1. Bennie Fowler is benefitting the most from the absences at wide receiver.
John Schmeelk: Fiction -- Fowler has gotten many more snaps with the first team than he normally would with all the receiver injuries, but it’s Cody Latimer that has been the bigger standout. Both Golden Tate and Eli Manning have talked about how much Latimer understands the offense and is on top of his assignments. Latimer acted as more of a deep threat last year, but so far this summer he is connecting with Manning more frequently on short timing routes where he is using his big frame (6-3, 220) to box out defensive backs and get the football. If Tate is not available the first game of the season, I think Latimer is my favorite to be starting along with Sterling Shepard.
Dan Salomone: Fact -- Latimer was likely going to be a regular contributor in the offense anyway. Fowler, however, had more to gain. After joining the team in the middle of last season, Fowler did enough in his 10 games as a Giant to be re-signed this offseason. The injuries this summer have only given him more of an opportunity to reinforce what the team saw in him. “He’s a guy that can play all of the positions,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “Typically he plays outside, but there are times where he’ll be in the slot. He’s smart, he has good instincts, he picks things up quickly. You saw we’ve had some receiver injuries within practice, and he’s been able to go from being X to Z and Z to X. That flexibility is important.”
Lance Medow: Fiction -- Cody Latimer, Russell Shepard and Bennie Fowler are all benefiting from some of the injuries to the wide receiver corps, but I think Alonzo Russell is the biggest beneficiary. Last season, Latimer, Shepard and Fowler all made contributions as receivers and are polished veterans the coaching staff is familiar with. Russell didn’t make the 53-man roster coming out of camp last year but was signed to the practice squad. Although he was with the team for the entire season, he didn’t get promoted to the active roster until the very last game. Russell has taken full advantage of his reps during training camp and has stood out thanks to his ability to go up and grab the football. At 6-3, Russell is the tallest receiver on the roster and provides something a bit different from the rest of the group.
2. Defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence has been the most improved player this summer.
Schmeelk: Fact -- Lawrence has certainly improved more than anyone else during the first week of practice, given his flashes of power and speed against the offensive line from various positions. I spoke to a few of the offensive linemen and all of them talked about how hard it is to block Lawrence because of his immense size and the elite athleticism he uses to get up field. He is a constant disruptive force in both the run and pass game. It was hard to see without the pads on in the spring, but his potential to be a dominant player is obvious.
Salomone: Fact -- The first-round draft choice certainly had the best quote of the summer so far. When told that men his size don’t traditionally have great success rushing the passer in the NFL, the 6-foot-4, 342-pounder said, “I’m not everybody else in the league. I’m Dexter Lawrence II. I’m different.” A tasty quote doesn’t make him the most improved player, but he is right. He is different, at least from what I have seen and heard through the first 10 practices. His impact of pushing the pocket might not be noticeable in the box score this season, but opposing offenses will certainly feel it.
Medow: Fiction -- Dexter Lawrence is quite the presence and has given the offensive line quite a test, but I said the same thing about him in the spring. I’m going with another member of the rookie class: Corey Ballentine. Similar to Alonzo Russell, Ballentine is starting to make plays and you can tell he’s getting more comfortable by the day. Because of the draft night tragedy when Ballentine lost his close friend and Washburn University teammate Dwane Simmons and suffered a gunshot wound himself, the team’s fifth-round pick was away from the Giants for some time during the offseason. As a result, he’s been playing a bit of catch-up, but you can tell his hard work is starting to pay off, highlighted by several opportunistic plays.
3. Cornerback has emerged as the top position competition of the summer.
Schmeelk: Fact -- While the receiver position has potential competition for both playing time and roster spots, cornerback has become a fun group to watch. Janoris Jenkins and rookie DeAndre Baker seem somewhat secure as the top two outside cornerbacks, and Julian Love has looked very comfortable at nickel with the second unit and could challenge Grant Haley (who has also played well) for number one spot. After those four, the next set of cornerbacks have all made plays during the summer. Rookie Corey Ballentine has given up some catches but he has also gotten his hand on the ball more than anyone else. Antonio Hamilton has forced a couple of takeaways. Sam Beal has been in and out of practice because of injury and hopes to establish himself as someone that can be trusted to cover outside. Roster spots and playing time will be on the line for the next month.
Salomone: Fact -- Not only are there numerous roles to be sorted out, but all the candidates are making plays. That’s what happens when you use three of your 10 draft picks on the same position. DeAndre Baker, Julian Love and Corey Ballentine look like they will be regular contributors from Day 1. They are being pushed constantly by players like Grant Haley, Antonio Hamilton, Ronald Zamort, and the list goes on. The front office will certainly have some tough decisions in a few weeks.
Medow: Fact -- Heading into the summer, this was a position battle to watch because of several young players in the mix, and it has played out that way. DeAndre Baker is looking to solidify the starting corner spot opposite Janoris Jenkins, and Grant Haley is trying to hold off Julian Love at nickel. Sam Beal has been dealing with a hamstring injury but shouldn’t be overlooked because he has more knowledge of the scheme than the rookie class. Corey Ballentine is starting to come on. Last season, Ronald Zamort spent some time on the Giants’ practice squad and is fighting hard to make a name for himself, and the one player who falls under the radar yet could prove to be most valuable is Antonio Hamilton, who is an extremely effective special teams player.
4. The No. 1 standout so far has been rookie cornerback Corey Ballentine.
Schmeelk: Fiction -- I was going to choose Dexter Lawrence but I already wrote about him, so instead I’m going to go with an offensive player. Quarterback Eli Manning has thrown the ball extremely well with good zip on the ball. His passes have been accurate and on time. The baseball training in the offseason certainly looks to have paid off. With that said, my star is Kevin Zeitler. The guy is a machine. He is impossible to move, has excellent feet and technique, and is locked in on every play. He is the best guard I have seen on the roster since Chris Snee and it isn’t particularly close. It has been a pleasure watching him operate.
Salomone: Fact -- Considering what he’s been through since the night he was drafted, Ballentine is one of the great stories of camp. But he’s more than that. The rookie is making plays and already has three interceptions. He is also an option to return kickoffs after Corey Coleman tore his ACL. Ballentine, who averaged 24.8 yards per kickoff return during his career at Washburn, was also a college track star, recording the nine fastest times in the 60m in school history and the six fastest times in the indoor 200m. He also holds the school record in the outdoor 100m (10.51), outdoor 200m (21.25) and has eight of the 10 fastest times in the 100m and the top six times in the outdoor 200m in school history.
Medow: Fiction -- As I noted above, Corey Ballentine has made huge strides since the spring and is one of the most improved players, but I wouldn’t say he’s the number one standout. Dexter Lawrence has been impressive in full pads, so he’s a strong candidate, as is Eli Manning, who has showcased his solid arm with a little extra mustard on his passes. But I think Golden Tate tops the list. The Giants signed Tate this offseason to help fill the void left behind by Odell Beckham and provide a strong veteran presence in the wide receiver room. All Tate has done is consistently make plays during practice. He has served as a great example for a relatively young roster.