He's a smart, sideline-to-sideline player who averages 110 tackles per season (not including 2015 when he was limited to four games with the Rams).
Interceptions -- S Jabrill Peppers. I was close to penciling in Peppers as the tackles leader, but I ended up putting him here. The newcomer is the Swiss Army knife that defensive coordinator James Bettcher likes to keep in his pocket. Peppers is going to line up all over the field, and if he continues on an upward trajectory like the Giants hope, he could lead the team in interceptions. Meanwhile, Janoris Jenkins should lead the team in breaking up passes. He has 90 PDs since 2012, one behind Stephon Gilmore and Darius Slay for the most in the league.
Sacks -- OLB Markus Golden. He had 12.5 sacks in 2016 when the Cardinals under Bettcher had the second-ranked defense in total yards. Golden tore his ACL the following season and is looking to get back on track with his new team. "He's a double-digit sack guy," outside linebackers coach Mike Dawson said. "Once you guys watch him train and watch the way that he plays, and you go back and watch his pre-injury film, just the way he's all over the field in the run game and the pass game, when the ball is down the field, he's backside chasing that thing like a mad man. That intensity and that level of effort he plays with is going to lead to production with him."
Catches -- RB Saquon Barkley. He shattered Tiki Barber's franchise mark for most catches by a running back with 91 (Barber had 72 in 2001), and I think he breaks his own record in 2019. Even if he doesn't, I still expect it to be close, which means it will be tough for anyone on the team to surpass him. Barkley is just too valuable as a safety valve in the passing game.
27. What will be the best one-on-one matchup at training camp?
John Schmeelk: In seasons past, this was an easy question to answer, but this year it is a little tougher. We saw a lot of one-on-one between the receivers and defensive backs in the spring, and the best matchup was Janoris Jenkins vs. Sterling Shepard. It was also a lot of fun to watch Jabrill Peppers battle with Evan Engram before Engram injured his hamstring. I want to go somewhere slightly less obvious.
I love watching offensive and defensive line one-on-ones, but it is usually the outside pass rushers against the offensive tackles that get me most excited. This season, however, I want to see Dexter Lawrence operate against Will Hernandez and Kevin Zeitler. At 340 pounds, Lawrence has a very impressive combination of size and the agility of a smaller man. In Zeitler, Lawrence will get to compete against one of the strongest players in the league who knows all the veteran tricks. As good of an athlete as Lawrence might be, in order to beat someone like Zeitler, who plays at a Pro Bowl level, he is going to have to work on his technique, from his hand use to his feet.
Facing Hernandez, meanwhile, will give Giants coaches a good feel for how far Hernandez progressed in his rookie season. Hernandez is wide and powerful, but going against someone as heavy and athletic as Lawrence, he is going to be solid in his hand technique and do what he is taught to hold his own. Once July gets here, my eyes are going to be on the hog mollies.
28. What are your expectations for QB Daniel Jones in his rookie season?
Lance Medow: It's real simple for Daniel Jones during his rookie campaign: be a sponge with the top priorities of observing and absorbing. Jones' goal should be to have the same rookie years as fellow former first-round picks Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers. What do those two have in common? They both combined for zero starts in their first seasons in the league. Rivers actually began the 2004 campaign as the Chargers' third-string quarterback behind Drew Brees and Doug Flutie and ultimately appeared in two games, completing five of his eight pass attempts for 33 yards and a touchdown. Rodgers one-upped Rivers with three appearances in lopsided games in 2005 in relief of Brett Favre. The former Cal standout connected on nine of his 16 pass attempts for 65 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. I think it's safe to say things worked out pretty well for those two.
Like Rivers and Rodgers, Jones has the luxury of learning from a veteran quarterback during his rookie season. That's why his goal should be to take advantage of his valuable resource by watching Eli Manning's every move in practice, film prep and game performance and asking questions along the way. Similar to Rivers and Rodgers, if Jones is to see the field in the early stages of the 2019 season, it will be the result of a lopsided game, so the opportunities will likely be limited or perhaps non-existent. That's why I think the biggest expectation for Jones is to solidify the backup role. That doesn't mean he has to be listed as the No. 2 quarterback in Week 1, but by midway through the season, I think it's reasonable to expect him to take over that role. Remember, the depth chart fluctuates every week, so how it looks in Week 1 doesn't mean that will be the structure for the remainder of the season. The reason why the backup job is a notable feat is because Pat Shurmur has said many times he values having a veteran quarterback on the depth chart in case that signal caller has to go into a game with very few practice reps. If Jones eventually claims that job, that means Shurmur and the coaching staff believe he can operate the offense with very little work during the course of the week.
