March 15, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version

Big Blue Taking Giant Steps Despite Lack of Big Names
Giants Off-Season Report

BY SEAN LAHMAN
March 15, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/10620

When the Giants pulled out of the bidding for free-agent wide receiver Plaxico Burress last week, many fans were no doubt upset with the team's inability to plug a major leak in the offense.

Take heart. Big Blue's failure to sign the topflight receiver doesn't mean they've been dormant during the winter months. In the 10 weeks since their season ended, the Giants have taken significant steps toward overcoming their salary cap constraints and addressing their most serious needs in free agency.

The team freed up more than $8.5 million thanks to Kurt Warner's departure and the release of receiver Ike Hilliard and four reserve defenders. They moved quickly to shore up some major weaknesses, using that cap space to sign some quality veterans in free agency. Here's a look at the significant progress they have made.

QUARTERBACKS It wouldn't have made any sense to bring Warner back. His contract called for a $5 million salary in 2005, and he clearly would have been unhappy riding the bench. This is Eli Manning's ship now; the team no longer requires a veteran babysitter. In 2005, the second quarterback will only be asked to play if Manning gets hurt.

That's not a trivial concern in the NFL. Last year, 11 backup quarterbacks attempted at least 100 passes, and a dozen more were forced into extended action. In signing veteran Jim Miller, the Giants add an experienced passer who can produce when called upon. In two seasons as the starter in Chicago, Miller posted a 15-12 record and led the Bears to the playoffs in 2001.

Two other factors probably played a significant role in the Giants' decision to sign him. First, a 34-year-old journeyman about to suit up with his seventh NFL team does not represent a potential quarterback controversy. Second, he signed a one year contract for the league minimum.

RUNNING BACKS Tiki Barber had the best year of his career in 2004, leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage and setting personal bests for rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns. He'll be 30 years old when the season starts, but the Giants have shown no concern that his production will drop; Barber will remain the focal point of the offense.

After a promising preseason, Ron Dayne struggled again to be a factor in 2004. The fact that Mike Cloud was much more effective in short-yardage situations suggests that Dayne has likely run out of chances. The Giant signed Cloud to a two-year contract early this month while Dayne, an unrestricted free agent, remains unsigned.

WIDE RECEIVERS The virtual disappearance of the Giants' wide receivers was an unexpected problem in 2004, and certainly didn't help Manning's progress. Starters Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard combined for fewer than 1,200 yards and zero touchdowns on the season. That prompted the Giants to release Hilliard, whose declining speed and inability to gain separation made him a liability in the starting lineup.

The big question is how to fill his shoes. The Giants have a handful of promising young receivers in Jamaar Taylor, Tim Carter, David Tyree, and Willie Ponder - all of whom have intriguing talent and none of whom appear ready to step into a starting job.

To supplement the young talent, the Giants pursued Burress, an experienced receiver whose combination of size and speed makes him a dangerous deep threat. But after he rejected a reported $24 million contract plus an $8 million signing bonus, General Manager Ernie Accorsi took the unusual step of announcing publicly that the team was no longer interested.

It was a surprising development, given the size of the Giants' offer and the fact that Burress has received relatively little interest from anyone else. There were grumblings that the problem may have been Burress's agent, Michael Harrison. Those rumors were lent some credibility Sunday when Burress fired Harrison, possibly opening the door for a rapprochement with the Giants. But even if Big Blue can't (or won't) bring in a big-name receiver like Burress, they'll need to add someone to serve alongside Toomer.

The leading candidate appears to be Corey Bradford, a seven-year veteran who caught 27 passes for Houston last year. Baltimore's Travis Taylor, Tennessee's Eddie Berlin, and Detroit's Tai Streets are other unrestricted free agents who might be a good fit.

OFFENSIVE LINE The offensive line has been a recurring weakness for the Giants over the last few seasons, and they took a major step by signing free-agent tackle Kareem McKenzie away from the Jets.

McKenzie was the best right tackle on the market, a strong run-blocker who has earned a reputation as one of the most disciplined linemen in the league. Incredibly, he has been flagged for just three penalties in the last three years. That will be a welcome change on an offensive line whose mental mistakes infuriated head coach Tom Coughlin last season.

