New York Giants 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

With the 6th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Giants surprised many by selecting Duke quarterback Daniel Jones. The selection of a quarterback was not surprising, with long-time signal caller Eli Manning clearly in the twilight of his career, but the selection of Jones so early, after many projected him as a mid to late first round pick who the Giants even could have gotten with their other first round pick at #17 overall, drew a lot of criticism, with many preferring Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, who fell to division rival Washington at 15.

Haskins’ poor work ethic and issues with the coaching staff led to him not even lasting two full seasons in Washington, so by default the Giants ended up with the better of the two quarterback prospects in a draft that has yet to produce another consistent starter aside from #1 overall pick Kyler Murray, but there have still understandably been questions about Jones’ long-term viability as an NFL starting quarterback.

Jones’ career got off to an underwhelming start, as he finished his rookie year completing 61.9% of his passes for an average of 6.59 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, ranking 26th among 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, and only providing above replacement level ability as a runner, taking 45 carries for 6.20 YPC and 2 touchdowns. In his second season, his numbers might have actually been a little worse, as he completed 62.5% of his passes for an average of 6.57 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while rushing for 6.51 YPC and 1 touchdown on 65 carries. However, those numbers don’t come close to telling the whole story of Jones’ 2020 season.

A critical moment for Jones last season was in the second half of the Giants’ week 12 game against the Bengals, when Jones suffered a hamstring injury. Prior to that injury, Jones had completed 63.2% of his passes for an average of 6.47 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while 7.33 YPC and 1 touchdown on 55 carries. These are still pretty unimpressive numbers, but they need to be understood with two important pieces of context. 

For one, Jones’ receivers dropped 9.5% of his passes over that stretch, with only Carson Wentz having a higher drop rate among quarterbacks who played as much as Jones. That still left Jones with an adjusted completion percentage that ranked just 21st out of 40 eligible quarterbacks, but being middle of the pack isn’t that bad, especially when you factor in how tough the Giants’ early season schedule of defenses was. 

Prior to that game against the Bengals in which Jones got hurt, in nine of the Giants’ first ten games of the season, they played a defense that finished in the top-10 in first down rate allowed over expected, the Steelers (2nd), the Rams (1st), Washington twice (3rd), the Eagles twice (9th), the 49ers (6th), the Bears (7th), and the Buccaneers (5th). The Giants schedule was so tough over that stretch that, even though they ranked just 27th in first down rate, when schedule adjustments were taken into account, they ranked 15th and actually outperformed expectations against their schedule. Jones’ production was underwhelming, but when you take into the schedule, how often he was pressured (3rd most in the NFL), and how tough of a schedule he faced, Jones wasn’t that bad, all things considered.

That seemed to give the Giants hope for the final 6 games of their season, a stretch in which their schedule got significantly easier starting with that game against the Bengals, but then Jones got hurt, which derailed his season and ended any chances the Giants had of getting back into playoff contention. Jones still played in another 3 games after that, but really struggled despite the easy schedule and, in the games Jones missed, backup Colt McCoy showed very little, even if he did give them just enough against a weak Seahawks defense that the Giants could pull the upset with an uncharacteristically huge defensive effort.

After the season, the severity of just how bad Jones’ hamstring injury was came out, with it being described as an injury most quarterbacks wouldn’t have even been able to play through, so I’m pretty comfortable just throwing out all the tape from those last few starts and just giving him credit for toughness. Based on how Jones played the rest of last season, there is actually quite a bit to be excited about with him. Most prominently is the progress he made as a deep ball thrower last season, an aspect in which he was actually one of the best in the league, prior to his injury. 

Up until he went down against the Bengals, Jones actually led the league in completion percentage (59.3%), yards per attempt (19.81), quarterback rating (143.1), and big time throw percentage (50.0%) on passes 20+ yards downfield, among quarterbacks who went deep as often as he did. He also ranked 10th in the league in big time throw percentage on any type of pass attempt over that stretch. That’s all despite the grueling slate of defenses that Jones squared off with over that period of time. His statistical production might not look like much, but when you take into account who he was playing, how many passes his receivers dropped, how often he was pressured, and how well he threw the ball downfield, it’s a lot more understandable that Jones would have ranked 12th among quarterbacks on PFF prior to his injury. 

We’re still working with a relatively small sample size of about ten and a half games for a quarterback who didn’t show nearly as much promise as a rookie, but it’s an encouraging sign for a Giants team that spent much of their resources this off-season on getting Jones a more reliable receiving corps to throw to, in an effort to reduce the amount of his passes that are dropped and to try to open up the playbook more for a quarterback who, despite good deep throwing ability, ranked below average in air yards per attempt last season.

