New York Giants 2015 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

At this time last year, there was a good deal of concern about Eli Manning. He was coming off of a season in which he had a 69.4 QB rating, worst since his rookie, as he completed 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.93 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions. He graded out below average on Pro Football Focus for the first time since their origin in 2007, grading out 30th out of 42 eligible quarterbacks. Seemingly making matters even worse, Manning had a new offensive coordinator coming in for the first time since 2007 and he was reportedly having a lot of issues with Ben McAdoo’s new system during the off-season.

Instead, the results were strong. Manning finished the season completing 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.34 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He graded out 18th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and finished 15th in QB rating among eligible quarterbacks. Going into his age 34 season, the days of him grading out 8th among quarterbacks in he did in 2012 or 6th like he did in 2011 are probably done, but he could easily still be in the top half of starting quarterbacks this season and grade out above average once again. In his career, he’s completed 59.0% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 259 touchdowns and 185 interceptions, while making a league best 167 consecutive regular season starts, 178 if you include the playoffs.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Manning was able to have his bounce back year despite having a bunch of injuries around him on offense. Injuries weren’t exclusive to the offense last season, as they finished with the most adjusted games lost in the NFL, a good sign that the Giants should be better this season, after finishing 18th in rate of moving the chains differential last season (17th on offense, 21st on defense) and finishing with a 6-10 record. A big part of Manning’s success last season was rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham, despite the fact that he missed 4 games to start the season and most of the off-season with hamstring problems.

Beckham finished the season with 91 catches for 1302 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing valuable off-season time and doing so in just 12 games. That’s incredible and virtually unheard of for a rookie. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Transitioning from being a collegiate receiver to an NFL receiver is really tough, even for the most talented of players. Only 11 rookie wideouts have had a 1000+ yard season in the last 20 years. 1302 yards in 12 games is absurd.

Beckham’s 108.8 yards per game led the NFL. And it wasn’t like Eli was just forcing him the ball as he was targeted just 129 times (14th most in the NFL), catching 70.5% of them for 91 catches, that as opposed to just 2 drops. Beckham also caught 12 touchdowns and only 2 balls intended for him were intercepted. Eli had a 127.6 QB rating throwing to Beckham this season, 4th best among eligible wide receivers, meaning Eli’s quarterback rating was 35.5 points better when throwing to Beckham than it was overall, the best margin by an eligible wide receiver this season. Beckham’s 2.74 yards per route run were also 4th in the NFL. For his efforts, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver as a rookie, including 2nd in pure pass catching grade, meaning he basically played at an All-Pro level, despite missing 4 games with injury. If you take out the first 4 weeks of the season, he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver both overall and in pass catching grade.

Beckham was even better down the stretch as he started to get a feel for the offense. Beckham had 85 catches for 1233 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final 10 games of the season and 60 catches for 842 yards and 9 touchdowns in the final 6 games of the season. The latter translates to 160 catches for 2245 yards and 24 touchdowns over a 16 game season, which would break all sorts of records. Even Beckham isn’t good enough to put up those kinds of numbers, but it’s just another reminder that Beckham could easily be more productive in his 2nd season in the league in 2015. It’s usually hyperbolic to say that someone with 12 career games played is one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position, but, in this case, it’s true.

Beckham’s breakout year was especially valuable for the Giants because Victor Cruz missed the final 10 games of the season with injury. Remember how good Beckham’s numbers were in the final 10 games. Cruz had just 23 catches for 337 yards and a touchdown in 6 games, grading out below average on 382 snaps before going down, but he was also the Giants’ leading receiver in every season from 2011-2013 and a team leader in the locker room, so his injury really did hurt them. He totaled 241 catches for 3626 yards and 23 touchdowns from 2011-2013 and graded out 26th, 42nd, and 40th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus during that stretch, all above average.

Cruz is somewhat miraculously expected to be ready for the start of training camp, after tearing his patellar tendon last October, which would be a 9 month recovery.  A torn patellar tendon is about as bad as it gets because the patellar tendon is far larger than any knee ligament. When you tear it, your kneecap gets dislodged and shoots up into your thigh because the patellar tendon is what holds the kneecap in. It’s also what surgeons use to make new knee ligaments when you tear one. The history of guys who tore their patellar tendon and then returned to form is basically none existent.