While most have loved to discuss the "mentoring a young quarterback" topic this offseason and debate the responsibilities of the veteran signal caller, at the end of the day, the onus is on Jones to take advantage of every practice rep, every discussion in the film room and every mental rep on game day. As the starting quarterback, Manning's job and first priority is to prepare and help the team win games, not hold Jones' hand. That's why, once again, the expectation for Jones, during his rookie year, is real simple: go unnoticed (in a good way). Watch. Learn. Store for the future.
29. Who is a sleeper player to watch this season?
Dan Salomone: Well, it was wide receiver Darius Slayton until Pat Shurmur heaped all that praise on the fifth-round draft pick, calling him the most improved player from spring football. He might not fully be a sleeper any longer, so I'll go with Eric Dungey. If you look on our roster, you'll see him listed as a QB/TE. That's not a glitch. The Giants signed him as a rookie free agent after no one drafted the fifth ACC quarterback ever to record 11,000+ yards of total offense and 90+ touchdowns in his career at Syracuse. The others were Philip Rivers (N.C. State), Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson (Louisville), Tajh Boyd (Clemson), and Deshaun Watson (Clemson). Pretty good company.
So what gives with the 'QB/TE' label? Maybe because 'QB/TE/FB/RB/ST' didn't fit? Honestly, I don't know the full plan for him, and I have an inkling the coaches want it that way for the public. For starters, think Taysom Hill of the New Orleans Saints. Against the Giants last season, he returned a kickoff, threw two passes (completed one), caught a pass, and rushed four times. It's a copycat league, and the Giants want to see if they can replicate one for themselves.
"He is a very accomplished quarterback and made a lot of plays with his feet," Shurmur said of Dungey. "He made some good throws out there as well. He is one of those guys we had our eyes on at the draft. We will see. I think he is a good football player. Usually there is a place on the field for good football players. We will see what happens."
As for special teams, Thomas McGaughey said they will "find a home for him." A versatile player like Dungey can open the playbook in every phase of the game.
"Absolutely," the special teams coordinator said. "Anytime you can get a big athlete that's tough, that's smart, that's played the quarterback position, anytime you can get a style of athlete like that, and he's coachable and is willing, a lot of good things can happen."
30. What is the No. 1 storyline heading into training camp?
John Schmeelk: Can the Giants find a pass rush? This question was an easy one for me, and the answer is that simple. Once the Giants decided to trade Olivier Vernon, and even before that, improving the pass was a priority this offseason. The Giants used free agency to add Markus Golden, a player who had 12.5 sacks in 2016 in Arizona under James Bettcher. He tore his ACL the following season and had only 2.5 sacks in 11 games in 2018. He is healthy and the Giants are counting on him to have a bounce-back season.
The Giants are also counting on their young pass rushers to give them more production. Lorenzo Carter transitioned from an off-ball linebacker at Georgia to more of an edge rusher in his first year in the NFL. He had some of the best results in the physical testing at the combine of any player in the history of the event, so there is hope he can improve on his four sacks from a year ago. He came back this spring looking a lot stronger in his upper body.
Oshane Ximines, the Giants' third-round pick out of Old Dominion, is someone else the team hopes can add some edge pressure. He had 11.5 sacks in his senior season and looked dominant in Conference USA play. He also flashed against tougher competition, like Virginia Tech, a game where he had 2.5 sacks. It will be a big jump to the NFL and it will be interesting to see how quickly he adjusts.
The Giants also hope to get better pass rush up the middle from their interior defensive linemen. B.J. Hill had 5.5 sacks, but it may be difficult for him to match those numbers in his second season. The Giants have high hopes that Dexter Lawrence, their second of their three first-round picks, can provide an inside push at 340 pounds with his impressive athleticism. Dalvin Tomlinson is also someone the team hopes can make a jump in his third season. RJ McIntosh, the Giants' fifth-round pick in 2018 who missed most of his rookie year, could also surprise people.
Whether the defense can take a step forward will depend heavily on whether it can find a pass rush. We will start to get a sense in training camp when the pads go on. The answer to this question could determine the success of the 2019 season. One-on-ones between the offensive and defensive lines will be a focus for me when the team hits the practice field at the end of July.