The Giants also nominally tried to upgrade the backup quarterback spot in case Jones gets hurt again, signing veteran journeyman Mike Glennon, who has a 83.5 QB rating across stints with five different teams in eight seasons in the league (27 starts) and is now heading into his age 32 season. Obviously, the key to the Giants’ success in 2021 will be Jones staying healthy and continuing to develop with more talent around him.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The biggest addition the Giants made this off-season was signing wide receiver Kenny Golladay to a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal. Most teams didn’t have significant financial flexibility this off-season, leaving most free agents to settle for the best one-year deal they could find with a hope of trying again in free agency next off-season, but the Giants and Golladay were the exception, in part because of the financial flexibility provided by having their quarterback signed to a cheap rookie deal. Golladay was also one of the best free agents available this off-season, so him getting paid at the top of the market was not surprising, even after he was surprisingly not franchise tagged by the directionless Lions. 

Perhaps the Lions were scared off by an injury that limited him to 225 snaps in 5 games last season, but he doesn’t otherwise have a significant injury history, he’s still very much in his prime in his age 28 season, and he didn’t show any signs of slowing down last season before the injury, actually averaging a career high 2.47 yards per route run (7th among eligible wide receivers) in the limited action he saw last season. That comes after he finished with a 70/1063/5 slash line (1.87 yards per route run) and a 65/1190/11 slash line (2.03 yards per route run) in 2018 and 2019 respectively, seasons in which he also ranked 20th and 16th respectively among wide receivers on PFF. Assuming he’s healthy, he’s a legitimate #1 receiver and a big upgrade for this team.

After signing Golladay, it seemed like the Giants would mostly be finished adding at the wide receiver position. Golladay was set to replace Golden Tate, who averaged a mediocre 1.28 yards per route run last season, giving them a top-3 that included Sterling Shepard, who is just 1 year and 16 million into a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension, and Darius Slayton, an impressive 2019 5th round pick who has two years remaining on his rookie deal. However, the Giants decided to add even further, trading down with the Bears from 11th to 20th, picking up a future first round pick in the process, and selecting Florida’s Kadarius Toney with the 20th overall pick.

I’ll get into what the Giants could have done in the first round instead later and Toney doesn’t seem to have a clear path to significant playing time in year one or year two barring injuries or Shepard being released prematurely next off-season, but the Giants at least get credit for getting an extra first round pick out of the exchange, which makes the Giants’ decision with this year’s first round pick a little less impactful. Toney could still develop into a talented wide receiver long-term and he’ll provide valuable depth as a rookie, but I wouldn’t expect him to have the opportunity to put up significant production in year one.

Even with Golladay and Toney coming in, Shepard and Slayton figure to continue having significant roles, after leading this group with slash lines of 66/656/3 and 50/751/3 respectively in 2020. For Shepard, it’s been back-to-back years where injuries have prevented him from a bigger receiving total. When the Giants traded Odell Beckham to the Browns two off-seasons ago, Shepard became their de facto new #1 receiver and, after averaging a 84/1085/3 slash line per 16 games in 2017 and 2018 combined without Beckham, it looked like Shepard had a good chance to break out in his absence. 

Instead, he’s averaged a 89/896/4 slash line per 16 games, but has missed 10 of 32 games with injury and has been more of a 1a or a 1b receiver than a true #1 when on the field. Now with Golladay added to the mix, Shepard will be back to being no better than the #2 receiver in this offense and I would expect his per game production to go down. Even if he doesn’t put up huge numbers, he should still be a better than average #2 option though and, while his injury history is concerning (at least 4 games missed in 3 of 5 seasons in the league), the Giants have the depth to be prepared for him missing time if it happens again.

For Slayton, last year’s level of production is largely in line with what he did as a rookie, when he had a 48/740/8 slash line, but it’s possible the former 5th round pick doesn’t have much remaining untapped upside and, even though he’s only going into his age 24 season, doesn’t have significantly better days ahead of him. He should still be a capable receiver in 2021 after back-to-back slightly above average grades from PFF in the first two seasons of his career, but his chances of getting a long-term deal with this team at some point went way down this off-season.

Tight end was where the Giants had the biggest problem with drops last season, led by starter Evan Engram, who dropped 8 passes on the season, including an egregious one on fourth down against the Eagles that would have clinched a win for the Giants that ultimately would have won them the division. Engram’s career per 16-game average slash line is above average at 69/774/4 and the 2017 first round pick does have impressive athleticism for his size at 6-3 240 that allows him to get separation regularly, but he has a career drop rate of 10.4%, he averages just 6.80 yards per target, getting most of his production from volume, and he hardly makes any contested catches, with a career 31.2% contested catch rate, including a 19.1% rate (4 for 21) that was worst in the league among tight ends last season. 

