New York Giants 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Giants made the playoffs in 2016, for the first time since the 2011 season, but had their worst offensive season in a while, moving the chains at a mere 31.53% rate, 29th in the NFL. They won 11 games and made the playoffs on the strength of a defense that ranked #1 in first down rate allowed at 30.41%. That came after they ranked 12th in first down rate and 29th in first down rate allowed in a 6-10 season in 2015. Given all the money they spent last off-season on defense, it was not a surprise that they were significantly improved on that side of the ball, but I don’t think anyone thought they would be as good as they ended up being in 2016. Likewise, few expected their offense to drop off like it did.

The biggest reason why they struggled offensively was the play of quarterback Eli Manning, who finished 27th out of 35 eligible quarterbacks, his lowest ranked season in Pro Football Focus’ 10 year history. He completed 63.0% of his passes for an average of 6.73 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. Manning’s disappointing season came as somewhat of a surprise, considering the Giants promoted offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo to head coach to replace long-time head coach Tom Coughlin. McAdoo was credited was revitalizing Manning’s career, following a terrible 2013 season, and was promoted with Manning’s long-term success in mind.

However, Manning is no spring chicken anymore, going into his age 36 season, so age is probably catching up with him. He could bounce back somewhat in 2017, but we seem to be nearing the end of Eli’s tenure as a starting quarterback. With this in mind, the Giants used a 3rd round pick on California’s Davis Webb, who could potentially develop into a long-term starter. Webb is regarded as very raw though and will probably spend his entire rookie year as the 3rd quarterback, behind Manning and veteran backup Geno Smith.

Given that, Manning’s job is probably safe for at least 2017, as Smith hasn’t proven himself to be anything more than a backup thus far in his career. The 2013 2nd round pick has made 30 starts in 4 years in the league, but has completed just 57.9% of his passes for an average of 6.73 yards per attempt, 28 touchdowns, and 36 interceptions in his career. If he has to start for an extended period in 2017, the Giants are going to be in trouble. Fortunately, Eli hasn’t missed a start since he took over as a starter way back in his rookie year in 2004, but, given his age, it’s fair to wonder how long that streak can continue. Even if he does play all 16 games again in 2017, the Giants are still not in a great situation quarterback-wise.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

All that being said, it’s unfair to put all of the blame for the Giants’ offensive struggles in 2016 on the quarterback, as they had major issues around the quarterback position. Because they spent all that money on their defense last off-season, they didn’t have any left over to fix glaring holes on offense and those holes got even more glaring in 2016 with Eli not playing at a high enough level to mask them. With little financial flexibility this off-season, the Giants had to turn to the draft to address offensive needs. They used 3 of their first 4 picks on offensive players (including Davis Webb), but did not get around to addressing the offensive line until the 6th round, when they drafted Pittsburgh’s Adam Bisnowaty, who isn’t a serious candidate for playing time as a rookie.

The right side of the offensive line is the problem side for the Giants, but ideally they would have found a new left tackle this off-season and moved Ereck Flowers to the right side, where he would probably be a better fit, upgrading two spots at once. They didn’t do that, so they will have to hope that Flowers can be much improved at left tackle in his 3rd year in the league in 2017. It’s certainly a possibility, given that Flowers was the 9th overall pick in 2015 and is just going into his age 23 season, but Flowers has looked overmatched in 2 seasons (31 starts) on the blindside, finishing 74th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles in 2015 and 57th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 2016. He could easily take another step forward in 2017, but many considered the 6-5 324 pounder to be a better fit on the right side coming out of the University of Miami and he may end up there long-term.

For now, incumbent starter Bobby Hart and free agent acquisition DJ Fluker will compete for the starting job on the right side. Hart made 13 starts in 2016, but was easily the Giants’ worst offensive lineman, finishing 67th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on the season. The 2015 7th round pick also struggled on 151 snaps as a rookie. Also only going into his age 23 season, he’s young enough to be noticeably improved in 2017, but he is a much shakier bet than Flowers. He doesn’t nearly have Flowers’ natural abilities, hence why he fell to the 7th round and Flowers went 9th overall.

Given that, Fluker would probably be the better option, though Hart will open the off-season as the starter. The 11th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Fluker was similar to Flowers coming out of the University of Alabama. He began his career at right tackle, where he was serviceable, but unspectacular in his first 2 seasons in the league. When the Chargers signed veteran Joe Barksdale, they shifted Fluker inside to guard, where he was not a fit at all, finishing 67th out of 81 eligible guards in 2015 and 54th out of 72 eligible guards in 2016. A move back to right tackle could be good for him and he should be an upgrade over Hart if he does win the job.

