With the offseason workout program now a thing of the past and the official start to training camp coming up on July 21st (report date and physicals), it's time to look ahead to each positional battle and how they will ultimately shape the New York Giants' final 53-man roster. Today we examine the running backs.
CHANGE AT THE TOP
The New York Giants went into the 2013 season with the expectation that second-year running back David Wilson, who yields explosive speed and athleticism, would be their No. 1 back and help return their running game to dominance. That, of course, did not pan out as an early neck injury derailed not only his season, but nearly his entire career. And with lingering questions about his health remaining as the team entered free agency, General Manager Jerry Reese did the only thing he was capable of doing: signing a potential top-end starter in Rashad Jennings (four-years, $10 million).
Although Jennings has never been given the opportunity to be a No. 1 or work horse back in his career, he has put up some relatively impressive numbers for being a situational back with both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders. However, upon signing with the Giants, Jennings made it abundantly clear that his goal — and the reason he signed with the Giants — was to come in and be an all-purpose back.
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"Something I always pride myself on is being a complete back," Jennings said. "That’s never having to come off the field. First down, second down, third down, fourth-and-short, goal line, pass protection … just molding and perfecting my craft of becoming a complete back is something that I’m going to continue to strive for as long as I’m in the NFL. What I bring to the table is completion."
Despite Jennings' goal to be an every down back, there has been some ongoing speculation that the Giants could go with a three-headed monster ground attack with David Wilson and rookie Andre Williams seeing a good portion of the carries. However, to date, that has not been confirmed by the team, although running backs coach Craig Johnson has been unable to hide his excitement about the addition of Williams and what he could mean to the backfield.
"He’s a big, strong physical runner. He led the nation in rushing last year in college football. He is strong, he’s a very explosive runner. I hear that from the defense, they say, ‘Man, that guy has really got it going.’ I’m really excited to see what he’s all about and you can tell, he runs hard and you can tell. But as I have told him, that’s all great. When the pads come on then you’ll get the change to separate a little bit. Am I concerned about how he is going to do? Not at all. But I still have to see it for all of the young players before I get real excited by the young guy," Johnson said.
The big issue facing Williams, which is something they'll focus on in camp, is his ability (or lack thereof) to contribute as a receiver out of the backfield. It's an area that was barely utilized during his college days and something that went almost entirely ignored during his record-setting senior season. But in order to earn playing time in a Tom Coughlin offense, a running back must not only be able to run without turning the ball over, but also catch passes out of the backfield and, above all else, protect the quarterback.
That area of things will no doubt be a heavy focus for both Wilson and Williams throughout camp.
While Jennings, Wilson and Williams have commanded most of the offseason attention, the Giants do also have second-year backs Michael Cox and Kendall Gaskins, who spent 2013 on the practice squads of the Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans, as well as veteran Peyton Hillis. All three arrived to the offseason workout program in tremendous shape and really opened eyes when many weren't expecting it.
"Two guys you probably haven't heard much about, Michael Cox, a second-year back that was a late draft choice last year, big, strong, physical, can make plays," running backs coach Craig Johnson said. "I'm looking forward to seeing him and Kendall Gaskins, both of them, in pads. … They're young guys, they want to prove it. They're hungry and they want to go after it. All the backs are pretty good size and pretty physical so I'm excited about the position."
Both youngsters eventually received additional reps in practice after Hillis went down with a muscle strain, but it was Cox who really took charge and got the attention of both his coaches and teammates. Not only did he show up to East Rutherford with some additional bulk, but he spent a good portion of the offseason working on his stamina and endurance, and had one of the most consistently timed sprints during team workouts.
Ultimately, if David Wilson is medically cleared on July 21st, the training camp battle will likely boil down to these three competing for one job on the 53-man roster — although Gaskins could end up on New York's practice squad as he's the only one of the three with practice squad eligibility.
DAVID WILSON'S HEALTH
The big key for the New York Giants and their running back situation boils down to David Wilson and his health coming off of a neck injury/neck surgery that nearly ended his career. He's scheduled for his next exam on July 21st — the very day Big Blue reports to the Quest Diagnostics Training Center for training camp — and it is widely expected he will, in fact, be medically cleared.
"We do think all systems are go pretty much for him to be healthy and ready for contact during training camp," Jerry Reese said. "Unless he has a setback we expect to release him for full contact during the fall. Any time he touches the ball he can go the distance. In this West Coast Offense, we'll try to get the ball to him in different ways and obviously he'll help in the return game."
Wilson is really a bit of a wildcard at this point. Although he's remained in shape, has kept up on the playbook and positional meetings, and even participated in non-contact practices this past Spring, it's been many months since he last took a hit. And while he insists he's never felt any pain in association with his neck injury, the Giants will undoubtedly like to take it as easy as possible with him as to not risk his health or career.
Still, all signs do appear to be positive for the 2012 first-round pick and his return would not only help boost Big Blue's running game, but he would also likely contribute to the kick return game, where he was named a second-team All Pro in 2012.
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