The other huge need that the Giants have is to upgrade greatly and improve the LB unit. Giants defense seemed to decline towards the end of the year. The pass rush from the front 7 was not as strong as it was last year and they had to rely on creative blitzes from the DB-field to get good pressure. I think there are several reasons for this, but among them is the lack of big play makers from the LB unit. Pierce had a pretty good year, but the outside LBs were very quiet. Think back to the 2007 season and how many big, game-changing plays were made by Kawika Mitchell at LB. Just off the top of my head, without researching it: in game 3, when the Redskins had a 1st and goal, Mitchell made a great play to stop Clinton Portis on the 2nd down run (Redskins spiked the ball to stop the clock on 1st down) and he was involved in the 4th down stop also with Tuck and Aaron Ross. He returned a fumble for a TD against the Eagles in the 6-sack game by Osi; he intercepted a pass in the Buffalo game and ran it back for a TD to turn the game in the Giants favor in that game that clinched the playoff spot; and he put all kinds of pressure on Brady in the Super Bowl. He is not a great player and I am not saying the Giants should have met his salary demands and kept him - but the LBs did take a real turn for the worse since he left and I cannot think of a single impact play that Danny Clark made this year. Giants need to upgrade their LB corps. The Giants were very high on Gerris Wilkinson, drafted a few years ago. He shows some very good skill and great speed when he gets into the game, but he can't seem to stay on the filed because of frequent injuries, so they may have soured on him. Last year the Giants drafted two LBs that they were also very high on: Kehl and Goff. Goff had an injury disrupted first year and Kehl showed some skill at times, but if he could not outplay Clark or Blackburn, how high could they be on him. Actually, Blackburn is not terrible, and in contrast to Clark, I can think of one big play he made this year - stopping Westrbook on the 4th down run at the end of the game to win the first Eagles game. But Blackburn is a solid player at best - he is an average player, not a big play maker. The OLBs are supposed to be your team's defensive play makers and the Giants just don't have any. The LB's, especially the OLBs, have latitude to blitz, to drop back into coverage, to play the TE, to watch the RB's in pass coverage and to roam the field and create havoc. The Giants OLBs this year did none of that and it limited the defense. Just as the absence of Burress allowed opposing defenses to ignore the presence of a play maker on the outside and freed them to blitz and play aggressively, the absence of play makers at the OLB position allowed offenses to ignore them in devising their blocking schemes. They did not have to game plan on how to stop them and could direct their blockers to the few play makers that the Giants had on the DL itself.
Accepting the fact that the Giants need to make an upgrade at LB, they also have a choice to make between filling the need from the draft or FA, just as they do at the WR position, although the draft seems shallower at LB than at WR. Aaron Curry from Wake Forest is considered first round material by most and Nic Harris, a big safety from Oklahoma might be a gem if he is converted to LB, but he probably will not be a first round selection. The big FA gem at the LB position is of course Terrell Suggs from the Ravens. He will cost a lot of money, because he is a great player and he is playing in the spotlight of being on a great defense, on a team that went to the conference championship game and next to Ray Lewis, who draws a spotlight on the entire team.
There is another possibility at the LB position: move Kiwanuka back to LB after his stint at DE this past year. Kiwanuka had a decent year at DE, but certainly not overwhelming. I think he suffered from not having good LBs behind him and from bearing the load of playing the entire season. I am not sure that he will ever be a pro-bowl caliber player at LB and his best position may be DE. I would leave Kiwanuka at the DE position and, next year, when Osi comes back from injury, the Giants will have a very good 3 DE rotation of Osi, Tuck and Kiwanuka. I saw less rotation in the DL than i did last year. Tuck was starting DE and in passing situations, he would often move into the DT position to get a rush inside. I like this move occasionally to change it up on the OL, but not too often. Tuck also may have worn down because of being in for way more snaps than he was last year. In 2009 having 3 good DE's will make a big difference.
The Giants have to manage their salary cap carefully and not mortgage the future for a move or two this year. They have to address the RB situation with both Ward and Jacobs as FAs and it does make sense to extend Eli Manning's contract, since he becomes a FA at the end of the 2009 season. I saw it reported in several sources that the Giants are 10M under the cap for 2009 which is not a bad number. This does not include the Giants redoing Darcy Johnson's contract at the end of the year and converting a bonus into a LBE (likely to be earned) amount. When that bonus will not be earned, it gets carried over in to the succeeding year, so the Giants actually have about $7M more in salary cap space, or $17M. That should be enough to sign all the rookies, and make a few moves to improve the team. This does not even include the sure-to-be cut players: Sam Madison and RW McQuarters which gives the Giants another $4M or so in cap space with which to maneuver.
Please take a look at this link from a Miami site which analyzes the salary cap situation of all the teams: Salary Cap estimates NFL 2009
Also take a look at this article about the LTBE loophole that the Giants too advantage of: Giants Salary Cap Maneuver
Probably, the Giants will be able to fill one of their important needs from FA/trade and the other from the draft. The Giants have not had a great track record of developing WRs in recent years. Steve Smith did very well, but neither Tim Carter, Sinorice Moss nor Manningham jumped forward to make a contribution in their first year. With Suggs the only LB available from the pro ranks, it makes sense to try and get LB from the draft and WR from one of the available pros, as I recommended in previous post. Lots of teams will be pursuing the one stud LB available and his demands could make him a salary cap crusher.
Regardless, with the extra draft picks that they have, this is probably the year to use some of them to trade up and get a stud player from the college ranks.