New York Giants 2014 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Giants started last season 0-6, but they were able to finish the season 7-3 and end up at 7-9. A big part of that was that their turnover margin went from -16 in their first 6 games to +1 in their last 10 games. They still finished the season at -15 though, thanks to a 45.10% rate of recovering fumbles, in addition to a few other things. Fortunately, that type of thing tends to be really inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis, especially fumble recovery rates.

Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0. Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04.

Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well. They also had a league most adjusted games lost from injury and they added a significant amount of talent in free agency.

Given that, it might seem like I think the Giants are going to be significantly improved this season. I think they will, but that might not show up in their record. They went 7-9 but they had a -89 point differential, ranked 27th in DVOA, and 26th in rate of moving the chains. Their 7 wins came against opponents that finished a combined 42-68-2, 24-55-1 if you exclude the two playoff teams they beat who were starting backup quarterbacks (Green Bay with Scott Tolzien and Philadelphia with Michael Vick).

The biggest wild card for the Giants is whether or not Eli Manning can bounce back to form. Manning was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked quarterback in 2009 and 2010, 6th ranked quarterback in 2011, and 8th ranked quarterback in 2012. He completed 61.5% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 113 touchdowns, and 70 interceptions over those 4 seasons from 2009-2012. However, last year, he struggled mightily, grading out 30th out of 42 eligible, completing 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.93 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions.

That could just be a down year, but he’s also going into his age 33 season, so it’s a serious concern. His interception rate was 4.9% last season, which should fall back towards his career average of 3.4%. As I mentioned, turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis and interception rates tend to be so as well, given that interceptions occur on such a small percent of plays. It’s more accurate to evaluate a quarterback on things like YPA and completion percentage and Eli’s were much lower than they previously were at 57.5% and 6.93 YPA.

If Manning can bounce back, it’ll really help them, as their offense was the main problem last year. They moved the chains at a 64.92% rate (31st in the league), while their defense was actually solid, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 69.77% rate, 13th in the league. The Giants fired long-time offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride (who was in New York for Eli’s entire career, 2004-2006 as quarterbacks coach and 2007-2013 as offensive coordinator) and replaced him with Ben McAdoo, previously a quarterbacks coach in Green Bay, in an attempt to get Eli turned around. I’m skeptical of whether or not that happens though, as he moves into his mid-30s.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

One thing that would help Eli is if his offensive line could play better. They had 9 players play 100 or more snaps on the offensive line last season and only one of them graded out above average, as the team ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst in pass blocking grade. That one did was first round rookie Justin Pugh. Pugh struggled in pass protection, but he played well as a run blocker and graded out above average overall at right tackle. He could easily be better in his 2nd year in the league and improved as a pass protector.

The Giants also added Geoff Schwartz at left guard and Weston Richburg at center this off-season. Schwartz could easily be their best offensive lineman this season. Schwartz is one of the most underrated players in football and the Giants got a steal getting him for 16.8 million over 4 years with 6.2 million guaranteed. He played well in 2010 with the Panthers, in 11 games at guard and 5 games at tackle. His composite grade would have been 5th among guard and 13th among tackles on Pro Football Focus.

However, he missed the entire 2011 season with injury and was relegated to reserve work in Minnesota in 2012, impressing in limited action. In 2013 with the Chiefs, he played 549 snaps at left guard, right guard, and right tackle and his composite grade would have been 7th among guards and 15th among tackles, despite the limited playing time. Now that he’ll be a full-time starter, Schwartz has the ability to emerge as a top-10 or even a top-5 guard in the NFL.

Richburg, meanwhile, was their 2nd round pick and he could easily be their week 1 starting center. He’ll compete with free agent acquisition JD Walton for the starting job. Walton got 5 million over 2 seasons this off-season, but he’s not very good. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst center as a 3rd round rookie in 2010 and their worst center in 2011. In 2012 and 2013, he missed all but 4 games with an ankle injury and complications. Wichburg should beat him out, even as a 2nd round rookie, and if he can’t, it’s a concern.