I believe the optimistic reports, but the Giants should consider 12 games as the #3 receiver on the slot for Cruz in 2015 a win and hope for 2016 and beyond. Still, he should be more productive for the Giants than he was last season and he should be better than Preston Parker, a journeyman who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible on 605 snaps last season. We never truly got to see Beckham and Cruz on the same field last season as Beckham was still working his way back in the 2 games he played with Cruz last season. We might not truly see that this season either, but the possibility certainly exists.

Rueben Randle should be the #2 receiver opposite Beckham again this season. Randle quietly had a mini-breakout year last year in his 3rd season in the league, after the Giants drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012. He caught a career high 71 passes for a career high 938 yards and 3 touchdowns and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked wide receiver on 987 snaps, most by a Giants wideout. His career progression has been promising, as he flashed on 250 snaps as a rookie, graded out slightly below average in 2013, but played 589 snaps, and then had the best season of his career in 2014. Only going into his age 24 season, Randle should once again have a solid season in 2015 and could push for the first 1000+ yard season of his career.

Tight end Larry Donnell also had a decent season as a receiver, catching 63 passes for 623 yards and 6 touchdowns, grading out only slightly below average as a pass catcher, a pleasant surprise from a 2012 undrafted free agent who had played 109 nondescript snaps in his career prior to 2014. Donnell probably won’t be as productive of a pass catcher this season, especially if Cruz returns and allows the Giants to regularly use 3-wide sets.

His numbers took the biggest hit from Beckham’s return to the lineup as he had 25 catches for 236 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season and then just 38 catches for 387 yards and 2 touchdowns in the final 12 games. He also graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked tight end out of 67 eligible in blocking grade last season, causing him to grade out 54th out of 67 eligible overall. The 6-6 269 pounder has the frame to be a good blocker, but hasn’t shown it yet. He’s a marginal tight end, but you can do a lot worse as a 4th receiving option.

Daniel Fells was the #2 tight end last season, grading out above average on 434 snaps, primarily due to his blocking abilities. He’ll have to hold off Adrien Robinson, a 2012 4th round pick who has just 80 career snaps in 3 seasons, but flashed as a blocker on 77 snaps last season. With Fells going into his age 32 season, Robinson could easily beat him out. Whoever wins the job probably won’t see a lot of action though, as the Giants figure to use more 3-wide sets at the expense of 2-tight end sets. It’s a healthier and subsequently improved receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Giants also had a significant injury on the offensive line as right guard Geoff Schwartz was limited to 93 snaps in 2 games by injuries, in the first year of a 4-year, 16.8 million dollar contract. Schwartz played exclusively at right tackle last season because Justin Pugh was hurt during those 2 games. He has the versatility to play right tackle, having played there earlier in his career, and he played well in limited action there last season, but the Giants ultimately see him at right guard. Even after last year’s lost season, he still has the potential to be a steal on that 4-year deal.

Schwartz has always been good when on the field, grading out above average in every season of his career in which he’s played a snap, dating back to his rookie year in 2008. In 2013, he graded out 9th among guards and, in 2010, he graded out 18th among guards. The problem with him has always been injuries. He’s played all 16 games just once in his career and, between last season and 2011 (when he missed the whole season with a hip problem), he’s essentially had two lost seasons because of injuries. If he can stay on the field, Schwartz’s return should be a big boost to this offensive line.

As I mentioned earlier, the Giants had the most games lost due to injury last season. That type of thing does tend to even out in the long run, but it’s hard to explain that to Giants fans as they have somehow managed to have the most games lost to injuries in the NFL in 2 straight seasons. If the Giants can be healthier this season, they could be a lot better, but the odds of that don’t look good right now as Will Beatty tore his pectoral this off-season and is expected to miss at least the first 6 weeks of the season. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Giants will have a lot of other injuries again this season, but Beatty will be missed. He’s made 57 starts over the past 4 seasons, including 47 starts over the past 3 seasons, and he’s graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons. While he struggled in 2013, grading out 64th among 76 eligible, he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in 2012 and then ranked 14th last season.

In his absence, rookie Ereck Flowers, the 9th overall pick in the draft, will start at left tackle. He could do alright there, but he’ll still be a downgrade from Beatty. Besides, he was drafted to be the starting right tackle, at least immediately, moving Justin Pugh inside. Now with Beatty hurt, it’s unclear if he’ll still be moving inside. Pugh hasn’t been bad at right tackle in 2 seasons since the Giants drafted him in the first round in 2013, grading out slightly above average as a rookie and then slightly below average last season, but the Giants like him better inside. If he’s staying outside, that makes left guard a big problem.

