The New York Giants are set to report to training camp on July 25, and Giants.com is counting down the summer break with 30 questions in 30 days. Here is today's question:
4. Which one-on-one matchup are you most looking forward to in training camp?
JOHN SCHMEELK: I want to see Ereck Flowers block whomever is pass rushing on his side of the field, whether it be Lorenzo Carter or Kareem Martin. It is important for all three of these players to do well this year, which will make the matchup all the more important. Once the pads come on and we start seeing offensive and defensive line one on ones, you will really start to see where the Giants pass rush and pass protection are in their development. You will then see more when the preseason games start, and the Giants play in their practices against the Lions. So much of the year will depend on Flowers playing well at right tackle and the Giants getting a consistent pass rush and we'll begin seeing what is there when the pads come on in camp.
DAN SALOMONE: I'd pay to see Nate Solder vs. Olivier Vernon, but that won't be necessary for fans because training camp is free and open to the public. They are two of the most important pieces to the puzzle this season, and as the saying goes, iron sharpens iron. Solder brings over a winning culture from New England while I think a healthy Vernon is in store for a big season under defensive coordinator James Bettcher. This will be a fun one to watch all summer.
LANCE MEDOW: During mandatory minicamp in June, when Damon Harrison was asked about Saquon Barkley he said, "I'm excited to get out there and run in training camp so I can hit his ass and see what he is made of." Yes, Snacks said that in a joking manner but sign me up for that matchup. A little friendly competition doesn't hurt anyone. If anything, it gets the juices flowing for the season.
5. Which returning Giant will have a breakout season?
JOHN SCHMEELK: I'm going to go with Sterling Shepard, even if the numbers don't show it due to the abundance of weapons the Giants have on offense. His quality of play will show it. I felt Shepard was due for a great season last summer as he dominated the offseason program, but an ankle injury that never really healed derailed his season. I've seen the same level of play this offseason and I expect it to continue into this year. He will be the Giants go-to receiver on third down and be a real weapon against single coverage.
DAN SALOMONE: How about Rhett Ellison? He's highly regarded among coaches and teammates as the consummate professional, but that doesn't mean he can't eat too. Remember, he has prior experience working with coach Pat Shurmur, who was his tight ends coach and then interim offensive coordinator in Minnesota. Think of what Kyle Rudolph brought to the Vikings. Ellison might not get a ton of catches and yards – the Giants have some other weapons if you haven't heard – but maybe he could break out by catching a number of touchdowns in the red zone. I wouldn't be surprised by that. Backup quarterback Davis Webb also thought the veteran tight end had the best spring of anybody on the team. Let's see what Ellison does when it counts.
LANCE MEDOW: I said B.J. Goodson will be the most improved player on the team from 2017 to 2018 and, as a result, he'll have a breakout campaign. We've already seen some flashes from Goodson with his 18 tackles against the Cowboys in Week 1 last year but injuries have held him back. The former fourth round pick was limited to just seven games in 2017 and was mainly a special teams player as a rookie in 2016. This season, I think Goodson will benefit from playing alongside Alec Ogletree in the middle of the defense and, as long as he stays healthy, his stats should match his potential.
6. What position group has the most competition?
JOHN SCHMEELK: It has to be defensive back. For the sake of this answer I am going to combine safeties and cornerbacks into one group. Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, and Landon Collins will play major roles, but there is an open competition for every other spot in those groups, including the second starting safety and the nickel cornerback. The competition between veterans and rookies alike will be fierce.
DAN SALOMONE: I think it's the defensive line just due to the sheer volume of players at the position and that fact that the staff wants to use as many as possible on game days. It's a copycat league, and who's on top right now? The Eagles. And what do they do? They roll out the deepest unit in the NFL, which happens to be their defensive line. I'm particularly interested to see how rookie defensive tackle B.J. Hill comes along. He impressed Damon Harrison and defensive line coach Gary Emanuel right away and will make it an interesting competition this summer as they all try to carve out roles in various packages.
LANCE MEDOW: When you peruse the roster, it's hard to look past the competition at wide receiver behind Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard. Come training camp, players such as Cody Latimer, Roger Lewis, Hunter Sharp, Travis Rudolph and Marquis Bundy will all be battling it out for the remaining roster spots at that position. Sharp, Rudolph and Bundy were all on the 53-man roster late last season, and Rudolph and Bundy started the year on the practice squad. How this group contributes on special teams will be a key factor moving forward but step one was standing out during the spring, and each receiver showed some flashes. I'm most intrigued by Latimer because he was a second round pick in 2014 but never really had a great opportunity to consistently showcase his receiving skills in Denver. Latimer played just three percent of the team's offensive snaps in 2014 and peaked at 34% in 2017. I think Latimer has the potential to take on a larger role on offense while also showcasing his strong special teams skills.
7. Which one-on-one matchup are you looking forward to seeing this season?
JOHN SCHMEELK: I won't have to wait long for my matchup: Odell Beckham Jr. vs Jalen Ramsey. Ramsey has become the best cover corner in the league, and I have no doubt he will follow Odell Beckham Jr. around the first game of the season. Ramsey has also been known for talking some trash, so it will be an opportunity for Beckham to show how he has matured on the field. It will be a battle all game long.
DAN SALOMONE: They won't be tackling each other, but I can't wait for Saquon Barkley vs. Ezekiel Elliott twice a season. Quarterback duels are promoted all the time, so why can't the same be done for running backs? Barkley and Elliott go back to their days of tearing up the Big Ten at Penn State and Ohio State, respectively, and now the top-five picks are in the same division in the NFL. Barkley is trying to follow in the footsteps of Elliott, who led the league in rushing as a rookie in 2016. They square off for the first time on Sunday night in Dallas in Week 2. Get your popcorn ready.