The Giants have incumbents at left tackle and right guard to round out the offensive line, two players in William Beatty and Chris Snee, who are both coming off of disappointing seasons. Beatty was Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible last season and then broke his leg in the final game of the season. He’s expected to be ready for training camp, but that injury doesn’t help his chances of bouncing back. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, which got him a 5-year, 37.5 million dollar deal, but that’s looking like a mistake.

As good as his 2012 season was, he’s still just a one year wonder. He played a combined 1243 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. He’s had a history of injury problems and, while he was solid from 2009-2011, he has only once been as good as he was in 2012. Now coming off of another significant injury, his chances of bouncing back to 2012 form is really unlikely, but I do expect him to be better than he was last season.

Meanwhile, at right guard, Chris Snee is coming off of a season in which he struggled and missed 13 games with injury. Now going into his age 32 season, there is still concern that Snee isn’t healthy and his status for the start of the season is in doubt at the moment. He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked guard in 2012 and he has a history of dominance, grading out above average in 5 of 6 seasons from 2007-2012, including #1 in 2007, #2 in 2008, and #3 in 2009, but those days could easily be long gone, even if he can get onto the field.  There are rumors that he’ll announce his retirement in the next couple of weeks.

The Giants’ top reserve at right guard behind Snee is John Jerry, who was signed as a free agent to a near minimum contract. He’s started 32 games over the past 2 seasons in Miami, so he has experience, but he’s graded out below average in all 4 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. Still, he’s never been terrible and, as far as backups go, Jerry is a pretty good one. The Giants are in semi-competent hands if Snee can’t get on the field or needs to be benched. It’s an improved offensive line, but there are still a lot of issues.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Giants also kind of remade their receiving corps this off-season. Hakeem Nicks is gone, after the once dominant wideout saw his abilities sapped by injury and graded out below average last season. To replace him, the Giants used their first round pick on Odell Beckham, a wide receiver from LSU. He’s talented, but rookie wide receivers rarely do anything. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies.

Beckham will probably start the season as the 3rd wide receiver and guys like Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan will get bigger roles as a result of Nicks’ absence. Randle was a 2nd round pick in 2012 who graded out above average on 250 snaps as a rookie and below average on 589 snaps last season. He’s caught 60 of 108 targets (55.6%) for 909 yards and 9 touchdowns on 580 routes run in his career, an average of 1.57 yards per route run. The Giants will be hoping for a 3rd year breakout year from him.

Jerrel Jernigan, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2011. He played a combined 41 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he was very good on 221 snaps last season, catching 29 passes on 42 attempts (69.0%) for 329 yards and a touchdown on 147 routes run, an average of 2.24 yards per route run. He’s still unproven, but he’s shown himself deserving of a bigger role. He’s currently the 4th receiver, but he could see 300-400 snaps, rotating with Randle and Beckham. We’ll see how he handles it this season.

Victor Cruz remains as the #1 wide receiver and an every down player. He also moves to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets. The undrafted free agent from the University of Massachusetts in 2010, Cruz didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Over the past 3 seasons though, he’s caught 241 passes on 376 attempts (64.1%) for 3626 yards and 23 touchdowns on 1541 routes run, an average of 2.35 yards per route run. He hasn’t been quite as good as his numbers have suggested, grading out 28th on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 44th in 2012, and 44th in 2013, but he’s still a very solid wide receiver.

The bigger issue for the Giants is at tight end. 2013 starter Brandon Myers wasn’t very good, but he’s gone and so is talented blocking specialist Bear Pascoe. They didn’t replace either of them. Adrien Robinson is penciled in as the starter. He’s incredibly athletic (6-4 264 4.58), but he was incredibly raw when the Giants drafted him in the 4th round in 2012 and he’s played just 3 snaps in 2 seasons, including none last season. The off-season reports about him haven’t been that great either.