Engram gets open often, but when he doesn’t, he has a hard time fighting off defenders for the ball and even when wide open sometimes he drops the ball completely. He also has shown little as a run blocker and has had some injury problems as well, missing at least five games in half of his seasons. Engram is still relatively young, but, going into his age 27 season, he’s running out of time to become a drastically different player than the one he has been throughout his career. 

Depth was also a concern at tight end last season, with no other tight end topping 112 receiving yards or showing anything remarkable as a blocker, so the Giants went out and also made an addition at the tight end position this off-season, signing ex-Viking Kyle Rudolph a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal to not only provide depth at the position, but possibly to provide competition for Engram as the top tight end as well. 

Rudolph should add to the position by default and could see a significant role, but he was probably an overpay in an off-season where most players had to settle for taking a significant discount on a one-year deal. A long-time starter for the Vikings since they selected him in the 2nd round in 2011, Rudolph is now going into his age 32 season and has seen his playing time decreased in each of the past two seasons, culminating in a 2020 campaign in which he played just 573 snaps and was shortly after released ahead of an 8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. 

Rudolph’s 1.20 yards per route run average over those two seasons isn’t far off from his 1.24 yards per route run average for his season, but it’s not very impressive either, especially for a part-time player, and he’s seen his run blocking fall off somewhat as well. He could still be a useful #2 tight end for another couple seasons, but the Giants are paying him to be more than that. He’s an upgrade by default though for a receiving corps that overall has a lot more talent than a year ago.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Giants didn’t make any big additions at the running back position this off-season, but they didn’t need to add anyone to be a lot better at the position this season, with feature back Saquon Barkley set to return from a season ending torn ACL that limited him to just 25 touches in two games last season. Barkley has averaged 4.72 YPC on 497 carries since the Giants selected him 2nd overall in 2018, including 3.25 yards per carry after contact, but he won’t just help this team on the ground, as he’s also a dynamic player in the passing game, averaging a 77/629/3 slash line per 16 games in his career. 

In Barkley’s absence last season, the running back position was simply not a big part of this passing game, as other Giants running backs combined for just 74 targets, on which they averaged just 4.57 yards per target, about a yard and a half down from Barkley’s career average. Barkley is only going into his age 24 season and there is no reason not to expect him to return at least mostly to form and be one of the best running backs in the league. That, of course, assumes he can stay on the field, which is becoming a growing concern as a major injury has now affected two of his three seasons in the league and he plays a position notorious for players getting hurt. 

You might not be able to tell from his overall stats in 2019, but Barkley was limited by an ankle injury for a big chunk of that season, impressively returning having missed only three games with what was expected to be a 6-8 week injury, but not returning to form for much of the season. The biggest difference from 2018 and 2019 for Barkley statistically was his relative lack of big plays, as he had 54.0% of his yardage on 20 carries of 15+ yards in 2018, but just 33.0% of his yardage on 9 carries of 15+ yards in 2019.

Big plays tend to be much more inconsistent on a year-to-year basis than consistently stats like success rate and in fact Barkley was significantly below average in that metric in each of his first two seasons in the league, ranking 40th among 47 eligible running backs with a 41% carry success rate in 2018 and 38th among 45 eligible at 44% in 2019, but Barkley is also arguably the most explosive running back in the league, so it makes sense that he would continue having a significant amount of big plays going forward and his more limited big play total in 2019 was probably largely the result of his ankle injury limiting his burst. On top of that, even with that ankle injury and limited big play total, Barkley still averaged 4.62 YPC on an otherwise underwhelming Giants offense in 2019. As long as he can avoid further injuries, the Giants will obviously benefit from his presence on the field in a big way this season.

Backup running back Wayne Gallman led the way in Barkley’s absence last season, followed by a trio of mediocre veterans in Dion Lewis, Devonta Freeman, and Alfred Morris. This season, the Giants have essentially cleaned house at the position behind Barkley and will have off-season additions Devontae Booker and Corey Clement competing for a true backup job behind a running back who almost never comes off the field when healthy, averaging 53.2 snaps and 20.8 touches per game in his career.