John Jerry started 16 games at right guard last season and would be the likely starting option at left guard if Pugh moves back outside, but he was terrible last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked guard out of 78 eligible. The 2010 3rd round pick has never graded out above average in his career. 2014 2nd round pick Weston Richburg was the starting left guard last season, but he’s not a real candidate to play there this season as he’s permanently moved back to his natural position of center. The Giants don’t have another starting option at center and Richburg struggled out of position last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 62nd ranked guard out of 78 eligible. The Giants are hoping he can bounce back from that in his 2nd year in the league back at his natural position. The Giants’ offensive line will get a boost with Schwartz returning and rookie Ereck Flowers coming in, but the Beatty injury really hurts.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

In addition to serious injuries suffered by Geoff Schwartz, Odell Beckham, and Victor Cruz last season, the Giants were also without lead back Rashad Jennings for 5 games, in the first season of a 4 year, 10 million dollar deal he signed last off-season. In his absence, 4th round rookie Andre Williams really struggled, rushing for 721 yards and 7 touchdowns on 217 carries on the season, a 3.32 YPC, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 49th ranked running back out of 57 eligible. Jennings wasn’t exactly better though, also grading out below average and rushing for 639 yards and 4 touchdowns on 167 carries, an average of 3.83 YPC. As a result, the Giants finished 30th in team YPC, averaging 3.57 yards per carry on the season. Part of the problem was an offensive line that ranked 26th on Pro Football Focus in team run blocking grade, an area they should be better this season, but there’s no denying that Giant running backs did not play well.

Jennings is unlikely to bounce back this season. The 167 carries he had last season still were a career high, as the 2009 7th round pick has just 554 carries, largely working as a backup at best for most of his career. He’s averaged an underwhelming 4.18 YPC for his career on those 554 carries. On top of that, he’s going into his age 30 season and has graded out above average just once in 6 seasons in the NFL. His only redeeming quality is that he’s caught 66 passes in 26 games over the past 2 seasons, showing good hands for a 6-1 231 pounder.

The Giants added Shane Vereen as a free agent this off-season, signing him to a 3 year, 12.35 million dollar deal. The 2011 2nd round pick was primarily a passing down back in New England for the first 4 years of his career, but the Giants apparently see him as much more than that. With serious issues at the position, it’s worth giving him a shot. The speedy 5-10 203 pounder has graded out above average as a pass catcher in each of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league and he had 99 catches in 24 games over the past 2 seasons in the Kevin Faulk/Danny Woodhead role in New England. His career 4.18 YPC average on 217 carries is underwhelming, but, like I said, it’s worth a shot to give him more carries.

At the very least, Vereen gives them a strong passing down back and an open field weapon out of the backfield, unlike anything they had last season. Williams, meanwhile, will be a pure backup to both Jennings and Vereen on early downs and should have a drastically reduced role this season after leading the team in carries and snaps played at the running back position last season. That’s for the best, as, in addition to struggling as a runner, he’s completely useless as a pass catcher with 18 catches as a rookie (on 28 targets) and 10 catches in his entire career at Boston College. Their running game should once again struggle to be an adequate complement to a strong passing game.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As you can imagine, the Giants’ injuries were not limited to the offense last season. On the defensive line, their biggest one was Robert Ayers, who went down for the season with a torn pectoral. Ayers only missed 4 games, but he was great when on the field and the Giants were finally just getting around to giving him the playing time he deserved when he went down, as his final game of the season was also his first start of the season. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end, despite playing just 386 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position. 2014 was definitely the best season of the 2009 1st round pick’s career, but him having success is definitely not unprecedented. Ayers had graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in his career, including 3 straight and a 2013 season in which he finished 14th among 4-3 defensive ends. With Mathias Kiwanuka (57th among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season on 558 snaps) gone, Ayers should be the starter and could have a very strong season on 600-700 snaps.

Jason Pierre-Paul will be the other starter. JPP was able to bounce back from a down 2013 season in which he dealt with serious back problems all season, grading out 7th among eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season. He’s graded out above average in all 5 seasons of his career and, with the exception of that injury plagued 2013 season, he’s been very dominant recently, finishing #6 among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, #3 in 2012, and then last year’s #7 finish. Only going into his age 26 season with his back problems behind him, JPP should have another strong season in 2015, playing on the 14.813 million dollar franchise tag, setting him up for a huge payday in free agency next off-season.

