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.
17. Who will be the Defensive MVP?
Lance Medow: How about the most experienced player on the defensive side of the ball: safety Antoine Bethea, who is entering his 14th season in the NFL. The Giants revamped their secondary this offseason with the exception of Janoris Jenkins, meaning they'll be relying on a lot of youth on the back end of the defense between a handful of rookie corners and safety Jabrill Peppers, who is entering his third season in the league and will likely play more snaps with New York than he did in his first two seasons in Cleveland. Although it's the second year under James Bettcher's guidance, there will still be several new faces on defense, especially the secondary, and the best luxury to have in that situation is a polished veteran who has experience playing both safety spots and already has familiarity with Bettcher's scheme given they were together in Arizona in 2017.
Since Bethea joined the Giants his age has been a topic of conversation as he'll turn 35 later this month. Well, here's some far more meaningful numbers. Last season, Bethea led the Cardinals with 120 tackles. In 2017, he topped Arizona with five interceptions. In 2016, he led the 49ers with 110 tackles. Not too shabby for a 30-year-old safety. In 2018, for the majority of the season the Giants utilized Landon Collins and Curtis Riley at safety. While Collins had a Pro Bowl season, it was just his first year in Bettcher's system and he was playing alongside a player who had moved back and forth between corner and safety in his first three seasons in the league. This year, the Giants' secondary will be able to rely on Bethea's versatility and experience, which will also be a huge asset for Peppers. When you look at Bethea's skillset and what he'll bring to the locker room from a leadership standpoint, that should put him in a strong position to be the defensive MVP.
18. What can Giants fans expect from Saquon Barkley in the follow-up to his Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign?
John Schmeelk: I had a chance to talk to Craig Johnson for our "Giants Huddle" podcast, and the running backs coach stressed to me that Barkley's improvement in his second year might not be in his numbers, but instead in his attention to detail. What Johnson was referring to are things like pass protection, precise route running, technique and perfect execution of the playbook.
When you look at his overall numbers, I would expect his number of catches to drop by as many as 15-20. But that doesn't necessarily mean his impact in the pass game will also decline. Last year he caught a lot of non-consequential dump-offs as Eli Manning was getting pressured in the first half of the year. I think a lot of those go away, but some are replaced with more impactful plays that gain more yards. Last year, Barkley caught 58 passes in the first half of the year, but only 33 in the second half as the Giants adjusted their offense and went away from a straight drop-back passing game. I think his second-half production as a receiver will be a better predictor than what he did in the first eight. It isn't about volume, but rather the positive impact his catches will have on moving the ball and scoring points.
As a runner I would expect his carries (261) to get closer to 300, and yards (1,307) to get closer to 1,500. I would predict somewhere around 350-370 touches over the course of the season, which would equate to about 22-23 per game. He will be a constant big-play threat and the centerpiece of the offense.
19. What is your favorite training camp memory?
Lance Medow: Let's go back to the summer of 2012. The Giants signed tight end Martellus Bennett, who spent his first four seasons in the league with the Cowboys behind Jason Witten. Bennett was itching to become a team's No. 1 tight end and the Giants were looking for someone to fill the void left behind by Jake Ballard, who tore his left ACL in the second half of Super Bowl XLVI. It didn't take long for Bennett to break out of his shell, on and off the field, as he immediately made his presence felt by showcasing his unique personality.
When Bennett arrived in Albany for training camp, during his very first encounter with the media, his response to the question of "How is your conditioning with your extra weight?" was classic. Bennett said, "I'm kind of bigger than I was. I'm more muscular than I was in the past. I actually started lifting weights really, really hard. But I'm in the best shape I've ever been. Ask any of the guys in the camp, I'm stronger than I've ever been, I'm faster than I've ever been. I could run all day. I'm kind of like a black unicorn out there. It's amazing to watch."
Bennett's humorous responses didn't end there. In that same interaction with reporters, in August 2012, he also compared offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride to "Professor Dumbledore," a character from Harry Potter, because of Gilbride's attention to detail and ability to explain the offense clearly to his players and used his wife's decision-making process when choosing a meal to make a point about Eli Manning's decisiveness on and off the field. Bennett only played one season with the Giants but he set the tone in training camp for what ultimately became an extremely entertaining season full of memorable lines and media sessions. Martellus was quite the character.
20. Which player is most likely to make the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career?
Dan Salomone: Left guard Will Hernandez is my pick. A second-round draft choice out of UTEP in 2018, Hernandez played 100 percent of the team's offensive snaps and picked up All-Rookie honors by the Pro Football Writers of America. The other guard to make the list was Quenton Nelson, the sixth overall pick by the Colts who made the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2017. Combined with the experience he gained playing next to two-time Super Bowl champion left tackle Nate Solder, the effort to improve the rest of the line should help Hernandez prove to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Don't forget about Saquon Barkley. He makes everyone look better while raising their profile. Adrian Peterson did it for years in Minnesota and often brought an offensive lineman or two – and sometimes a fullback – to the Pro Bowl. A rising tide lifts all boats.
21. What is the most improved position from now and a year ago?
John Schmeelk: There is really only one choice here: the offensive line. Nate Solder played better the second half of last season, and that will to continue this season given his familiarity with the offense, Eli Manning and left guard Will Hernandez. Solder had a minor ankle procedure in the spring, but the expectation is he will be ready for the start of training camp. Hernandez will be better in his second year. Either Jon Halapio or Spencer Pulley, both of whom started last season, will vie for the starting job. The significant progress will be made on the right side of the offensive line, where the Giants added Kevin Zeitler at guard and Mike Remmers at tackle.
