New York Giants 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Giants made the post-season in 2016 with a record of 11-5, but this offense still had major concerns and they largely went unaddressed  last off-season. The Giants finished the 2016 season ranked 29th in first down rate and, while their defense allowed the lowest first down rate in the league, they still were not as good as their record suggested, as they had a point differential of just +26 and went 8-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

The main reason their offensive issues went unaddressed last off-season is that they had no cap space to work with, after a spending spree on the defense after the 2015 season. That spending spree paid off, as the Giants had a dominant stop unit in 2016, but it left the Giants in a very inflexible cap position. In 2017, the Giants 7 highest cap figures took up a combined 86.521 million, or 52% of the 167 million dollar cap.

Five of those cap figures were defensive players: defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Damon Harrison, and cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. All five played well in 2016, but that was not the case in 2017 and the defense slipped to 15th in first down rate allowed as a result. Considering how reliant they were on their defense to win games in 2016, that had a major negative impact on the team.

Their offense was also worse in 2017. As bad as they were in 2016, the Giants fell to dead last in first down rate in 2017, only picking up first downs at a 28.67% rate. None of the Giants’ offensive issues from the previous season improved and things went from bad to worse when they lost All-Pro wide receiver Odell Beckham with a broken ankle week 5. Before the break, Beckham was already at less than 100% with an ankle injury he suffered in the pre-season. He missed the first game of the season and, though his production in 4 games extrapolates to a 100/1208/12 slash line over 16 games, he did not look nearly as explosive as normal when on the field.

Despite never being at 100%, Beckham was missed immensely when he went down for the year. In the 4 games he played, the Giants picked up first downs at a respectable 33.21% rate, which would have ranked 19th in the NFL last season and would have been a noticeable improvement from 2016. In the 12 games he didn’t play, the Giants picked up first downs at a pathetic 27.13% rate and fell to dead last overall on the season. Their defense was disappointing, but their stagnant offense was the reason they ranked 30th in first down rate differential at -5.08% and finished with a 3-13 record, a year after making the post-season.

Quarterback Eli Manning’s numbers took a big hit without Beckham as well. Manning completed 65.9% of his passes for an average of 6.82 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 4 games with Beckham, but just 60.0% of his passes for an average of 5.77 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions in his other 12 games. Overall on the season, he had a QB rating of 80.4, his 2nd worst in the past 10 seasons and just 26th in the NFL out of 32 eligible quarterbacks.

Manning hasn’t been the same quarterback in years though. He was just exposed more than normal last season without his best weapon. Manning has earned a negative grade from Pro Football Focus in 5 straight seasons, finishing 31st among 36 eligible quarterbacks in 2016 and 34th among 40 eligible quarterbacks in 2017. Over those 5 seasons, he’s completed just 61.7% of his passes for an average of 6.86 YPA, 128 touchdowns, and 84 interceptions, a QB rating of just 84.7, which ranks 29th over that time period out of 33 quarterbacks with 1000+ passing attempts. Now going into his age 37 season, Manning is unlikely to get better going forward.

Manning was actually briefly benched for Geno Smith last season, a bizarre decision that probably got head coach Ben McAdoo fired. I understand wanting to give other quarterbacks a look in a lost season, but Smith is a tried and failed starter who was going to be a free agent at the end of the season, so there wasn’t much point in giving him a try. Perhaps even more bizarre is the fact that the Giants went immediately back to Manning after just one start and started him for the rest of the season, never giving 3rd round rookie Davis Webb a shot. Unlike Smith, Webb has developmental potential and is under contract inexpensively for another 3 seasons. Looking at a high pick in a good quarterback draft, it would have made sense to at least see if he could show more in game action than he did in practice.

The Giants ultimately opted against taking a quarterback with their 2nd overall pick and instead took Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, who most considered the top overall prospect in the draft and one of the top running back prospects of the past 15 years. It’s an understandable move from the Giants’ perspective. They made the post-season 2 seasons ago. They’ve seen the Cowboys and Jaguars use high picks on running backs in the past two drafts and make it to the post-season. Barkley might not make the most long-term sense, considering career length and injury proneness of running backs, but for a team that believes they’re in win now mode, it’s an understandable decision.

However, this was a deep running back draft and a talented young quarterback on a cheap rookie deal is the most valuable asset in the NFL. With Manning owed 33 million over the next 2 seasons, he is basically the opposite of that. The Giants had their choice of 3 quarterbacks who would eventually go in the top-10, including eventual 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold. They could have taken one, sat him behind Manning for a year, and then moved on from Manning next off-season, saving 17 million in the process, which could have been used to address other needs.

The Giants aren’t quite as top heavy cap wise as last season, but their top 6 cap figures combine for 80 million, which is about 45.1% of this season’s 177.2 million dollar cap. Justin Pugh, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are no longer with the team, but the Giants added left tackle Nate Solder on a 4-year, 62 million dollar deal this off-season and Odell Beckham is now making 8.459 million in the final year of his rookie deal.

