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With New York Giants training camp beginning in late July, BigBlueInteractive.com (BBI) breaks down each of the team’s positional groups until the players report at Quest Diagnostics Training Center.
POSITIONAL BREAKDOWN: Running Backs
2016 YEAR IN REVIEW: Two years ago – in 2015 – the Giants running backs finished 18th in rushing with 100.6 yards per game and averaging 4.0 yards per rush. The Giants rushed for only five touchdowns. The leading rushers on the team that year were Rashad Jennings (863 yards, three touchdowns), Shane Vereen (260 yards, zero touchdowns), Andre Williams (257 yards, one touchdown), and Orleans Darkwa (153 yards one touchdown). In addition, Vereen proved a significant weapon in the passing game with 59 catches for 494 yards and four touchdowns. Jennings also contributed with 29 catches for 296 yards and one touchdown.
Despite the mediocre rushing numbers, there was optimism entering the 2016 season. Half of Jennings’ 2015 yardage (432 yards) came in the last four games of the season. The ground game – led by Jennings – seemed to peaking behind a young and improving offensive line that would remain intact coming into 2016. In addition, replacing the disappointing Andre Williams with 5th rounder Paul Perkins appeared to an upgrade. Vereen was coming off of his best pro season and expected to continue to serve a duo-purpose threat. And the Giants signed veteran hybrid fullback/tight end Will Johnson to mount a significant challenge to fullback Nikita Whitlock.
The 2016 results were a major disappointment. The Giants ground game not only worsened, but it fell to 29th with a paltry 88.2 yards per game and averaging 3.5 yards per rush. The Giants rushed for only six touchdowns. And pass receptions by running backs fell from 92 catches for 828 yards and five touchdowns in 2015 to 83 catches for 622 yards and one touchdown in 2016.
Why the drop? Inconsistent blocking by the offensive line and tight ends was a factor. The improvement by the line – under new offensive like coach Mike Solari – never occurred. There was not a strong blocking tight end on the team. In addition, both fullbacks were lost to injury for the season before it began and the team carried no fullbacks on the roster. As such, the Giants “bread-and-butter” running play was out of the shotgun formation.
But truth be told, it also became painfully clear that while a good guy and a strong locker room presence, Jennings was no more than an aging, backup-at-best halfback who rarely created yardage on his own either by elusiveness or breaking tackles. Starting 12-of-16 regular-season games, Jennings only averaged 3.3 yards per carry. Vereen missed the bulk of the season with a triceps injury that he also re-injured, and his absence in the passing game was very noticeable. Bobby Rainey replaced him but only had 20 receptions. Orleans Darkwa started two games but only received 30 carries and got hurt again. The only real bright spot was Perkins, but he was not a significant factor until December, gaining 271 of his 456 rushing yards in his last four regular-season games.
ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The Giants cut Rashad Jennings in February and chose to not re-sign unrestricted free agent Bobby Rainey. It’s telling that both remain unemployed football players. While the Giants did not tender the injury-prone Orleans Darkwa as a restricted free agent, they did somewhat surprisingly re-sign him in March as an unrestricted free agent. The Giants also re-signed RB/FB ‘tweener Jacob Huesman, who the team originally added to the Practice Squad in December 2016.
The new faces include veteran free agent Shaun Draughn, 4th-round draft pick Wayne Gallman, and undrafted rookie free agents Khalid Abdullah and Shane Smith.
TRAINING CAMP STORY LINES: Head Coach Ben McAdoo somewhat surprisingly labeled Paul Perkins the starter early in the offseason. It’s his job to lose. But that does not mean there aren’t questions about his pro-level skill-set and durability. Perkins must prove he is a legit NFL starting-caliber running back. Provided he can stay healthy, Shane Vereen should regain the #2 job as the team’s primary 3rd down back. Shaun Draughn – who has a similar skill set to Vereen – was most likely signed as insurance in case the injury-prone Vereen gets hurt again. 2017 may be more of a redshirt year for Wayne Gallman unless he impresses early or someone gets hurt. The wild card is Orleans Darkwa. The coaches seem to like him, but he has not been able to stay healthy.
One of the big question marks will be whether or not McAdoo wants to carry a fullback this year. Unlike last season, the Giants are far more talented at the tight end position and it may be a number’s game in whether or not the team wants to carry an additional tight end or a fullback. Rookie free agent Shane Smith has the look of a traditional fullback while ‘tweener Jacob Huesman is actually a former quarterback.
“Anytime you have a big fullback type in the backfield it adds an element of physicality that is tough to replace when you don’t have it,” McAdoo said in March. “It just didn’t work out last year. It’s not by design… I hear that I don’t want to have a fullback on the roster, and that’s news to me. I think you want the best team you can put out there, but that position has to have special-teams value. I don’t think you just want someone on your roster who plays seven plays a game. They’re not going to play a ton of plays, but the plays they do play are impactful-type plays in the ballgame. But they need to have some value special teams-wise.”
ON THE BUBBLE: Barring injury (with this group, that is more than a passing concern), the locks would appear to be Paul Perkins, Shane Vereen, and Wayne Gallman. Everyone else is on the bubble and fighting for a job.
FROM THE POSITIONAL COACH: Craig Johnson on Paul Perkins: “He was an effective runner last year. You have to be able to catch the ball. He did a good job in that and you have to be able to block people because they’re going to try you out. I thought that he probably improved the most in that situation. Guys were testing him out to get to the quarterback and he held up very good in protection… (As a runner) he really can cut sharp. He puts his foot in the ground and bursts through the hole. I like that. It helps both in the run and in the pass protection. That really helps his versatility.”
Johnson on Wayne Gallman: “Coming from college, he was a very productive runner. Stats don’t lie. So far what I’ve seen in practice is that he has been effectively able to run the ball in the runs he’s been given. The pass protection, he’s coming along in. He’s certainly made a big improvement in the last week or so. He’s been able to catch the ball effectively. Again, as a young back, he’s trying to figure it all out. The game is a little too fast for him, like they are for every back right now when they’re young. The game starts to slow down and he’s starting to get it. I’ve seen a couple bursts. I think he will continue to get it in the future.”
PREDICTIONS: Other than Shane Vereen as 3rd-down back, this is largely an unproven group. It remains an open question whether or not the Giants have a running back on the roster that will concern opposing defenses. Paul Perkins has to demonstrate that he has the skill set and durability to be a 1,000-yard NFL rusher. As a draft prospect, Wayne Gallman was largely considered a solid, well-rounded back who didn’t excel in any one area. Vereen and Darkwa have proven to be injury-prone players. On paper, at best, this looks like a middle-of-the-pack group. Hopefully, the blocking up front by the line, tight ends, and maybe fullback improves this year. If not, offensively the Giants will remain a finesse passing team.
FINAL DEPTH CHART: Paul Perkins, Shane Vereen, Wayne Gallman, Shaun Draughn (no fullback)