Booker probably has the upperhand for the backup job after signing a 2-year, 5.5 million dollar deal and, while the 2016 4th round pick struggled in the only extended action of his career as a rookie, rushing for 3.52 YPC on 174 carries, he’s somewhat redeemed himself with a 4.39 YPC average since that season, albeit on a max of 93 carries in a season. He’s also an experienced passing down back, although his 5.79 yards per target average leaves something to be desired. Clement, meanwhile, is even less experienced, with 200 career touches in 46 games since the Eagles signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2017. The Giants are obviously hoping they don’t have to use either for more than a few touches per game.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

If there is a reason this offense, which has plenty of skill position talent, doesn’t perform at a high level in 2021, it will likely be the fault of the offensive line. This group already had problems a year ago, ranking 23rd as a team in run blocking grade from PFF and dead last in pass protection grade. Daniel Jones was pressured at the 3rd highest rate of any quarterback in the league at 40.3% and was significantly better when not pressured, with a QB rating over 37 points higher than when pressured and the 10th best clean pocket big time throw percentage at 5.7%. Part of that is because the Giants faced such a tough schedule for the first 10 games of the season and then had an injured and largely immobile Jones under center for most of the rest of the season, but there is no denying this offensive line needs to be better this season.

Despite that, the Giants did very little to upgrade this group this off-season, actually releasing right guard Kevin Zeitler, who was aging and overpaid, but also arguably their best offensive lineman a year ago. I mentioned earlier that, while the Kadarius Toney pick was not a bad pick when you take into account that they acquired a first round pick for trading down to select him, the Giants didn’t need another big investment wide receiver and might have been better off just staying put at 11 and selecting Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, who could have been a big upgrade at any of the interior offensive line spots for the Giants in 2021, with the ability to kick out to tackle as well if needed. Even if the Giants didn’t like Slater enough to do that, it was still strange to see the offensive line go unaddressed on draft day.

Instead, the Giants will be hoping to get more out of some young players already on the roster and will welcome back veteran left tackle Nate Solder from a 2020 opt-out. In Solder’s absence last season, 2020 #4 overall pick Andrew Thomas, originally selected to play right tackle, was forced over to the blindside as a rookie, where he had an up and down year. He still has a massive upside though and could be a lot better in his second season in the league, now on the right side.

Solder, meanwhile, is likely on the downswing, now heading into his age 33 season, having not played for a full year. He earned an average grade from PFF as a 16-game starter in 2019, but that was a career worst for a player with 127 starts in 9 seasons and 6 finishes in the top-25 among offensive tackles on PFF in his career. Still, the Giants would take a middling season from Solder compared to Cameron Fleming, a journeyman swing tackle who started 16 games last season, and Solder’s presence allows Thomas to move back to the right side as well. It’s always possible he completely sees his abilities fall off a cliff this season, but unless that happens, it’s likely his return will be a benefit for this group. The Giants also used a 3rd round pick in 2020 on offensive tackle Matt Peart, but he only played 150 snaps as a rookie, despite Solder’s absence, and he is unlikely to be more than the swing tackle in 2021, barring injuries.

At guard, signing veteran Zach Fulton was the closest thing they did to replacing Zeitler and he’s not guaranteed a starting job. Fulton has started 90 games over the past 7 seasons, but hasn’t been much more than a middling starter and now is going into his age 30 season. He probably wouldn’t be more than a replacement level player if he winds up with a starting role, although the alternatives could be a lot worse, as his primary competition for a role will likely be 2020 5th round pick Shane Lemieux, who showed some promise as a run blocker, but was horrific in pass protection as a rookie and ultimately finished as PFF’s lowest ranked guard across 504 snaps. It’s very possible he’s better in his second season in the league, but he’d have to be a lot better to even be a capable starter.

When Lemieux played last season, it mostly came at the expense of another young guard, 2018 2nd round pick Will Hernandez, which should tell you something about how Hernandez’s year went. As a rookie, it seemed like Hernandez would live up to being selected 34th overall, as he made 16 starts and finished 23rd among guards on PFF, but he fell to 53rd out of 82 eligible in 16 starts in 2019 and things got worse in his third season in 2020, as he was benched for most of the second half of the season and finished 59th among 86 eligible guards across 525 snaps. Injuries have been part of the problem and Hernandez is still young enough to turn it around in his age 26 season, but his rookie year remains the outlier. He’ll likely begin the year as a starter in 2021, but if he doesn’t turn it around, he might again not end it as one.

Young center Nick Gates was also underwhelming last season, finishing 29th among 38 eligible centers on PFF as a 16-game starter. He showed some promise in limited action prior to last season, but he was new to the center position and couldn’t translate that promise to a season long starting role. It’s possible he could be better in his second season as a starter but the 2018 undrafted free agent has a very limited track record, with just 291 snaps played in his career prior to last season. This isn’t a terrible offensive line, but it’s the obvious weakness of what should otherwise be a talented offense.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

The Giants’ offense was above average in schedule adjusted first down rate last season before Daniel Jones got hurt (15th at +0.74%) and they’ll essentially add (or re-add) both Saquon Barkley and Kenny Golladay to that mix for Jones’ third season in the league, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if they are at least capable on that side of the ball in 2021, with the upside to be more. However, the Giants will still need to get more out of their defense as well, after finishing last season 23rd in first down rate allowed over expected at +0.98%.