With Beckham due an extension worth upwards of 17+ million annually (the current highest annual salary for a wide receiver), the Giants would really benefit from being able to get out from Manning’s contract at some point soon. Instead, the Giants look locked into Manning for at least one, probably two more seasons at least. On top of that, because of the relatively low salaries of the highest paid running backs, the Giants are also locked into a rookie deal with Saquon Barkley that makes him the 4th highest paid running back in the NFL in average annual salary, before he even takes a snap.

They Giants used a 4th round pick on Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta, but he’s a developmental prospect at best. Considering Davis Webb couldn’t even get on the field last year, he doesn’t seem particularly close to being a reliable starting option either. Manning’s numbers should be better in 2018 with Beckham healthy, but this wasn’t even a good offense with Beckham healthy in 2016 and now Manning is two years older. The Giants may regret not taking their quarterback of the future when they had the chance.

Grade: C

Running Backs

The Giants are hoping that plugging in Saquon Barkley at running back will give this offense the big boost they need. Even assuming Barkley definitely pans out and ignoring the history of running back busts in the top-10, he alone can’t make this an above average offense. Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette have made the post-season as top-5 pick rookies in each of the past two seasons, but Elliott joined a Dallas team with a great offensive line and he played a talented rookie quarterback, while Fournette actually struggled down the stretch with injuries for the Jaguars and was not the primary reason why they made the post-season, as they were led by a dominant stop unit.

Barkley will definitely give a boost to their running game though and the Giants need one badly, as they haven’t averaged more than 4 yards per carry since the 2012 season. Barkley is a freak athlete who runs a 4.40 40 at 6-0 233. He has incredible college tape and not just as a runner, as he’s a very refined pass catcher and pass protector for a rookie and could immediately push for 50 catches in an every down role. They’ll make him earn his playing time, but it would be a surprise if he wasn’t an every down player for them down the stretch. He could easily surpass 300 touches as a rookie.

The Giants also added Jonathan Stewart this off-season on a 2-year, 6.8 million dollar deal. That deal didn’t make any sense at the time and it made even less sense after they used the 2nd overall pick on Barkley. Once a solid runner, Stewart has averaged just 3.62 YPC over the past 2 seasons with the Panthers and is now going into his age 31 season. He’s also not much use on passing downs, with 162 catches in 131 career games, so the Giants are paying a significantly salary for a running back who will purely be an early down backup and who hasn’t been good in years. He was Pro Football Focus’ 54th ranked running back out of 60 eligible last season.

Stewart will compete for the #2 running back job with 2nd year back Wayne Gallman, who actually flashed on 111 carries as a rookie, averaging 4.29 yards per carry. With young, fresh legs Gallman is undoubtedly the better option of the two, but GM Dave Gettleman seems to have fond memories of Stewart from their time together with the Panthers and his salary suggests he’ll see more carries than Gallman. Gallman is also not much use on passing downs (4.02 yards per target on 48 targets as a rookie), so Barkley will handle the vast majority of passing downs, with Gallman and Stewart spelling him on early downs. After averaging 603 pass attempts over the past 2 seasons, the Giants will probably try to hide Manning with their running game a lot more in 2018.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

One fix for their cap woes that the Giants reportedly entertained this off-season was trading Odell Beckham, although no team came close to offering them their reportedly asking price of two first round picks. A top-13 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 3 seasons in the league before the lost year due to injury in 2017, Beckham is only going into his age 26 season and, even with the uncertainty coming off of the ankle injury, he’s worth paying around the highest paid wide receiver in the league, currently Antonio Brown at 17 million annually.

The problem is Beckham reportedly wants to reset the non-quarterback market and make upwards of 20 million annually on his next deal, a number the Giants have shown no interest in offering him. Not only do they have major cap problems, but they’re also transitioning to more of a run heavy offense and don’t want to be locked into paying a wide receiver that kind of money if his production is going to be reduced on a team that isn’t throwing 600+ times per season anymore.

If no deal is reached by the start of free agency next off-season, the Giants will undoubtedly franchise tag him, but Beckham has been putting pressure on the front office since last off-season for a new deal and has not softened his tone following his injury, so he could hold out next off-season if franchise tagged and force the Giants to trade him. Beckham made some noise about a holdout earlier this off-season, but he reported for minicamp and told reporters he would report to training camp as well, but next off-season might be a different story. For now, his return will be a big boost to a passing game that lacked life without him last season.

The Giants also lost veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall for the season at the same time they lost Beckham last season, but Marshall did very little through 5 games and was not really missed. Owed 5.5 million non-guaranteed in his age 34 season in 2018, he was an easy cap casualty decision this off-season. Slot receiver Sterling Shepard also got hurt at the same time, though he eventually returned to play another 6 games down the stretch.

Despite only playing 11 games, Shepard caught 59 passes for a team leading 731 yards and he was also their only wide receiver to earn a positive from PFF. He might not have the same production in 2018 though, even if he plays all 16 games. While he averaged 9.0 targets per game in 7 games without Beckham, that number dropped to 5.3 in 4 games with him. With Beckham returning from injury and more of an emphasis on the run, Shepard might not get enough targets to have a big statistical year.

