New York Giants 2016 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For the first time since 2003, the Giants will have a new head coach on the sideline other than Tom Coughlin, who went 110-93 in 12 seasons in New York (including playoffs) and won 2 Super Bowls, but was let go this off-season after 4 straight seasons missing the playoffs. That means that, for the first time in his career, Eli Manning, now going into his 13th year in the league, will have a new head coach. The good news for him is that the Giants replaced Coughlin internally, promoting Ben McAdoo, who has been the Giants’ offensive coordinator for the past two seasons.

This was clearly a move made with Manning in mind; not only does Eli not have to learn a new system, but he’ll get to stick with the offensive coordinator who helped revitalize his career. Manning had easily the worst season of his career in 2013, completing 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.93 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions. However, since McAdoo came in the following off-season, Manning’s career has had a second life, as he’s completed 62.8% of his passes for an average of 7.26 YPA, 65 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions over the past 2 seasons. That was definitely a huge part of the Giants’ decision to name McAdoo head coach.

The days of Manning finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked quarterback, like he did in 2012, or their 6th ranked quarterback, like he did in 2011, are probably over, and, as he heads into his age 35 season, it’s time for the Giants to start preparing themselves for life after Manning. However, he is still a solid quarterback, finishing 18th among quarterbacks in 2014 and 26th (out of 38 eligible) in 2015 and he’s still plenty productive in McAdoo’s system. I don’t expect a huge dropoff for Manning this season, but you can’t rule it out at this stage of his career, so it’s worth noting that his backup is 2013 4th round pick Ryan Nassib, who has thrown just 10 passes in his career.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

With Eli going into his mid-30s, the Giants really need to play well around him to be legitimate contenders again. That’s been a big issue for them as they’ve missed the playoffs for 4 straight seasons. Tom Coughlin got a lot of the blame, but equally, if not more, blame should fall on the front office led by GM Jerry Reese, who kept his job. The Giants entered the off-season with one of the weakest rosters in the NFL, as they had a lot of players scheduled to hit free agency from a roster that wasn’t great to begin with. Fortunately, the Giants had as much cap space as any team in the league this off-season, so the opportunity for improvement was definitely there.

One area that the Giants needed to address this off-season and didn’t was the offensive line, particularly the right side of the offensive line. Marshall Newhouse struggled in 14 starts at right tackle last season, finishing 68th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles. At right guard, Geoff Schwartz began the season as the starter and played well, grading out 20th among guards, but was limited to 673 snaps in 11 games by injury and was ultimately released this off-season after 2 injury plagued seasons in New York. That leaves John Jerry atop the depth chart at right guard and he struggled on 655 snaps last season, finishing 56th out of 81 eligible.

Both Newhouse and Jerry have plenty of experience, as Newhouse has made 50 starts in 5 seasons in the league and Jerry has made 69 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but neither of them have ever been played well. Both are underwhelming starting options, but they might be the best options they have, as the Giants inexplicably didn’t add a single offensive linemen this off-season. It’s possible that 2015 7th round pick Bobby Hart could beat out either Newhouse or Jerry for one of those starting jobs on the right side, but he struggled on 155 snaps as a rookie, so he’s not a great option either.

Things are much better on the rest of the offensive line though, especially at left guard and center, where Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg were dominant. Pugh, a 2013 1st round pick, was a league average starting right tackle in the first 2 years of his career, but the Giants decided to move him inside last off-season and were greatly rewarded for that decision, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked guard last season. That move also allowed them to move Weston Richburg, who struggled mightily at left guard as a 2nd round rookie in 2014, back to his collegiate position of center, where he finished the 2015 season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked center. Both are still one-year wonders, but they’re also both young and could easily have dominant seasons again in 2016.

At left tackle, Ereck Flowers did really struggle last season, finishing 74th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles, but the Giants obviously still have high hopes for the #9 overall pick in 2015. Only going into his age 22 season with incredible upside, he could be a lot better in his 2nd year in the league in 2016, though that’s far from a guarantee. He’s easily the biggest question mark on this offensive line and whether or not he puts it together this year could be the difference between this being a good offensive line and a bad offensive line this season.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Wide receiver was another position of need heading into the off-season for the Giants, as Rueben Randle was heading into free agency and ultimately signed with the division rival Eagles, after 32 starts over the past 3 seasons with the Giants. Randle was largely an unspectacular player for the Giants, but they didn’t have a clear internal replacement. That changed when they drafted Oklahoma wide receiver Sterling Shepard in the 2nd round. Rookie receivers can take a year or two to get adjusted to the speed of the NFL, but Shepard will have a chance to start right away, both because of the Giants’ lack of depth at the position and because Shepard is a very talented player in his own right. Despite falling to the 2nd round, he was Pro Football Focus’ #23 ranked draft prospect because of his strong route running ability.