One thing that could hurt the Giants in that attempt is the loss of Dalvin Tomlinson to the Minnesota Vikings. Tomlinson had been an above average starter for the Giants throughout his four year career, including a 2020 season in which he ranked 25th among interior defenders on 658 snaps, but the Giants are actually in pretty good position to deal with his loss because the interior defender position is by far where they had their most depth last season.

Fellow pending free agent Leonard Williams was kept on a 3-year, 63 million dollar deal and will continue in his usual role after ranking 18th among interior defenders on PFF across 803 snaps last season. Williams played at a high level against the run and added 11.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate as well. That sack total is out of line with what we’ve seen from Williams in the past, as he’s totaled just 17.5 sacks in his other 5 seasons in the league, but that doesn’t mean the 2015 6th overall pick is a one-year wonder, as he’s consistently posted impressive peripheral pass rush stats throughout his career and has consistently played at a high level against the run. 

In total, Williams has totaled 29 sacks, 106 hits, and a 10.4% pressure rate in 95 career games and he has earned an above average overall grade from PFF in all 6 seasons of his career, including top-23 finishes among interior defenders in three of six seasons. He might not quite have the same sack total in 2021 as he did in 2020, but he should continue playing at a high level, still in the prime of his career in his age 27 season, having only missed one game ever due to injury, despite playing an average of 52.5 snaps per game.

The Giants also have another talented former first round pick interior defender in Dexter Lawrence, who they selected 17th overall in 2019 NFL Draft, with the pick they many expected the Giants were saving for a quarterback before their surprise selection of Daniel Jones at 6. The jury is still out on the Jones pick, but Lawrence has been as advertised, if not better. The 6-4 342 pounder is predictably a dominant run defender and a natural fit as a nose tackle in this 3-4 defense in base packages, but he’s also an above average pass rusher, adding 6.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate for his career. 

Overall, Lawrence has finished 21st and 19th respectively among interior defenders on PFF in 2019 and 2020 respectively and, a former first round pick who is not even 24 years old yet, he could get even better going forward and develop into one of the top overall interior defenders in the league. An every down player, Lawrence played 655 snaps last season, after 701 snaps as a rookie, and could see even more playing time in 2021 with Tomlinson gone.

The biggest beneficiaries from Tomlinson’s departure in terms of playing time will be BJ Hill and Austin Johnson, who played just 375 snaps and 231 snaps respectively last season, but fared well in the limited action. Hill has the higher upside of the two, as he has averaged 501 snaps per season since being selected by the Giants in the 3rd round in 2018 and has earned an above average grade from PFF in all three seasons. At 6-3 315, he’s a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but the Giants will mostly just need him to be a run stuffing third base package lineman and he hasn’t been a bad pass rusher either, with 7.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 7.5% pressure rate in a part-time role throughout his career. 

Still only going into his age 26 season, Hill could have a mini breakout year in a bigger role in place of the departed Tomlinson. Austin Johnson, meanwhile, has never played more than 399 snaps in a season since being selected in the 2nd round in 2016, due to his complete lack of pass rush (3.3% career pressure rate), but the 6-4 315 pounder is not a bad situational run stuffer. He’s likely to play behind Hill, but he’ll probably also see an uptick in playing time from Tomlinson’s departure. 

Additionally, the Giants also signed veteran journeyman Danny Shelton in free agency, another big, run defense oriented player. The 6-2 335 pound Shelton is coming off of a down year, finishing 114th among 139 interior defenders on PFF across 498 snaps, and he’s never been much of a pass rusher, with a career 5.1% pressure rate, but, prior to last season, he had earned an above average run stopping grade from PFF in his first five seasons in the league. Still only in his age 28 season, he should be able to bounce back in a rotational role for this defense. Even with Dalvin Tomlinson gone, the Giants are in good shape at this position with a talented duo of every down players, a promising third base package player, and capable depth.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

While the Giants were deep and talented on the interior last season, almost the opposite was true on the edges. The Giants cycled through six different edge defenders who all played at least 100 snaps on the season and they didn’t get much production out of any of them, with no one topping 4 sacks on the season. Two of those players were Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines, who had potential, but hardly played due to injury, limited to 234 snaps in 5 games and 110 snaps in 4 games respectively. 

Carter and Ximines will return in 2021, as will 2020 7th round pick Carter Coughlin, who struggled on 193 rookie year snaps and may not ultimately make this final roster. Those three holdovers will compete for roles in a wide open, largely overhauled position group that added a pair of players through the draft, 2nd round pick Azeez Ojulari and 4th round pick Elerson Smith, and a pair of veterans in free agency, Ryan Anderson and Ifeadi Odenigbo. 

