The potential trajectory of New York Giants’ 2020 season changed on September 20th. On that day, the team lost its best player, and arguably one of the top 10 players in the NFL, for the season. Many fans still don’t fully understand what a massive loss that was for the team. Saquon Barkley changes the way other teams defend an entire offense. He was the only player on the Giants who was a threat to score every time he touched the football as a runner or receiver.
Unfortunately, there is a growing group of fans who argue that Barkley was not worthy of the #2 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft based on talent alone. This is revisionist thinking. Very few were saying that after his historic rookie season where he gained over 2,000 yards on an offensive team otherwise devoid of talent, especially on the offensive line. Before we proceed further, please watch his rookie highlights. Now one can argue that a rebuilding club should not take a running back with the #2 pick, that the Giants should have traded down for more picks, or selected a position with a longer shelf life, but there is no disputing Barkley’s talent. Once he was removed from the 2020 New York Giants line-up, the entire complexion of the team’s offense changed for the worse.
The franchise seemed somewhat unprepared for the potential loss of Barkley. They did not seem enamored with the other options on the roster and immediately signed Devonta Freeman off of the street. In Week 3, Freeman, Wayne Gallman, and Dion Lewis embarrassingly carried the ball 10 times for 17 yards. The coaching staff instantly favored Freeman over Gallman. Freeman carried the ball 11 times for 33 yards in Week 4, 17 times for 60 yards in Week 5, and 18 times for 61 yards in Week 6. Then Freeman hurt his ankle early in Week 7 and was also effectively lost for the season. The Giants signed Alfred Morris off of the scrapheap and were forced to turn to Gallman, who started each of the final nine games.
Gallman’s story is a curious one. Drafted in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft by Jerry Reese and Ben McAdoo, Gallman fell out of favor with Pat Shurmur and then early on with Joe Judge. But when Judge finally turned to Gallman, the 4th-year pro responded by rushing 147 times for 682 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. This despite only carrying the ball more than 12 times in a game just four times and more than 18 times just once. Indeed, it seemed as if Gallman was being underutilized for much of the second half of the season.
After Gallman’s 147 carries, quarterback Daniel Jones was the second leading rusher on the team, both in terms of carries (65) and yardage (423). The over-the-hill Alfred Morris become Gallman’s primary backup, averaging six carries per game in the final nine games. He finished with 55 carries for 238 yards and one touchdown, surprisingly averaging 4.3 yards per carry. Dion Lewis served as the 3rd-down back, carrying the ball just 29 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Fullback Eli Penny only played in seven percent of all offensive snaps, touching the ball just eight times.
Overall, the Giants finished 19th in rushing, averaging 110.5 yards per game. The ground game was abysmal to start the season and improved markedly as the year progressed until December. No Giant had more than 28 yards rushing in the first two games and no Giant had more than 49 yards rushing in the first four games. Jones was the team’s leading rusher in four of the first seven games of the season. When the Giants ran for over 100 yards in a game, their record was 6-3. When the Giants ran for less than 100 yards, their record was 0-7, including the 0-3 stretch in December. Long story short, when the offensive line played well, the Giants were able to run the football and won football games. When the offensive line faltered, the Giants lost. Team running backs only scored nine rushing touchdowns.
One thing to keep in mind as we move forward: since Gallman, Morris, and Lewis are all now free agents, it is quite possible that none of New York’s top three running back ground gainers in 2020 will be on the roster in a few months.
THE DEVASTATING LOSS
The Giants placed Saquon Barkley on Injured Reserve in late September 2020 after he tore the ACL, partially tore the meniscus, and sprained the MCL in his right knee in Week 2. He finished the season with 19 carries for 34 yards (1.8 yards per carry) and six catches for 60 yards. The Giants drafted Barkley with the #2 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He became only the third rookie in NFL history to accrue 2,000 yards from scrimmage and breaking a number of franchise records. He also was voted to the Pro Bowl and named “Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year”, “FedEx Ground NFL Player of the Year”, “Pro Football Writers of America Offensive Rookie of the Year”, and “Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year.” Barkley started all 16 games, rushing 261 times for 1,307 yards (5.0 yards per carry) and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 91 passes for 721 yards and four touchdowns. Overall, Barkley led the NFL with 2,028 yards from scrimmage. Barkley also led the NFL with seven 40+ yard runs and six 50+ yard runs. The latter figure is the highest single-season total by a Giants player since the 1970 merger. All of this despite playing behind a subpar offensive line.
After that stellar rookie season, Barkley endured a forgettable sophomore season as a pro. The high ankle sprain that he suffered in Week 3 nagged him much of the remainder of the season. Playing soft and tentative at times, Barkley did not show signs of his old self until December. Nevertheless, Barkley still rushed 217 times for 1,003 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. He also caught 52 passes for 438 yards and two touchdowns. Barkley is a complete three-down back who can make an impact running and catching the football. If healthy, he has an outstanding combination of size, quickness, and speed. A home-run threat every time he touches the football, Barkley has great vision, instincts, and balance. He makes defenders miss and can accelerate to full speed in a heartbeat. Barkley is big enough to run through and athletic enough to leap over tackle attempts. Barkley is a very good pass receiver who can hurt a defense down the field in the passing game. He has only fumbled the ball once in his career. His biggest negative is that he will sometimes try to do too much and dance around instead of taking what the defense gives him. Excellent intangibles. Team leader with a good work ethic. It remains to be seen if he can regain his old form after his serious 2020 knee injuries. And after two injury-plagued seasons in a row, Barkley needs to prove he can stay healthy.