Fluker is also a candidate at right guard, but he would have to unseat John Jerry, who is coming off of a solid year, finishing 33rd out of 72 eligible guards. That’s the first time in 7 seasons (83 starts) in the league that he’s graded out above average though and, already going into his age 31 season, he’s unlikely to be that good again in 2017. In 2015, he finished 56th out of 81 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. Jerry would be better than Fluker though, as Fluker has already proven he is not a fit at guard.

Left guard Justin Pugh and center Weston Richburg were the saving graces of this offensive line in 2016, though neither was as good as they were in 2015. After they finished 9th among guards and 3rd among centers respectively in 2015, they “fell” to 16th and 16th respectively in 2016, with Pugh also missing 5 games with injury. Prior to their strong 2015 seasons, both players played different positions and were not nearly as good, as Pugh was about a league average starting right tackle in the first 2 seasons of his career, while Richburg was one of the lowest ranked guards in the league in his first year in the league in 2014. Both players should have solid years again in 2017, but both are also going in the final year of their rookie contracts, so the Giants will have some decisions to make soon. Considering they are easily their best two offensive linemen, the Giants should try to re-sign both, but the numbers might just not work out.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

In addition to struggling on the offensive line last season, the Giants also couldn’t run the ball, averaging just 3.55 yards per carry, 3rd worst in the NFL. Part of that was the offensive line, but the backs running the ball were a big part of the problem too. The Giants cut veteran running back Rashad Jennings this off-season, which should be addition by subtraction, as he averaged just 3.28 yards per carry on 181 carries and finished just 58th out of 62 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus. Unfortunately, the Giants didn’t do much addition by addition, just adding Clemson running back Wayne Gallman in the 4th round of the draft. He is no guarantee to be an upgrade on Jennings.

Gallman does have more upside though and probably won’t see as many carries as Jennings did last season, as the Giants will be giving 2nd year running back Paul Perkins a larger role. A steal in the 5th round in 2016, Perkins averaged a solid 4.07 YPC average on 112 carries as a rookie and saw a larger role down the stretch, carrying the ball 62 times in the final 4 weeks of the regular season and 10 times in the Giants’ first round playoff loss in Green Bay. He has some breakout potential in his 2nd year in the league and, at the very least, he should be an upgrade over Jennings. Perkins is a smaller back at 5-10 208 though, so the bigger Gallman (6-0 215) could see short yardage work and vulture touchdowns on the goal line. Gallman will have a change of pace role.

Along with Perkins and Gallman, the Giants also have veteran Shane Vereen coming back from injury, after two separate torn triceps injuries limited him to just 5 games in 2016. Vereen isn’t a threat for many carries, as the 6-year veteran has never made more than 96 carries in a season, but he caught 158 passes in 40 games from 2013-2015 with the Patriots and Giants. If healthy, he should be their primary passing down back, but injuries have always been a concern with him. He’s been limited to 63 of a possible 96 games in his career. Still, he should be able to give them more than he gave them last year and, between that and Jennings being released, this should be an improved running back group in 2017. There is still a lot of uncertainty at the position though.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

While the Giants didn’t do much to upgrade the offensive line or the running game, they did upgrade the receiving corps. Odell Beckham is obviously one of the best receivers in the game, but they didn’t have another receiver with more than 683 receiving yards last season, so they would have been in trouble if Beckham were to ever get hurt. To give themselves insurance, the cut the struggling Victor Cruz and replaced him with ex-Jet Brandon Marshall and used a first round pick on Mississippi tight end Evan Engram.

Despite being a tight end, Engram is actually similar in size to Brandon Marshall. While Marshall is one of the biggest wide receivers in the league at 6-4 230, Engram is one of the smallest tight ends ever drafted at 6-3 234. More of a big slot receiver than an inline tight end, Engram moves like a wide receiver and set the combine on fire with his 4.42 40. He won’t contribute much as a run blocker, but he will be a matchup nightmare in the passing game. He will be an instant upgrade over incumbent starter Will Tye, who was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd lowest ranked eligible tight end in 2016. Tye will compete with 2016 6th round pick Jerell Adams for the #2 tight end job. Adams struggled on 204 snaps as a rookie. Whoever wins the job, the #2 tight end role is small in this offense because of how often they line up with 3 wide receivers.

