EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There are no more first- and second-team line shifts. The preseason is over. This is the real deal Sunday night when the New York Giants play the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.
The best players (barring injury) log much heavier workloads now. There is no more preserving players like the Giants did this preseason with quarterback Eli Manning and running back Shane Vereen. Manning's going to play for as long as the game and he can go on Sunday night. Vereen will play more than the few snaps he saw here and there throughout the preseason.
Since it's the first game and many aren't sure what to expect from the Giants against the Cowboys, here's position-by-position playing time projections:
It’s Manning’s show. The way it has worked the past 12 seasons is nobody else gets to start or play much at all. He's making his 200th career regular-season start.
Paul Perkins is the primary back. He’ll start and receive the most carries. But the Giants and coach Ben McAdoo like to use a stable of backs. Vereen returns after an injury-filled year as the primary passing-down back. Even though Perkins is serviceable as a pass catcher, he doesn’t run the routes or have the same caliber of hands. Vereen should play a substantial role in the Giants’ pass-heavy offense. Veteran Orleans Darkwa also threatens to be part of the mix, especially in short-yardage or goal-line situations. He could take some touchdowns away from Perkins this season.
The Giants may not use 11 personal (one running back and three wide receivers) quite as much this year. Instead of it being 90-plus percent, it may be 80 percent. That is still plenty of plays with three wide receivers, and will mean plenty of opportunities for Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall and Sterling Shepard. When healthy -- Beckham’s status is in the air for Sunday -- they will log almost all those snaps. With Beckham struggling to be ready for the Cowboys, expect Roger Lewis’ playing time to spike. He should play a lot on Sunday night if Beckham is unable to go as Tavarres King just recently returned from an ankle injury as well.
Rhett Ellison will start. He will be the Giants’ tight end when they’re in their base package. First-round pick Evan Engram will play plenty, too. The Giants will run more two-tight-end sets this season, and it should mean that there will be a total of 80 tight-end snaps to be spread around between Ellison, Engram and Jerell Adams or Matt LaCosse (usually in blocking roles). It wouldn’t be surprising to see it come out to a 55-35-10 split, with Engram seeing the most time of the bunch, Ellison taking the 35 percent and Adams/LaCosse corralling the rest.
The Giants' starting offensive line will be (from left to right) tackle Ereck Flowers, guard Justin Pugh, center Weston Richburg, guard John Jerry and tackle Bobby Hart. Jerry is going to start even though Brett Jones popped in there for a bit this preseason. Offensive line coach Mike Solari confirmed this on Friday. Jerry would likely have to struggle for several weeks before a change is made. The Giants signed him to a new deal this offseason for a reason. The bigger question is: What will the Giants would do if Flowers plays poorly early this season or gets injured? Is undrafted rookie Chad Wheeler next (likely) or would the Giants move Pugh to tackle?
Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon will play a lot. Maybe not as much as last year, with defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo noting earlier this week they have to make sure it’s not 80 snaps per game so they can keep them healthy. When Pierre-Paul and Vernon occasionally come off the field, Romeo Okwara is next in line, followed by Kerry Wynn. The latter two will also be used as interior pass rushers in defensive sub-packages. Rookie Avery Moss will likely be inactive against the Cowboys.
Damon Harrison is the unequivocal starter. Jay Bromley will likely be next to him after returning as a full participant in practice earlier this week. He was dealing with a knee injury, but had separated himself from the competition after a strong summer. Rookie Dalvin Tomlinson should also receive his fair share of snaps as part of the Week 1 defensive tackle rotation. The interior pass rush will likely be coming from the defensive ends shifting inside.
The Giants will start B.J. Goodson in the middle, Jonathan Casillas on the weakside and Devon Kennard on the strongside. With Keenan Robinson out with a concussion, Goodson and Casillas are likely to be three-down linebackers. They should start in the base defense and remain on the field on passing downs, meaning they’ll be tasked with covering Cowboys tight end Jason Witten most of the game. Witten has given the Giants fits over the years. Kennard could be used occasionally as a pass rusher, but it won’t be much. He had one sack last season. Calvin Munson and J.T. Thomas will serve as key special teams players and backups. Munson will be the reserve middle linebacker, Thomas the backup weakside linebacker and it’s possible Okwara is the contingency plan for Kennard after playing some on the strongside in the preseason.
The Giants' top three cornerbacks haven’t changed from last season. Janoris Jenkins starts on the outside and will likely be matched against Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant. Jenkins held him to two catches for 18 yards in two meetings last season. Eli Apple will start on the outside opposite Jenkins. He’s recovered from an ankle injury and looking to make a jump in his second season. He’ll be matched mostly against Dallas’ Terrance Williams. Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie will handle the slot, where he will face Cole Beasley, who had just 106 yards on 16 targets against the Giants last season. Michael Hunter (concussion) should serve as the fourth cornerback after returning to practice this week and Ross Cockrell, acquired via trade last weekend, is still learning the defense.
Landon Collins starts at strong safety and Darian Thompson will be the free safety. This is what the Giants envisioned last year before Thompson’s season was ruined by injuries. They’ll play 100 percent of the snaps, with Andrew Adams potentially being used in some dime and three-safety looks. Adams will also be a key special teams player, including the fullback on punts. Nat Berhe should contribute on special teams and be the backup to Collins at strong safety.