Shepard will also play more on the outside this season. He played 89.7% of the snaps in the 11 games he played last season, so he was almost an every down player, but he ran just 71 of his 439 routes from the outside, as the Giants threw almost exclusively out of 3 wide receiver sets. With the Giants going more run heavy in 2018, they are likely to use fewer 3 wide receiver sets, which means Shepard will have to see more playing time outside, even in passing situations.

While he averaged 1.74 yards per route run on the slot last season, he averaged just 1.38 yards per route run on the outside and that’s a trend that dates back to his rookie year, when he averaged just 0.55 yards per route run on the outside. A 2016 2nd round pick, Shepard should be a dangerous slot weapon in his 3rd season in the league, but he’s undersized at 5-10 194 and the Giants may continue struggling to get the ball to him on the outside.

Rookie tight end Evan Engram also had a productive year in Beckham’s absence, catching 64 passes for 722 yards and 6 touchdowns, actually the 3rd most receiving yards by a rookie tight end since the switch to a 16 game season in 1978. He wasn’t as good as his numbers suggested though, as those numbers came on 115 targets. Quarterbacks had just a 77.5 QB rating when targeting him and he dropped 11 passes on the season, most in the NFL among tight ends. He actually had a negative pass catching grade overall from PFF and, thanks to his awful run blocking, he finished as PFF’s 71st ranked tight end overall out of 72 eligible.

That being said, he flashed his obvious athleticism and if he can keep developing and become surer handed he can develop into one of the best pass catching tight ends in the league. The 6-3 240 pounder will likely never be a good blocker, but he can be a matchup nightmare in the passing game. However, with Beckham coming back and more of an emphasis on the running game, I wouldn’t be surprised if he failed to match last season’s production, even if he actually becomes a more effective player on a per target or per route run basis. He won’t see 115 targets again.

Engram has the athleticism to move all around the formation, which they did with him last season, when he ran 136 of his 526 routes on the slot and another 69 routes split out wide. They figure to continue doing that in 2018. With Marshall not coming back, free agent acquisition Cody Latimer is penciled in as the 3rd receiver, playing outside opposite Beckham when Shepard moves to the slot, but Engram could see time outside in those situations as well and the Giants also have Roger Lewis in the mix for snaps.

Regardless of whether Lewis or Latimer wins the #3 receiver job, it figures to be a position of weakness. Lewis actually led all Giants wide receivers with 693 snaps last season, given all of the players who missed time, but he did not play well, managing just a 36/416/2 slash line on 72 targets and finishing 111th among 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF in the first significant action of the 2016 undrafted free agent’s career. He likely won’t be better in 2018.

Latimer, on the other hand, is a 2014 2nd round pick, but he’s actually less experienced than Lewis, playing just 826 snaps in 4 seasons in the league. Half of his career 35 catches came last season, when he caught 19 passes for 283 yards and 2 touchdowns on a career high 380 snaps, earning the first positive grade of his career for a season. Only going into his age 26 season, he still has some upside and the Giants are taking a chance that he’ll be better on his 2nd contract, giving him a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal in free agency, but he’s a projection to a larger role and likely won’t see many targets behind Beckham, Shepard, Engram, and Barkley on a run heavy team.

Run blocking tight end Rhett Ellison will also be in the mix for a role. A hybrid who also sees snaps at full back, Ellison played 538 snaps last season and will likely see a similar role, if not a bigger one on a team that will run the ball more in 2018. Ellison has never topped 24 passes in a season and that largely came out of desperation last season on a team with few options in the passing game, but he’s consistently one of the best run blocking tight ends in the league. He’s earned a positive run blocking grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league and finished last season 9th among tight ends on PFF in run blocking grade. He won’t see as many balls go his way on a much deeper receiving corps this season, but he’ll still be an important part of this team, given how much they want to run the football.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Even with good skill position talent around Manning, the Giants’ offense could be derailed by poor offensive line play again. The Giants have had offensive line problems for years, but they were even worse upfront last season, with their top two offensive linemen Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg missing most of the season with injury. Rather than re-sign Pugh and/or Richburg this off-season as free agents, they let them take deals worth 45.025 million over 5 years from the Cardinals and 47.5 million over 5 years from the 49ers respectively, and then they used pretty much all of their available cap space to sign ex-Patriots left tackle Nate Solder to a deal worth 62 million over 4 years.

Solder undoubtedly plays a more valuable position than Pugh or Richburg, neither of whom are left tackles, but the Giants are still paying him more than any other offensive linemen in the league in average annual salary. That may change in a few months, with players like Jake Matthews and Taylor Lewan going into the final year of their rookie deals in 2018, but Solder will remain one of the highest paid offensive linemen in the league throughout the duration of his contract, even though he’s never been an elite left tackle and now is going into his age 30 season.