The problem is their competition for him isn’t much better. Larry Donnell is the only tight end who played a snap for the Giants last season who remains on the roster, but the 2012 undrafted rookie struggled mightily on 109 snaps in his first season of NFL action. Kellen Davis and Daniel Fells are the veteran options, but neither is likely to make a positive impact. Fells is going into his age 31 season, after being out of the league last season and playing 308 snaps as a blocking specialist in 2012. Davis, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked pass catching tight end in 2012, catching 19 passes on 44 attempts (43.2%) for 229 yards and 2 touchdowns on 362 routes run, an average of 0.63 yards per route run. He also dropped 8 passes. Last season, he played just 156 snaps. There isn’t anything resembling a starting caliber tight end here.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Giants also added a new starting running back this off-season, signing Rashad Jennings to a 4-year deal worth 10 million with 2.98 million dollars guaranteed to come over from Oakland. Jennings was impressive last season, taking the starting job away from the struggling Darren McFadden mid-season. He rushed for 733 yards and 6 touchdowns on 163 carries, an average of 4.50 YPC, and also added 36 catches for 292 yards, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked running back overall, on 567 snaps.

The issue is that he’s a one year wonder. He didn’t play a snap in 2011 thanks to injuries and then rushed for 283 yards and 2 touchdowns on 101 carries in 2012, 2.80 YPC. In his career, he’s rushed for 1677 yards and 13 touchdowns on 387 carries (4.33 YPC), catching 97 passes for 746 yards. He’s never played all 16 games in a season and has only played 53 out of a possible 80 games in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 7th round in 2009. He’s also already going into his age 29 season, after being 24 years old when he was drafted. The Giants are counting on him to be a” bell cow” feature back, but there are no guarantees obviously.

If Jennings doesn’t work out, the Giants have Andre Williams, who they drafted in the 4th round of this past draft. David Wilson is the wild card of the bunch. Wilson was drafted in the first round in 2012 and, after 358 yards and 4 touchdowns on 71 attempts as a rookie (5.04 YPC), Wilson was set to become the feature back in 2013 with Ahmad Bradshaw gone and Andre Brown injured. However, he had issues with fumbling and then suffered a significant neck injury, so he was limited to 146 yards and a touchdown on 44 attempts, an average of 3.31 YPC. He’s expected to be good to go for 2014, but he’s a serious injury risk, he’s fumble prone, and he only has 121 career touches, so it’s really tough to know what to expect from him going into his 3rd year in the league, even if he was a high draft pick.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Giants had a ton of injuries last season. The biggest injury was to Jason Pierre-Paul, who had back and shoulder problems. JPP didn’t miss that many games, missing 5, but he was a shell of his normal self, grading out just about average on 583 snaps, grading out below average as a pass rusher and above average as a run stopper. Jason Pierre-Paul has 9 sacks over the past 2 seasons combined, after 16 sacks in 2011, but he’s only had one down year.

In 2012, he had only 7 sacks, but he also had 4 hits and 45 hurries, giving him a solid 10.7% pass rush rate on 523 pass rush snaps. He was even better against the run and overall graded out 3rd overall on Pro Football Focus among 4-3 defensive ends. That’s actually better than his 2011 breakout year, when he graded out 6th at his position. He wasn’t as good against the run and he only had a 9.7% pass rush rate, with 16 sacks, 14 hits, and 26 hurries on 580 pass rush snaps. JPP is expected to be 100% this season and, only going into his age 25 season, he has a very good chance to bounce back and be a top defensive end again.

The Giants will need him to be because they lost Justin Tuck, who had a vintage year last year, stepping up in JPP’s absence, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Tuck is now in Oakland. To replace him and the 896 snaps he played last season, the Giants will be giving a bigger role to 2nd year defensive end Damontre Moore and they added Robert Ayers through free agency. Moore was a 3rd round pick of the Giants in 2013 and struggled on 136 snaps as a rookie. How he’ll fare in a larger role is completely unknown at the moment.

Ayers, meanwhile, comes over from Denver. Robert Ayers was a bust as the 18th overall pick in 2009 because he never developed beyond being a solid rotational player, but he’s still a solid rotational player. He had his best season in his contract year in 2013, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive end, excelling against the run, ranking 6th at his position in that aspect. He only played 514 snaps and he’s never been as good as that in the past, but it was still an impressive season from him. He At 6-3 274, he’s a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but he also has the ability to move inside and play some defensive tackle in sub packages as sort of a Justin Tuck-lite for the Giants.

