Postcard from camp: Giants
Offense won't miss a beat despite losing Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs
With a return to health, the team's pass rush should improve on its 48 sacks in '11
Team is counting on Prince Amukamara to take on a bigger role in his second year
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Ben Reiter had to say about Giants camp in Albany, N.Y., which he visited on Aug. 2. Read all of our postcards here.
At the University at Albany, where the Giants already seem to be playing to last season's form. Not the first portion of 2011, when they went 7-7, but the second, when they won six straight single elimination games, the last of which came in the Super Bowl against the Patriots.
Head coach Tom Coughlin's plan to end the practice I saw with an extended two-minute drill was dashed when Eli Manning led the offense down the field in just three plays, one of which was a terrific long completion to Domenik Hixon down the left sideline, which looked virtually identical to the fourth-quarter throw Manning made to Mario Manningham in the Super Bowl, which set up the winning touchdown. "Ball goes down the field in three plays, that's the drill," said Coughlin. "Not what you have in mind!" He was not complaining.
1. Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs won't be missed. Both long-time Giants left for San Francisco in free agency, but the team already has very good replacements on board, as it always seems to under GM Jerry Reese. Hixon -- who tore his ACL during Week 2 last season, leading to the emergence of Victor Cruz -- should easily match Manningham's 39 catches and 523 yards, and David Wilson, a first-rounder out of Virginia Tech, seems poised to surpass Jacobs's 2011 contributions of 571 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
At 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, Wilson is some seven inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than Jacobs, but he has all of his toughness -- he led collegiate backs in yards after contact last season -- and his athletic gifts stand out on the practice field. "Phenomenal," said linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. "His feet never stop. He's got explosion. His stop and start is almost like watching Allen Iverson on the basketball court. He can be in full speed in one direction, stop, and be full speed in the other direction the next second. That's a special skill."
Wilson and a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw make it impossible to imagine that the Giants will again rank last in rushing offense, as they did in 2011, when they averaged just 89.2 yards per game.
2. The pass rush should be even further improved. Not due to any major addition, but simply due to health. Only two teams produced more than the Giants' 48 sacks last year, even though two of their key rushers -- Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora -- combined to miss 11 regular season games. With those two fully healthy, and with Jason Pierre-Paul having emerged, at 23, as one of the league's premier sack artists (he had 16.5 in '11), the team should put even more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The prospect of 3rd-and-long -- when Kiwanuka often joins the other three on the line -- should be truly terrifying. "Oh man, it's a race to the quarterback," said Kiwanuka. "You're not only fighting against the man in front of you, or the offensive team in general, you're fighting against your teammates, because if you're one step too slow, somebody else is going to get that sack."
3. There is only one irreplaceable player on this team. He is, of course, Manning, who has never missed a game due to injury in his eight-year career. The Giants are constructed in such a way that they could sustain losses at virtually every other position without missing a beat, but the loss of Manning -- who not so long ago was viewed as little more than a competent game manager -- would be devastating. "We're trying to do everything we can to protect our quarterback, just like everybody else in the league is," said Coughlin, who has David Carr in reserve. "If we can continue to do that, we feel like we'll continue to be successful."
That the left tackle position is currently one of the only ones on the field in the air -- likely starter Will Beatty is unproven and currently sidelined with a back injury -- is worrying, as one crushing blind side hit on Manning could be all it takes for a team that looks as if it can again contend for a Super Bowl to become an also-ran.
Prince Amukamara, cornerback. It seemed last week as if cornerback Terrell Thomas, who missed last season after tearing his right ACL for a second time, had sadly torn the ligament once again. It now appears as if Thomas merely aggravated it, and that he will likely return at some point in 2012. Even so, the Giants will likely count more than anticipated on Amukamara to line up opposite veteran stalwart Corey Webster. Amukamara was regarded as a steal when he fell to New York as the 19th pick in the 2011 draft, but he recorded just 14 tackles and one interception in the seven games he played as a rookie after recovering from a broken left foot.
Reese insists that reports of the Giants' concerns about Amukamara have been overblown. "That's been sensationalized," he said. "They asked me, 'What do you expect from Prince?' I said, 'I expect him to play like a first-round draft pick,' which he is. I expect Pierre-Paul to play like that, [Hakeem] Nicks to play like that. I saw somewhere, 'Jerry Reese rips into Prince Amukamara.' It comes with the territory here. That's OK. Prince knows what we expect from him. We expect him to play well, and we think he will."
Martellus Bennett, tight end. The quotable, amiable 6-6, 280-something pound former Cowboy has delighted Giants beat writers by saying that he believes he looks more like Atlas than Professor Klump (this certainly seems to be true), and that he'd like to be called "the Black Unicorn." Not everyone is so amused.
"What the hell does that mean?" asked Coughlin, when apprised of his new tight end's would-be nickname. "He has practiced well. We're encouraging him to learn our system, to learn how our players react, if you will, to questions from the media, in particular. To realize that talk is cheap. Do it on the field first, and let people judge you by the way in which you play, and not by your interviews."
The best of Bennett's four seasons in Dallas came in 2008, when he amassed 283 receiving yards and four touchdowns -- but he spent all that time as the second fiddle to Jason Witten, and the Giants jumped at the chance to add a player with his physical gifts on a one-year, $2.5 million free-agent deal. He is the likely starter, and his on-field production could soon come to match that of his larynx.
The Giants have the NFL's most difficult schedule, based on last season's records. They will face opponents that went a combined 140-116 in 2011, and seven of them won at least nine games. Potentially daunting matchups are not clustered, but spread throughout: at Philadelphia in Week 4 and at San Francisco in Week 6; home against Pittsburgh in Week 9 and against Green Bay in Week 12. Their final four games should be particularly brutal: home against the Saints, then trips to play the Falcons and Ravens, and then home against the Eagles.
Still, this is an experienced, steady team that seems perfectly suited to handle such a slate. In fact, it is not hard to imagine that 2012 will look a lot like 2007 and 2011. The Giants might again finish with a record that is not particularly impressive, but good enough for a wild-card berth -- say, 10-6 -- and then turn things on when they really must.