A 7-year veteran, Solder’s best seasons have come in 2012, 2013, and 2016, when he’s finished 18th, 15th, and 12th respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but in his other 4 seasons he’s been about average and he’s dealt with several injuries in recent years. He made all 16 starts last season, but only finished 35th among offensive tackles on PFF and is now going into the later stages of his career. He fills a huge need for the Giants and this was not a good off-season to need left tackle help, but he was an irresponsible overpay for a team that already had major salary cap problems and that had needs at several other positions.

Solder will move incumbent left tackle Ereck Flowers over to the right side. Selected 9th overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, Flowers has been overmatched at left tackle in 3 seasons in the league and the Giants are finally giving up on him at that position. He made 46 of 48 starts in 3 seasons at left tackle, but has finished in the bottom-20 among offensive tackles on PFF in all 3 seasons. When the Giants signed Solder, they said Flowers would have to compete for the job at right tackle, though it’s unclear who he’ll be competing with, as the Giants did not add any viable competition for him this off-season.

Chad Wheeler is the only player who started at right tackle for them last season that was brought back this off-season and the 2017 undrafted free agent struggled in 5 starts as a rookie. None of their other offensive tackles have any NFL experience. Only going into his age 24 season, Flowers still has upside and could be better at his new position. I would expect him to be able to beat out Wheeler, although their long-term plan is still unclear, after declining Flowers’ 12.525 million dollar option for 2019 this off-season. They reportedly tried trading him during the draft, despite not taking a single offensive tackle all weekend, and this could easily be his final year with the Giants even if he is better on the right side.

While they didn’t draft an offensive tackle, did take a guard, using the 34th overall pick at the top of the 2nd round on UTEP guard Will Hernandez. A massive run blocker who was expected by many to go in the first round, Hernandez is a plug and play starter for the Giants at a position of need. He’ll compete with veterans John Jerry and Patrick Omameh for one of the two starting guard jobs and it would be a surprise if he wasn’t a starter at one of the two spots week 1.

John Jerry made all 16 starts last season, making starts at both guard spots, and he was arguably their best offensive lineman, although that isn’t saying much. He finished slightly above average on PFF and has 101 starts in his career, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and has finished below average on PFF in 6 of 8 seasons in the league. He’s not a terrible starting option, but he’s not a reliable option either.

With Omameh coming in on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal, Jerry is not a lock to remain a starter and would likely be cut loose if he can win a starting job, owed 2 million non-guaranteed. Omameh is experienced too, with 45 starts the past 4 seasons, and he’s younger than Jerry, going into his age 29 season, but he’s been pretty mediocre in his career and finished last season 45th out of 80 eligible guards with the Jaguars. He’s unlikely to be an upgrade over Jerry.

At center, Brett Jones, who made the final 12 starts in place of an injured Weston Richburg last season, will compete with Jon Halapio, a converted guard who the Giants have been impressed with at his new position this off-season. Jones wasn’t bad last season, finishing as PFF’s 17th ranked center, but the 2013 undrafted free agent had just 82 career snaps going into 2017, so he’s a one-year wonder at best. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued playing well though, still only in his age 26 season. Halapio, meanwhile, was a 6th round pick in 2014 and struggled on 403 snaps at guard last season in the first significant action of his career. Even if the off-season reviews of his move to center have been positive, Jones is probably the better option. This is an improved offensive line by default, but they still have major issues.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

In 2016, this defense was so dominant because they got incredible seasons from 6 players: defensive tackle Damon Harrison, defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon, cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and safety Landon Collins. Harrison finished 4th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, Pierre-Paul and Vernon finished 5th and 4th respectively among 4-3 defensive ends, Jenkins and Rodgers-Cromartie finished 7th and 4th respectively among cornerbacks, and Collins finished 2nd among safeties.

Of those 6, only Harrison had the same kind of season in 2017, actually moving up to 3rd among defensive tackles on PFF. The Giants made some major changes on defense this off-season, cutting Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and trading Jason Pierre-Paul to the Buccaneers for a 3rd round pick in a pair of moves that saved them 18 million in cash for 2018. The Giants will also transition to a 3-4 defense, as new head coach Pat Shurmur brings ex-Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher with him. Bettcher has done a great job with the Cardinals’ defense in the past 3 seasons, but was left without a job when Bruce Arians retired this off-season.

Regardless of the scheme, Damon Harrison will continue to anchor their run defense in base packages. The 6-4 345 pounder isn’t a great pass rusher, with 5.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hits in 5 seasons as a starter, but he’s finished in the top-4 among defensive tackles in run stop grade in all 5 of those seasons, including 3 seasons finishing #1 overall in that metric, and he’s capable enough as a pass rusher to stay in for some sub packages, playing about 60% of the snaps over the past 2 seasons, despite his size. Now in a 3-4 defense that he fits like a glove, he should continue playing a similar role. He may begin to decline soon, in his age 30 season, but he should remain a dominant run player for at least another couple seasons. Of all their free agent signings two off-seasons ago, he was their best, coming over from the Jets on a 5-year, 46.25 million dollar deal.