LANCE MEDOW: I'm not even going to attempt to tease you. Let's start right away with Week 1. Odell Beckham against Jaguars corner Jalen Ramsey, one of the top secondary players in the league. Ramsey is known for talking a big game, but in fairness, he knows how to back up that talk. Last season was a breakout campaign for the 2016 first-round pick as he made his first Pro Bowl, was named First-Team All-Pro and helped Jacksonville make the playoffs for the first time since 2007. This will be Ramsey's first career matchup against Beckham and I can guarantee you it will be must-see TV.
8. What is the most impressive milestone Eli Manning is approaching?
JOHN SCHMEELK: Manning is three passing touchdowns away from passing Fran Tarkenton, who is tied for sixth with Phillip Rivers on the all-time passing touchdown list. Once Manning passes Tarkenton, he will only be trailing Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Dan Marino, and Rivers (who he might also pass this season since he is only three touchdowns behind him).
DAN SALOMONE: I'm in agreement with Lance on this one. In the season opener, Manning will become the longest-tenured Giant, breaking Michael Strahan's record of 216 games (they are currently tied). Anytime someone breaks a record for a franchise that was founded in 1925 is just incredible to me. From guys who played in just one game to the Ring of Honor inductees, just think of all the names that have been put on the back of a Giants jersey for nearly a century. Manning stands atop all of them in this regard.
LANCE MEDOW: My answer is fast approaching because once we get to Week 1 this year, he'll reach this milestone and then begin to add plenty of padding. Michael Strahan appeared in 216 career games as a Giant, a mark Manning matched in the final week of the regular season last year. Manning will make it 217 in this year's regular season opener, at home, against the Jaguars. Durability is one of the most underrated characteristics in football. Flashy stats usually get all the attention but if you can't stay on the field what good are all those numbers? That's never been an issue for Eli Manning.
9. What is one Giants record that will never be broken?
JOHN SCHMEELK: This is an easy one if you really take a close look at the Giants' record book. Victor Cruz holds the record for longest reception in Giants history with a 99-yard catch. It is actually impossible to break that record. I know that's boing. Here are two others: Emlen Tunnell had 74 career interceptions. For that record to be broken today a player would have to average five interceptions a year for 15 seasons, or seven a year for 12 seasons. That's never going to happen. The other is a coaching record. Steve Owen coached the Giants for 23 consecutive seasons. For anyone that watches the NFL, it is easy to understand why that record will never be broken.
DAN SALOMONE: I'll go with the record that too often got taken for granted: Eli Manning's consecutive starts streak of 210 regular-season games (plus 12 in the postseason), or 4,768 days. Franchises go decades without finding a franchise quarterback, but the Giants have had one since making the seismic decision to acquire Manning in the 2004 NFL Draft. With that streak came all of the franchise passing records, which will also be difficult to be beat. If they are, it won't be for a long, long time.
LANCE MEDOW: In 2001, Michael Strahan recorded 22.5 sacks, which not only set the Giants' single-season record but also the NFL mark. In the 17 years since Strahan pulled off that feat, the closest Giant to 22.5 sacks was Jason Pierre-Paul, who collected 16.5 in 2011. JPP's total was impressive but he was still six shy of Strahan's mark. I'm very confident that record will hold up.
10. What is more likely -- Odell Beckham Jr. leads the NFL in receiving yards or Saquon Barkley does it in rushing?
JOHN SCHMEELK: I don't think either is very likely, to be honest with you. The Giants have so many weapons I think the ball will be spread around so much no one player will have such dominant numbers. With that said, I think it is more likely that Beckham Jr. leads the league in receiving. He is still one of the most talented and explosive players in the NFL, and is the Giants best big play threat though the air. Barkley is also very talented but he is still a rookie, and the Giants offensive line needs to show exactly how far they've come. I also expect Barkley to get a lot of his yards as a receiver.
DAN SALOMONE: I'll take the three-time Pro Bowler over the one who has yet to play a snap in a padded NFL practice. While many think Beckham's numbers might dip because of all the other weapons, I think the opposite is true. They will only free up Beckham and take at least part of the attention of the defense away from him, which has not always been the case in the past.
LANCE MEDOW: Saquon Barkley is going to contribute to both the rushing and passing games so that means his opportunities as a receiver could eat into his rushing total. That's why I think it's more likely Odell Beckham leads the NFL in receiving yards. The latter just contributes to that one facet of the game whereas Barkley's versatility, while certainly not a negative, stretches his role across the board.
11. Which player had to make the biggest adjustment this year?
JOHN SCHMEELK: Ereck Flowers. I think the adjustments on the defensive side of the ball are a little overblown. The team is still running a one gap scheme, and guys like Olivier Vernon are still being asked to rush the passer. In nickel situations, the defense might not look different at all. They'll figure it out up front. Ereck Flowers, on the other hand, is being as to play right tackle, a position he last played (for only four games) back in 2012 as a freshman at Miami. Reversing all the footwork he has learned as a left tackle over the past five years won't be easy. He has a real challenge ahead of him.
DAN SALOMONE: I think we are overlooking Eli Manning here, which is probably a credit to his work ethic. He is learning a new offense for the second time since 2014, and he is the one steering the ship with one of the most talented group of weapons in the league. So don't take him for granted. You know he has already spent hundreds of hours in the playbook and watching film, and there are hundreds more to come.
