Friday, March 26, 2010

Giants: Wilkinson / Linebackers

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone (Godfather III): Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

Wolfman (re. the SBBR blog, with apologies to Al Pacino): Just when you thought you could avoid reading the SBBR blog during the off-season when nothing much is happening, I pull you back in with a nugget that turns out to have some legs to it.

Permit me to explain. In an item I posted on March 25, I went into a brief analysis of the LB position, specifically mentioning the interesting case of Gerris Wilkinson. The Giants tendered Wilkinson a contract as an RFA to keep him on the roster, even though he has shown little more than just potential in his tenure with the Giants, with his playing time significantly curtailed by injury. He was drafted in 2006 in the 3rd round and impressed the coaches with his athletic ability, speed, size and football IQ. He played in all 16 games in his rookie year, much of his playing time coming on special teams. He even started the playoff game against Tampa Bay in 2007 in place of injured Kawika Mitchell, but in each of his seasons after his rookie year, he missed significant playing time due to injury. Because of the amount of time he has missed, if the Giants had not tendered him a contract, making him a UFA instead of RFA, it seemed unlikely that some other team would have signed him. Further, I said in yesterday's blog post that GM Reese tends to hold players with high injury rates in disfavor and replaces them with players that can stay on the field. (Of course this is not something unique to Reese's world football view, but the Giants GM has acted aggressively on this philosophy in the past.) Therefore, I found it interesting that the Giants would even tender Wilkinson a contract. It speaks quite highly about how athletic he is and how much capability he has. Giants have upgrades to make at LB, particularly at MLB and apparently, they do not want to give up on Wilkinson and they want to keep his talent in the mix. Parenthetically, I will tell you that I always loved Wilkinson's speed and size combination. I remember him playing in the last game of the 2007 season - the "perfect season" game against the Patriots - a game I attended. I saw him on a few plays get matched up with Randy Moss and run 20-30 yards down the field with him step for step, keeping him covered. Those are plays you wouldn't see if you watched the game on TV and weren't at the game, because the ball didn't go to Moss on those particular plays. Wilkinson is 6'3", 230 with great speed - a perfect prototype LB for today's game.

Here's the exclamation point to that innocent analysis that I posted yesterday. In Brian Costello's Giants Notes article in today's NY Post, with the headline about Brandon Jacobs eager to have a great 2010 season, there are two innocent little sentences buried in the last paragraph that read as follows:

Gerris Wilkinson said that the team is moving him to MLB. He played mainly WSLB in his first four years.

(You can read the entire article by clicking here.)

Many feel that the Giants starting MLB for 2010 is not currently on the roster. Maybe he is and it is Gerris Wilkinson. If the Giants draft McClain in the 1st round, maybe they want a veteran to start, shepherd the player along and keep the position warm until McClain is ready to step in and start full time. Alternatively, perhaps the Giants are not planning on drafting McClain or realize they may not get him, leaving the starting MLB position wide open, so the Giants want to put as much talent at the position to create competition and hope that they do in fact find a starter on the current roster. The fact that they have kept Wilkinson at all shows that they still have hopes for him emerging as a player. The fact that they have shifted him to MLB shows that he is not just training camp fodder, who is unlikely to make the team. They are shifting him to a position of great need for the defense and investing coaching and training time in him, no doubt, in hopes that he will emerge as an important contributor.

Perhaps nothing at all will come of this. Maybe Wilkinson gets hurt again or performs poorly and doesn't even make the team. Maybe it is just moving players around to have the right mix of players at each position in training camp so practices can run smoothly. I just find it very interesting that there is some action going on with a player nobody is focusing on, who is well under the radar at an important position.....and that I posted about him yesterday.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Giants: Off season news

It's been very quiet in Giants world for the last month or so, since the signing of Antrel Rolle, but now that the Giants have reported to the voluntary off season workout program, there is a little bit of news. Tom Coughlin, in the coaches breakfast at a recent NFL meeting, said that while S Kenny Phillips rehabilitation from his microfracture knee surgery is progressing, it is far from certain that he will be ready for the start of training camp, at least without restrictions on his practice habits. Kenny Phillips himself remained optimistic and upbeat, but realistically, he has not been cleared to start running yet and it is reasonable to assume he won't be completely ready. If he is restricted from participating in two practices per day and can only do one, or perhaps needs to take a practice off once in a while, that would not be terrible, because it probably means he could get ready for the regular season. The key really is not when he will be ready, but if the microfracture surgery has been successful and his speed and tackling ability returns. Phillips is a hard hitter and sure tackler for someone his size and that is something that is separate from how hard you run. It's not just a matter of physics applying Newton's first law: F=ma (Force=mass x acceleration), because then the only things that would matter would be the speed and size of the player. Furthermore, the player that delivers a big hit is also absorbing a hit from a player that may be bigger. However we have all seen players that are very physical and hit harder than what it seems they should based only on their mass. Giants seem to have another player on their team that fits this category in Ahmad Bradshaw that can seemingly take a hit from bigger players and keep going. I saw an interesting article that asserted that the muscle and skeletal structure of the player and his ability to tense his body muscles up in a tight central core precisely at the moment of collision, while accelerating through the hit, is what gives some players the ability to be bigger hitters than would seem possible from their size. If Phillips loses some speed and somehow his base and balance is affected by this injury, his ability to tense his muscles and explode through the collision, accelerating at the precise moment of impact with perfect timing might be affected as well. No reason to obsess about these things - we'll have to wait and see.