Dalvin Tomlinson is also coming off of a strong season as the other starting defensive tackle with Harrison, finishing 14th among defensive tackles on 588 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2017, replacing free agent departure Johnathan Hankins. Tomlinson will move to defensive end in base packages in this new defense, but he’s familiar with 3-4 schemes from his time at the University of Alabama, so he should have another strong season in the new defense. He’s a promising young defensive linemen, but, like Harrison, he isn’t much of a pass rusher. While he ranked 9th among defensive tackles in run stopping grade, he had just 1 sacks, 0 quarterback hits, and 12 hurries on 276 pass rush snaps.

Jay Bromley was their 3rd defensive tackle last season, playing 424 snaps, but he’s no longer with the team, so free agent acquisition Josh Mauro and 3rd round rookie BJ Hill will compete for snaps at the other defensive end spot in base packages. Mauro is familiar with James Bettcher’s system from Arizona and is a capable run stuffer, but he doesn’t get much pass rush either and has never played more than 389 snaps in 4 seasons in the league.

Mauro is also suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, which could give Hill the opportunity to take the job and run with it, but he’s also not much of a pass rusher. The Giants also used a 5th round pick on a defensive lineman, taking Miami’s RJ McIntosh. The 6-5 286 pounder slipped because of his lack of size, but he could prove to be a steal for a Giants team that desperately needs interior pass rushers. He could have an immediate role in sub packages. This will be a strong run stopping defensive line, but don’t expect many sacks unless McIntosh has a breakout rookie season.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Giants only had 27 sacks as a team last season, 3rd fewest in the NFL, and defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul combined for 15 of those sacks. JPP was underwhelming by his standards in 2017, finishing 33rd among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but he had 8 sacks, 5 hits, and 40 hurries on 585 pass rush snaps and played solid run defense as well, so they’ll definitely miss him now that he’s in Tampa Bay.

The Giants trading him for a 3rd round pick seems like an odd move for a franchise that otherwise seemed to be in win now mode this off-season, especially since they already paid 22.5 million of the 4-year, 62 million dollar deal they re-signed him to last off-season, but the Giants would not have been able to afford Nate Solder if they kept JPP, so they effectively choose the pass protector over the pass rusher. He also was a questionable fit in their new 3-4 defense.

Olivier Vernon is also on a big contract, signing for 85 million over 5 years as a free agent two off-seasons ago, coming over from the Miami Dolphins. He lived up to the contract in the first year of the deal, finishing 4th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF, a year after finishing 1st among 4-3 defensive ends with the Dolphins in 2015, but he slipped to 22nd in 2017. All in all, he has 23 sacks and 50 quarterback hits over the past 3 seasons combined, while playing strong run defense, and he’s only going into his age 28 season, so he could easily have another strong season in 2018. He’s never played in a 3-4 defense before, but projects as a good fit and is a talented edge rusher in sub packages, regardless of the scheme.

Without Pierre-Paul, the Giants have a big hole opposite Vernon. They used a 3rd round pick on Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter and also bring in Kareem Martin, who follows James Bettcher and Josh Mauro from Arizona. Those two will compete for playing time and both could easily struggle. Carter enters the league as a raw rookie, while Martin spent the first 4 seasons of his career as a rotational player with the Cardinals, maxing out at 457 snaps in a season and finishing below average on PFF in 3 of 4 seasons. Both are significant downgrades opposite Vernon. 2017 5th round pick Avery Moss, 2014 undrafted free agent Kerry Wynn, and 2016 undrafted free agent Romeo Okwara could also be in the mix for snaps, but all three are bottom of the roster talents that lack a clear position in this new 3-4 defense. None of them should be considered roster locks.

The Giants did make a big money addition at middle linebacker this off-season, trading a 4th and 6th round pick to the Rams for Alec Ogletree. The Rams gave Ogletree a 4-year, 42.75 million dollar extension with an 8 million dollar signing bonus last October, but he proved to be a poor fit in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense and probably never should have been given that extension, as he’s never been better than a league average starter in 4 seasons in the league. He finished last season as PFF’s 43rd ranked middle linebacker out of 52 eligible in his first season in a 3-4 defense. Given that, it’s definitely strange that the cap strapped Giants, who run a 3-4 defense, would trade a draft pick to acquire him, despite a 10 million dollar guaranteed salary for 2018.

Only going into his age 27 season, the 2013 first round pick still has upside and he upgrades a position that was a major problem for the Giants last season, but he’s unlikely to be worth his salary. The Giants restructured his deal so his cap number is just 4.75 million this season instead of 10 million, but the Giants now will accumulate 5.25 million in dead cap if they release him after the season and his cap number is now 1.75 million higher in each of the next final 3 seasons of the deal: 11.75 million in 2019, 11.75 million in 2020, and 10.75 million in 2021. For a team that already has cap problems without having locked up Odell Beckham long-term, he may be tough to keep around long-term.

