Some thoughts on a weird Giants year!

By | January 6, 2021

What a weird year. And we’re not just talking covid here. Let’s review the major developments in the Giants’ season. Their second-year QB was not able to elevate his game to the next level as had been hoped; they lost their best player and only real explosive playmaker early in the second game of the season; they got almost nothing in the way of chunk plays from the rest of their skill players; their young offensive line, which started two rookies, played a third and had a third-year UDFA at C who’d never played a down at the position in his life, was still very much a work in progress; they got almost no pass rush at all from their edge rushers; and their coverage unit was generally over-matched against opponents’ receivers from just about every team they played. And they still came within an outright tank by the Eagles in the final game of the season of making the playoff! Of course, there is an asterix here in that this was in the NFC East, one of the least divisions in NFL history. Still, hands up everyone who figured the Giants would be in the hunt at all this year, especially after they started the campaign at 1-7. But they rallied and won 5 of their final eight games to, if nothing else, give some hope for the future.

Much of the credit for the Giants’ resurgence over the second half was driven by the defense, so let’s start there. As noted, there were some major structural issues with the defense, but the fact is that the unit got some solid production from a bunch of players. Indeed, DT/DE Leonard Williams, MLB Blake Martinez, and CB James Bradberry each played at a Pro Bowl level, while DTs Dexter Lawrence and Dalvin Tomlinson and safeties Jabrill Peppers and Logan Ryan were all solid. In fact, one could make a pretty good case that the Giants’ had one of the best interior defensive line rotations in the league, while their safety rotation was also pretty good, especially when FS Xavier McKinney returned from injury late in the season.

And despite those structural issues on the defensive side of the ball, DC Patrick Graham, who thankfully the Giants were able to extend for another 2 years earlier this week, was able to put together a scheme that worked. For the year, the Giants ranked 12th in the NFL in total offense and 9th in points allowed. What the Giants did was stop the run and they got a consistently solid pass rush from the interior of the defensive that while it didn’t always got there, at least collapsed the pocket on a pretty regular basis. Meanwhile, the secondary stayed in a soft zone pretty much all year that did allow a lot of completions, but gave up very few big plays. The DBs also did a nice job coming up, making the tackle and for the most part limiting YACs. What they did was make other teams earn their points.

Still, it could be a frustrating defense to watch – and it must have been frustrating to play – much of the year. In sitting back in their soft zone because they just didn’t have the manpower at CB to play much man-to-man, the Giants allowed opposing QBs to complete almost 70% of their pass attempts and were 25th in the league in 3rd down defense. Of course, it didn’t help that the Giants got very little production from their ERs who had a grand combined total of 8.5 sacks on the year. Most teams would want their top edge rusher to at least be in double digits by himself so the fact that Giants didn’t get their as a group makes it kind of doubly disappointing.

Defensive MVP: Kind of a no-brainer that Leonard Williams is our pick for the Giants DPOY. In fact, he was the Giants MVP period this year. Shifting from DT to DE depending on the situation, Williams led the team with a career high 11.5 sacks and was quite simply unblockable at times. In fact, during the final month and a half of the season, Williams was regularly facing double, and even the occasional triple, teaming as other teams cottoned on to what he was up to. And going forward this off-season, getting Williams resigned will be Job 1 for the Giants. Meanwhile, you don’t hear as many of those ‘WTF was Gettleman thinking’ when he traded a couple of picks for Williams two years ago and then franchised him this past winter. Honorable mentions: MLB Blake Martinez and CB James Bradberry; again more no-brainers!

As well as the defense played this fall, the offense to be honest well sucked! The Giants averaged a measly 17.5 points per game this fall which would have been 32nd and last in the league were it not for the guys in green across the hall. QB Daniel Jones, who had an outstanding rookie year in 2019, went through something of a pronounced sophomore slump this fall, although the sense one gets is that the organization is still really high on him. Meanwhile, there was a lot of what could go wrong went wrong on the rest of the unit. RB Saquon Barkley was lost for the year after tearing an ACL in the second week of the season; the WRs struggled to get much in the way of separation; TE Evan Engram couldn’t catch a cold; and the young offensive line went through a series of growing pains. Otherwise things were good!!

