2016 record: 11-5, lost NFC Wild Card round
Point differential: +26
Turnover ratio: -2
The Giants shook things up prior to the 2016 season, parting ways with longtime coach Tom Coughlin and revamping the defense. Rookie head coach Ben McAdoo brought energy and helped navigate Eli Manning, Odell Beckham and a great secondary to an impressive 11 wins. In snapping a five-year playoff drought, these Giants showed a lot of ability on both sides of the ball. However, key holes and exploitable flaws were also quite evident.
This offseason was about addressing those newfound needs. Most of the key cogs on both sides of the ball return, and new additions to the passing offense have only raised expectations. New York expects to be one of the NFC’s prime contenders, and those expectations are legitimate. But some nagging questions must be answered positively or else the Giants could be a big disappointment, too.
Five Questions for the New York Giants
- Will the pass rush be effective?
Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo loves to generate pressure with his front four, and the Giants invested heavily in getting him players who can deliver. Olivier Vernon fared okay in his first season in New York with 8.5 sacks, though most of his productivity came in a post-bye surge. That Vernon didn’t hit double digits in the sack department was a disappointment. He should fare better in his second season, but he must do a more thorough job of finishing his pressures. Jason Pierre Paul rebounded from his lost 2015 with 7 sacks in 12 games and chipped in with a fumble return TD. He’s not what he used to be before the fireworks accident which nearly cost him his career, but he can still create pressure in either direction and doesn’t give ground in the run game.
The Giants desperately need that duo to bring consistent pressure because the interior tackles are not pass rushers by nature. That’s not to demean Damon Harrison, who is easily one of the league’s best nose tackles. He’s just not a pass rusher, nor are Robert Thomas or Jay Bromley. Adding Dalvin Tomlinson in the second round offers some hope that the tackles can bring up-the-gut pressure. Romeo Okwara can contribute at both end and tackle in limited doses and could be a pleasant surprise in his second season.
Of course in New York, the fantastic secondary helps out the pass rush. The Giants are one of the rare modern NFL teams that pulls off the “cover/sack” as its primary defensive philosophy rather than the “pressure/pick” style. They’re successful thanks to having an outstanding core of starters, led by playmaking cornerback Janoris Jenkins. He and 2016 first-round pick Eli Apple paired with veteran Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to form a great ballhawking secondary. Jenkins earned his Pro Bowl berth and brings an edge in coverage. Rodgers-Cromartie has a gambling streak to his coverage style but he was burned less often last year while still getting his hands on 27 passes (6 INTs, 21 PDs). Apple looked like a rookie, especially early, but gained confidence and proved a worthy starter.
With rangy Landon Collins quickly emerging as one of the league’s best young safeties and surprisingly effective all-around play from unheralded Andrew Adams, the Giants secondary bolsters the players up front more than any other team. Collins earned first-team All Pro honors at just 22 years of age, and if he plays like he did in 2016 it will be the first of many seasons where he’s honored. He could be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate if he can replicate the 5 INTs and 4 sacks.
The emphasis on the back end in playmaking made the team give up yards but did prevent scores. New York ranked 23rd in yards allowed but an impressive 2nd in scoring defense. That sort of disconnect is tough to replicate, but I expect an improvement in the yardage rating will help the offense and special teams enough to cover for allowing an extra field goal per game.
- Can the offensive tackles step up?
It’s normal for even great teams to have soft spots on the roster, but few playoff teams of recent vintage have as gaping of a hole as the Giants do at the offensive tackle positions. Left tackle Ereck Flowers and right tackle Bobby Hart both ranked among the very worst at their positions.
Despite their weakness, the Giants did little to address the problem. Flowers and Hart will once again start, barring one specific scenario we’ll get to in a moment. Flowers has been a colossal disappointment in his first two seasons as a first-round pick. He’s one of the poster children for athletic potential not equating to being a good football player, not yet at least. Sixth-round rookie Adam Bisnowaty might emerge as a viable option on the right side but he’s likely the top reserve tackle. That’s not a good thing.
The one potential scenario which could help, and that is if free agent D.J. Fluker can convincingly win the right guard job. If the former first-round tackle can prove adept in pass protection inside, the Giants can kick John Jerry out to tackle. Jerry was no great shakes outside earlier in his career, but he was better than Hart, who might be the weakest starter at any position around the league.
At least the Giants are fine at center and left guard. Weston Richburg isn’t an elite talent in the pivot but does everything well and is one the better young interior linemen in the league. Justin Pugh has settled in nicely at left guard after himself washing out at tackle. That duo is especially adept at working combo blocks.
- Who is going to stop their passing attack?
The Giants finished just 16th in passing yards per game last year and outside the top 10 in touchdowns. The 6.5 yards per attempt tied for 18th. GM Jerry Reese upgraded the passing game options. Between the new additions and the returning talent, these Giants might have the best collection of passing offensive talent in the league.
Adding big Brandon Marshall at the outside receiver across from Odell Beckham Jr. gives New York two alphas. Marshall struggled with the terrible QB play in the other New York locker room last year, but he is just one year removed from leading the league with 14 touchdowns among his 109 catches. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, the 33-year-old still presents a huge target even if he doesn’t get great separation off the line anymore. He should be a great asset for Eli Manning in the red zone and on short-yardage plays.