LANCE MEDOW: On offense, it's Ereck Flowers and on defense, it's Olivier Vernon. Flowers is moving to right tackle where he last played as a freshman, at Miami, and he only lined up there for four games. When he spoke to the media during the offseason program, Flowers even admitted that sample size is extremely small and he never had the chance to truly dedicate himself to that position in college because he was simply filling in due to another player's injury. In James Bettcher's defense, Vernon is moving from defensive end to linebacker meaning he'll be standing up and playing off the line much more than he did in the past. Considering Vernon played off the line a bit in Steve Spagnuolo's system and during his stint with the Dolphins, I think Flowers will have to make the bigger adjustment. During the spring, Giants offensive line coach Hal Hunter said Flowers moving from left to right is like telling a left-handed person to start writing with their right hand. That's not necessarily an easy transition.
12. Who will lead the team in interceptions?
JOHN SCHMEELK: I'm going with a dark horse: Andrew Adams. I think he will win the second safety job and be the single high safety next to Collins. Whoever wins that job has the best chance of leading the team in interceptions, much like Antoine Bethea did for Arizona last year. Landon Collins can be in the mix here too. I don't see a cornerback doing it because of the preponderance of man defense we expect to see the Giants to play this year.
DAN SALOMONE: Two-time Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins is my pick here. He won't be sitting back deep waiting for interceptions to come to him, but he is going to be making plays all over the field in James Bettcher's defense. I've talked about this a lot already, it may be nothing, but this spring I noticed a lot of tipped passes by the middle of the defense that led to interceptions. Again, I don't know if that is just chalked up to the non-contact practices, but it is definitely something to keep an eye on as we get into preseason games. Who better to take advantage of the muddied passing lanes than Collins?
LANCE MEDOW: In each of the last three seasons, a corner has led the Giants in interceptions. In 2015, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Trumaine McBride topped the list with three apiece, DRC once again collected a team-high six in 2016, and, last season, Janoris Jenkins and Ross Cockrell each led the way with three. In comparison, in each of the last three seasons in Arizona where James Bettcher was the defensive coordinator, a safety led the Cardinals in interceptions in two of those three campaigns. While Landon Collins is a strong candidate to top the team in that category, I think Janoris Jenkins will have the most interceptions on the club. He's arguably the best cover corner on the team and, aside from William Gay, is the most experienced.
13. Which new Giant will have the biggest impact this year? What about long-term?
JOHN SCHMEELK: Nate Solder is the answer to the first question, and a fairly easy one. He will be a dependable rock at left tackle that Eli Manning can trust to protect his blindside. It allowed the Giants to move Ereck Flowers over to right tackle and it gives the group a veteran leader that has seen it all. Long term, the obvious answer is going to be Saquon Barkley. Will Hernandez might have a longer career due to their positions but Barkley's impact will be so much higher you have to go with him. For the next half decade or more he will be a player opponents have to focus on every time they take the field.
DAN SALOMONE: Saquon Barkley is the answer to both of these. That's why the Giants drafted him second overall. Barkley should help every facet of the game – the offensive line, the receivers, the quarterback, and even the defensive players by keeping them off the field. As we've seen, rookie running backs can make immediate impacts. Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt all helped their teams make the playoffs last season as rookies.
LANCE MEDOW: For this year, Nate Solder will have the biggest impact. The Giants added a polished left tackle to protect Eli Manning's blindside as well as help improve the run game. His presence should be felt immediately. As far as the long-term, Saquon Barkley tops the list. The Giants used this year's second overall pick on the former Penn State running back because they believe he'll help the team in many different ways and that will be felt for years to come. It's been said many times by many different individuals. Barkley isn't just a running back. His contributions in the passing game and on special teams are just as noticeable.
14. The Giants will have a successful season if they....
JOHN SCHMEELK: Finish with a turnover ratio better than plus-five. Last year, the following teams finished with a turnover ratio higher than plus-five: Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots. Every single one of those teams finished with at least nine wins, and only the Ravens, Chargers, Lions and Seahawks did not make the playoffs, despite winning nine games. If you protect the football and take it away, you win games.
DAN SALOMONE: Play situational football. In the NFL, teams lose games more often than the opponent wins them. Don't drop the ball on third down. Don't turn it over in the red zone. Don't miss a key tackle. Execute the four-minute offense late in a game. Win the field position battle. As complicated as football seemingly has become, it is still very basic when you peel everything back. The margins are razor-thin in this league, and the teams that make the play at critical moments tend to win the game.
LANCE MEDOW: In the NFL, it's really simple. You have a successful season if you post a winning record and make the playoffs. In order to pull off that feat, the Giants will need to run the ball effectively, get strong play from their offensive line and execute in the red zone. On defense, they have to stop the run, get pressure on the quarterback and create turnovers. The big key is accomplishing all those goals consistently. It can't fluctuate from game to game. The other difference maker will be the depth chart. Injuries are guaranteed to happen in the NFL. The teams that sustain success and make the playoffs are the ones that have bench players that can consistently step up. Case in point, last season, the Eagles lost so many critical players yet they still managed to win the Super Bowl because of how effectively the bench performed.
15. What is one defensive stat the Giants need to improve the most in 2018?
JOHN SCHMEELK: I went the "big play" route with my prior question, so I'll go something more traditional here: stop the run. If you can't stop the run as a defense, especially with your front seven, you aren't going to be successful. Last year, only five teams allowed more rushing yards per game than the Giants (120.8), who also allowed 4.17 yards per rush play (20th in the NFL). Especially in a division like the NFC East that features good offenses lines and talented young running backs (Ezekiel Elliott, Derrius Guice, Jay Ajayi) you need to stop the run or you are not going to be able to get stops and get off the field. The Giants have the personnel with talented defensive linemen like Snacks Harrison, Dalvin Tomlinson, and B.J. Hill to do it and I think they will.