Shepard will compete with Victor Cruz for the starting job opposite #1 receiver Odell Beckham, with the loser of that battle starting the year as the 3rd receiver. Cruz used to be the Giants’ #1 receiver, but he’s missed the last 26 games with leg injuries, started by a torn patellar tendon suffered early in the 2014 season. The list of guys who have come back from a torn patellar tendon as good as they were before is basically non-existent, as that injury is about as bad as lower body injuries get, and Cruz is also already heading into his age 30 season, which complicates matters.

Cruz is obviously a huge question mark and I don’t expect him to ever be the same, but he could be a decent receiver for them this season if he can stay on the field. Either way, Shepard seems like the favorite after a strong off-season and could see a good amount of balls thrown his way as a rookie. He’s a darkhorse for Offensive Rookie of the Year. That leaves Cruz, when healthy, as the 3rd receiver, where he should still be an upgrade over Dwayne Harris, a kick returner who was overmatched as the 3rd receiver last year, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 93rd ranked wide receiver out of 121 eligible.

As I mentioned, Odell Beckham is locked in as the #1 receiver. The 12th overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft, Beckham is already one of the best wide receivers in the league and doesn’t even turn 24 until November. In 27 games, Beckham has caught 187 passes for 2755 yards and 25 touchdowns, while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver in 2014 and their 11th ranked wide receiver in 2015. It’s very possible that his best football is still ahead of him, which should be scary for the rest of the league. Along with Ben McAdoo coming in, Beckham is much of the reason why Eli has been able to bounce back over the past two seasons.

Shepard wasn’t the only pass catcher the Giants added in the draft, as they used a 6th round pick on Jerrell Adams, a tight end out of the University of South Carolina. Adams is unlikely to be much of a factor as a rookie, but tight end is a position of weakness for the Giants, so he could have an impact long-term. In the short-term, Larry Donnell and Will Tye should compete for the starting job, with the loser of that competition starting the year as the 2nd tight end. Donnell, a 2011 undrafted free agent, had a mini breakout year in 2014, catching 63 passes for 623 yards and 6 touchdowns, but caught just 29 passes for 223 yards and 2 touchdowns in 8 games last season before going down for the season with a very serious neck injury.

Donnell is expected to return healthy this season, but that’s far from a given and the Giants might prefer Tye anyway. Tye, a 2015 undrafted free agent, caught 34 passes for 387 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 8 games of the season after Donnell went down. He’s younger, healthier, and better, with more upside. He’s a sleeper candidate to finish 2nd on the team in receiving behind Beckham, on a team without a clear 2nd option. Beckham will have to carry this passing game again, though he’s more than capable of doing that.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Running back is another position that the Giants needed going into the off-season. Lead back Rashad Jennings wasn’t terrible last season, rushing for 863 yards (4.43 YPC) and 3 touchdowns on 195 carries (largely on par with his 4.24 career YPC). However, he wasn’t great either and he’s going into his age 31 season. On top of that, those 195 carries he had last season were a career high, largely because of injuries, as he’s missed 32 games in 7 years in the league; last season was actually the first season in his career in which he played all 16 games, something that might not continue this season.

Andre Williams has been the primary backup to Jennings over the past 2 seasons, but the 2014 4th round pick has struggled mightily, rushing for 978 yards and 8 touchdowns on 305 carries (3.21 YPC) and only catching 19 passes. Because of that, the Giants used a 5th round pick on UCLA running back Paul Perkins and let Williams go ahead of final cuts. Perkins could end up being an absolute steal, considering he was Pro Football Focus’ #49 ranked overall prospect. He’ll have an opportunity for playing time as a rookie. He’ll be Jennings’ primary backup.

Shane Vereen, meanwhile, is locked in as the passing down back. He’s rushed for just 1167 yards and 7 touchdowns on 278 carries (4.20 YPC) in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011, but he’s not someone who gets playing time for his rushing ability. Where he provides value to the team is as a pass catcher, as he’s caught 148 passes in 40 games over the past 3 seasons with the Giants and Patriots. One of the better passing down backs in the NFL, Vereen could have 60+ catches out of the backfield this off-season.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

While the Giants looked to the draft to add at positions of need on offense, they filled many of their defensive needs with big free agent signings, particularly on the defensive line. Going into the off-season, the Giants’ defensive line was very bare, with Jason Pierre-Paul, Robert Ayers, and Cullen Jenkins all heading into free agency (3/4 of the Giants starting defensive line). However, after spending huge money, the Giants now have one of the better defensive lines in the NFL.

Jason Pierre-Paul was the only player of those three that the Giants re-signed. JPP has been dominant whenever he’s been healthy in his career, finishing #6 among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, #3 in 2012, and #7 in 2014. However, it was unclear if the Giants would re-sign him this off-season, because he may never be 100% again following a fireworks accident on the 4th of July last year that left Pierre-Paul without part of his right hand. Pierre-Paul impressively made it back for the final 8 games of the season and didn’t play badly, finishing 30th among edge players on Pro Football Focus, but it was clear that he wasn’t the same.