Mathias Kiwanuka will also play some snaps, though not as many as he did last season, when he played 892 snaps and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 42 eligible. He’s never been that terrible, but he’s going into his age 31 season and he graded out below average in 2012 as well, playing at 4-3 outside linebacker that season. The hybrid was Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 43 eligible in 2012. He’ll play a situational role as a 4-3 defensive end this season.

Along with Justin Tuck, the Giants also lost Linval Joseph to free agency this off-season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked defensive tackle last season. He’ll be replaced by promising youngster Johnathan Hankins, a 2013 2nd round pick who excelled on 195 snaps as a rookie. Despite the limited playing time, he still would have been Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle if eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better than him, both as a run stopper and overall. He’s still unproven and he struggled as a pass rusher, but, at the very least, he should be solid in base packages.

The Giants also have a pair of veterans at the position in Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson. Jenkins is going into his age 33 season and has seen his abilities decline over the past 2 seasons, grading out below average in 2012 and about average in 2013, doing so on 718 snaps last season. He’ll remain the starter, but he could easily see fewer snaps this season. Patterson, meanwhile, is going into his age 31 season and has graded out below average in each of his last 2 seasons, doing so on 413 snaps last season. He’ll have a backup role again this season and could be pushed by 3rd round rookie Jay Bromley. Most likely, Bromley will have to wait for 2015 for a bigger role, when Patterson could be gone as a free agent and when Jenkins could be a cap casualty, owed 2.2 million non-guaranteed going into his age 34 season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

As many injuries as the Giants had last season, one of their most injury prone players held up for the whole season. That player is Jon Beason, who they acquired from Carolina mid-season. After missing 27 of 32 games from 2011-2012 with a variety of injuries, Beason only missed 1 game last season and played in 12 of 12 games with the Giants. However, he suffered a foot injury this off-season and could miss the first month of the season, very concerning when you consider his injury history. That could really put him behind the 8-ball.

He’ll be replaced in the meantime by Jameel McClain, who has struggled mightily in each of the last 2 seasons. He was Pro Football Focus’ 41st ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible in 2012 on 753 snaps with Baltimore. The Ravens only played him on 376 snaps in 2013, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He graded out above average in every season from 2009-2011, but those days seem behind him. He should struggle in every down work in the middle in Beason’s absence.

Beason won’t be much better though. He graded out above average in 3 of his first 4 seasons in the league from 2007-2010, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked middle linebacker in 2009 and getting a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal before the 2011 season, but he’s not the same player after dealing with all those injuries. He was demoted to two-down work in Carolina upon his return and then benched completely and traded to the Giants for a late round pick.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible with the Giants last season, including 52nd out of 55 eligible in coverage. The popular narrative by people who just look at tackle totals is that he got his career back together last season, but he’s simply not that kind of player any more. The Giants overpaid him on a 3-year, 16.8 million dollar extension this off-season. Things won’t be better for him as he comes off of a serious foot injury and after missing all of training camp, the pre-season, and the first month or so of the season. He’s also a significant re-injury risk.

McClain is expected to play a two-down, base package role outside when Beason is healthy, which is probably a better fit for him. The Giants also have Spencer Paysinger and Jacquian Williams, who played 707 and 622 snaps respectively last season, both grading out about average. One of them will probably be an every down player at outside linebacker this season. Paysinger is probably their best bet. Both were rookies in 2011, Paysinger an undrafted rookie and Williams a 6th round rookie. Paysinger only played 187 snaps in his first 2 years in the league, but he flashed on those 187 snaps. Williams, meanwhile, played 814 snaps over those 2 seasons and struggled. He should have a more limited role than Paysinger this season. Both will see the field at the same time frequently when Beason is hurt.

Grade: C+

Secondary

I mentioned in the opening that the Giants added a lot in free agency this off-season. The area they added the most to was their secondary. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was their biggest addition, signing a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal. That’s a risky move considering his inconsistent history, but it could pay off if he plays his best. A 2008 1st round pick, DRC made the Pro-Bowl in 2009 and looked on his way towards cementing his place as one of the league’s best cornerbacks, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback that year.