DAN SALOMONE: Sacks. Sacks. Sacks. They are not overrated. A hurry is not as damaging to an offense. Close is not close enough. You don't need to lead the league – although it doesn't hurt as the Steelers, Jaguars, Panthers, Rams and Titans were in the top five and all made it to the postseason – but you sure as heck can't be in the bottom 10. The Giants face a lot of slippery quarterbacks this year, and they're not down until they are down.
LANCE MEDOW: Much like the Giants need to run the ball better on offense, on the flip side they need to stop the run more effectively in 2018. Last season, New York ranked 27th in the NFL against the run as it allowed 121 yards per game. When you don't stop the run, you also struggle to get off the field on third down so it's no surprise the Giants finished 22nd in the league in opponent's third down efficiency (40 percent). In 2016, the Giants were tied for third against the run, won 11 games and made the playoffs. It's no coincidence, the complete opposite occurred in 2017, partially, due to their struggles in slowing down their opponents' ground games
16. What is one offensive stat the Giants need to improve the most in 2018?
JOHN SCHMEELK: In the video version of this, Paul Dottino said points but I think that is way too generic. Rushing yards is an easy way to go here but I want to focus on big plays. Last year, the Giants finished with only 33 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which was more than only two other NFL teams (the Bears and Ravens). The Giants had 8 rushing plays of 20 yards or more, 9th worst in the league. In the modern NFL you need big plays to consistently score points. It is hard to ask an offense to constantly sustain long drives time and time again. With the return of Odell Beckham Jr., the addition of Saquon Barkley and most importantly the improvement of the offensive line, those big play numbers could double this year. It would make all the difference for the Giants offense.
DAN SALOMONE: You know what sucks the life out of not only the offense but the defense as well? Three-and-out drives. The Giants had 57 of them last season, the most in the NFL. That's 29.4 percent of all Giants drives ending without gaining a first down, without taking time off the clock, without winning the field position battle, and without giving your defense time to breathe on the sideline. There are plenty of options for this question, but I'll go with that one. The Giants need to be better at situational and complementary football.
LANCE MEDOW: How can the run game not top the list? In 2017, the Giants ranked 26th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (96.8). They also had just six rushing touchdowns which tied them for third fewest in the league. Those two stats have to dramatically improve because it will only help increase its scoring, win time of possession and rest its defense. Just about every other facet of the offense feeds off the rushing attack so if the Giants want to focus on one specific area to improve that would be a wise starting point.
17. What will James Bettcher's defense look like?
JOHN SCHMEELK: It will look aggressive and variable. Expect odd and even numbered fronts. There will be times when only two players have their hand in the dirt and offenses will have to figure out which stand-up rushers are coming. Blitzers are going to come constantly from linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks. The defense will try to force the offense into bad decisions and mistakes. The cornerbacks will also be asked to be aggressive in man to man defense and disrupt opponents at the line of scrimmage. More times than not, there will be a single high safety rather than a two deep configuration.
DAN SALOMONE: If he's doing it right, we won't know. Bettcher will throw everything but the kitchen sink at a quarterback, hoping to speed up the clock in the passer's head and force him into making a mistake. Don't get caught up in the 3-4 or 4-3 business; just call it "multiple." Bruce Arians, his former two-time AP NFL Coach of the Year in Arizona, was on our radio show shortly after the hire and had some good anecdotes that sum up Bettcher. Arians said the only time he clicked over on the headset when his Cardinals were on defense was to say one thing – "blitz everybody." Everything else, including the defensive game plan, was up to James Bettcher. Sure, Bettcher would ask Arians some questions throughout the week like, "How tough is this?" or "What about that?" Being a coach who climbed the ladder on offense, Arians would respond, "Oh [expletive], that's going to be really hard. So that's my input." So that's what the Giants are getting.
LANCE MEDOW: When you look at Arizona's defense over the last three seasons, there's one word that comes to mind and that is "aggressive." James Bettcher loves to move personnel around to maximize his unit's chances of getting to the quarterback. That's one of the reasons why Chandler Jones led the NFL in sacks in 2017, with 17, and versatile players like Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu have thrived in the system. Landon Collins will likely assume the role of a hybrid player and Olivier Vernon will see time standing up as an outside linebacker as well as on the line. The other thing to keep in mind is although the base defense is 3-4, when Bettcher was in Arizona, he, like just about every other defensive coordinator in the league, utilized the nickel defense much more meaning an extra defensive back was on the field more often than the fourth linebacker. Despite that trend, the Cardinals ranked in the top ten in the league against the run in each of Bettcher's three seasons as defensive coordinator.
18. What will the offense look like under coach Pat Shurmur and offensive coordinator Mike Shula?
JOHN SCHMEELK: It will look balanced and diverse. The ball will get spread around in the passing game. The running game will make opponents respect it, opening up the passing game. The Giants have the players to throw a lot of different personnel groups and formations at opponents. They have a number of weapons they can use in different ways like Saquon Barkley and Evan Engram. They have big play guys like Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr. They have third down weapons like Engram and Sterling Shepard. Engram should be a nightmare to cover as a red zone target. For the first time in a long time, they also have the offensive line to create space in the running game and protect long enough to allow the coaches and Eli Manning the time to get the ball down the field. It should be a lot of fun to behold.
DAN SALOMONE: Unpredictable yet simple is a common theme I've picked up from players and coaches talking about it. Shurmur wants to be balanced in the run-pass split, which leads to unpredictability. But don't confuse unpredictable for complicated. Shurmur and his staff made the playbook easy to digest for players in the way it is being taught. Less thinking means more doing. Shurmur was praised in Minnesota for tailoring his system to his players' skills – not the other way around. The results spoke loud and clear in 2017.