Ultimately, it made too much sense for JPP to return to New York; they knew his medical situation better than any team in the league and if they didn’t want to bring him back it would have sent a big signal to the rest of the league. Clearly they’re somewhat comfortable with him moving forward. They didn’t give him a big long-term deal or anything, but he’ll make 10 million this season on a one-year prove it deal (with more available through incentives). Another year removed from the accident and another year more comfortable using his injured hand, JPP could have a strong season this year, but it’s still very possible that he’ll never be the same player again. Still, JPP at 80%-85% is an asset to any team.

One thing that should help Pierre-Paul is the addition of Olivier Vernon in free agency. Not only will Vernon draw attention away from Pierre-Paul, but he’ll play every down on the right side and allow Pierre-Paul to play every down on the left side, where he played his best football last season, understandable considering it was his right hand he injured. Vernon had a dominant season last year, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked edge player, only behind Khalil Mack and Von Miller.

The Giants had to shell out big bucks to bring him in, signing him to a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal that pays him 41 million in the first 2 seasons. If he plays like he did last season, he’s definitely worth it, but last season is the only season in his 4 year career in which he played nearly that well. The 2012 3rd round pick graded out below average in 2012 and 2013 and his best season prior to last season was in 2014, when he ranked just 17th at the position. With pressing needs like offensive line, linebacker, and safety (more on the latter two later) left largely unfilled going into the season, the Giants might have been better off signing 3 good free agents for the price of Vernon.

Inside at defensive tackle, the Giants made another big free agent signing, bringing in ex-New York Jet Damon Harrison on a 5-year, 46.25 million dollar deal. It’s a surprising sum of money for a two-down player, but Harrison is as good as two-down players come. The 6-4 350 pounder was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked interior defender against the run last season and their #7 ranked interior defender overall on 568 snaps. That’s very much in line with how he played in 2013 and 2014, when he finished 4th and 14th respectively among defensive tackles, including 1st and 3rd respectively among defensive tackles on run snaps. Harrison should have a similar season this year, though the one concern is that he’s had weight issues in the past and those could resurface if he becomes complacent after getting a big contract. He’s also never played in a 4-3 in the NFL, spending the last 3 seasons as the Jets’ starting nose tackle in their 3-4.

Harrison will start inside next to Johnathan Hankins, who returns after missing the final 7 games of the season with a torn pectoral. He was definitely missed, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked interior defender in 2015. The 2013 2nd round pick was even better than that in 2014, finishing 7th among defensive tackles, and prior to that, he flashed on 195 snaps as a rookie. The 6-2 320 pound Hankins had another dominant season against the run in 2015, finishing 17th at the position against the run, but really fell off as a pass rusher from the prior season. Only going into his age 24 season, he could definitely have a bounce back year.

However, even at Hankins’ best, he’s a much better run stopper than pass rusher, meaning the Giants have two very similar players inside in Hankins and Harrison. That means that Jay Bromley, the 3rd defensive tackle, could play a significant role inside on passing downs, even though the 2014 3rd round pick struggled in the first significant action of his career last season. He finished 2015 as Pro Football Focus’ 91st ranked interior defender out of 123 eligible. He’s not someone who you can rely on for a significant role.

It’s possible the Giants could use 3 defensive ends in sub packages and move either JPP or Vernon inside to maximize their pass rush, but Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Kerry Wynn are competing for the #3 defensive end job and neither of them are good candidates for a serious passing down role. Odighizuwa, a 2015 3rd round pick, struggled on 130 snaps as a rookie. Wynn, meanwhile, played a much bigger role and overall played much better, but the 2014 undrafted free agent struggled mightily as a pass rusher, only providing value to the team as an early down run stopper. It’s a strong defensive line, but one with depth issues.

Grade: A

Linebackers

As I mentioned earlier, linebacker was a position the Giants really needed to upgrade this off-season and didn’t. Outside linebacker Devon Kennard is the only one of the bunch who is any good, grading out above average on 338 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2014 and then again grading out above average on 487 snaps in 2015. However, there are a couple issues. For one, he’s missed significant time with injury in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, missing 11 games in 2 years in the league, including 7 last season. Secondly, the 6-3 249 pounder is only good moving forward and really struggles when asked to cover. That was fine when he was a rookie and he was only playing in base packages, but he was a poor fit as an every down linebacker last season. He finished the season 14th among linebackers in run defense on Pro Football Focus, but 70th out of 97 eligible in pass coverage. Ideally, he’d move back to a pure base package role in 2016, but the Giants might not have a choice.

