ITB NFC EAST OUTLOOK: Big Blue Improved – But Enough?
The New York Giants remain a long way from NFC East contention, but their offseason moves suggest that tides could turn.
Following two losing seasons, the franchise fired head coach Pat Shurmur, replacing him with former New England Patriots special teams coordinator/wide receivers coach Joe Judge.
Judge, a three-time Super Bowl Champion assistant and two-time BCS national champion as a special teams assistant at Alabama, brings fresh ideas and comes from two winning programs. While the coronavirus pandemic has put coaches and players both at distinct disadvantages from a preparation standpoint, Judge’s biggest challenge will be guiding second-year quarterback Daniel Jones through the next stage of his development.
A defense starved of playmakers added standout cornerback James Bradberry in free agency and fellow defensive backs Xavier McKinney, Darnay Holmes and Chris Williamson in April’s draft. New defensive coordinator Patrick Graham will be tasked with grooming the young talent on the back end along with establishing overall cohesion on the defensive side.
With so many moving parts , how will the Giants stack up in 2020?
(Saquon Barkley battled a high-ankle sprain last year and finished with about 300 less receiving yards than his rookie season. The Giants will need him to come back strong to compete.)
Jason Garrett, the former Cowboys head coach who became the Giants’ offensive coordinator in January, will likely carry with him many of the Cowboys’ ideologies to East Rutherford.
While Garrett will call all plays for the first time since 2012, expect to see heavy 12-personnel usage — tight end Evan Engram could be in for a career year, if healthy — and a variety of slants and deep in-cuts that can highlight strengths of Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate.
My belief is Garrett will eventually steer the offense away from a methodical approach and ultimately transform the Big Blue offense into a vertical attack once he acquires his personnel. Based on Garrett’s previous success with Ezekiel Elliott, look for a ground game based on outside zone concepts.
Well-traveled defensive mind Patrick Graham comes to the Giants after a 1-year stint as the Miami Dolphins’ defensive coordinator. Judge intimated that the defensive concepts will be a culmination of the schemes Graham has helped preside over through the years.
Expect exotic blitz packages – particularly on third down – and primarily man coverage on the back end. In Miami, Graham frequently deployed linebackers and defensive backs on blitzes. One linebacker in particular who could be in for a big role, especially with Markus Golden gone, is 2019 third-round pick Oshane Ximines, an edge rusher who came on strong late last season, notching 2.5 sacks and 2.0 tackles for loss over the final four games.
Offensively, the Giants’ strength lies in their backfield, as Saquon Barkley is healthy and primed to return to dominance. Among the top running backs in football, Barkley is a rare three-down workhorse with the unique skill set to beat defenses in a variety of ways.
Expect the Penn State product to contribute around 275 carries and 65 receptions in Year 3, which should result in his second season of 2,000-plus scrimmage yards. The team also added veteran running back Dion Lewis, and while he wasn’t much of a factor in Tennessee last season, the 29-year-old journeyman adds another layer to the offense.
It feels like the Giants annually assemble a shoddy defense, and while the 2020 unit is far from the NFL’s elite, the team has taken measures over the past few months to dispel that notion – specifically on the back end.
Last season’s secondary was marred by coverage lapses and miscommunication, and the team seemingly rectified the issue by inking cornerback James Bradberry to a mega deal in free agency. With Bradberry expected to shadow the opposition’s top receiver, the spotlight will focus on No. 2 cornerback – where second-year pro Deandre Baker was slotted.
While Baker’s offseason incident removes him from the equation for the foreseeable future, the Giants will likely transition converted cornerback Julian Love over from safety. Don’t forget about rookie Darnay Holmes, a twitchy, athletic nickel defender, who will push Grant Haley in training camp.
In regards to safety, the team made a savvy pickup in the second round in Xavier McKinney, and the rookie will likely enter training camp as the favorite to line up opposite Jabrill Peppers.
One could certainly make a case for offensive line being among the unit’s most obvious weaknesses once again, but after adding Andrew Thomas, Matt Peart and Shane Lemieux in April’s draft, it appears they’ve adequately addressed the perpetual void – at least on paper.
When assessing the wide receiver position, however, there’s a collection of slot receivers and role players rather than a clear-cut No. 1 option. Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate are undersized chain movers who do the majority of their damage after the catch, and 2020 will be pivotal for Darius Slayton, who must adjust to being in the limelight after an impressive, and unexpected, rookie season. Cody Core and Corey Coleman offer little upside outside of their special teams contributions.
On the Rise
As if coming into the NFL as a sixth-round pick from Division II’s Washburn University didn’t present a steep enough climb to prominence, Ballentine was injured in a shooting last spring. Despite the adversity, Ballentine was a preseason standout and went on to play in 13 games (2 starts) last season, recording 26 tackles and two passes defended. This summer, Ballentine will have an opportunity to push for the hotly contested starting spot opposite Bradberry.
Williamson, one of my top defensive sleepers in April’s draft, is an outstanding slot defender. While the Giants already have Haley and Holmes, primarily nickel corners, Williamson’s versatility should increase his chances of making the final roster. The Minnesota product has the length, instincts, and football intelligence to play inside, outside, and safety.
Snubbed from the NFL Scouting Combine and left on the outside looking in on draft weekend, Betiku possesses innate, raw skills as a pass rusher. If the former Illini standout can get ahead of the curve in training camp, he should make an impact during preseason play.
Matchup Problem for Birds
If healthy, tight end Evan Engram presents a matchup problem for the Eagles. The Giants like to move Engram around, which could prove to be problematic with a less-than-stellar second-level and with Malcolm Jenkins back in The Big Easy.
Best Matchup for Birds
Although the Giants invested significant resources in fortifying the trenches, the unit largely lacks discipline and experience. Look for the veteran Eagles’ defensive front to take advantage and feast on quarterback Daniel Jones.
Most Underrated Player
To me, it’s defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, whose run defense has graded in the top 20 among interior defensive lineman over the past three seasons, per Pro Football Focus. He’s started all 48 games since entering the league in 2017 and has been a steady presence in the middle of the Giants’ defensive front.
Most Overrated Player
The easy choice would be Nate Solder, but I’ll go with Leonard Williams. Last season, the Giants traded a 2020 third-round pick and a 2021 fifth-round pick for a defensive lineman who has yet to live up to his first-round billing.
The Giants placed an added emphasis on bolstering the offensive line and building up the oft-maligned secondary over the offseason.
While second-year quarterback Daniel Jones made encouraging strides down the stretch last season, he’ll be tasked with learning different concepts from a new set of coaches in a shortened offseason. The Giants failed to provide upgrades at the wide receiver position, but the offensive line should be improved than a season ago, which is good news for only Saquon Barkley.
Big Blue will likely be more aggressive defensively in terms of its blitz packages, but due to limited personnel, Graham needs to get creative in how he manufactures pressure. The back end offers an intriguing blend of youth and experience and is the unit’s strength. If some of those blitzes get home, the Giants should look vastly improved in 2020.
That said, the Giants are still very much a work in progress and have several unknown variables clouding their outlook. They’ll likely find themselves playing from behind often and don’t yet have the requisite weaponry to out-gun teams.
Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com. He also writes for Pro Football Network.
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