LANCE MEDOW: Regardless of the offensive scheme, Eli Manning will continue to spread the wealth. Based on what the Vikings and Panthers did in 2017, there will be a heavy emphasis on the run game. Last season, Minnesota (31.3) and Carolina (30.6) finished second and third, respectively, in the NFL in average rushes per game. The Giants will look to get Saquon Barkley consistently involved in both the rushing and passing attacks similar to what Minnesota did with Jerick McKinnon and Carolina with Christian McCaffrey. I also think Manning will take a few more chances down the field this season and we'll see more two tight end formations. The Vikings didn't shy away from targeting Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs in the vertical game and I expect a very similar approach with Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard.
19. What is the toughest stretch on the Giants' schedule?
JOHN SCHMEELK: I realize this is a very long stretch but how about games one through seven? Yeah, seriously. Six of the seven games are against teams that made the playoffs last year (all but the Texans, who were missing their quarterback last year) and all have extremely dangerous quarterbacks except maybe the Jaguars. Jaguars, Cowboys, Texans, Saints, Panthers, Eagles and Falcons should all be good this year and the Giants will have to start their season playing high quality football to come out of the gate with some wins.
DAN SALOMONE: Weeks 4-7 will be critical for the Giants. It just so happens they are vs. New Orleans, at Carolina, vs. Philadelphia, and at Atlanta. All four of those teams made it to the playoffs last season, and three made it to the divisional round, including the Super Bowl champion Eagles. Right after that stretch, they have a 1 p.m. home game against Washington before going on the bye, which falls right in the middle of their schedule this year. These days, it takes a month or longer for teams to find their sea legs even when they are not breaking in a new offense and new defense. The Giants are doing both of those things. So if they can keep their heads above water going into the bye week, then they will be in good shape.
LANCE MEDOW: From Weeks 5-7, the Giants will play three straight teams that made the playoffs in 2017 and two of those contests will be on the road. In Week 5, they'll visit the Carolina Panthers and then, a few days later, play their Thursday night game at home against the Eagles. Following two contests in five days, they'll have a lengthy week and a half to regroup before they visit the Falcons on Monday Night Football. Then, the Giants will have another quick turnaround with a Sunday afternoon game at home against the Redskins. At this point, on paper, that's by far the toughest stretch of the season.
20. What player will have improved the most from 2017 to 2018?
JOHN SCHMEELK: I think you have to go with Eli Apple here. In addition to the suspension, he also found himself inactive for a few games last year. The Giants need him to emerge as a reliable starting outside cornerback. If he plays like he did at the end of his rookie year in 2016 and improves from there he has a real chance to do that. He showed flashes of his old self in camp and the Giants need that version of him to show up this year.
DAN SALOMONE: I like Schmeelk's answer, and I have no reason to disagree with it. Apple is one of a handful of Giants on the comeback trail, but his isn't strictly injury-related. Apple admitted that "of course" he was embarrassed by how things played out for him last season. "Nobody wants to go out the way I went out," he said. "I mean, it was all over the place, so of course." Apple, who turns 23 on the day of the Giants' first preseason game, has a clean slate with the new coaching staff and front office. Throughout the spring, he flashed the tools that made him a 10th overall draft pick. He'll just keep trying to stack those kinds of days together.
LANCE MEDOW: Given the ups and downs of 2017, Eli Apple deserves consideration for this question but I'm going with B.J. Goodson. Unfortunately, due to injury, the former fourth-round pick was limited to just seven games in 2017 but in that small sample size of games Goodson still showed some flashes. I think Goodson will benefit from playing alongside Alec Ogletree in the middle of the defense and have a breakout campaign. He has a strong engine, a knack for finding the ball carrier and a physical presence.
21. How will the Giants split the touches with so many weapons on offense?
JOHN SCHMEELK: Widely. The Giants offense and Eli Manning are in a great situation this year. All they should do is just pass to the open guy. I expect Odell Beckham's numbers to go down, not because he is any worse of a player, but because guys like Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram will get open so often. The Giants will also run the ball FAR more than they have the last four years. Saquon Barkley will be a focus of the offense both as a rusher and a receiver. The Giants will have a multi-dimensional offenses opposing defenses will really struggle to figure out.
DAN SALOMONE: Reporters asked tight end Evan Engram this very question this spring and the former first-round draft choice responded with the following: "We definitely have a lot of talent, we're going to utilize all of it as well. So, it's definitely interesting to think about. But I mean, in practice, we've got guys making plays all over the field. So, the ball's going to find the best player. We don't really care where the ball goes, I just know we have a lot of talent." In other words, whoever is open on any given play, Eli Manning will hit him. Pat Shurmur wants the offense to be balanced and unpredictable, meaning they won't rely on the same player on every snap. The rebuilt offensive line also comes into play in that regard. When the quarterback doesn't have time, he is likely going to try to find his first target as quickly as possible. When he does have time, he can find the best option and not just the fastest one.
LANCE MEDOW: First of all, this is a very good problem to have. Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham will likely finish first and second, respectively, in touches. The next tier will consist of Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram followed by whoever wins the third receiver job and Jonathan Stewart. As a means of comparison, in 2017 the Vikings targeted wide receiver Adam Thielen 143 times, followed by fellow wideout Stefon Diggs (95) and tight end Kyle Rudolph (81). Their starting running back Dalvin Cook suffered a season ending injury in Week 4 so Latavius Murray and Jerick McKinnon wound up splitting duties. They finished first and second, respectively, on the team, in touches. With Barkley serving as Cook over a full season, I think the rest of the Giants will resemble the Vikings breakdown in 2017.