Ojulari probably has the most upside of the bunch and was a great pick at 50th overall, as he easily could have been a late first round selection, but both of their rookies are raw and obviously unproven. Carter is probably the most proven of the position group, but that says more about the rest of this group than it does about Carter, who has just 9.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 9.3% pressure rate in 35 career games since being selected in the 3rd round by the Giants in 2018. Carter is a solid run defender, can cover as well on occasions, and has earned slightly above average overall grades from PFF in his career, while averaging 40.1 snaps per game, but his chances of being significantly better in his 4th season in the league in 2021 would seem to be reduced by him coming off of a torn achilles.

Ximines isn’t coming off quite as severe of an injury and is also a former 3rd round pick, selected in 2019, but he was mediocre over 502 snaps as a rookie before last year’s lost year due to injury, so, while he does have some upside, it’s hard to depend on anything from him. Free agent additions Ryan Anderson and Ifeadi Odenigbo haven’t shown much in their careers either. Anderson was a second round pick in 2017 by Washington, but he has only had a significant snap count in one of his four seasons in the league, finishing 95th among 121 eligible edge defenders on 551 snaps in 2019 and spending the rest of his career buried on the depth chart. 

Odenigbo, meanwhile, was a 7th round pick in 2017, who played just 7 snaps in his first two seasons, but flashed potential across 368 snaps in 2019, before earning a middling grade in a larger role across 696 snaps in 2020. I wouldn’t expect him to be significantly better in 2021, but he could be a useful part of a rotation. This group has a lot of questions, but they might be able to put together decent play on the edges if they manage their rotation right and young players bounce back from injury and/or take a step forward.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

In the linebacking corps, the Giants got a big boost last off-season with free agent signing Blake Martinez, who signed a 3-year, 30.75 million dollar contract and paid immediate dividends by finishing 7th among off ball linebackers on PFF as an every down 16-game starter. Martinez also has a 18th ranked finish among off ball linebackers in 2018 with the Packers, but he’s still a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he did last season and he’s been pretty inconsistent in his career overall, earning middling grades in his other three of five seasons since being selected in the 4th round in 2016. He could remain an above average every down player and his durability is an asset as well, having played all 64 games while playing 64.3 snaps per game over the past four seasons, but he probably won’t be quite as good as he was last season again.

At the other linebacker spot, the Giants didn’t have nearly as good of an option and instead relied on a trio of Tae Crowder, Devante Downs, and David Mayo, who all saw action at different points of the season, playing 403 snaps, 233 snaps, and 194 snaps respectively. All three struggled mightily though and I wouldn’t expect much to be different in 2021. The one change in this group is Mayo is gone, with another veteran journeyman Reggie Ragland coming in to take his place. Ragland can’t cover at all, but he might be a better run stuffer than any of the three who saw action next to Martinez last season and he’s shown a little bit of potential as an edge rusher and blitzer as well. 

Ragland will probably only be a base package player and has never exceeded 582 snaps in a season in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s not a bad fit in that role. Ragland especially looks like a good option compared to Crowder and Downs, a 2018 undrafted free agent and a 2020 7th round pick who finished 93rd and 81st respectively among 99 eligible off ball linebackers respectively last season in the first significant action of either of their careers. Even in a thin position group, neither is guaranteed a role. This group will once again go as Blake Martinez goes and I would bet against him repeating last year’s career best year.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Giants had some players who saw significant playing time in the secondary last season who struggled, most notably safety Julian Love, who finished 75th among 99 eligible safeties across 722 snaps, and cornerbacks Isaac Yiadom and Darnay Holmes, who both saw action at cornerback, but ranked 82nd and 116th respectively among 136 eligible cornerbacks across 634 snaps and 442 snaps respectively. However, this should be a more talented group in 2021 and it’s very possible those aforementioned players won’t see more than a reserve role.

At safety, the Giants are expecting more from 2020 2nd round pick Xavier McKinney, who suffered a serious injury before the season started and only returned to play 211 snaps as a rotational player in the final six games of the season. Even with last year’s injury plagued season, McKinney still projects as a starter long-term and he flashed plenty of potential in that limited action. He’s a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him be a solid every down starter with upside in his second season in the league.