However, 2010 was the exact opposite for him, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ dead last ranked cornerback, which turned him into a throw-in to Philadelphia in the Kevin Kolb trade. His tenure in Philadelphia wasn’t good, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 84th ranked cornerback out of 109 eligible in 2011 and 91st ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible in 2012 as part of a massively disappointing Philadelphia secondary. That earned him a one-year prove it deal in Denver, worth about 4 million dollars, but he did prove it, grading out 6th among cornerbacks. There’s no guarantee he doesn’t struggle and coast now that he’s gotten paid though.

Prince Amukamara remains as the opposite starter. He only played 144 snaps as a rookie because of injuries, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons as a starter. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked cornerback in 2012 on 741 snaps (missing another 3 games with injury) and then was even better, grading out 34th on 1108 snaps in 2013. The Giants picked up his 5th year option for 2015 and he could have his best year in the NFL this season. He’s a solid young player.

On the slot, the Giants have another free agent acquisition, Walter Thurmond. I was concerned that someone would overpay Thurmond, after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback last season on just 480 snaps, dominating on the slot, ranking 7th in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks, allowing 0.85 yards per coverage snap on the slot on 229 snaps. He’s still a one year wonder, playing a combined 590 snaps in 2010-2012 after going in the 4th round in the 2010 NFL Draft. He’s only played a combined 1070 snaps in 4 years in his career. He has a significant injury history, dating back to his collegiate days. He also is only proven on the slot, not outside, and doesn’t have much experience without Seattle’s dominant defense around him.

The Giants didn’t overpay for him though, giving him 3 million over 1 season. The fact that it’s a one year deal means that there won’t be long-term issues with this deal if he gets hurt, proves to be a one-year wonder, or struggles without Seattle’s supporting cast. He joins a team that has two starting outside cornerbacks. It’s also inexpensive enough that the Giants aren’t committing a ton of money just to a slot cornerback. In the short-term, there are no guarantees he continues to be a dominant slot cornerback, but he could easily be solid in that role this season in a part-time role.

The Giants also brought back Stevie Brown this off-season to a 1-year prove it deal worth 2.775 million. Brown was a big part of their 2012 defense, but missed all of last season with a torn ACL. The 2010 7th round pick only played a combined 163 snaps from 2010-2011, but broke out in 2012 with the Giants, intercepting 8 passes and playing 846 snaps. He wasn’t quite as good as the 8 interceptions would suggest because you can’t go just on pure interception totals, but he was still an above average safety on Pro Football Focus, grading out as their 27th ranked safety in 2012.

He’s still a one year wonder and he’s coming off of a serious injury that could sap his explosiveness this season, which is why a one-year prove it deal made a lot of sense, but he could easily be an asset for them this season. He’ll essentially replace Will Hill. He won’t be nearly as good as Hill though, after Hill was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked safety last season. The supremely talented Hill went undrafted in 2011 because of character concerns. Hill showed that supreme talent last season, but he’s also shown his character concerns, getting arrested once and suspended three times since entering the league. He was suspended for 6 games for 2014 this off-season and the Giants waived him. Despite his talent, he went through waivers unclaimed, which suggests the league might just be done with him. Either way, Brown is likely a downgrade.

The other starting safety will continue to be Antrel Rolle. Rolle was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked safety last year, but that’s not typical for him. He graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons since 2007-2012, bottoming out in 2011, when he graded out 85th out of 87 eligible safeties. He’s now going into his age 32 season, which makes it even less likely he’ll repeat what he did last season. I expect average play from him at best, though this is overall a solid secondary on a defense that has a good chance to remain an average stop unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Giants were one of the worst teams in the league last season, worse than their record. They should be an improved team this year with fewer injuries, a better turnover margin, and talent coming in this off-season through free agency. However, that might not necessarily show up in their record as they weren’t as good as their 7-9 record suggested last season. Eli Manning is the wild card here, given how important the quarterback position is. If Manning continues to decline, the Giants could be one of the worst teams in the NFL. I’ll have an official wins prediction for the Giants after I do every team’s write up.

Prediction: 5-11 3rd in NFC East

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