Victor Cruz was the Giants’ 3rd receiver in 2016 and played 766 snaps in that role, about 72.2% of the Giants offensive snaps. Brandon Marshall will probably be the #2 receiver this year, moving last year’s #2 wide receiver Sterling Shepard to the #3 role, but all three of Beckham, Marshall, and Shepard will get significant playing time. Shepard may be better in the #3 role because the 2016 2nd round pick is best as a pure slot receiver. Shepard was about a league average starter in his first season in the league and could be even better in his 2nd year in the league in a more natural role.

Marshall, meanwhile, should be a lot better than Victor Cruz, who was clearly not the same player as he once was in 2016, his first season back from a 2014 torn patellar tendon. Cruz finished 99th out of 115 eligible wide receivers and was subsequently cut and remains unsigned as a free agent, ahead of his age 31 season. Marshall was also cut, but saw a much more robust market for his services, signing with the Giants on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal. Marshall is going into his age 33 season and not the same player as he once was, finishing with fewer than 1000 yards in 2 of the last 3 seasons, after going over 1000 yards in every season from 2007-2013. He finished last season ranked below average for the first time in Pro Football Focus’ 10-year history. However, in 2015, he had one of the best statistical seasons of his career and finished 16th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, so he’s probably not completely washed up. Even if he plays like he did in 2016, he’ll still be an upgrade over Cruz.

Marshall will play outside opposite Beckham, who, as I already mentioned, is one of the best receivers in the league. He hasn’t been as efficient as he was as a rookie, when he caught 91 passes for 1305 yards and 12 touchdowns on 132 targets in 12 games and finished 4th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but he has been a top-12 wide receiver in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league. The 12th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Beckham has already caught 288 passes for 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns on 460 targets in 3 seasons in the league. Only going into his age 25 season, his best football could still be ahead of him. He has two years left on his rookie deal, but expect the Giants to make him the highest paid wide receiver in the league sometime in the next calendar year. He’s easily their most important offensive player.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Giants spent a lot of money on defensive players last off-season and it paid off in a big way. Two of the big contracts they handed out were to defensive end Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Damon Harrison, who signed 5-year deals worth 85 million and 46.25 million respectively. This off-season, they re-signed their other starting defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul on a 4-year, 62 million dollar deal. Unfortunately, not only did all their highly paid defensive players make it tough to address needs on the offensive side of the ball this off-season, but it also made it tough for the Giants to add needed depth on defense and it caused them to lose defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins to the Colts on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal.

The Giants are very top-heavy salary wise, with 7 players combining to take up 86.521 million on their 2017 cap, about 52% of the total 167 million dollar cap. Five of those players are defensive players: Damon Harrison, Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Janoris Jenkins. The Giants have not drafted well in recent years, particularly in rounds 3-7, so they have had to sign other team’s free agents to bolster their roster. It has worked to an extent, but it has left them in a very inflexible position cap wise and, without good young players on cheap rookie deals to fill in the gaps, it has left them with some glaring holes on both sides of the ball.

One of those glaring holes was defensive tackle, following the departure of Hankins. The Giants filled that hole in the second round of the draft with defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, but he could be overmatched as a rookie. The Giants don’t really have another choice though, as Jay Bromley is the only reserve with any career starts and he struggled mightily in 2016, finishing 102th out of 127 eligible interior defenders on Pro Football Focus. Fortunately, the Giants frequently line defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon up inside in obvious passing situations, so Tomlinson will really only be counted on for a base package run stuffing role. He’s an adequate run stuffer, but won’t give them any pass rush.

Fellow starting defensive tackle Damon Harrison is also primarily a base package player, but he did play a career high 674 snaps in his first season in a 4-3 defense in 2016, after spending the first 4 seasons of his career in a 3-4 defense with the Jets. A monstrous 6-4 350 pounder, Harrison is arguably the best run stuffing defensive tackle in the league, but also moves surprisingly well for his size and can pressure the quarterback a little bit if asked to do so. He proved himself to be surprisingly scheme versatile in his first season with the Giants in 2016.

Harrison has been a top-14 defensive tackle in all 4 seasons as a starter, making 64 of 64 possible starts over that time period, and has finished #1, #3, #1, and #1 among defensive tackles in those 4 seasons respectively in terms of pure run stuffing grade. A former undrafted free agent who at one time weighed over 400 pounds, Harrison has done a great job getting in shape, staying in shape, and dominating on the defensive line. Going into his age 29 season in 2017, I see no reason why that wouldn’t continue. Only the 21st highest paid defensive lineman in the league in terms of average annual salary, Harrison was a great value signing last off-season.