The Giants’ top two reserves at the position are George Selvie and Damontre Moore. Selvie was signed to a cheap 1 year, 1.4 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, coming over from Dallas. The 2010 6th round pick played just 424 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career, but flashed on 238 snaps in 2012 and then saw his snap count rise to 762 in 2013 and 515 in 2014, grading out only slightly below average in both seasons, playing well against the run, but struggling to get consistent pass rush.

Moore, meanwhile, has graded out slightly below average in each of his first two seasons in the league since being drafted in 2013, doing so on 136 snaps as a rookie and then 326 in 2014, though he did grade out above average as a pass rusher last season. The Giants’ signing of Selvie suggests they don’t see him as ready for a bigger role, outside of being a situational passer. The 6-5 250 pounder might just not be big enough to ever be anything more. His skill set does complement Selvie’s well though, as they compete for snaps behind JPP and Ayers.

Inside at defensive tackle, the Giants have another very talented defensive lineman, Johnathan Hankins. After flashing on 195 snaps in 2013 as a 2nd round rookie, Hankins got a chance to be the starter in 2014 and dominated, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked defensive tackle on 700 snaps. Though he’s 6-2 320, Hankins isn’t just a big run stuffer as he graded out well above average as both a run stopper and a pass rusher last season. Hankins should remain an every down player.

Cullen Jenkins was the other starter last season. He graded out above average, as he has 7 times in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history, but he was limited to 366 snaps in 12 games. A significantly better pass rusher than run stopper, Jenkins should be limited to situational work as he goes into his age 34 season. The problem last season was their depth at defensive tackle was abysmal. Mike Patterson, who made starts last season when Jenkins was hurt, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 73rd ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible on 429 snaps, while Markus Kuhn finished 78th out of 81st eligible despite playing just 254 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position.

Patterson is gone and remains unsigned as a free agent going into his age 32 season, while Kuhn is not expected to have a big role this season. The Giants signed Kenrick Ellis as a free agent this off-season for depth purposes. A 2011 3rd round pick, Ellis was buried on the depth chart with the Jets for the first 4 years of his career, never playing more than 239 snaps in a season, but he definitely flashed, grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons, excelling as a run stopper. At 6-5 330, he’s purely a base package player, but he should have a career high in snaps this season and his skill set complements Cullen Jenkins’ well. The Giants are also hoping that 2014 3rd round pick Jay Bromley, who graded out below average on 113 snaps as a rookie, is ready for a bigger role this season. This defensive line should be better this season simply because Ayers is healthy and Kiwanuka, Patterson, and Kuhn won’t play big roles. Led by Ayers, JPP, and Hankins, this is quietly one of the best defensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The big injury at linebacker last season was to Jon Beason, their starting middle linebacker who was limited to 162 snaps in 4 games by recurring toe problems, in the first season of a 3-year, 16.8 million dollar deal that the Giants re-signed him to last off-season.  This shouldn’t have been a surprise though as Beason missed 28 games with injury from 2011-2013. His healthiest season, by far, came in 2013, when he played 15 games, which is why the Giants re-signed him long-term. However, even that season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. Beason used to be a good player, but injuries have sapped his abilities and he hasn’t graded out above average since 2010. Even if he can stay on the field this season, his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to be an asset, particularly not in coverage. The Giants brought him back this off-season only because he agreed to a pay cut and because they didn’t have a better option.

Jameel McClain was Beason’s replacement inside last season, but he struggled mightily, grading out 51st out of 60 eligible middle linebackers. He’s expected to move to outside linebacker and compete with incumbent Devon Kennard for the two-down outside linebacker role. Kennard is a limited coverage athlete at 6-3 251, but he graded out above average on 338 snaps as a 5th round rookie last season in that two-down role, primarily focusing on stopping the run. He should be the heavy favorite to keep that job, moving McClain into a reserve role. McClain hasn’t graded out above average since 2011 and is unlikely to get any better in his age 30 season in 2015.

At the other outside linebacker spot, JT Thomas is seen as the favorite after signing a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season, coming over from Jacksonville. Thomas, a 2011 5th round pick, played 202 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league before playing 729 snaps last season. Thomas struggled mightily in 434 snaps at middle linebacker, grading out 55th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers, so, while he actually graded out above average on 295 snaps as an outside linebacker last season, his history doesn’t really instill a lot of confidence that he’ll be a good 3-down outside linebacker. He’s never graded out above average in his career. The Giants simply don’t have another choice, especially after overpaying him in free agency, because both Kennard and reserve Mark Herzlich are not good in coverage and McClain is best suited for a reserve role. It’s a weak linebacking corps overall.