"It's always nice," Solder said. "They brought a couple of those guys in there with some experience under their belt. Guys that know how games go and how to win games because it is difficult in this league. I am certainly glad to have everyone in that locker room and they're all doing a great job."
The addition of Zeitler was lost amidst the uproar of the trade in which he was acquired. He could be the best offensive lineman to don a Giants uniform since Chris Snee. He is smart, powerful in the run game, and extremely steady in pass protection. His level of play and experience will positively impact whoever starts at center and the Giants right tackle position.
Remmers was an addition in the late spring and didn't do much during OTAs as he rehabbed from back surgery. He is expected to be healthy and ready for training camp. Remmers has never made a Pro Bowl, but he provides seven years of NFL experience and has played his best football at right tackle, where the Giants will use him. He will compete with Chad Wheeler, and I would be surprised if Remmers is not the starter.
The depth on the line is better. It has taken years, but if health cooperates, the Giants might have finally turned the corner with their offensive line play.
22. What will be the closest competition on the roster this summer?
Lance Medow: Most people expect Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate to assume the top two spots at wide receiver. So, who is third on that list? Here are some of the candidates: Corey Coleman, Cody Latimer, Bennie Fowler, Russell Shepard, Brittan Golden and rookie Darius Slayton. Each of those players brings something different to the table, but I don't think anyone in particular has a huge edge entering training camp. That's what makes the competition wide open.
Coleman is an intriguing candidate since this is his first offseason with the team. Most forget he was a first round pick by Cleveland in 2016 but was limited by injuries in his first two seasons. Last year, he spent time with the Browns, Bills and Patriots before finally settling in with the Giants in mid-October. Coleman now has all the motivation in the world to quiet the skeptics and prove he can tap into his true potential. I think he'll go head to head with Latimer for that third spot and, like Coleman, Latimer is also looking to become a consistent force within the offense. In his first four seasons with Denver, he served mainly as a special teams player and had limited opportunities on offense (never played more than 34% of the offensive snaps) but unfortunately spent most of last year on IR due to a hamstring injury. In just six games with the Giants last season, Latimer showed flashes, but he now has a chance to carve out a regular role within the scheme.
In addition to Coleman and Latimer, I wouldn't overlook Russell Shepard, who last season took advantage of other players injuries and filled in admirably as a receiver, finishing with the team's highest average yardage per catch (18.8). Rookie Darius Slayton also has a chance to make some noise because of his speed and ability to take the top off a defense. That skillset could very well separate him from the rest of the pack and it doesn't hurt that Pat Shurmur constantly mentioned he thought Slayton was one of the players that helped his cause the most during OTAs and minicamp. The sleeper in this group is veteran Brittan Golden, who spent a few seasons with the Cardinals but was out of the NFL in 2018. Competition and depth is a good thing at any position, which is why whoever claims the third wide receiver job is going to have to hold off a number of talented players.
23. Which NFC East rival poses the biggest threat to the Giants winning the division?
Dan Salomone: Even though the Cowboys will be formidable in their title defense, the Giants have proven they can beat Dallas, either at home or on the road. The Eagles are a different story. The Giants are 4-16 against them over the past 10 seasons, with identical 2-8 records at home and away in that span. The most direct path to the postseason is always winning the division. Sure, it's fun to circle the Patriots and Jets when the schedule comes out, but the Giants need to split the series with the Cowboys, Eagles and Redskins to have a shot at playing in January. For whatever reason, 61-yard field goals by rookie kickers being one of them, the Eagles have proven to be the toughest out for the Giants.
24. Which team on the Giants' schedule will be tougher than people think?
John Schmeelk: There are a lot of good candidates for this since the Giants play against so many teams with young quarterbacks, who always have a chance to take a jump and elevate their teams. Rookie Kyler Murray should be starting for Arizona on October 20 and could be leading an explosive offense. Under new head coach Kliff Kingsbury, there is no way to know what kind of team the Cardinals are going to be.
The three AFC East teams (other than the Patriots) the Giants have on the schedule all have second-year quarterbacks. The Giants face Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills on September 15th, Sam Darnold and the Jets on November 10th, and Josh Rosen and the Dolphins on December 15th. Any of those three quarterbacks could take a jump in their second year to elevate his team. Despite that possibility, the supporting cast in all three situations still needs work, so I will move on to someone else.
I think the Vikings will rebound from an 8-7-1 season and challenge for the NFC North divisional title, but I'm not sure their success would exceed expectations much. I'm going to go with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. New head coach Bruce Arians has as good a chance as anyone to finally harness the physical gifts of Jameis Winston. Arians prefers a downfield passing game, which may play into Winston's strengths. Winston can make all the throws and has flashed immense potential, even if he hasn't been able to cut down on some grievous mistakes that often result in turnovers. Mike Evans is a true number one wide receiver, and O.J .Howard could have breakout production at tight end. I also expect Ronald Jones to have a big season at running back.
There are questions on the Buccs' defense, especially at pass rush with the offseason injury to Jason Pierre-Paul and the release of Gerald McCoy. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is going to have his hands full figuring out how to generate a pass rush. The Bucs are counting on young cornerbacks Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis to improve. First round pick Devin White should help them at middle linebacker. If the defense is decent, Tampa could make a run at a playoff berth, given the explosive potential on offense. The Giants' young defensive backs and pass rush will be tested early in the season, then the Giants visit Tampa Bay in Week Three on September 22.
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.