Olivier Vernon wasn’t quite as good of a value, but helped this defensive line tremendously in his first season in New York. Vernon came to New York as a one-year wonder, finishing 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2015, but maxing out at 17th in the first 3 seasons of his career before that. Vernon proved himself as a high level player once again in 2016, finishing 7th at his position and should finish somewhere around there again in 2017. Going into his age 27 season, Vernon is in the prime of his career.

Along with Vernon and Harrison, JPP is also in the prime of his career, going into his age 28 season. His prime and possibly his whole career looked to be in jeopardy after he lost part of his hand in a fireworks accident on the Fourth of July in 2015, but JPP played pretty well in the final 8 games of the season in 2015 and then appeared to be back to his former self in 2016, finishing 6th among 4-3 defensive ends, earning the big extension the Giants gave him this off-season. Prior to the injury, he finished 6th, 3rd, and 7th in 2011, 2012, and 2014 respectively, with an injury plagued 2013 season in between. Injuries are kind of piling up for him, between the 2013 back injury, the hand injury, and the sports hernia injury that ended his 2016 after 12 games, but, assuming he is healthy, he should have another strong year in 2017.

As I mentioned, both Vernon and JPP are bigger defensive ends (6-2 275 and 6-5 278 respectively) that they like to line up inside in obvious passing situations. With Hankins gone and Tomlinson replacing him, they will probably have to do that even more this season. Unfortunately, that could be a problem because the Giants’ depth at the defensive end position is about as poor as it is at the defensive tackle position. Romeo Okwara was the 3rd defensive end last season and made 4 starts in JPP’s absence, but struggled mightily on 368 snaps, particularly as a pass rusher. That’s unsurprising, considering he went undrafted in 2016.

Okwara will face competition for snaps from fellow backups Kerry Wynn and Owamagbe Odighizuwa, as well as 5th round rookie Avery Moss. Odighizuwa is the most talented of the bunch, but, like many of the Giants’ recent 3rd round picks, he has done nothing so far in the NFL. In 2 seasons in the league, he has played just 299 snaps and struggled mightily. He briefly left the team this off-season and considered retirement, but returned to the team and will be given a chance to compete for a role out of pure necessity. He’s far from a lock to even make the final roster. Wynn, meanwhile, has graded out below average in all 3 seasons in the league, after going undrafted in 2014, and, like Okwara, he is a better run stuffer than pass rusher. Perhaps they will give Okwara and Wynn a shot inside at defensive tackle in sub packages and keep JPP and Vernon as the edge rushers. Anyway you look at it, the Giants have a major depth problem on the defensive line, but they also have arguably the best starting defensive line in football, even with Hankins gone.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Giants will need their defensive line to play at a high level again to mask their issues in the linebacking corps. Even as good as their defense was as a whole last season, they got pretty poor play from their linebackers. Outside linebacker Devon Kennard was the best of the bunch, finishing 30th among linebackers on Pro Football Focus. That’s pretty par for the course for him, as the 2014 5th round pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons in the league, but the big 6-3 251 pounder doesn’t do well in coverage and hasn’t been anything more than a pure base package player in his career. The 533 snaps he played last season were a career high. He should play a similar role in 2016.

Middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard also only played in base packages last season, making 11 starts in 16 games, but only playing 453 snaps. He is no longer with the team and won’t be missed, after finishing 82nd among 87 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Keenan Robinson, who came in for Sheppard in sub packages and played 780 snaps overall, is a candidate to take over for Sheppard and play every down inside, but he’s not much better of a player than Sheppard. He’s experienced, with 27 starts over the past 3 seasons, but he’s struggled mightily in all 3 seasons. Last season, he finished 78th out of 87 eligible linebackers and especially struggled against the run. Instead, it’ll likely be 2nd year player BJ Goodson playing every down at middle linebacker, but the 2016 4th round pick played just 13 snaps as a rookie and is a major projection to a starting role. The Giants seem to like him though.

Robinson is probably more of a candidate to start at the other outside linebacker position than he is to start at middle linebacker over Goodson. At outside linebacker, Robinson will compete with fellow veteran and incumbent starter Jonathan Casillas. Casillas is probably the better option, but neither option is good. Primarily a special teamer early in his career, Casillas has made 28 starts in the past 3 seasons, after just 12 starts in his first 5 seasons in the league, but has struggled in all 3 seasons and finished last season 57th out of 87 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 30 season, he’s best as a reserve and a special teamer, but the Giants might not have a choice. Unless Goodson can have a surprising breakout year, this linebacking corps should be one of the worst in the league again.