In the short term, he should be an upgrade, as the Giants had arguably the worst linebacking corps in the NFL last season. The Giants also get BJ Goodson back after he was limited to 374 snaps in 7 games by injury last season and he figures to start in the other middle linebacker spot next to Ogletree. The 2016 4th round pick only played 13 snaps as a rookie, but he was supposed to be an every down player last season before the injuries struck and he flashed against the run in limited action, so he should get another crack at the starting job, with the Giants lacking a better option. Outside of Olivier Vernon, this is a pretty underwhelming group and they will miss Jason Pierre-Paul presence as an edge rusher opposite Vernon.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Giants also got rid of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie this off-season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback in 2016, but fell to 63rd in 2017 and the Giants did not think he was worth his 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for his age 32 season in 2018. Janoris Jenkins also disappointed in 2017, finishing 55th among cornerbacks on PFF while missing 7 games with injury, after finishing 7th in the first year of a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal in 2016.

He remains with the team though and will get a chance to redeem himself in 2018. The problem is he’s going into his age 30 season and is a one-year wonder in terms of being the top level cornerback he was in 2016, finishing no better than 24th in his other 5 seasons in the league. He has experience, making 81 starts in 84 games over the past 6 seasons, and he may bounce back a little bit, but his best days are probably behind him and I wouldn’t expect him to regain his 2016 form.

With Jenkins missing time, Ross Cockrell played 679 snaps last season, earning a positive grade, but he’s no longer with the team either, signing with the Panthers as a free agent. That leaves Eli Apple locked in as the starter opposite Jenkins, a big leap from where he was towards the end of last season, when he was a healthy scratch and did not get along with the coaching staff and some teammates. The new coaching staff is giving him a fresh start and the 2016 1st round pick certainly has talent and could have a breakout season in his 3rd year in the league in 2018, but he’s been underwhelming thus far in his career and has made just 18 of 32 starts, so he’s not a proven starter.

The Giants also have little depth behind Jenkins and Apple, so much so that Sam Beal, who the Giants just selected in the 3rd round of the supplemental draft, could open the season as the 3rd cornerback if he can learn the playbook in time. Considered a borderline first round pick in 2019 if he had stayed at Western Michigan, Beal decided to leave the team for academic reasons and declare for the supplemental draft, where he could prove to be a steal for the Giants if he pans out. His biggest competition will be William Gay. Gay has had a history of success covering the slot over the years and has made 102 starts in 11 seasons in the league, but he’s now going into his age 33 season and was underwhelming on 264 snaps as the 4th cornerback with the Steelers in 2017. He’ll likely cede snaps to Beal by mid-season. Both players could easily struggle, for different reasons.

Safety Landon Collins also wasn’t as good in 2017 as he was in 2016, falling from 2nd to 7th among safeties, but he still had a strong season and was the Giants best defensive back. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Collins struggled as a rookie, but he’s been one of the top safeties in the league over the past 2 seasons and is still only in his age 24 season. The problem for the Giants is they’ll have to give him a big extension to keep him long-term, as he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal. If the Giants can’t come to an agreement with Odell Beckham, they may turn their focus to Collins so they’ll have the franchise tag available for Beckham next off-season. Collins could also be a franchise tag candidate if Beckham gets extended this year.

Fellow starting safety Darian Thompson finishes off this secondary. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Thompson made all 16 starts in 2017, after being limited to just 88 snaps by injury as a rookie, but he didn’t play all that well, finishing 76th among 89 eligible safeties. It’s possible he could face competition this off-season from Andrew Adams, who earned a positive grade in 13 starts as an undrafted rookie in Thompson’s absence in 2016, but Adams was underwhelming on 275 snaps in 2017 and the Giants still like Thompson’s upside long-term. Now in his 3rd season in the league, he could take a step forward in 2018. Led by Jenkins and Collins, this is a solid secondary, but they have concerns at the other cornerback and safety spots.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Giants should be healthier in 2018 and added Saquon Barkley at the top of the draft, which gives their offense an immediate boost, but don’t expect them to get back to the post-season in the loaded NFC. They have too much ground to climb and still have way too many flaws to be a competitive team in their conference, especially on a defense that basically carried them to the post-season in 2016. If they don’t do well in close games against tough competition, they could easily end up with a top-5 pick again and, even with an average record in close games, they could finish in the basement of the NFC East for the second straight season.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Washington Redskins at New York Giants: 2017 Week 17 NFL Pick

Washington Redskins (7-8) at New York Giants (2-13)

The Redskins got off to a disappointing 5-8 start, but that was largely the result of a tough schedule, as they had the toughest schedule in the league through 13 games. Their schedule has gotten a lot easier over the past few weeks and they have gotten better results because of that, as they have beaten the Cardinals and Broncos in Washington by scores of 20-15 and 27-11 in the past two weeks, covering the spread in both games.

This week, they are 3-point road favorites in New York against the Giants, who have the 2nd worst record in the league at 2-13. Making matters even worse for the Giants, they enter this game very banged up, as safety Landon Collins, tight end Evan Engram, and wide receiver Sterling Shepard have all gone down in the last week. The Giants struggled mightily on the road in Arizona last week in a 23-0 loss, especially struggling after those players went down with injuries.

