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NFC East camp preview: Pressure on Giants

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Preliminary forecasts for the next five weeks in northern New Jersey are calling for high levels of heat.

Not that New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, his staff or his players will notice. That is because for the team, which reunites at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center for the start of training camp on Thursday, the heat is on — really on.

They can thank the fact that they have gone three consecutive seasons without a playoff berth, a span in which their won-loss record actually deteriorated.

With last year’s 6-10 mark particularly a bitter pill to swallow given how the season unfolded, team co-owner John Mara stood before the media at the end of the season and agreed with a reporter’s conclusion that the 2015 campaign carried a “win-or-else” mandate.

With those words echoing weeks after being made, general manager Jerry Reese and Coughlin created perhaps the most highly competitive training camp in their respective regimes, a camp where few jobs are safe.

On offense, all eyes will be on the biggest competition of them all: the offensive line. This unit will, for the first time under Coughlin, have five new starters across the board, and for the third season in a row, a rookie is expected to be one of those starters.

The offensive line combination of rookie Ereck Flowers at left tackle, Justin Pugh at left guard, Weston Richburg at center, Geoff Schwartz at right guard and Marshall Newhouse at right tackle isn’t set in stone, according to Coughlin, who is still trying to figure out how to compensate for the absence of injured left tackle Will Beatty.

“Our plans are to continue to try to figure out how this line is going to fall out, who is going to be where,” he said at the start of the spring workouts. “We will probably try some different combinations to get there.”

Coughlin also didn’t rule out the possibility of adding another veteran currently on another team’s roster who might shake free during camp cuts as a possibility.

On defense, the Giants are starting from scratch after finishing 29th overall last season. Perry Fewell was replaced by Steve Spagnuolo, who shot to stardom as a first-time NFL coordinator thanks to his 2007 and 2008 Giants defenses finishing as top-10 units both seasons.

Unfortunately for Spagnuolo, defensive ends Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora and linebackers Antonio Pierce and Kawika Mitchell didn’t follow behind him into the doors of the QDTC.

Instead, Spagnuolo is facing the challenge of trying to implement his aggressive, attacking scheme with a group whose question marks include the identities of the starting defensive ends, safeties, and nickel cornerback, and the health of middle linebacker Jon Beason.

While the personnel issues sort themselves out, Spagnuolo does have an idea of the identity he wants his defense to have.

“I think we all can agree in here that if you are going to be good on defense, it needs to be aggressive,” he said. “If you look around the league, I think all good defenses in this league function that way. We would like to get to that point as well. How and when and where we will get with all that, we will see as we go.”

That is a lot of uncertainty for a team that has its collective feet to the fire, but if there is one thing that Giants fans can expect from the team this year is that they are not going to go down without a fight.

CAMP CALENDAR

July 30: Entire team reports

July 31: First practice

Aug. 11-12: Joint practices with Bengals at Cincinnati

Aug. 27: Camp ends

–Team strength: Running back.

For the first time since the 2007 and 2008 seasons, the Giants have perhaps their most diverse running backs corps, a unit that offers a little bit of everything and whose members can be mixed and matched to various situations. The addition of veteran Shane Vereen gives the corps its missing ingredient: a legitimate threat out of the backfield. Starter Rashad Jennings, who is expected to do the bulk of the work between the 20-yard lines, probably will see most of the between-the-tackles work. Second-year man Andre Williams’ role likely will be limited to that of a short-yardage and goal-line back, and Orleans Darkwa will see spot duty. The diversity, along with a hopefully improved offensive line and the return of fullback Henry Hynoski, should go a long way toward boosting the NFL’s 23rd-ranked running game from 2014 toward being a top-10 unit.

–Breakout player: Outside linebacker Devon Kennard.

Last season, the fifth-round pick showed flashes of being a pass-rushing force off the edge. Kennard, out of USC, finished third on the team in sacks (4.5) behind defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul (12.5) and Damontre Moore (5.5). With Pierre-Paul’s availability for the 2015 season a glaring question mark, it would not be surprising if defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo calls upon Kennard, the projected starting outside linebacker, to be that pass-rushing threat off the edge.

–Work in progress: Offensive line.

The pectoral injury sustained by left tackle Will Beatty once again made the offensive line a worry for the Giants’ coaches.

At the start of OTAs, head coach Tom Coughlin made it clear that the team was planning to look at some different offensive line combinations in training camp, where it will have a chance to see the players with the pads on.

During OTAs, Coughlin and the Giants stuck with a combination that, from left tackle to right tackle, featured Ereck Flowers (first-round draftee), Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, Geoff Schwartz and Marshall Newhouse.

The Giants did have a visit with Jake Long in June just to gauge the veteran’s interest and to see where he was in his rehab from his second torn ACL injury.

Ideally, the Giants would like to stick with what they have, but the problem is their depth at offensive tackle is so thin that should Flowers or Newhouse get injured, it would rock the unit’s foundation.

Also worth noting is offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s response to a question concerning Flowers.

“We like him as a future left tackle, and I’m very confident in him right now,” McAdoo said.

He might not have much of a choice.


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