Grade: D

Secondary

One thing the Giants could do to bolster their linebacking corps is move safety Landon Collins to linebacker in sub packages the way the Packers do with Morgan Burnett, the Patriots do with Patrick Chung, and the Redskins do with Su’a Cravens. Bigger than all 3 of those players at 6-0 225, Collins certainly has the size to play linebacker in sub packages and his run stopping ability is his best attribute, as he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked safety in run stopping grade in 2016. The drawback with that move is it would take Collins out of the Giants’ backend in passing situations and Collins fared well in coverage too.

After a disappointing rookie year in which the 2015 2nd round pick finished 78th out of 89 eligible safeties, Collins was arguably the most improved defensive player in the league in 2016, finishing 2nd among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Along with all of their defensive free agent acquisitions, Collins’ breakout year was what turned the play of this defense around in a hurry. Wherever he lines up in 2017, he figures to be a force once again. He’s one of the few good young players the Giants have on a cheap rookie deal.

Another reason having Collins play more linebacker makes some sense is because they have more depth at safety than they do at linebacker. The Giants used a 3rd round pick in 2016 on Boise State safety Darian Thompson and planned on starting him at safety opposite Collins, but he went down for the season with a broken foot after 2 games. Fortunately, fill-in Andrew Adams, an undrafted rookie, played pretty well in his absence, making 13 starts and finishing above average (39th) among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Thompson will compete with Andrews for the starting job, but the Giants may look for ways to get both on the field at the same time. Playing Collins at linebacker part-time would allow them to do that and allow them to get their best athletes on the field in passing situations.

The Giants are also deep at the cornerback position too. Like fellow free agent acquisitions Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison, ex-Ram Janoris Jenkins was a big success in his first season in New York, finishing 8th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in the first year of a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal. The deal seemed like an overpay, considering he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 3 seasons in the league in 2012-2014 and only maxed out at 26th in the final year of his rookie deal in 2015. An inconsistent player who misses too many tackles and gets burned deep too often, Jenkins might not be as good this season as he was last season. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level cornerback and he’s already going into his age 29 season, so it’s not like he’s just entering his prime.

The Giants also have Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, another talented veteran cornerback opposite him. DRC also struggled early in his career, but he’s proven himself in 4 straight seasons, finishing in the top-19 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 years (61 starts). He’s going into his age 31 season, so his best years might be behind him, but the Giants are obviously hoping he can continue playing at a high level for another couple years. Last year was one of his best, as he finished 5th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

The 3rd cornerback will be Eli Apple, the 10th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Apple wasn’t great as a rookie, grading out below average overall, but was regarded as raw coming out of the draft and didn’t even turn 21 until last August. He still has a sky high ceiling and could have a breakout year in 2017. Apple is probably the long-term replacement for Rodgers-Cromartie, whose contract runs out after 2018, but, for now, the Giants have potentially three really good cornerbacks on their roster. It’s a talented secondary.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Giants have one of the top heaviest cap distributions in the league, with 7 players taking up more than half of their cap space. As a result of the Giants’ inability to draft good young players on cheap rookie deals, the Giants have had to pay big money for free agents to fill holes, which has left them thin on key parts of the roster. While the first couple rounds have given them players like Odell Beckham, Landon Collins, Weston Richburg, and Justin Pugh (who is no longer on a cheap rookie deal), they haven’t drafted a single proven starter in the 3rd round or later of the draft since Mario Manningham way back in 2008 and he is long gone. Many of their later round picks have been complete washouts who never developed into even valuable depth players. Getting good players in the first couple rounds is important, but getting good players after the first couple rounds is necessary for a team to consistently be good and the Giants have struggled mightily in that aspect in recent years. That shows when looking at their roster.

All that being said, they have done a great job of adding good talent in free agency and have several top level players on both sides of the ball, which is why they are coming off of an 11-win season and a playoff appearance. Given that most of their top level players are veterans and that they had very few major injuries last season, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if this team took a step backwards in 2017, particularly with Eli Manning seemingly going into the twilight of his career, but this team should still be in the mix for a playoff spot because they have obvious strengths, particularly on defense.  

Prediction: 7-9, 4th in NFC East

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