EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If there was one thing the Giants wanted to make clear after their first regular-season practice on Monday, it's that, "We're a better team than we were a year ago," as Pat Shurmur said. No Odell Beckham, no Landon Collins? It's no problem to them.
Yes, they were 5-11 last season so that bar isn't particularly high. And yes, there is an element of, "What else are they supposed to say?"
But the Giants really do seem to believe in addition by subtraction, that by removing a handful of big-name stars they've been able to build a better team -- no matter what the outside world thinks.
"I like the way we've built our team," Shurmur said. "I like some of the personnel changes we've made. I think we're a better football team now -- and this is a team sport."
Is Shurmur delusionial? Maybe. There are certainly a lot of people who think so, even a few inside the league. The expectations are pretty low for a Giants team that most people view as being in transition. Few think their rebuilding project is complete.
But here's the thing: There's also a decent chance that Shurmur is right. There are good reasons why he and his players believe the critics are in for a surprise. The Giants are not a Super Bowl contender, and even reaching the playoffs could be tough. But they really could be a lot better than they were last season.
Eli Manning should thrive behind a professional offensive line.
It took longer than general manager Dave Gettleman thought it would, but they have actual players now in four of the five spots along the offensive line, and they're pretty sure that the fifth spot -- with center Jon Halapio returning from injury -- won't be a weakness. Adding guard Kevin Zeitler and tackle Mike Remmers were significant offseason moves.
And if you drown out the noise of people who think Manning is "done" and actually look at his performance last year, you'll see he was pretty good despite some terrible blocking in front of him. Did he dump off passes too much? Sure. But why? Because the line was always breaking down in front of him.
He looked more comfortable in the pocket this summer, and his teammates and coaches agree. He still has the arm. He still has the accuracy. And once he gets used to the idea that he won't always be running for his life, he could have a very good year.
Evan Engram can be a 'matchup nightmare.'
That's what wide receiver Sterling Shepard called him, and the Giants seem ready to use him that way this season. Their passing offense doesn't have to run through one guy anymore, which should give Shurmur and Manning the freedom to be a little more creative -- especially when it comes to their speedy tight end.
There's no doubt Shepard and running back Saquon Barkley will get their share of catches. But if Engram stays healthy, his contributions could be huge.
Remember, Engram had 45 catches for 577 yards and three touchdowns in only 11 games last season. That's really only scratching the surface of what he can do.
There is some pass-rushing potential.
There was a lot of hand-wringing over the Giants' decision to trade away their best pass rusher, Olivier Vernon. But he really wasn't all that good for the Giants. Granted, he's probably more talented than the players he left behind. But he didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare.
There are huge expectations for second-year linebacker Lorenzo Carter, and the Giants believe new linebacker Markus Golden is primed for a breakout year. They also think rookie Oshane Ximines could surprise some people. And they love their defensive line - particularly with rookie defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence in the middle. No, there aren't any real stars -- yet. But there are pieces there for defensive coordinator James Bettcher to work with.
Barkley is a true impact player.
Beckham is extremely talented and one of the best receivers in the NFL, but receivers don't usually lead teams to Super Bowls. Quarterbacks do. And so do running backs.
Enter Barkley, who had 261 carries for 1,307 yards, 91 catches for 721 yards and 15 total touchdowns as a rookie last season. On a bad team. Behind a bad offensive line. In an offense that too often ran through Beckham. Now the line is better and he's the clear focal point of Shurmur's scheme. Maybe his numbers won't jump dramatically, but his presence and ability could change everything for the Giants. With teams focusing on him, things could open up for everyone else.
And he's also, quite possibly, already the NFL's best running back. So even if defenses do focus on him, he's still got the ability to completely change games.
"Team" does matter. A lot.
Shurmur was clear in emphasizing how the Giants are a better team. That speaks to the "culture" overhaul he and Gettleman did this offseason. And if that sounded like a shot at Beckham … well, let's just say the Giants' coaching staff and front office are enjoying the peace and quiet from his departure. It's been a controversy-free summer.
I mean, if you thought Beckham didn't like Manning last year, imagine the headlines this summer if Beckham were still here catching passes from rookie quarterback Daniel Jones.
With this team, with many stars gone, there is at least the appearance of harmony. It seems genuine, too. There are no apparent locker room factions. No one is wondering who is on what side. They all really do seem united around one goal.
And yes, in football -- the ultimate team sport -- that could make all the difference in the world.