22. Who will lead the Giants in overall touchdowns?
JOHN SCHMEELK: This is a really tough question given how much I think the Giants will spread the ball around. Saquon Barkley is my first instinct, even though I think Jonathan Stewart will be the team's goal line back. He is so explosive in both the passing and rushing game that he might score from outside twenty more than a half dozen times. Odell Beckham Jr. is the other easy answer given his explosiveness. I, however, am going to try to be different. I think Evan Engram will become Eli Manning's top third-down target this season given his size and ability to up and get the ball. I think he gets to double digits and leads the team in touchdowns.
DAN SALOMONE: It will be Odell Beckham Jr., who is already 11th in the franchise's 94-year history in total touchdowns after just 47 career games. That includes all rushing, receiving and returning touchdowns, by the way. I just think he is primed for a monster year. While everyone is wondering how the touches will be split up between all these other weapons, it is only going to free up the three-time Pro Bowler. Instead of just worrying about No. 13, defenses will have to know where Nos. 26, 88 and 87 are on the field at all times. You know what happens when you take your eyes off Beckham for a split-second? Six points.
LANCE MEDOW: While Saquon Barkley is an attractive choice because of his potential to get into the end zone as both a running back and receiver, it's hard to choose someone other than Odell Beckham Jr. In each of his first three seasons in the league in which he's played at least 12 games, Beckham has tallied at least 10 touchdowns. He's as close to a lock for double-digit scores as any other player on the team. Since Beckham arrived in the league in 2014, no other Giant has reached at least 10 touchdowns in a single season.
23. Who will be first and second on the team in sacks this season?
JOHN SCHMEELK: Olivier Vernon is going to be first. It's the easiest answer of all these questions. The two easy answers for No. 2 are Kareem Martin and Lorenzo Carter since they will be lining up on the edge on the opposite side of Vernon. From what I've seen, however, is that James Bettcher will bring a lot of players on blitzes from the second and third level of the defense. It brings Landon Collins and Alec Ogletree into the conversation. I'm going to roll the dice and go with Ogletree, who showed a lot of skill as a blitzer for the Rams.
DAN SALOMONE: Everyone agrees that OV is the leading candidate for No. 1, but for No. 2, I'm going out on a limb and saying rookie outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter. It's probably foolish to bet on a player who hasn't even participated in a padded NFL practice yet, but that's the good thing about the summer – you can say foolish things now and no one will remember in December. I'm hook, line and sinker on James Bettcher as a defensive coordinator, and he came up through the ranks coaching outside linebackers. I think he will be able to work his magic with Vernon and Carter. Now, it will take some time to develop the rookie third-rounder, but he could become a big contributor in the second half of the season. The Giants need him to be successful.
LANCE MEDOW: I think Olivier Vernon will lead the team in sacks. He's by far the most decorated and consistent player on the roster in that department. Vernon has 44.5 career sacks. The next closest player on the roster is corner William Gay with seven and keep in mind he's entering his 12th season in the league. Given the lack of production outside of Vernon, the player that will finish second is based purely on potential and usage in the system. That's why I'm going with Kareem Martin, who has familiarity with the scheme because he played the last four seasons in Arizona under James Bettcher. Martin has just 4.5 career sacks but he's only been a consistent starter for one season and has never played even 50 percent of his team's defensive snaps. I think he'll have a bigger role with the Giants and plenty of opportunities for more production.
24. What is the deepest position on the roster?
JOHN SCHMEELK: I'm going to go with the defensive line. With only three defensive linemen playing in base and outside linebackers/edge rushers like Olivier Vernon and Kareem Martin putting their hand in the dirt in sub-package, the Giants might find themselves in a surplus of interior defensive linemen. They have an All-Pro caliber player in Damon Harrison, two talented second day draft picks in Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill, free agent addition Josh Mauro, returning players Kerry Wynn and Josh Banks, and don't forget fifth-round pick R.J. McIntosh.
DAN SALOMONE: Hog mollies are not just for the offense. The Giants have plenty of them on the interior of the defensive line, and that's by design. General manager Dave Gettleman inherited Damon Harrison and Dalvin Tomlinson only to grow his riches with draft picks B.J. Hill and R.J. McIntosh. The first thing defensive line coach Gary Emanuel told Harrison this offseason is that he is "going to love 95." The player they were talking about was Hill, the rookie third-round choice from North Carolina State.
"So I got out here and I've been watching him," Harrison said. "He's strong and he's got some wiggle to him and he has some move to him. So that's somebody else who I think with some time and a little more experience will be a dominant player in this league, as well as Dalvin Tomlinson, who I think will take the next step this year."
LANCE MEDOW: This is what the Giants will showcase at running back: Saquon Barkley, Jonathan Stewart, Wayne Gallman. You'd be hard pressed to find better depth on the roster at another position. While Barkley and Gallman only have one year of NFL experience combined, they both have a great deal of upside and talent. Barkley is an extremely versatile player who will contribute to both the running and passing games while Gallman will do the same. Stewart is a polished vet with plenty of experience as both a starter and complementary back. Having a player like him as the primary backup to Barkley is extremely valuable. Just ask the Carolina Panthers when DeAngelo Williams was sidelined due to injury.
25. Who is one undrafted rookie to keep an eye on this summer?
JOHN SCHMEELK: Of the undrafted free agents on the Giants roster, I'm watching Grant Haley out of Penn State. The battle for the back end of the cornerback depth chart is wide open, and Haley has as good of a chance as anyone to make the team. He is only 5-foot-9 but should be in the mix competing for playing time at slot corner.
