Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Next 17: the Giants without Plaxico Burress

The Giants began their offseason workout program on Monday. While many did attend, including some of the Giants’ new offseason acquisitions, the expected absence of Plaxico Burress provides fans with another unnecessary reminder that the Giants still face a major conundrum this offeason: who's going to catch the football next year.

After Plaxico Burress's infamous "shot heard 'round the nightclub," the Giants struggled to produce on the same level offensively last season and as a result, made a premature exit from the playoffs. With Burress’s status still unknown as his trial approaches at the end of the month, the Giants have big hole to fill on offense if they want to recover their early-season form of 2008. The Giants need a “number 17.”

The Waiting Game

The outcome of Burress’s trial will be the major factor in deciding how this situation plays out. If Burress avoids jail time and is available to play next season, signs indicate that he will be back. The management and staff publicly have left the door open for Plax’s return, and his teammates have also vocalized their desire to see him back. As big a moron as Burress seems at times, last year revealed just how valuable he is to the Giants. I think if he avoids a prison sentence, he will be back in blue.

That being said, Plax faces an uphill struggle in my opinion. I’m not sure how someone whose unlicensed gun goes off and then falls out of his pants in a public place, as he’s writhing on the ground in the pain, is not guilty of unlawfully carrying a gun. “Did someone else tuck a pistol into your sweatpants, Mr. Burress?” As obvious as the facts might seem, one should never underestimate the power of an expensive lawyer…

But then what?

But let’s assume - as the Giants are - that the Super Bowl XLII hero will not be available. The Giants will need a new number one receiver. Where to find one presents a tricky puzzle.

Four viable solutions stand out for Big Blue to fill number 17’s shoes: 1) Develop the young receivers on the roster to fill the void; 2) Sign a veteran free agent receiver; 3) Select a WR in the early rounds of the draft; 4) Trade for top-flight talent.

The Young Guns

Developing the young talent already on the roster is certainly a priority for the G-men, however it may not be the best solution to the Plaxico problem. Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon, Sinorice Moss, and Mario Manningham - three of whom were college standouts and high draft picks – are all talented young players who have had varying levels of success in their first few seasons in the league.

They will inevitably have to step up next season, regardless of what happens to Burress, as it looks the Giants will also be saying goodbye to former starter Amani Toomer. Hixon is probably the leader right now to take over Toomer’s spot. Steve Smith would start as well, without Burress in the line-up. (He would most likely move to the slot – where he excels - in multiple wideout formations.) Developing into a solid replacement for an aging veteran and developing into a defense-altering deep threat are two different things.

Last year this group not only struggled to execute in Burress’s absence, but also seemed to struggle under the burden of the increased roles that came with it. It’s easy to be an effective role player alongside one of the most dynamic receivers in the league, but can one of these talented young players emerge as anything more than a solid number 2 guy? Perhaps an entire offseason to prepare will make a difference…

Calling All Free Agents

The Giants could bring in a veteran free agent to sure up the ranks of the receiving corps. Big names like Marvin Harrison and recently released Tory Holt are available, and perhaps even Amani Toomer could be convinced of returning in a more limited role. (While this is unlikely, I think Toomer does have some gas left in the tank and could be a mentor to the younger players, much like Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters were for the secondary last year.)

This is probably the least likely and least appealing option of the four. First, the Giants don’t have the cap space for another big signing, and the price for a Harrison or Holt will be too high. Second, these players are nearing the ends of their careers. They are no longer the dominating players they once were, and at this point I think such an addition would be like adding another second level weapon. It wouldn’t be worth it, and it wouldn’t be cost effective.

Youth over Experience?

Would adding a top-level receiver in the draft be the solution then? First of all, I think one way or another, the Giants will add a receiver in the draft. The real question is whether they do so on the first day (three picks in the first two rounds), or - if they find a guy they really like - if they trade up for a receiver.

Without question, this is a deep class of talented receivers, and with the current shortage of wide outs on the Giants’ roster right now, I am confident that Jerry Reese and Tom Coughlin will draft someone at the position. That said, I do not know that adding a talented rookie would resolve the Burress situation either. History shows (and the Giants have some first-hand experience) that wide receiver is the hardest position for players to acclimate to in the pros. I’m very skeptical, not that the Giants can’t add a contributor in April’s draft, but that they can find their new number one threat ready to make an impact on Day 1.

Trading Places

The final alternative then would be to trade for a veteran number one receiver. Personally, this is the most appealing option for me, though I think it is probably not the most likely. Keep in mind: it would only happen in the event Burress does not return to the team. People may be quick to bring up the lack of salary cap room, but in a trade scenario the Giants would be operating without Burress’s contract to consider.

Cardinals' WR Anquan Boldin is a bad, bad man.

Two names - among others - that have been circulating the past few months are Anquan Boldin and Braylon Edwards, both are Pro Bowl playmakers who could have an immediate impact for Big Blue. There are pros and cons to both, and I don’t want to delve too deeply into that here. (I’ll save that for if and when a trade takes place.) Both could be dynamic additions to the Giant offense.

The Next 17

The picture will certainly become clearer by the time April rolls around. For the time being however, it looks to me like the Giants will rely on their existing young receivers to rise to the challenge and embrace a bigger role next season, and seek to support the current crop with some talent in the early rounds of the draft. Despite the poor showing last year, I think this could be a viable solution in the event Burress does not return.

One theme surrounding this Giants’ team the past few years has been its ability to move on after the departures of prolific players, and the capacity for young talent to fill the subsequent void. 91 did it for 92, 27, 34 and 44 did it for 21, and 89 may even be better than 80. We’ll have to wait and see if history holds a similar fate for 17.

Back at ya soon,


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