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December 2, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Time for Giants To Focus on Youth

BY SEAN LAHMAN
December 2, 2004

For more than two weeks now, the switch from Kurt Warner to Eli Manning at quarterback has dominated every discussion about the Giants. But in losing five of their last six games, the Giants have made it painfully clear that they have personnel problems worth discussing at many other positions. For all of the racket about getting Manning some valuable on-field experience, the Giants desperately need to spend the month of December looking at some younger players at other key positions.

The Giants have already traded away three of their 2005 draft picks, including the first-rounder, so it's unlikely they'll be able to count on the draft to provide an impact player. It also looks like they won't have enough room under the salary cap to make major acquisitions from the free agent market.

On the positive side, the team has all of its key players signed to multi-year deals, and 20 of the 22 starters are under contract for next year. Linebacker Nick Greisen and fullback Jim Finn are the only starters poised to become free agents at the end of the season.

So the roster, for all its strengths and weaknesses, appears relatively secure. If the Giants want to begin filling holes on the field, it seems they'll have to do so with players already on the payroll. After the season, the coaching staff will make decisions about which guys can play and which can't, and those decisions are likely to be based largely on what they see during the remaining games of 2004.

Consider the offensive line, which began the year maligned, showed some unexpected promise in the season's first few weeks, and has since disintegrated into what everyone expected - the team's biggest weakness. The organization spent a considerable amount of time trying to patch up the holes with high draft picks and veteran free agents in the offseason, but there hasn't been much progress. The spotty pass protection has subjected both quarterbacks to far too much bodily harm, and must be upgraded. But where to start?

Two positions appear to be set. Left tackle Luke Petitgout anchors the line, and his ability to protect Manning's blindside will be crucial as the team moves forward. Rookie Chris Snee has started every game at right guard, and his tough run blocking has been a contributing factor in Tiki Barber's outstanding season. Beyond those two, the situation rapidly declines.

Scouts will tell you that second-year players David Diehl and Wayne Lucier each have the potential to become very good players, but you wouldn't know it to watch them play. Diehl has started every game at right tackle, but has struggled against bull rushers and gets pushed back into the pocket too often. Lucier, who has started at center in place of the injured Shaun O'Hara for the last five games, has struggled with both pass protection and run blocking.

And things aren't going to get any easier. With three of the league's top defenses - Washington, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh - filling the upcoming schedule, the Giants need to determine if either of these linemen will realize their potential and become quality starters.

This evaluation is critical because the Giants have paid a lot of money for veteran linemen who haven't contributed. Starting left guard Jason Whittle has been adequate at best. It would be hard to justify the $1.3 million his contract calls for next year, but without progress from the younger guys, it would also be hard to see what alternative the Giants have.

While the offensive line has been roundly criticized, it has become alarmingly clear in recent weeks that poor play in the receiver corps has hurt the offense just as much. Through 11 games, neither starting receiver has caught a touchdown pass. It looks like Amani Toomer will finish with fewer than 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in five years, and Ike Hilliard is averaging a career-low 8.9 yards per catch.

Last week, the Eagles' frequent blitzing left the pair in man coverage for most of the day. But Toomer had difficulty getting separation from his defenders, and Hilliard appeared to lack the speed needed to outrun defenders. That's one reason why rookie Jamaar Taylor was able to burn the Eagles for two 50-yard receptions, while Toomer had just one catch for 6 yards and Hilliard was shut out completely.

If Eli Manning is to develop into a top-tier quarterback, he'll need more help than that. The Giants need to make more of an effort to involve Taylor in the offense over the next few weeks to see if he's capable of supplanting Hilliard in the starting lineup next year. Otherwise, Big Blue will have to free up some cap space to pursue a veteran free agent like Plaxico Burress or Marvin Harrison.

On the defensive side of the ball, strong safety Shaun Williams has been an explosive player for much of his career, but injuries have sidelined him for the last year and a half. At $3 million, he'll be one of the Giants' highest-paid players next year. The delightful emergence of Gibril Wilson leaves the team with a tough decision. Has the rookie played well enough to keep the job if Williams returns? The Giants may find it hard to put the kid back on the bench after all he's done this season.

Injuries to the defensive line are giving players like Osi Umenyiora and William Joseph a chance to play. Both have shown some promise and could be auditioning for starting jobs next year. Umenyiora has started at end since Michael Strahan's season-ending injury, and he's tied for the team lead with 4.5 sacks. But Joseph, the Giants' first-round pick in 2003, hasn't played nearly as well, filling in at defensive tackle for Norman Hand. He doesn't appear to have the strength to be an effective run stuffer.

If some young players like these perform well enough to earn starting jobs ahead of more expensive veterans, it could help free up some cap space and give the team a modicum of flexibility to pursue free-agent additions at other positions.

In light of the Giants' recent struggles, it would be shortsighted and probably futile for the coaching staff to focus their energies on making a playoff run. Instead, they should begin addressing problems on the offense line and elsewhere now rather than waiting until the off-season to begin that process. Players like Taylor, Wilson, and Umenyiora could be ready to play a bigger role, and now's the time to find out.

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