DAN SALOMONE: I'll stick with the defensive backs and say Sean Chandler of Temple. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound safety had the first interception of rookie minicamp as well as the first of organized team activities (OTAs) with the veterans brought into the fold. That's not a bad way to start the road from undrafted the undrafted ranks to finding a place on the roster or practice squad. Chandler played in 49 games with 48 starts in college -- 25 as a weakside cornerback and 23 as a free safety. He had 10 interceptions, including two he returned for touchdowns, and also forced four fumbles and recovered two while also contributing as a punt returner.
LANCE MEDOW: I'd keep close tabs on Saquon Barkley's Penn State teammate, cornerback Grant Haley. He plays a position where there are several spots on the depth chart up for grabs and was also a solid special teams player in college, both in the return game and in coverage. Haley made a name for himself this spring and now it's all about him continuing that production during training camp and the preseason.
26. How will the defensive line rotation work in James Bettcher's 3-4 scheme?
JOHN SCHMEELK: This is a complicated question since the defense is so variable, and the pieces of the line in your standard 3-4 defense are so much different than what they will look like in a four-man line in sub-packages with extra defensive backs and fewer linebackers on the field. I think your standard 3-4 defensive line will primarily feature Damon Harrison, B.J. Hill, Dalvin Tomlinson, Kerry Wynn and Josh Mauro with opportunities for others to battle their way in.
Once in a four-man front, the aforementioned players will kick inside with edge rushers (outside linebackers in base) like Olivier Vernon, Kareem Martin, Lorenzo Carter, Romeo Okwara, and Jordan Williams taking the defensive end spots. Kareem Martin and Kerry Wynn can bounce between both groups in sub package. It isn't about defensive ends and defensive tackles anymore. In this new defense you should really classify guys as interior defensive linemen or edge rushers.
DAN SALOMONE: I'm surprised the defensive coordinator didn't divulge his rotation plans publicly during minicamp. I'm sure the Jaguars weren't listening. But seriously, what you're going to see is a bunch of guys rolling in and out throughout the course of the game. General manager Dave Gettleman would carry 53 defensive linemen on the roster if he thought they were the best 53 players. His vision, much like what those reigning Super Bowl champions have built down the Turnpike, is to use as many as possible to keep them as fresh as possible for the fourth quarter. That's where games are decided.
"The problem you get into, and I've seen it a number of times, you have a really good 11 or 12 guys and you don't have quality depth behind them," Gettleman said after drafting defensive tackles in the third and fifth rounds. "What happens is the coaches, and rightly so, don't want to put in the backups that aren't very good. Okay? So, what happens is, guys end up playing 95-98 percent. In the fourth quarter, their tongues are hanging out. They are gassed. Let me tell you something right now, you see teams that consistently blow fourth-quarter leads, obviously that's on the defense, I promise you they've got no depth. They've got no depth. You have to have quality depth. This is not about here or here, here, here. And I'll tell you this: you've got a powerful defensive line and you can get pressure with four, you and I can play back there."
LANCE MEDOW: If there's any job that's a lock on the defensive line, it's Damon Harrison at nose tackle. Outside of Snacks, just about every other job is up for grabs. I think James Bettcher will utilize Dalvin Tomlinson at one end spot and you'll also see B.J. Hill, Robert Thomas and Kerry Wynn in the mix on the outside. Wynn had a very strong spring and, given he's solid against the run, he can easily play on early downs. When Josh Mauro returns from his four-game suspension, he'll be another player who will rotate in at defensive end. The other thing to keep in mind is that even though Olivier Vernon and Kareem Martin are now linebackers in the base defense, they'll come down to the line at times just as Chandler Jones did in Arizona.
27. Which player are you most excited to see once the pads come on?
JOHN SCHMEELK: The rookie linemen are very obvious answers here, especially Will Hernandez and B.J. Hill. I saw Hernandez up close in pads at the Senior Bowl, however, so I know what he looks like when playing real football. I am very excited to see Hill as well, but I am going to go with Ereck Flowers instead. It is essential he plays well at right tackle this season, a position he hasn't played since he was there for four games as a freshman at Miami in 2012. I want to see him in one-on-ones against Kareem Martin, Lorenzo Carter and even Olivier Vernon. Pass protection is just as important at right tackle as it is at left tackle in the modern NFL. Flowers will have to block guys like DeMarcus Lawrence, Brandon Graham, Ryan Kerrigan, and J.J. Watt this season. The Giants need him to do it well.
DAN SALOMONE: I'm going with defensive tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison not because we need to find out what he brings to the table – the whole league already knows that – but because of the players he will go up against. Snacks has made it clear he is not going to give an inch to the rookies, even top picks like running back Saquon Barkley and guard Will Hernandez.
"The guy can play, man," Harrison said earlier this month of Barkley. "'Saquad', that's what they call him, or something like that. I'm excited to get out there in training camp, so I can hit his ass [laughs]. See what he's made of. I told him, it's not Penn State. He's not going up against [defensive tackle] Josh Banks at Wake Forest. But no, the guy's explosive, you can see how they will use him in the offense, which will be to our benefit."
That mindset took Snacks from an undrafted rookie out of William Penn to the best run-stuffer in the league, and I can't wait to see the matchups up front with Hernandez trying to pave the way for Barkley. The hope is that both sides make each other better and tougher – if that's possible.
LANCE MEDOW: Without pads on, this year's second-round pick Will Hernandez is quite a presence. He stands 6-2 and weighs 327 pounds. You can't miss his physical frame. From what I've seen during the offseason program, I think it's safe to say Hernandez is itching to put the pads on and I can't think of a stronger candidate to top the list of players I'm looking forward to seeing battle in the trenches against the Giants' defensive line than the former UTEP standout.
