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New York Giants

3 key training camp battles to watch for Giants

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 18: New York Giants running back Paul Perkins (28) runs during the fourth quarter of the National Football League game between the New York Giants and the Detroit Lions on December 18, 2016, at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherfod, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)
Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

The dark horse New York Giants, once nightmares in the NFL, returned in the 2016 season with a more competent defense and better offensive efficiency. No, they weren’t as talented as the last two Super Bowl teams, but they did turn a wide enough corner to generate hope that they an entire page in 2017.

The sleeping Giants have a historical tendency of missing the playoffs a few years and somehow morphing into Super Bowl contenders overnight. There is no certainty that’ll be the case next season, but it very well could be if Big Blue can match what they look like on paper.

We should at least have a clue of what the future might hold when the pads come on and full contact is in session at training camp.

Quarterback Eli Manning, who turned 36 years old in January, has been in the league for 13 years and has never had the offensive firepower he is expected to have this year.

On one side of the field, he’ll have All-Pro wideout Odell Beckham Jr., one of the league’s top-tier receivers, and on the other side, he’ll have the 6-foot-4 frame of six-time Pro Bowler Brandon Marshall.

Last year’s All-Rookie receiver Sterling Shepard will return to man the slot, and the Giants have also added a versatile threat at tight end … finally. Rookie Evan Engram, the No. 23 overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, should help the Giants reach a level of potency on offense they have yet to see in the Manning era.

And then there’s the defense, a group that has historically been the crux of the Giants’ success. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has done an exceptional job of instilling the ferocious nature back into the unit. It also helps to have talent.

Through savvy drafting and astute offseason acquisitions, the Giants are loaded from the front to back-end.

Damon “Snacks” Harrison, Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul fortify a stout defensive front, while Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have completely reshaped the secondary in the best way possible.

But everything isn’t perfect for the Giants. There are still holes that need to be filled and uncertainties at key positions that might remain unclear until the end of training camp. The summer heat won’t come close to matching the scorching camp battles that are expected to ensue in the coming weeks.

Here are three to keep an eye on.

Running Back: Wayne Gallman, Orleans Darkwa, Shane Vereen, Shaun Draughn, Paul Perkins

It’s no surprise the Giants were one of the worst rushing teams in the NFL last season. Their committee running back corps consisted of a struggling Rashad Jennings, two former undrafted rookies and an actual rookie selected in the fifth round of last year’s draft. It was obvious from the start that the offense would have to live or die by the arm of Manning.

The Giants hope things run much smoother this season with a healthy Shane Vereen back in the lineup and the debut of rookie Wayne Gallman. They’d better for general manager Jerry Reese’s sake after he passed on opportunities to sign LeGarrette Blount and Adrian Peterson. DeAngelo Williams is still an option the Giants might consider if he’s available and the ground game fails again, but until that happens, it’ll be up to Gallman to be the key difference-maker.

Vereen should do well to contribute mostly as a third-down option. So his availability still doesn’t do much for the Giants in terms of rushing yards.

Gallman is big and physical enough to pound the ball on the ground, and if the offensive line gives him room to run, he is instinctual enough to choose the right holes and shift into high gear with no hesitation.

Maybe to a lesser extent, Paul Perkins is capable of doing the same thing. He had a decent showing for a rookie last season with 456 rushing yards and 162 receiving yards. There’s no better time than the present for a sophomore leap.

As for Orleans Darkwa and Shaun Draughn, both will be competing to ensure they even have a spot on the 53-man roster.

Middle linebacker: B.J. Goodson and Keenan Robinson

There is a big hole in the heart of the Giants’ defense

Kelvin Sheppard, last year’s starter at middle linebacker, is sitting on a couch somewhere waiting for the phone to ring for a job offer. The 29-year-old journeyman wasn’t re-signed by the Giants in the offseason after starting 11 games for them in 2016. That means the starting job will come down between second-year inside linebacker B.J. Goodson and fifth-year veteran Keenan Robinson.

Goodson seemed to have a better grasp on the playbook in OTAs and minicamp, which could lead to extended reps with the first-team defense at training camp. The Giants coaching staff would absolutely love to see him push Robinson, who is coming on for a second consecutive season as a one-year rental, but it’s more likely that the two rotate at the position depending on the situation.

Robinson might be the Giants’ best pass defender at the position.

That could set him up as more of a nickel package option, while Goodson gets in on all of the base defensive alignments. If the Giants continue to favor the nickel and dime defense, it could drastically limit Goodson’s snap count.

There is also the chance he’s improved enough to be considered an every-down player. If he can match or even surpass Robinson’s abilities in pass coverage, he’ll be the one with the green sticker on the back of his helmet.

Offensive line

The patchwork offensive line might be the only thing capable of raining on the Giants’ parade of improvements.

Manning can have all of the weapons in the world, but none of it will matter if the line continues to fold over like flimsy cardboard. It has mostly been a game of musical chairs to find out the best fit for each spot up front.

Don’t expect the music to stop playing anytime soon as we get closer to training camp.

Ereck Flowers hasn’t come close to living up to his first-round draft stock. Things are so bad that the third-year offensive tackle, who has remained a liability in pass protection, still managed to start 31 games. That certainly isn’t good news for a team that has failed to add any legitimate help through free agency or the draft.

It’s even harder to get excited about former San Diego Chargers first-round pick D.J. Fluker joining the fray, unless the Giants plan on moving him back to right tackle. So far, he has been working in with the second-team defense behind John Jerry at guard. The former All-Rookie lineman hasn’t looked like the same player since making the full time transition from tackle to guard in 2015.

Depending on how the training camp battles unfold, maybe the Giants would consider working him in Bobby Hart’s right tackle spot instead. Hart isn’t even close to being the long-term answer in New York, and Fluker showed more upside at the position when he played there.

Fortunately for the Giants, there is some hope on the offensive front with center Weston Richburg and left guard Justin Pugh. Both appear to be strong, permanent fixtures at their positions.

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