Right Guard Chris Snee was dominating as a rookie last year, starting 11 games before a glandular infection sidelined him for the season. Center Shaun O'Hara also missed the last four games due to injury, and there was a noticeable drop-off with the pair out of the lineup. The return of these two young players and the addition of McKenzie should give the Giants a formidable right side of the line.

Left guard remains a question mark. The Giants have talked with free agent Fred Miller, but it appears likely that one of the unremarkable holdovers - David Diehl, Jason Whittle, and Wayne Lucier - could get the job.

It's also worth noting that the sack numbers dropped dramatically when Manning replaced the lead-footed Warner in the backfield, suggesting the problems with pass protection had as much to do with the quarterback as the line.

TIGHT ENDS Jeremy Shockey caught a career high six touchdown passes in 2004, finally emerging as a go-to receiver despite being used extensively as a blocker. Shockey would be helped tremendously by a blocking tight end who could relieve him of those duties. Backup Visanthe Shiancoe is a decent receiving tight end, but lacks the size and strength to be an effective blocker. A free agent like Steve Bush, Walter Rasby, or Fred Baxter could unfetter an integral part of the offense by lightening Shockey's load.

LINEBACKERS Antonio Pierce may not be a name that Giants' fans immediately recognize, but it shouldn't take long for them to realize what a tremendous addition he is. The young middle linebacker led the Redskins in tackles last year, keying Washington's defensive improvement from 25th to third. Pierce is a natural leader with the speed to make tackles on either sideline.

In a little over 14 months, this position has been transformed from one of the team's weak spots to one of its strongest. With veteran outside linebackers Carlos Emmons and Barret Green and aggressive young players like Nick Greisen, Kevin Lewis, and Reggie Torbor, the middle of the defensive line should be dependable.

DEFENSIVE LINE Despite some early success, the Giants finished 28th in run defense last year. Injuries on the defensive line played a major factor, and it was clear that veteran run stuffer Norman Hand, who was released yesterday, wore down late in the season.

To replace him, the team signed Kendrick Clancy, an excellent one-gap defender who can play tackle or end, and will rotate alongside tackles Fred Robbins and William Joseph.

SECONDARY The sturdy play of rookie Gibril Wilson last year may make veteran strong safety Shaun Williams expendable. Young, quick, and aggressive, Wilson exemplifies coordinator Tim Lewis's new-look Giants defense.

Veteran cornerbacks Will Allen and Will Peterson have been consistent enough, though the lack of a pass rush late last season left them with more work than they could handle. Add to that the release of former starting safety Omar Stoutmire, and a lack of depth in the secondary will continue to be a concern for the Giants.

SPECIAL TEAMS The Giants moved quickly to upgrade their special teams by signing kicker Jay Feeley, an accurate field-goal kicker who can also lend much-needed help on kickoffs. The Giants have had just eight touchbacks on 279 kickoffs in the last four seasons.

The Giants led the league in kick-return average last year, thanks primarily to Ponder. Punt returns were a problem, though, and free-agent addition Lamont Brightful is among a handful of candidates to handle the duties in 2005.

OUTLOOK Because they traded away their 2005 first-round pick to acquire Manning last year, the Giants needed to look to free agency rather than the draft to address their most serious needs. They've done an outstanding job of plugging some holes, and they avoided the familiar pitfall of paying top dollar for past prime players. McKenzie, Pierce, and Clancy will all be 26 on opening day, and they join what is already a strong core of talented young players.

While there is still much work to be done, Giants' fans should be extremely pleased with the progress the team has made in putting the pieces together for a playoff contender.

PLAYERS ADDED CB/KR Lamont Brightful, DT Kendrick Clancy, K Jay Feeley, OT Kareem McKenzie, QB Jim Miller, MLB Antonio Pierce

PLAYERS LOST DT Lance Legree (signed with Jets), QB Kurt Warner (signed with Cardinals)

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS TE Mark Anelli, LB Nick Greisen, LB Wesly Mallard, S Jack Brewer

RELEASED/UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS DE Lorenzo Bromell, DT Martin Chase, K Steve Chrsitie, CB Terry Cousin, RB Ron Dayne, OT Ed Ellis, FB Jim Finn, WR Ike Hilliard, QB Jesse Palmer, TE Marcellus Rivers, S Omar Stoutmire DE Regan Upshaw DE Chuck Wiley.

March 15, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version