Jabrill Peppers remains as the other starter. He wasn’t a problem for the Giants last season, earning a middling grade from PFF as a 15-game starter, across a career high 65.7 snaps, but the 2017 1st round pick has yet to live up to the expectations that came with being a high pick or that came with being acquired as part of the Odell Beckham trade. Peppers finished 23rd among safeties across 765 snaps on PFF in his second season in the league with the Browns in 2018, before being traded to the Giants, which seemed like a sign of things to come, but he’s been only a middling starter across 25 starts in 2 years with the Giants. Only going into his age 26 season, he may still have some untapped upside, but he also might just remain a capable, but unspectacular starter.

Hybrid player Logan Ryan also sees some action at safety, although his primary value to this defense is covering the slot. Because of the lack of depth in this group last season, Ryan was forced into playing almost every snap last season, 65.7 snaps per game over 16 games, but I would expect that snap count to come down this season in a deeper group. Peppers and McKinley will be the primary starting safeties, with Ryan mostly working as a slot specialist. 

Ryan has been a middling or better defensive back throughout his 8-year career, but he’s going into his age 30 season now, so it’s probably for the best that his playing time will likely be reduced somewhat. The Giants also still have Julian Love and the 2019 4th round pick did show more promise as a rookie across 408 snaps, but I have a hard time seeing a path to significant playing time for him without someone getting hurt ahead of him on the depth chart.

Love can also play some cornerback, but he won’t be needed for a role there either, with the Giants signing ex-Titan Adoree Jackson to a 3-year, 39 million dollar deal and using a 3rd round pick on Central Florida’s Aaron Robinson. Robinson might not see much action as a rookie, but he’ll provide depth at a position where their other depth options, Isaac Yiadom and Darnay Holmes, have already proven to struggle in significant action, although as a 2018 3rd round pick and a 2020 4th round pick respectively, it’s possible both young players do still have some untapped upside.

Regardless, Adoree Jackson will start at cornerback opposite last year’s big free agent cornerback signing James Bradberry. A solid cover cornerback throughout his first four years in the league with the Panthers, albeit one who frequently ranked among the league leaders in yards allowed while going up against some of the best wide receivers in the league one-on-one in the NFC South, Bradberry took things to another level in his first season in New York, finishing a career high 7th among cornerbacks on PFF. Bradberry is a bit of a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at last season and he might not be as good again in 2021, but he should at least remain an above average starter.

Jackson, meanwhile, was a bit of a surprise free agent this off-season. A first round pick by the Titans in 2017, Jackson seemed like one of the more promising young cornerbacks in the league, finishing 35th, 30th, and 16th respectively among cornerbacks in his first 3 seasons in the league, but knee problems limited him to 155 snaps in 2020 and the cap strapped Titans made the surprising move to release him ahead of a his non-guaranteed 10.244 million dollar 5th year option. 

Jackson wound up getting more money annually from the Giants, which normally isn’t a good thing, but this was such a weird off-season that Jackson’s deal could prove to be a solid value for the Giants if he can stay healthy and pick up where he left off before his injury. Only going into his age 26 season, there is still plenty of time for Jackson to bounce back. If he’s on the field in 2021, he should remain an above average starter and if he’s not, the Giants don’t have terrible depth at the position, even if most of it is young and inexperienced. The Giants are also deep and pretty talented at safety in a secondary that overall has a lot of talent and is noticeably improved from a year ago.

Grade: B+

Kicker/Punter

The Giants had slightly above average special teams, finishing 12th in DVOA, seeing a slight uptick in their first season under new head coach Joe Judge, formerly the Patriots special teams coordinator, as compared to their 17th ranked finish in 2019. The strength of their special teams was their place kicking unit, as Graham Gano went 21/23 on extra points and 31/32 on field goals, including 14/15 from 40+ yards, en route to finishing as PFF’s 7th ranked kicker on the season. Gano has generally been an above average kicker in his career, making 88.2% of his field goals over the past five seasons, with three finishes in the top-11 among kickers on PFF during that stretch. 

On the other hand, Gano struggled mightily on kickoffs, finishing dead last in kickoff grade on PFF, leading to the Giants finishing below average in kickoff DVOA. Gano has been better in that aspect in the past though, finishing in the top-12 on PFF in kickoff grade in seven straight seasons prior to last season, so he should be able to bounce back at least somewhat and be a passable kickoff specialist at worst in 2021.

Punter Riley Dixon was much more middling, finishing 21st among punters last season, which led to the Giants finishing slightly above average in punting DVOA. Dixon has mostly been a capable punter in his 5 seasons in the league, but he’s also never finished higher than 14th among punters on PFF, so he has a pretty limited ceiling and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he struggled a little bit. Gano is definitely the better of their two kicking specialists.