The drama from this camp will certainly come from the Osi Umenyiora situation. He was demoted to situational pass rusher last year and accepted it gracefully during the season, but whined about it in the off-season. He even said that he would retire or demand a trade if he was not returned to the starting lineup. Osi made one probowl but realistically was never a great run stopper. He is a speed player and when in top form is a very good edge pass rusher. In previous years, with Strahan on one side, with outstanding DT play in the middle of the DL, with Pierce and the other LBs playing well behind him, any actual weakness in run stopping ability was masked. However, last year, with Osi coming off a knee injury, with Pierce slipping, with poor DT play and an overall decline in the entire defense, Osi's run stopping weakness was exposed, or perhaps even was exacerbated. The question is: what is Osi's true overall level of play? Did he appear worse than he actually is last year because of the factors that I mentioned. Conversely, did he appear better than he actually is in previous years because of the overall quality play of the players around him. Coaches have to assess this and make accurate evaluations.

Making these questions more interesting is what the Giants do in the draft. With the departure of Pierce, there is a huge hole in the middle of the defense at MLB. The Giants have several players at LB that they were high on in past years, Ryan Kehl, Brian Goff and Gerris Wilkinson, but there is a strong feeling that the starting MLB for the 2010 season is not currently on the roster. Goff played last year replacing Chase Blackburn, who had replaced Pierce earlier and showed some ability, but also did not blow anyone away with his play making talent. This is reputed to be one of the best drafts ever and is particularly strong in the DL and OL. There are a few good LBs, but the draft is deeper in the DL. The Giants do not like to draft for need and will always lean to pick the best player available. They also weigh players heavily by position, meaning a great LT will be more valuable than a great interior OL-man. If the Giants are able to pick up a great DE in the draft, perhaps they will be motivated to trade Osi to a team with a surplus of LBs and a need for a speed rushing DE. (Giants co-residents come to mind as a team that might fit this bill - Osi for Harris?) If they draft Alabama LB Rolando McClain, that everyone seems to be very high on, the situation is changed, and perhaps Osi stays.

Speaking of the LBs currently on the team, it's unfortunate that we didn't see enough out of Kehl and Goff to know if they are good enough to be starters in the league. We also didn't see enough from Sintim to know if he can play LB. (Perhaps he can be the situational pass rusher that the Giants will need if they trade Osi.) Wilkinson might be the most talented LB, as measured by size, speed and athleticism. His problem is that he can't stay on the field and is constantly injured. If he can get past the injury bug, he might be a contributor. I did find it interesting that the Giants tendered him a contact. Reese has showed an inclination in the past to move away from players that are often injured and goes for younger, healthier players. I found it interesting that he tendered a contract to oft-injured Gerris Wilkinson. It must mean that they still hold out hope for him to become an NFL caliber player.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Giants: sign Rolle

By now you all know about the signing of Antrel Rolle who became an unrestricted FA when the Cardinals cut him. It's hard to understand what the Cardinals are doing - they have now lost 4 important players from their team last year. Three of them are: Antrel Rolle to the Giants; Karlos Dansby to the Dolphins; and Anquan Boldin in a trade to the Ravens for essentially a middle round draft pick. That's three important players - don't forget that they also lost Kurt Warner to retirement. Why did the Cardinals let all these players go? There's no salary cap this year, so that can't be the issue. They definitely were losing Warner to retirement, so they knew his salary was coming off the books (reported to be $4M). Boldin was traded for a middle round pick to the Ravens and his $3M salary came off the Cardinals books. I can understand why the Cardinals might not have an inclination to sign both Rolle and Dansby, but it's hard to understand why they let both go, with (at least) $7M reduction in salary that will accrue to them with the departures of Warner and Boldin. One possible answer is the long rumored tight spending habits of the Bidwill ownership of the Cardinals. No reason to look for another answer. It looks like they are going with Leinart as the qb and perhaps they want to wait and see whether they have a franchise qb in Leinart before they ante up and spend money on an expensive supporting cast around him to push for contention. Cardinals have a relatively new stadium and have made a good playoff push the last two years, making the Super Bowl in 2008. The ownership may feel that they have established enough credibility with the fans that they can afford a down year, where they save money on payroll and still maintain fan support and loyalty.

From the Giants perspective, this is a great signing. Rolle is an excellent player and the S position has become very important in today's game, perhaps even surpassing LB in its criticality to the defense. Average LB's can be compensated for by a great DL in the running game and great S play in the passing game. But with the NFL now a pass-centric league, the S position has become critical and you can't hide them. More than sitting back and covering the occasional deep ball, safeties need to have great range running sideline to sideline in coverage and with the very common 3 and 4 WR sets, they are thrust in a role of man-to-man pass coverage very often. We all remember what a disaster the Giant S position was last year, with Phillips out, with Michael Johnson having a bad year and with CC Brown (CC stands for Can't Cover... thanks for my brother for pointing this out to me) having to step in and try to be a factor in pass defense, a role for which he is not well suited. Rolle is a perfect match. he is fast, is a very tough hitter and has strong coverage skills, having spent his first few years in the league as a CB. If Phillips comes back from his injury, the Giants S position will be strong and their DB-field, with Webster, Thomas and Ross at CB should be a strength, rather than the weakness it was last year.

Giants still need to figure out what to do at the LB position. They also need to figure out if the players on the DL who did so poorly last year will come back from their injuries and perform well this year. There are a lot of question marks for the Giants defense this year and these will probably not be answered until the season gets going.