28. Who is your sleeper player to watch?
JOHN SCHMEELK: I'm going with a deep sleeper with Josh Banks. Banks is a smaller but very mobile 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive tackle who signed as an undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest last year. He was placed on injured reserve right before the start of the regular season and has hit the ground running this spring. Even though there aren't any pads, his activity level was obvious and he was often exactly where James Bettcher wants his defensive linemen -- in the backfield. He might not be big enough to play nose tackle in Bettcher's 3-4 scheme, but he should be fine as a defensive end. These days the league is far more interested in mobile defensive linemen than your traditional space eaters.
DAN SALOMONE: Curtis Riley is a name you should get familiar with heading into training camp. He is a fourth-year pro making the transition from corner to safety, a position the Giants took a good look at with Landon Collins limited this spring as he recovered from a second surgery on the arm he fractured last Christmas Eve in Arizona. Riley, who spent time on and off the Titans' practice squad and has appeared in 11 career games, lined up with the first team next to Andrew Adams for much of the spring. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher likes Riley's feet, hips and range stemming from his corner skillset, but he was also impressed with how he picked up the new position in a defense known for its many formations.
"Some of the checks and the communication and one minute you're in the post, the next minute you're down, or you're playing in the half field, or you're blitzing off the edge and some of the different duties that our safeties have to handle here -- he's done a really nice job with that," Bettcher said. "So I'm excited for him, getting to training camp just like all these guys, and he's competing his butt off with a group of guys that I've really seen grow over these last two months."
General manager Dave Gettleman is known for finding diamonds in the rough, but everyone usually associates that with hog mollies like Shaun O'Hara and Andrew Norwell. He can find defensive backs, too.
LANCE MEDOW: Behind Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard every wide receiver job is very much up for grabs heading into training camp. That's why I'd keep close tabs on Hunter Sharp. He was signed off the Broncos' practice squad in December and wound up catching a touchdown in Week 17 against the Redskins. Sharp took advantage of his additional reps during the offseason program and was one of the consistent playmakers in practices. If his production translates to training camp and the preseason, I think he has a legitimate shot to make the team.
29. Who will be the top three tacklers on the team?
JOHN SCHMEELK: Alec Ogletree and Landon Collins are shoo-ins here. If they aren't the top two tacklers, either something strange happened or one of them suffered some sort of injury. Last year, for example, linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Tyrann Matthieu were the top two tacklers for the Cardinals followed by Deone Bucannon and Budda Baker. The third leading tackler for the Giants will probably be either B.J. Goodson, the second inside off-ball linebacker, or Damon Harrison. Usually nose tackles don't rack up tackling numbers, but Harrison has done just that the last two years as a 4-3 DT with 76 and 86 in 2017 and 2016, respectively. He had 72 in his final year with the Jets as a 3-4 nose tackle. Olivier Vernon is a sleeper to watch here as well.
DAN SALOMONE: Newcomer and "defensive quarterback" Alec Ogletree has been a lock for well over 100 tackles when he plays all 16 games in a season. You can mark him down as the leader, but two-time Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins won't be too far behind in what would be his first season not leading the Giants in that department. With Ogletree roaming sideline to sideline, Collins will be free to make plays elsewhere in James Bettcher's scheme. That leaves the matter of third place. I think you have to look at B.J. Goodson. The third-year pro will be lining up next to Ogletree as an inside linebacker and he should rack up the tackles with guys like Damon Harrison, Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill clearing the way in front.
LANCE MEDOW: Landon Collins has led the Giants in tackles in each of his first three seasons in the league and, given how he'll likely be moving around a lot in James Bettcher's new scheme, I don't see that trend ending. I think Alec Ogletree will finish second and Damon Harrison will round out the top three. In each of Snacks' first two seasons with New York, he's finished in the top three on the team in tackles.
30. How many touches do you think Saquon Barkley will average per game?
JOHN SCHMEELK: 23 -- Oh, you want to know why? Fine. I broke this down specifically to around 18 carries per game and five catches in the passing game. You can throw in a handful of kickoff returns throughout the season as well. I think Barkley is going to play the predominant number of running back snaps this year (75 percent or more), but not all of them. Pat Shurmur has said a number of times that "it takes a village" at the running back position in the NFL. Barkley is easily the best third down back on the roster so I would assume he gets all of those snaps. He is not a short yardage back that is comfortable lowering his shoulder and pushing a pile (he left his feet and went over the top a lot in short yardage situations in college) so I think an easy way to give him a break is to use Jonathan Stewart in short yardage. I would also expect to see Stewart, and even Wayne Gallman on some first or second down situations.
DAN SALOMONE: I think everyone will agree on the mid-20s average, but whatever the actual number turns out to be, it is going to be a lot. That's my guesstimate -- a lot of carries, a lot of catches. They won't be for short distances either. He can break the long runs as well as catch deep passes on wheel routes. Head coach and offensive architect Pat Shurmur has to be just itching to tap into the season and let him go full speed. I talked about this in last week's Fact or Fiction; the reception numbers for running backs were pretty crazy last season. Le'Veon Bell had 85, Alvin Kamara had 81, and Christian McCaffrey had 80. The latter two were rookies by the way, and they were not second overall draft picks.
LANCE MEDOW: When you look at some of the top rookie running backs from 2017, their numbers fluctuate across the board. The Panthers' Christian McCaffrey averaged 12 touches per game, Alvin Kamara of the Saints 13 and the Chiefs' Kareem Hunt 20. I think Barkley will match Hunt with about 20 touches per contest. I don't think he'll record as many catches as McCaffrey (80) and Kamara (81) did last season but he should be in the same ballpark as Hunt (272) with respect to carries. Keep in mind, last year, Barkley averaged 21 touches per game at Penn State so that type of workload isn't a stretch.