The Redskins have a good chance to cover this spread, but I’m not that confident in them because they aren’t healthy either, losing left tackle Trent Williams, center Spencer Long, running backs Rob Kelley and Christian Thompson, wide receiver Terrelle Pryor, tight end Jordan Reed, defensive end Jonathan Allen, middle linebackers Zach Brown and Mason Foster, and safety Montae Nicholson since the start of the season. If this was earlier in the season when the Redskins were competitive with teams like the Seahawks, Saints, Rams, Chiefs, and Vikings, I would take the Redskins in a heartbeat, but I only have this line calculated at Washington -4 because of the Redskins’ injury situation, so this is just a low confidence pick.

Washington Redskins 24 New York Giants 20

Pick against the spread: Washington -3

Confidence: Low

New York Giants at Arizona Cardinals: 2017 Week 16 NFL Pick

New York Giants (2-12) at Arizona Cardinals (6-8)

This is one of the cases where I wish I had taken the early line last week, as the Cardinals were ridiculous 7-point favorites over the Giants last week on the early line. The line has since moved to 3.5. The Giants played decent last week in a close home loss to the Eagles, while the Cardinals lost by 5 in Washington, but those aren’t the kind of results that typically trigger significant line movements like that. Perhaps the odds makers just realized they had made a big mistake with the original line.

Even at 3.5, I still like the Giants a little bit, as I have the Cardinals only favored by a point. They’ve benched quarterback Blaine Gabbert, just a couple weeks after weirdly talking him up as a potential quarterback of the future, and will turn back to veteran Drew Stanton, who is arguably worse. He hasn’t completed more than 50% of his passes or averaged more than 6 yards per attempt since 2014 and has more interceptions than touchdowns in his career. He’s also playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in football, with 4 of their 5 week 1 starters out for the season upfront, and he doesn’t have a running game to support him, with both David Johnson and Adrian Peterson out for the season as well.

Defensively, they are a solid unit, but not as good as they were earlier in the season, before safety Tyvon Branch and outside linebacker Markus Golden got hurt. The Giants arguably have the better defense in this one, in addition to having the better quarterback. That will depend in large part on whether or not safety Landon Collins plays through his ankle injury this week, but I think the Giants are worth a small bet at 3.5 even with his status uncertain. About 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less and the Cardinals have just 3 wins by more than a field goal all season.

Arizona Cardinals 17 New York Giants 16

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants: 2017 Week 15 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (11-2) at New York Giants (2-11)

The Eagles may have won the battle and lost the war in last week’s big road upset victory in Los Angeles over the Rams, as they have lost quarterback Carson Wentz for the season with a torn ACL. It’s a huge blow to this team’s Super Bowl chances, but I don’t think it’s a completely crippling blow. Prior to the season, I had the Eagles getting a first round bye in the NFC and I wasn’t even completely sold on Wentz at the time. This team is a lot more than just Wentz, even as Wentz was in the middle of an MVP caliber season.

Wentz isn’t the only player the Eagles have lost since the start of the year, as guys like left tackle Jason Peters, middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, and running back Darren Sproles are out for the season, but no one is completely healthy at this point in the season. The Eagles still have a strong supporting cast, including a talented defense and one of the best offensive lines in football. Foles is obviously a downgrade from Wentz, but he’s one of the better backup quarterbacks in the league and has some success as a starting quarterback. He struggled with the Rams in 2015, but that could easily be the result of terrible coaching by Jeff Fisher’s staff. Both Case Keenum and Jared Goff lead NFC contenders right now after getting away from Fisher’s coaching, so why couldn’t Foles at least capture some of his pre-Rams form, back when he was a low end starter at worst with Chip Kelly’s Eagles.

Given all that, I was expecting to make a bet on the Eagles this week in New York against the Giants, but, for some reason, this line barely moved from last week to this week, despite the Wentz injury. Favored by 8.5 points on the early line last week, the Eagles are still favored by 7.5 this week, line movement that is almost completely meaningless. The Giants did lose talented safety Landon Collins possibly for the season last week, but that doesn’t nearly cancel out the loss of Wentz. The Giants didn’t even look that bad last week, keeping it tied with the Cowboys until the 4th quarter, when the Cowboys ripped off a few big plays to pull ahead. If they are motivated for this divisional matchup, they could definitely keep it close. With that in mind, I’m taking the Giants at +7.5, albeit for a no confidence pick. This is just too much line value to pass on.

Philadelphia Eagles 24 New York Giants 17

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +7.5

Confidence: None

Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants: 2017 Week 14 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (6-6) at New York Giants (2-10)

Earlier this week, when I saw talented linebacker Sean Lee would be returning for the Cowboys this week, I considering placing a bet on them in this game in New York against the Giants. The Cowboys still obviously miss Ezekiel Elliott, but they got Tyron Smith back two weeks ago and now get Sean Lee back, so they are rounding back into form. Given how well backup running back Alfred Morris has performed in Elliott’s absence, the loss of Smith and Lee were possibly even more harmful to this team than the loss of Elliott, even though Elliott’s absence has gotten the most media attention.

