by Rob Joyce
The start of the NFL regular season is less than one month away, and like every other year it appears the NFC East is open for the taking. Coming off a disappointing 7-9 year, the Giants would appear to enter the year looking up at the reigning division champion Eagles. Still, a playoff berth is expected from New York this season. Their hopes, though, hinge on five key questions:
1) How does Eli Manning respond after 2013?
To put it bluntly, Eli Manning did not look like a two-time Super Bowl MVP last year. He led the league with a career-high 27 interceptions against just 18 touchdowns, his lowest output since his rookie season. With new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, the 33-year-old needs to return to his old ways if the Giants are to make the playoffs. This should not be of too much concern. His 4.9 percent interception rate is sky high, and should come down. Eli has proven time and again he is one of the league’s best QBs.
2) Can Rashad Jennings carry the load at running back?
The Giants finished 29th in the league in yards per game. Last year’s leading rusher Andre Brown is now in Houston, and in comes Rashad Jennings on a four-year contract. A backup for Oakland last year, Jennings was thrust into a starting role after Darren McFadden was hampered by injuries, resulting in 733 yards and six touchdowns. If he and rookie back Andre Williams can be decent, it will take a world of pressure off the passing game. Of course, the success of the running backs depends on…
3) Whether the offensive line can get it together.
Parts of Eli Manning’s struggles were exasperated by the constant beatings he took, having been sacked a career-high 39 times. Outside of a budding Justin Pugh at right tackle, things look messy. Mainstay Chris Snee retired. The longest-tenured and highest-paid of the bunch, former UConn lineman Will Beatty, had a disappointing 2013 and is returning from a broken leg. Four veterans were brought in off the waiver wire to compete for starting roles, joined by rookie center Weston Richburg. Holes need to open for the RBs, and Eli needs to stay upright for this team to improve on offense.
4) At wide receiver, it’s Victor Cruz and…?
After not finding the endzone once last year, Hakeem Nicks was not re-signed and is now with the Colts. That leaves top option Victor Cruz a targeted man, with little help around him. After showing flashes, Rueben Randle absolutely needs to take a leap in his third year and become a consistent outside threat. The team will also rely on first-round pick Odell Beckham, Jr. out of Texas A&M. Meanwhile, the five tight ends on the roster combined for six catches last year. Someone Giants fans recognize is Mario Manningham, but coming off knee problems he’s more of a name than a guaranteed contributor.
5) How effective will the pass rush be?
Last year’s leader in sacks (Justin Tuck) felt offended by the team’s “lack of respect” for him, so he bolted for Oakland. Mathias Kiwanuka was second to Tuck in sacks, and he is unhappy with a paycut he had to take to remain with New York. The D-line has the potential to be a mess, but one saving grace could be Jason Pierre-Paul. Coming off a woeful season that saw him record just two sacks, JPP is in a contract year. He needs to be the player that had 16.5 sacks in 2011. If not, the secondary will be left out to dry as opposing quarterbacks stand uncontested in the pocket.