EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Eli Manning and the New York Giants’ defense carried them to their second Super Bowl title in five seasons. They need to step up again to repeat.
Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and most of the defense will be back when the Giants arrive at training camp at the University at Albany on Thursday. But Manning and the offense will be looking for a lot of answers despite coming off the most productive season in franchise history in terms of yards gained.
There are a lot of holes to be filled.
Right tackle Kareem McKenzie was not re-signed. Starting tight end Jake Ballard, doubtful for this season after suffering a major knee injury in the Super Bowl win over New England, was claimed on waivers by the Patriots after the Giants waived him injured. Backup tight end Travis Beckum also hurt his knee in the title game and is questionable for the start of the season.
While Ahmad Bradshaw is back as the starting running back, Brandon Jacobs signed with San Francisco, so the backup job is open.
Wide receiver also is a concern. Hakeem Nicks broke his right foot in minicamp and No. 3 receiver Mario Manningham bolted to the 49ers in free agency.
It all leaves offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride with jobs to be filled as the Giants return from an offseason highlighted by a parade down New York’s ‘Canyon of Heroes,’ a trip to the White House, and seemingly endless opportunities to make money with promotional appearances.
The positive, of course, is Manning has shown he can make the offense go no matter who is in the lineup.
“We’re excited to get back to work,” guard Kevin Boothe said. “It’s similar to the first day of school when growing up. I like shorter vacations because that means we played until February.”
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, whose unit gave up 400 points in the regular season and 56 in four postseason games, won’t have to change much. The only offseason losses were starting cornerback Aaron Ross and backup lineman Dave Tollefson.
There are plenty of options at cornerback.
Terrell Thomas, the starter until suffering an ACL injury in the preseason, is the logical choice to take over for Ross if his right knee is ready. Prince Amukamara, the 2011 first-round draft pick slowed by foot injuries should contribute more in his second season. The Giants have high hopes for Jayron Holsey, their third-round pick from Virginia Tech.
The defense, which had 48 sacks last season, has one of the NFL’s deepest lines with Pierre-Paul, Tuck and a happier Osi Umenyiora now that his contract has been reworked. The trio combined for 30½ sacks, with Pierre-Paul getting 16½ in a breakout second season.
General manager Jerry Reese added veteran tackle Shaun Rogers and also acquired linebacker Keith Rivers in a deal with Cincinnati.
The linebacking corps should also benefit from having Chase Blackburn in the middle all season. He wasn’t re-signed until Nov. 30 last season, then starred down the stretch and in the playoffs.
The Giants gained a team-record 6,161 yards and scored 47 touchdowns, the sixth highest total in team history, a year ago. Manning, the two-time Super Bowl MVP, was the catalyst, throwing for a career-best 4,734 yards and rallying the team five times from fourth-quarter deficits to victory.
Getting the rest of the offense set is a concern, starting with the line.
New York gained an NFL-low 1,427 yards rushing, an 89.2 yard average, and there are changes coming without McKenzie, a fixture at right tackle since 2005.
David Diehl, arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in New York last month, is tentatively scheduled to move from left tackle to McKenzie’s spot, with Will Beatty returning to left tackle. Beatty was the starter last season until an eye injury ended his year, forcing the versatile Diehl to move over from left guard.
Chris Snee and Boothe will be the guards and David Baas returns as the center. Veteran tackle Sean Locklear was signed in the offseason to help.
The tight end spot is the biggest concern with Beckum uncertain. Even if Beckum is healthy, he is more a receiver than a blocker. Former Cowboy Martellus Bennett was signed and will compete with veteran Bear Pascoe and rookie Adrien Robinson, a fourth-round draft pick from Cincinnati who didn’t catch many passes in college.
There are plenty of candidates to replace the bruising Jacobs, led by No. 1 draft pick David Wilson of Virginia Tech. Veteran D.J. Ware is back and the Giants have hopes for Da’rel Scott, the second-year player from Maryland who has shown breakaway speed.
Nicks hopes to be ready for some action in the preseason, but the receiving burden initially will fall on Victor Cruz, the salsa-dancing former free agent, Cruz stunned the league in his second season with 82 catches for a franchise-record 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns.
Second-round pick Rueben Randle of LSU was impressive in the minicamps and looks like he might contribute right away. Veteran Dominek Hixon is back after missing most of the season with a knee injury, and this is the year for young receivers Ramses Barden and Jerrel Jernigan to step up.
“I’m not worried about Hakeem,” Boothe said in an email. “He’s a fast healer, and he looked pretty good five weeks ago walking around. It will be different on the O-line without Kareem, but we have the talent to be successful. We just have to be more consistent.
“Our tight ends are talented, and I am excited to play with Martellus,” Boothe added. “Brandon is missed as well. Great teammate and locker room presence. Ahmad has stepped up as a more vocal leader, and I think (Jacobs’) production will be absorbed by the other backs.”
The special teams are set with kicker Lawrence Tynes (100 points) and Steve Weatherford, who had three punts inside the 20 in the Super Bowl.