This Saturday, the Giants will be squaring off against the Carolina Panthers in one of the most anticipated preseason games in Giants history, given the NFL lockout. The game will be the first for new Panthers head coach, Ron Rivera, a man who is widely touted throughout the league for his defensive prowess and knowledge of the game.
He was previously a linebackers coach with the Philadelphia Eagles and more recently, the defensive coordinator for the Bears and Chargers. It will be interesting to see how he fairs this season, along with the other new head coaches in the NFL, given the little time their teams have had to prepare as a result of the shortened offseason.
Over the last five years, new Head Coaches in the NFL have gone a total of 224-304 with a .424 winning percentage in their first season, but the lockout is sure to have a sluggish effect on the development and success of their new regimes, as indicated by the .244 winning percentage new Head Coaches accumulated following the 1987 player strike. Prior to the lockout, General Managers and Owners were generally hesitant to sign a high profile / high-priced Head Coach because of the uncertainty surrounding the future CBA. Of the teams with new Head Coaches, the Broncos were the only club to sign someone with Head Coaching experience, coincidentally, John Fox who previously coached the Panthers from 2002-2010, after serving as the defensive coordinator for the Giants under John Fassel.
The Panthers are somewhat of an exciting opponent for Giants fans having taken Cam Newton, a physical specimen with a competitive spirit, 1st overall in the 2011 NFL Draft. It is unclear how Newton will be utilized on Saturday, but he is currently second on the depth chart behind second year player and former second round pick Jimmy Clausen, who is slated to start on Saturday. There is a good chance Newton will take some snaps with the first team offense, and despite the ongoing competition at the quarterback position, Clausen has nothing but good things to say about his new teammate. “He’s a freak of an athlete… He does some things that are freakish,” Clausen told the Chicago Tribune. When Rivera was asked who his starting quarterback would be, come week 1 when they play the Cardinals he replied, “We will play it out until at least the third preseason game and then we'll discuss whether it's time. The reason we're doing it like that is so we can say it's this guy or that and then it's time to get him ready for the opener. We want to make sure each guy gets a fair shot to play the same amount of snaps. And then we will go from there.”
Another interesting dynamic surrounding this weekend’s matchup is seeing how Jeremy Shockey looks in aqua blue. The Panthers signed him after he was released by the Saints while also picking up another University of Miami tight end, Greg Olsen, formerly of the Bears. The two will be battling for the top spot on the depth chart and although Shockey is currently listed as the starter, the injuries that have riddled his career may create an opening for Olsen, or at the very least, considerable playing time. Bringing in two solid, pass-catching tight ends, who will serve as big targets for a young quarterback, was a smart move by Panthers management, as it will make Newton comfortable while also building his confidence. The Panthers have never been known to be strong at the tight end position; Wesley Walls is the only pro bowl tight end in franchise history, and he and Jeff Mangum are the only two to have over 1,000 career receiving yards.
Aside from drafting Cam Newton, the Panthers’ offseason is most known for the amount of money they dished out to their own players, specifically, defensive end Charles Johnson and running back Deangelo Williams. Johnson was given a colossal 6-year, $72 million contract with $32 million guaranteed, and although he had 11.5 sacks last year, he hasn’t recorded more than 6 in any of the other 3 seasons he’s been in the league, so the Panthers may have slightly over-reached here.
Williams on the other hand is a proven rushing threat, but many will and should question whether he is worth the 5-year $43 million ($21 million guaranteed) contract the Panthers signed him to. He has only rushed for 1,000 yards twice and although he had 18 touchdowns in 2008, his previous high is 7. Although he still has some years left in his prime, he is 28 and his career has been regularly disrupted by injuries; Williams has only played two full seasons out the five he’s been in the NFL. Additionally, the Panthers also have Jonathon Stewart and Mike Goodson, two solid players who combined for 1,222 yards in Williams’ absence. It will be difficult to distribute carries amongst the three and although Williams is a legitimate threat every time he touches the ball, that is a lot of money to give to a player who struggles with injuries and who has to share the work load with two young, talented running backs.
Ahmad Bradshaw is more valuable of the two at 25 years of age and with a 4-year $18 million contract with only $9 million guaranteed as opposed to what the Panthers spent on Williams. One could even argue that, all things aside, Bradshaw is more valuable than Williams at this point in both players’ careers. As mentioned earlier, Bradshaw is only 25 and after receiving the bulk of the carries last year for the first time in his career, he exceeded expectations, despite fumbling woes that almost killed Tom Coughlin. Still, fumbling is a part of the game and is easily fixable, and Bradshaw rushed for 1,235 yards, a number that Williams has exceeded only once in his career. Bradshaw is also known for fighting for extra yards, and this is reflected in his yards per carry average as he ran for 8.3 yards per carry in 2007, followed by 5.3 in 2008, 4.8 in 2009, and 4.5 in 2010.
One could argue that Bradshaw got shortchanged in terms of his contract with the Giants given what other free agent running backs such as Deangelo Williams received on the open market. Jerry Reese has depended way too heavily on the allure of playing in New York when it comes to negotiating with his own free agents and that has resulted in the departure of Steve Smith and Kevin Boss, leaving the Giants with a virtually non-existent tight end unit. I may be missing something here, but I can’t figure out why Reese hasn’t pulled the trigger on an Osi Umenyiora trade that would bring in a tight end who Manning can depend on. All he has been left with are big-play threats (Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks) and a solid running game, and until that changes, Reese’s playoffs guarantee may just be a fruitless attempt to make himself look like he had a plan, when in actuality he completely botched this entire offseason dating all the way back to when he grossly overpaid Rocky Bernard (4 years, $16 million with $6.9 million guaranteed) and Chris Canty (6 years, $42 million with $17.25 million guaranteed). Bernard’s deal alone is very close to what Kevin Boss got from the Raiders, and Canty’s deal is hauntingly close to what Deangelo Williams received. At least we have Steve Weatherford