Grade: C-

Secondary

If you’re sensing a theme here, yes there was a significant injury in the secondary as well, as cornerback Prince Amukamara went down with a torn biceps mid-season and missed the final 8 games of the season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback when he went down last season and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback on 464 snaps. The 2011 1st round pick has graded out above average in 3 straight seasons since his rookie season.

He’ll play his age 26 season in 2015 on a 6.898 million dollar salary after the Giants picked up his 5th year option last off-season. If he can stay healthy, he should be in line for a fairly sizable contract next off-season, though it’s worth noting that he’s played 8 or fewer games in 2 of 4 seasons in the league, thanks to last year’s injury and a serious foot injury he suffered as a rookie that limited him to 7 games that season. He’s missed 20 games in 4 seasons in the league, so there’s reason to at least be somewhat concerned about his long-term durability.

When he’s on the field, Prince Amukamara will serve as the 1A cornerback to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie’s 1B, or vice versa depending on how you want to look at it. They’re comparably good corners. DRC was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback last season, in the first year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal. That’s not as good as he was in 2013 with Denver, when he graded out 6th, but the Giants will definitely take that from him every year. He could be better this season in his age 29 season because he dealt with a variety of nagging injuries all last season. He didn’t miss any games, but, often playing on a snap count, he was limited to 767 snaps on the season and even came off the bench once.

The Giants also have to be pretty happy that DRC seems to have put his early career inconsistencies behind him. From his rookie year in 2008, when he was a 1st round pick by the Cardinals, through 2012, he graded out 63rd, 4th, 100th, 84th, and 91st respectively, before playing very well over the past 2 seasons. The 6-2 193 pounder has always had talent, but there have been some questions about his effort in terms of staying in shape, playing physical, and providing run support, all of which he’s been better about recently. Those were the reasons he had to “settle” for a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal last off-season while cornerbacks like Vontae Davis, Brent Grimes, and Aqib Talib all received more lucrative contracts. The Giants took a risk signing him, but they have to be happy about how this deal has played out so far, considering he’s the 19th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average salary.

The slot cornerback job is completely up for grabs though. Walter Thurmond started the season there last year, but ended up playing just 2 games before going down with injury and then signed in Philadelphia as a free agent this off-season. The Giants had a bunch of different cornerbacks see significant snaps at the position because of injuries, including Zackary Bowman (458), Chykie Brown (375), Mike Harris (224), and Trumaine McBride (215).

McBride was the #3 cornerback last season after Thurmond went down, though he too suffered a season ending injury, going down week 6. He was also the #3 cornerback in 2013, playing 621 snaps, and is reportedly seen as the favorite for the #3 job this season. The 2007 7th round pick is a late bloomer, as he’d never graded out above average in his career until 2013 and he was out of the league entirely in 2009, 2011, and 2012. However, he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, including 24th in 2013, though he’s going into his age 30 season. The other three cornerbacks are still in the mix for the job, but they’ll likely end up providing depth, if they even make the roster. Mike Harris was the only one of the other 3 to grade out above average last season.

The Giants are hoping that solid cornerback talent can mask a huge problem at safety. Antrel Rolle, Quintin Demps, Stevie Brown were their top 3 safeties last season and they all left as free agents this off-season. The Giants used a 2nd round pick on Landon Collins to fill one of the starting spots, though he could struggle as a rookie. Meanwhile, the other spot is a major hole, where 2013 5th round pick Cooper Taylor (5 career snaps), Nat Berhe (32 career snaps), and 5th round rookie Mykele Thompson will compete for the starting job. They’re all highly unlikely to turn into a solid starter. It’s a weak position in a back 7 that is weak outside of the cornerback position. The Giants will have to hope their strong front 4 can prop the up the back 7.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

As I’ve strongly hinted at, the Giants’ success is going to be highly dependent on whether or not they can stay healthy, something they haven’t come close to doing in recent seasons, finishing worst in adjusted games lost in each of the last 2 seasons. This type of thing tends to even out in the long run, but the Giants do have more than their fair sure of injury prone players. They should be at least somewhat healthier this season and if they can have average to above average health, they have a good chance to make the playoffs for the first time since their Super Bowl winning season in 2011. The NFC East is wide open with the Eagles completely retooling this off-season, the Cowboys vulnerable, and the Redskins a ways away. The Giants definitely have major weaknesses, but they also have significant strengths at quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, and on the defensive line. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Giants after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: 7-9 3rd in NFC East

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