The Giants placed Devonta Freeman on Injured Reserve in November 2020 with ankle and hamstring injuries. He was also placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 List in December. The 5’8”, 206-pound Freeman was originally drafted in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons. In six years with the Falcons, Freeman played in 77 regular-season games with 59 starts, rushing 951 times for 3,972 yards (4.2 yards per carry) and 32 touchdowns. He also caught 257 passes for 2,015 yards and 11 touchdowns. Freeman missed most of the 2018 season with knee and groin injuries. His productivity fell to 656 yards on 184 carries (3.6 yards per carry) and two touchdowns in 2019. The Falcons cut Freeman in March 2020 and the Giants signed him in late September 2020. Freeman played in five games with the Giants, starting four, and finished 2020 with 54 carries for 172 yards (3.2 yards per carry) and one touchdown. He also caught seven passes for 58 yards.
In his fourth NFL season, Wayne Gallman had his best campaign despite starting the season as an afterthought. It was only after injuries to Saquon Barkley and the newly-signed Devonta Freeman that the coaching staff turned to Gallman. He ended up playing in 15 games with 10 starts, carrying the ball 147 times for 682 yards (4.6 yards per rush) and six touchdowns. Gallman also caught 21 passes for 114 yards. Gallman was drafted in the 4th round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the Giants. As a rookie, Gallman played in 13 games with one start and carried the football 111 times for 476 yards (4.3 yards per carry). But Gallman saw his playing time drop significant during Pat Shurmur’s reign, carrying the ball only 80 times for 286 yards in 2018-2019. Gallman is a well-rounded cutback runner with decent vision, elusiveness, strength for his size, and speed. He has good hands as a receiver, but he will fumble (seven career fumbles).
The Giants signed Alfred Morris to the Practice Squad in late September 2020 and the 53-man roster in November 2020. Morris ended up playing in nine games for the Giants with no starts, carrying the ball 55 times for 238 yards (4.3 yards per rush). The 5’10”, 222-pound Morris was originally drafted in the 6th round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins. He has spent time with the Redskins (2012-2015), Dallas Cowboys (2016-2017, 2019), San Francisco 49ers (2018), and Arizona Cardinals (2019). Morris has played in 114 regular-season games with 70 starts. Morris was second-team All-Pro in 2012 and was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014. Nearing the end of his career, Morris has good size and power, but what movement skills he once had have clearly faded. He is not used much in the passing game.
Dion Lewis played in all 16 games for the Giants in 2020 with no starts. He finished the year with 29 carries for 115 yards (4.0 yards per carry) and two touchdowns. He also caught 19 passes for for 127 yards and one touchdown. Lewis served as the team’s primary kickoff returner, averaging 22.4 yards per return and fumbling twice. The 5’8”, 195-pound Lewis was originally drafted in the 5th round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. Lewis has spent time with the Eagles (2011-2012), Cleveland Browns (2013), Indianapolis Colts (2014), New England Patriots (2015-2017), and Tennessee Titans (2018-2019). The Giants signed Lewis in March 2020 after he was cut by the Titans. Strictly a smaller, 3rd-down-type back, Lewis has good quickness but lacks the overall dynamism for the role he plays. He also had an issue with fumbling in 2020.
THE LONELY FULLBACK
Eli Penny was placed on Injured Reserve in early January 2021 due to an undisclosed illness. The sole fullback on the team for the past three seasons, Penny played in 14 games in 2020, rushing the ball six times for 15 yards (2.5 yards per carry) and catching two passes for 20 yards. The 6’2”, 234-pound Penny was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Cardinals after the 2016 NFL Draft. The Giants signed Penny off of the Practice Squad of the Arizona Cardinals in September 2018. He has played in 44 regular-season games for the Giants with four starts. Though Penny lacks classic fullback size, he is a well-rounded player who can block, run, and catch the football.
The Giants signed Taquan Mizzell to the Practice Squad in November 2020. The 5’10”, 185-pound Mizzell originally signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2017 NFL Draft. He has spent time with the Ravens (2017), Chicago Bears (2017-2018), and New Orleans Saints (2019-2020). Mizzell has played in 12 regular-season games, serving as a running back, wide receiver, and kick returner.
Sandro Platzgummer was allocated to the Giants in April 2020 as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program, which also allowed him to remain on the team’s Practice Squad in 2020 without counting towards the Practice Squad limit. Platzgummer played for the Swarco Raiders Tirol of the Austrian Football League.
The Giants signed Rod Smith to the Practice Squad in early September 2020 and cut him three weeks later. The 6’3”, 236-pound Smith was originally signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Seattle Seahawks after the 2015 NFL Draft. He has spent time with the Seahawks (2015), Dallas Cowboys (2015-2018), Giants (2019), Tennessee Titans (2019), and Oakland Raiders (2019).