JT Thomas was largely the opposite of Kennard last season, struggling mightily against the run, but playing pretty well in coverage. He was Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked linebacker out of 97 eligible against the run, but finished 20th in pass coverage grade. He’s a candidate to start opposite Kennard again and, even if he doesn’t, he could carve out a situational role as a coverage linebacker in sub packages. However, he’s overall an underwhelming option, as he’s graded out below average in all 5 seasons in his career and has always been a poor tackler who struggles mightily against the run.

Jonathan Casillas is another option at outside linebacker. He actually led the Giants in snaps played by a linebacker last season with 673, but that was largely because of injuries and out of desperation. Typically only a backup and special teamer, Casillas finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked linebacker out of 97 eligible. Kelvin Sheppard is also in the mix after being added in free agency, but he too struggled last season, grading out 84th among 97 eligible linebackers. He’s not a better option.

Sheppard could also be an option inside at middle linebacker, as he has experience at that position, but realistically the middle linebacker competition is between free agent acquisition Keenan Robinson and holdover Jasper Brinkley, who took over the starting job down the stretch last season. Brinkley, like Kennard, is great against the run, but awful in coverage, finishing last season 4th among linebackers against the run, but 81st (out of 97 eligible) in coverage. Robinson, meanwhile, is awful all around, but might end up starting, after being signed to a 1-year, 2.6 million dollar deal this off-season (Brinkley was re-signed for 1.8 million).

Robinson was Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked linebacker out of 97 eligible in 2015 and their 44th ranked middle linebacker out of 60 eligible in his first year as a starter in 2014. The Giants also used a 4th round pick on BJ Goodson, a middle linebacker out of Clemson, and he could conceivably make starts down the stretch for the Giants. The Giants have a bunch of options at linebacker, but none of them a very good. It’s a position of major weakness and one they should have done a better job of upgrading this off-season.

Grade: C-

Secondary

Along with the defensive line, one position where the Giants spent a lot of resources this off-season was cornerback. I’m not sure they spent them wisely though. They signed Janoris Jenkins, formerly of the Rams, to a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal, making him the 7th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary. He’s not even nearly a top-10 cornerback. He played well last year, finishing 26th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but that was the first season in his 4 year career in which he graded out above average and even last season he wasn’t nearly worth what the Giants are going to be paying him. He might not even be an upgrade over Amukamara, who finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked cornerback.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie remains as the starter opposite Jenkins. DRC, a talented 2008 1st round pick, seems to have shaken off his early career inconsistencies, as he’s strung together 3 straight strong seasons. He’s graded out 6th, 19th, and 16th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively. Despite having Rodgers-Cromartie and Jenkins, the Giants still used the 10th overall pick on Eli Apple. Apple wasn’t a bad value at 10, but he doesn’t have an obvious path to a starting job in either of the next 2 seasons, so it was a weird pick for a team with other needs.

Apple isn’t a good fit on the slot at 6-1 199 and neither are Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, so Apple probably won’t even be any higher than the Giants’ 4th cornerback as a rookie, behind veteran Leon Hall. Hall was only signed in early August, and for just 1.5 million, but he’s still the Giants’ best slot cornerback, even going into his age 32 season. Hall finished last season 33rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, the 8th time in 9 seasons in the league that he’s graded out above average, but his age is a concern, as is his health. He’s missed 23 games with injury over the past 5 seasons, hasn’t played in all 16 games since 2010, and is coming off of off-season back surgery. If he gets hurt, it’ll force Apple into action. It’s a deep group of cornerbacks, but spending the 10th overall pick on a 4th cornerback was a weird move.

While cornerback is strong, safety still remains a position of issue for the Giants. Landon Collins struggled as a rookie, as the 2015 2nd round pick graded out 78th among 89 eligible safeties. Meanwhile, 3rd round rookie Darian Thompson is expected to start at the other safety spot. Thompson isn’t very good against the run, but he does play deep safety pretty well, so he’ll complement Collins well and allow him to play closer to the line of scrimmage where he’s more comfortable. Collins could be a lot better this season than he was as a rookie, but it’s still a position of weakness.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Giants spent a lot of money in free agency to fix holes, but they still have major issues at safety, linebacker, and on the right side of the offensive line, so they probably would have been better off signing several mid range free agents, rather than committing big dollars to one-year wonders like Olivier Vernon and Janoris Jenkins. They added Sterling Shepard and Darian Thompson in the 2nd and 3rd round of the draft respectively and both were good picks and figure to start, but using the 10th overall pick on Eli Apple, who will spend his rookie year as the 4th cornerback, was a bit of a waste, considering the amount of other holes that could have been filled at that spot. All in all, I don’t think this team has done enough to get back to the playoffs, but they do play in a wide open division and could sneak into the post-season that way.

Prediction: 8-8 2nd in NFC East

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