Offensive MVP: It may be a testament to how bad things were for the Giants’ offense this year that RB Wayne Gallman was probably the unit’s most valuable player. Gallman didn’t even get the first call when Barkley was injured, but gradually emerged as a reliable back who kept the chains moving. Gallman isn’t going to give you the big-play capacity that one gets from Barkley, but he averaged a very respectable 4.6 yards a carry and scored 6 times. Honorable mentions: It’s probably a further indictment of the offense that the only real other contender for the offensive award was PK Graham Gano who was pretty much automatic this year. However, we would be remiss if we didn’t also mention C Nick Gates who got better every week this season as he got more comfortable in the job; plus he played with a truly feisty, in-your-face attitude that would have made the old ‘Suburbanites’ proud. It may also be something of a testament to how random building a football team can be in that after all the draft resources the Giants have thrown at the OL in the past decade, their best lineman is a former undrafted free agent who’d never ever taken a snap at his current position.

Where to from here for the offense: While a lot of questions remain re the offense, the good news is that there is a lot of potential in the unit. Of course, the ‘P’ can also be a bit of a curse, but the fact is the Giants aren’t necessarily starting from scratch here.

And of course, it all starts with QB Daniel Jones. The expectation was that Jones would take a couple of steps closer to establishing himself as an NFL franchise QB this fall, but it didn’t happen as Jones appeared to be stuck in neutral. In the end, most of his metrics this year were pretty close to last year with the major exception of TD passes which fell from 23 to 11. Certainly, it wasn’t all Jones’ fault, but when you offense is 31st in the league in scoring fingers are naturally going to be pointed at the QB. However, there were some signs of progress with Jones this year. He appeared to clean up the turnover issue in the second half of the season; indeed he only had one pick over the final month and a half of the season (and that was a result of an outright drop by Engram on Sunday against the Cowboys) to finish with ten on the year. (Quick trivia: Which was Eli’s first full year with less than ten picks? Hint: it’s a trick question! Eli never had less than ten picks in a full-season in his career.) And Jones’ completion percentage (62.6%) is close enough to where you’d like it to be. Again, remember that Eli didn’t get to 63% until his 11th season! Clearly, though, what one wants to see from Jones in 2021 is greater pocket awareness as he has the physical tools, but the natural instincts are still a work in progress. No question that 2021 will be huge for Jones. In summary, when thinking about Jones’ career path, we are reminded on an old-time baseball G.M. who surmised that ‘the one thing worse than keeping a player too long is giving up on a player too early!’ Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, the rest of the unit is full of potential and potential question marks. Can Saquon Barkley come back at something close to 100% next fall. He did get a break in the sense that the injury happened early enough that he’ll have almost a full year to rehab. And they do some amazing things in surgery these days, but we are still talking about a knee and it doesn’t take much to cost you a half a step that can be the difference between a 6-yard gain and a 60-yard burst. Stay tuned!

It certainly didn’t help the Giants that it appeared that both Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard, their top two WRs, were banged up much of the year. Get those two guys healthy and add a couple more receivers in the draft and/or free agency and you have the makings of a much more explosive offense. Certainly both John Mara and Dave Gettleman made it pretty obvious that finding some weapons for the offense is the #1 objective for the off-season. And it’s a good year to be in the market for offensive weapons as WR is arguably the draft’s deepest position, while it’s likely that there will be a number of big-name WRs available in free agency. Stay tuned.

It is also going to be intriguing watching how the offensive line develops over the next year. Certainly, it appears there is plenty of potential – there’s that word again – in the offensive front that at times played four first-year starters this fall. LT Andrew Thomas, the 4th player selected at the 2020 draft, for example, had an up-and-down year that ended very much on a high note. Same for C Gates who was arguably the Giants most consistent OL over the final half of the season. One thing we wouldn’t mind seeing would be for the Giants try rugged LG Shane Lemieux at C where his lack of athleticism wouldn’t be as exposed as much as it is at OG. Meanwhile, you could consider sliding Gates to wherever he’s needed most at OG or OT, although we note that teams hate to move a guy, especially a young one, when he’s just found a comfort zone at his original spot.

The draft: There will be plenty of time of talk draft particulars over the next three months. However, one can make a number of preliminary observations. Most notably, the Giants almost assuredly played themselves out of a shot at either of WRs DeVonta Smith of Alabama or LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, the two elite receivers in this year’s draft, as a result of Sunday’s win over Dallas. However, there’s a pretty good chance, especially if as expected there is an early run on QBs, that the Giants will still get a shot at least some of the top non-QB prospects they were originally looking at earlier this year when they looked like they would have a top 5 pick. Better, each of these elite prospects which could include Penn State LB Micah Parsons, Alabama CB Patrick Surtain, and explosive Florida TE Kyle Pitts would address a major need in the Giants’ arsenal. Stay tuned!