Lee’s absence was particularly harmful, as their defense struggled mightily without him. Unfortunately, the Cowboys will not be at full strength defensively, with talented interior pass rusher David Irving being ruled out with a concussion, so they are no longer as attractive of a bet as they were earlier in the week. Losing Irving doesn’t hurt as much as losing Lee did, but his absence is still big, especially since they lack a clear replacement. When he returned to the lineup following a 4-game suspension to start the season, it had a notice impact on the interior of the Cowboys’ defensive line.

There are still a couple reasons why the Cowboys are a smart pick though. For one, they typically play pretty well on the road, because they have a national fanbase.  They are 33-28 on the road since 2010 (35-26 ATS), with a scoring differential of -0.07 points per game, as opposed to 32-33 at home (23-42 ATS), with a scoring differential of +1.26 points per game. On top of that, the Giants are in a tough spot because they have an even tougher game on deck with the Eagles coming to town. Teams are 25-46 ATS since 2012 before being home underdogs of 7+, which the Giants almost definitely will be next week. If they get down early in this one, they could quit with another tough game on deck. This is just a low confidence pick at 3.5, but if this line drops down to 3 before game time, I’d consider a bet on Dallas.

Dallas Cowboys 23 New York Giants 17

Pick against the spread: Dallas -3.5

Confidence: Low

New York Giants at Oakland Raiders: 2017 Week 13 NFL Pick

New York Giants (2-9) at Oakland Raiders (5-6)

Prior to the Giants benching Eli Manning, I was considering making a bet on the Giants this week. They obviously have major issues on offense, but their defense has been a lot better in the past 2 weeks since they’ve gotten healthy, playing well against both the Chiefs and the Redskins. I thought the Giants’ defense could keep it close against an Oakland team that is missing its top-2 wide receivers, Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper, who are out with suspension and injury respectively, especially since the Raiders don’t have a lot of big wins over the past couple seasons. Just 5 of their 17 wins over the past 2 seasons have come by more than 8 points, relevant considering this line is 9. Their average margin of victory in those 17 wins is 7.41 points per game.

On top of that, the Giants are in a great spot as road underdogs in their 2nd of two road games off of a road loss. Teams are 119-77 ATS in that spot since 2008. That’s because teams typically do better in their second of two road games, as opposed to a single road game sandwiched between two home games, but lines don’t really adjust for that. Teams are 256-269 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.78 points per game, as opposed to 377-521 straight up in a road game that’s sandwiched between two home games, getting outscored by an average of 2.96 points per game, a difference of about 2 points.

All that being said, I can’t be confident in the Giants with Geno Smith under center instead of Eli. The line did shift 2 points from 7 to 9 with the announcement of Smith as the starter, which, on paper, seems like an appropriate line movement (I have the dropoff from Manning to Smith as worth 3 points). However, this is a veteran team that might quit on the coaching staff now that they’ve benched their quarterback. Benching Eli is clearly not a move the Giants made to try to win now and that might send a bad message to the locker room. On top of that, cornerback Janoris Jenkins was put on injured reserve mid-week with an ankle injury, while stud nose tackle Damon Harrison is highly questionable after missing practice all week with an elbow injury. I’m taking the Giants for pick ‘em purposes, but I can’t be confident in them this week.

Oakland Raiders 20 New York Giants 12

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +9

Confidence: None

New York Giants at Washington Redskins: 2017 Week 12 NFL Pick

New York Giants (2-8) at Washington Redskins (4-6)

Both of these teams come into this game in a terrible spot, as both played games that went to overtime last week and the history of teams playing an overtime game on Sunday and then playing again on Thursday is not good. Teams are 3-21 ATS in that spot all-time as long as they are facing an opponent who is not coming off of an overtime game. Unfortunately, because both of these teams are coming off of overtime games, that trend isn’t useful in evaluating this game.

That’s not the only bad spot these teams are in either. The Redskins lost in overtime in New Orleans last week and home teams tend to struggle off of a road overtime loss anyway (43% cover since 1989), while the Giants won at home as double digit underdogs against the Giants and teams also tend to struggle after a big home upset win anyway (44% cover since 1989 after a win as 4+ point home underdogs). The Redskins are coming off of a huge blown 4th quarter lead, while the Giants are coming off of arguably their Super Bowl, so I don’t expect either teams’ best effort on a short week this week, especially since both teams are coming off of overtime games.

Neither team has an easy upcoming matchup either, as the Giants turn around and go to Oakland, while the Redskins turn around and go to Dallas. Underdogs of 6+ are 56-92 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs of 6+ again, which the Giants likely will be next week (the early line has them -7 in Oakland). Meanwhile, divisional home favorites are 24-62 ATS since 2002 before being divisional road underdogs, which the Redskins likely will be next week (the early line has them -3 in Dallas). I’m taking the Giants because I have this line calculated at 6.5, so we’re getting some line value with them as 7 point underdogs, but it’s not nearly enough for me to be confident at all in them, especially since they’re in a terrible spot.

Washington Redskins 19 New York Giants 13

Pick against the spread: NY Giants +7

Confidence: None