New York Giants  

 

Exit Interview: Free agency looms large for champion Giants

With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.

2011 in a Nutshell: Seeing it from the 20-yard line on Sunday night, I can tell you the degree of difficulty on Eli Manning's 38-yard completion to Mario Manningham was off the charts. Off the freaking charts. It's one thing to see a play like that on television. It's quite another to take in the most clutch completion since the Tyree miracle live, at a loud stadium, with a Super Bowl title on the line, next to a section full of Pats fans, no less.

Manningham's improbable over-the-shoulder catch on a beautiful vertical throw no one in the stadium was expecting was really a microcosm of the Giants' season. This was a club that few anticipated even making the playoffs as late as December. Much like Manningham had become the forgotten man in the offense during the season, this overlooked 9-7 team rode a hot quarterback and even hotter defense through the first three rounds of the playoffs. From shades of 2007 to replicating 2007, the Giants punctuated those three clutch performances by winning it all on Sunday.

What Went Right: Super Bowl XLVI's MVP was Manning, who once again came up huge in the clutch, finishing off his most productive season yet (4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns during the regular season). Yet, if there were a Postseason MVP in the NFL, it would have to be awarded to the entire New York defense.

This was a group that stopped three of the top seven scoring offenses in the league dead in their tracks (Atlanta, Green Bay and New England). During the NFC Championship Game, Manning and company had trouble getting points on the board. Perry Fewell's defense responded by holding the Niners to 1-for-13 on third downs. That's championship football. Much of that success had to with Osi Umenyiora's return from injury the last week of the season. This gave the Giants an edge rusher to complement Jason Pierre-Paul, who played like a man possessed over the last month of the season (six sacks in his last four games).

Speaking of men possessed, John Taylor might've inhabited the body of Victor Cruz, who came out of nowhere to post over 1,500 yards receiving. I mention Taylor, the former 49er great, because of Cruz's penchant for adding chunks of yards after the catch. In fact, he led NFC wideouts in YAC with 603. Meanwhile, Hakeem Nicks repeated his 2010 breakout with 1,192 yards of his own.

What Went Not So Right: The Giants' ground attack finished dead last in the regular season. The line often couldn't get a push, and Ahmad Bradshaw produced a fraction of his 2010 output. While Bradshaw averaged only 3.9 yards per carry, Brandon Jacobs wasn't any better at 3.8. Considering Jacobs' $4.9 million price tag, he's likely gone.

The inconsistent ground game put that much more pressure on Manning, as if being Peyton's little brother, a top overall pick and a franchise quarterback in the nation's largest city wasn't enough. The Giants couldn't put teams away with the run game, and its overall ineffectiveness was a big factor in losses to the Redskins, Eagles and Seahawks.

The defense could've used the rest a powerful ground attack provides, too, especially with injuries befalling key starters like Umenyiora, Jonathan Goff, Terrell Thomas and Justin Tuck. The unit struggled during a second-half stretch when the G-Men lost five of six, putting their playoff hopes in peril.

Offseason Crystal Ball: Maintaining motivation with a veteran squad fresh off a Super Bowl win might present a challenge. This is not to suggest that the roster is full of fat and happy professional athletes. In fact, Coughlin has proven to be a master at not letting his team slip into the abyss. After winning one of the most dramatic Super Bowls ever to finish the 2007 season, the Giants went 12-4 and won the NFC East in 2008.

This season they were 6-6, coming off a crushing loss to the Packers, and had every reason to pack it in. But Coughlin obviously didn't allow a letdown then, either. So if there was ever a squad that could return to the Super Bowl, this is it.

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That being said, the organization has several free-agent issue to deal with: Mario Manningham, Kareem McKenzie, Thomas, Deon Grant, Aaron Ross, Dave Tollefson, Steve Weatherford, Goff, and Chase Blackburn, to name a few. The secondary alone has five free agents. The team was pretty high on Thomas before he got hurt, so expect him to be back. Grant and Tollefson shouldn't break the bank. The interesting cases will be those of McKenzie, who will turn 33 soon, and Ross, who should be replaced by 2011 rookie Prince Amukamara.

Team Needs and Draft: Depending on what happens with the free agents, fortifying the secondary could be a chief task. Offensive line, linebacker, and possibly running back will also be focal points of both free agency and the 2012 NFL Draft.

After a team wins a Super Bowl, the best strategic measure is often to simply pick the best player on the board in the first round. Unfortunately, winning the big salami obviously means the Giants will be 32nd in line come draft time. That said, if linebacker Dont'a Hightower of Alabama is sitting there, the G-Men might very well pick him up. Ditto Miami RB Lamar Miller.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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