Beckham is a star. He’s hauled in at least 91 catches for over 1300 yards and 10 TDs in each of his three NFL season, making the Pro Bowl each time. OBJ can be prickly and difficult to manage at times, but he’s one of the NFL’s best weapons. His outrageous catch radius and famously sticky hands help him be open even when he’s not. With the physical Marshall on the other side, Beckham will likely face smaller and quicker cover men, which could require a bit of an adjustment. It should not be a problem, however.
The alphas on the outside create so much space for Sterling Shepard in the slot. Not that he needs it; Shepard is a great route runner who pulled down 65 catches in his rookie season out of Oklahoma. His quicker-than-fast nature and nifty feet are perfect in the slot. He got a big accomplice inside with the first-round selection of Evan Engram.
Engram is essentially a supersized wideout playing tight end. His receiving skills, his movement, even his speed are that of a wideout. He’s got outstanding burst off the line, excellent ball tracking and impressive elusiveness after the catch. Oh yeah, he’s 6-5 and 235 pounds. The Giants won’t ask him to block or play inline much. That’s a heck of a foursome. Add in Shane Vereen out of the backfield, one of the league’s better receiving RBs, and this passing offense is loaded with talented targets. Manning is smart enough to take what the defense gives him and accurate enough to help those weapons create after the catch, too.
Perhaps the best answer to this question comes in the next one…
- What does Eli Manning have left?
Now 36, Manning has settled into a pretty solid groove. His performance has remained fairly consistent over the last three seasons, with very little relative variation in completion percentage, yards per attempt and TD/INT percentages. The final two did dip last season, however, and it’s important that Manning reverses that trend.
The Giants don’t need him to be masterful, to go out and win games by himself. As noted above, the weaponry is fantastic. But they cannot afford any regression or age-related decline either. There’s a tremendous amount of mileage on his right shoulder, starting every game since 2005. He will surpass 7000 career attempts this year. He’s never been a great athlete and has taken so many big hits over the years. Last year he struggled on third downs, and it dropped the team to 30th in conversion percentage. While Manning did not get a lot of help from the run game (29th in yards), where Paul Perkins will take over after a decent rookie year, too often he didn’t help himself either.
New York might finally have a viable succession plan in order. Right now it’s simply insurance in case the freakishly durable Manning gets hurt, but if he loses effectiveness the Giants do have options. They signed Geno Smith from across the stadium. He’s an experienced backup who knows the New York media well and does a lot of the things Manning does reasonably well. The team also drafted Davis Webb in the third round as a potential long-term successor. I was not a Webb fan in the draft process, though he was admittedly quite impressive during Senior Bowl week. Make no mistake though, this is Eli’s team for the foreseeable future. Manning does need to prove the minor declines across the board last season were an aberration, however.
- Can the special teams look more special?
Struggles in all phases of the kicking game plagued the Giants in 2016. Dwayne Harris flopped as a return man, leaving too many yards on the field in both punt and kick return situations. The G-men struggled to win the field position battles or capitalize on 3-and-outs too often. Harris has been better in the past and could rebound, but the team needs better results from either the veteran or a new challenger.
The giants burned through two kickers, and neither Josh Brown nor Robbie Gould are back for more. That would be fine except as of press time (July 25) the only kicker on the roster is undrafted rookie Aldrick Rosas from Southern Oregon, an NAIA school. Expect the team to address this later in camp, but the seeming nonchalance at solving the kicking issue doesn’t inspire much confidence the unit will improve. Punter Brad Wing remains sporadically awesome but largely below-average. He’s one of the worst directional punters and doesn’t force many fair catches, which stresses New York’s coverage units. At minimum the team should have camp competition for the Aussie, but as with the kicker they seem to be ignoring this part of the team. The apathy towards improving the special teams could be a much bigger issue than both fans and coaches would like to acknowledge.
Forecast: The 2016 Giants invested heavily on the defensive side and it paid dividends. Now the offense gets the fresh infusion of talent and the hope is the two will blend together to push the Giants back up the NFC pecking order. Adding Evan Engram and Brandon Marshall should help the red zone offense and the scoreboard, and the Giants defense is well-equipped to play with a lead. Coach Ben McAdoo appears to have won over the players and established his style and influence on the team.
The defense is good enough to hang with anyone, and the passing offense--outside of the tackles--looks fantastic. That combination can win a lot of games. The run offense and special teams are potential thorns, as is the depth all over the defense. Odell Beckham’s volatile persona is another potential issue.
This is a very good team, but precariously so. A formidable early schedule, with four of the first six on the road followed by the dangerous Seahawks, means the Giants have little margin for any error or growing pains. In a crowded NFC East, the Giants are the least-likely to finish in last place; there is too much proven talent for that. But they will need to play consistently in all three phases and hope for good health if they are to match last year’s 11-5 record. I think the tougher schedule pushes them back to 10-6, but that’s still worthy of a playoff berth.