Grade: B+

Return Specialists

The Giants also finished above average in punt return DVOA, averaging 11.4 yards per punt return, 6th in the NFL, led by their top punt returner Jabrill Peppers, who averaged 12.5 yards per return across 15 returns. Peppers hasn’t been as good in the past though, with just an 8.6 yards per punt return average across 74 returns in 4 seasons in the league, so he might not fare as well in 2021 as he did in 2020, but I would expect him to retain the job.

The Giants’ kickoff return team, on the other hand, did not fare as well, ranking 16th with 21.9 yards per return and finishing below average in kickoff DVOA. Dion Lewis, their primary kickoff returner a season ago, averaged just 22.4 yards per return on 24 attempts. He’s no longer with the team, leaving the job up for grabs. Wide receiver Darius Slayton returned 9 kickoffs for an average of 21.0 yards per as a rookie in 2019, but didn’t return any in 2020 and has a significant role on offense. 

CJ Board does not have a big role on offense and returned a couple kickoffs last year, but he’s very inexperienced. Darnay Holmes, a 2020 4th round pick, returned 38 kickoffs for 23.1 yards per return and a touchdown at the collegiate level, but didn’t return any kickoffs as a rookie. It’s very possible that any of the three would struggle if they won the starting job in 2021, so this looks likely to be a weakness again this season. They’ll likely be better on punt returns than kickoff returns, but they also might not be as good on punt returns as they were a year ago.

Grade: B

Special Teamers

The Giants got decent play from their special teamers last season, but one big concern going into 2021 is that veteran special teamer Nate Ebner is not with the team. Ebner led all Giants special teamers with 326 snaps played last season and earned his 8th straight above average grade from PFF, in his first season with the Giants after following his former special teams coordinator Joe Judge from New England, where he spent the first 8 seasons of his career. 

Ebner is still unsigned and it wouldn’t be a surprise for the Giants to bring him back for his age 32 season, but it’s also possible he opts to retire or signs elsewhere. He might be a little past his prime, but he’s also been one of the most accomplished special teamers in the league throughout his career. The Giants also lost David Mayo (204 snaps), but he struggled last season, so he won’t be missed much. The Giants did add some reinforcements in free agency, signing a trio of experienced special teamers in Corey Clement, Chris Milton, and Joshua Kalu, although all three have relatively low upside. 

Milton and Clement have surpassed 200 special teams snaps in their careers on three occasions and two occasions respectively, but have never earned more than middling grades from PFF. Kalu has the most upside of the bunch, flashing across 155 snaps in the first significant special teams experience of his career in 2019, but he was disappointing in a larger role in 2020, earning a middling grade across 274 snaps.

Elijhaa Penny (240 snaps) and Cam Brown (311 snaps) are their best returning special teamers and should be their top special teams players again, after top-100 finishes among special teamers on PFF in 2020, but both are one-year wonders in terms of performing at that level. In Brown’s case, that is because he was a rookie last season, but Penny had been middling at best throughout his first three seasons in the league prior to last season and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both players regress noticeably in 2021.

Devante Downs (251 snaps), Levine Toilolo (152 snaps), Julian Love (188 snaps), and Carter Coughlin (147 snaps) all saw significant action last season as well, but they were middling at best and don’t have a history of being better than they were a year ago. This probably won’t be a bad group and they have plenty of experienced players, but they don’t have enough high upside special teamers for this to be a high upside group.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Giants aren’t regularly talked about as a team that could make a leap in 2021, but quarterback Daniel Jones was better than most realize in his second season in the league last season and, if he can stay healthy, he could easily step a big step forward statistically in his third season in the league, especially with an improved supporting cast. The Giants haven’t always spent their money in the best ways, but they have certainly been aggressive in building around Jones in the past two off-seasons, trying to maximize their window with a quarterback still on a cheap rookie deal. Even with Jones making significantly less than most quarterbacks, the Giants still rank 7th in the league in average annual value of the players they have signed to contracts and, while that doesn’t necessarily mean they have a strong supporting cast, there is a good amount of talent on this roster overall. 

The one big concern is the offensive line, which could derail this offense. The Giants may regret spending more resources on pass catchers and skill position players than offensive linemen, selecting a wide receiver in the first round and spending money that could have been spent on offensive line upgrades to pay Devontae Booker and Kyle Rudolph a combined 8.75 million annually. Still, I would expect this team to be better than most think and contend for a playoff spot in the NFC, even with the division being tougher than last year’s hapless group. They should be at least a capable team on both sides of the ball and have upside for more. I will have a final prediction for the Giants at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

8/8/21: Not much has changed for the Giants, who still figure to be better than expected, but probably not a playoff qualifier.

9/4/21: The Giants are not a bad bet to win the NFC East at 7:2, even though I wouldn’t predict them to do so, as they are a team that should be better than most think.

Prediction: 7-10 3rd in NFC East

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