Ten years ago, the New York Giants and their fans were standing on top the world. The team was about to embark on its second miracle Super Bowl run in four years, culminating in the franchise’s eighth NFL Championship. But the fortunes of the Giants rapidly went south after that pinnacle of success. Seven of the next nine seasons resulted in a losing record, with double-digit losses in six of those years. The franchise that never fired a general manager fired one. During the past six years, the Giants have had four different head coaches.
Yet despite another losing record in 2020, there is a feeling that the team may finally be pointing in the right direction again. For at least the short-term, Head Coach Joe Judge and Defensive Coordinator Patrick Graham have won over the fans. And the team is coming off of a very productive offseason, radically changing the make-up of much of the roster.
Can the Giants finish with a winning record in 2021? Much depends on the answers to these questions:
- Is Daniel Jones the answer at quarterback? This horse has been beaten to death by the media and fans all offseason, but the question remains a valid one. Jones’ supporters will point to his 24-touchdown rookie season in 12 starts and the clear lack of strong supporting cast all around him in 2019 and 2020. (Same issue Eli Manning had). Jones’ detractors will point to turnovers and him not elevating the game of those around him, especially given his lofty draft status. At least publicly, the front office, coaches, and players all support Jones. As of right now, there is no fallback option on the roster. The Giants will sink or swim with Jones at the helm. Jones also has to prove he can stay healthy, something he has been unable to do a the pro level thus far.
- Can Saquon Barkley ever regain his rookie form? Barkley suffered a major knee injury (ACL, meniscus, MCL) last September. Although not unexpected, it is not a great sign that he begins training camp on the PUP. Are the Giants simply being cautious and bringing him along slowly, or are there real concerns about the knee? The 2018 rookie version of Barkley was an MVP candidate, a player who can take over a game and elevate the play of those around him. The 2019 and 2020 version of Barkley has been MIA. Medicine has changed but it remains to be seen if Barkley will follow the opposing career paths of Adrian Peterson or Tucker Frederickson. Make no mistake, a healthy and productive Barkley changes everything for this team.
- Can the team field a somewhat competent offensive line? This is arguably the most important question. We saw first hand last year on a game-to-game basis what a difference there was when the offensive line played poorly versus when it played well. When the latter occurred, the Giants moved the ball, controlled the clock, reduced the number of hits on the quarterback, and won the turnover battle. While the Giants made major changes to the offensive line coaching staff, they did not on the roster. Back-ups Zach Fulton and Jonotthan Harrison were the only additions of note. The Giants appear ready to sink or swim with Andrew Thomas at left tackle, Shane Lemieux at left guard, Nick Gates at center, Will Hernandez at right guard (a new position for him), and Matt Peart at right tackle (who begins camp on the PUP with a back injury). Depth appears better with Fulton, Harrison, and Nate Solder.
- Can Evan Engram get his head out of his ass? Yes, Evan Engram was voted to his first Pro Bowl in 2020. But that seems like somewhat of a bad joke given Engram’s team-leading 11 dropped passes, some of which came in crucial situations and/or led to interceptions and his one receiving touchdown. Indeed, according to ProFootballReference, Engram dropped 10 percent of all passes thrown in his direction. For a tight end who can’t block well, that is an appalling stat. Engram’s issues appear to be mental. It remains to be seen if the front office and coaching staff will regret not trading him. Engram can be a difference maker, but those moments are far too infrequent. He disappears for long stretches. Worse, he often hurts his team in the clutch.
- Are there too many cooks in the kitchen? Related to points #1, #2, and #3, the Giants were dreadful on offense in 2020. They finished 31st in yardage and points. The recognition of this fact caused the team to make major offeason moves at wide receiver as well as significant additions at running back and tight end. But Joe Judge also made major changes to the coaching staff. While Jason Garrett remains the offensive coordinator, Freddie Kitchens was promoted to senior offensive assistant. The expectation is that both will now coordinate the offensive side of the ball. In addition, the Giants not only hired a new offensive line coach (Rob Sale), but they brought onboard Tom Coughlin’s former offensive line coach (Pat Flaherty) to serve as a consultant. Judge has even indicated that Kitchens will also have a role in coaching the offensive line. Ben Wilkerson also remains the assistant offensive line coach. The Giants have one of the largest assistant coaching staffs in the NFL. That would seem to be a good thing, but it remains to be seen how this all works out and how lines of responsibility are clearly delineated. If anyone can sort this out, Judge seems to be the type of coach who can do so.
- Can the offensive coaches figure out a way to use all of the new weapons? Related to #5, the prevailing opinion among fans is that Jason Garrett is not a particularly imaginative offensive mind. This seems to be supported by the promotion of Freddie Kitchens. Two new offensive quality control coaches were also promoted/hired in the offseason. On paper, in one offseason, the Giants have gone from dreadful at wide receiver to perhaps one of the NFL’s strongest units. The Giants now have to figure out ways to spread the ball around to Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard, and perhaps John Ross. In addition, the Giants added Kyle Rudolph at tight end to go along with Evan Engram. And Saquon Barkley is expected to be back. That’s a damn good collection of skill players. In addition, Toney’s unique skill set begs for him to be used in unusual ways. Are Garrett and Kitchens up to the task?
- Can the Giants find an outside pass rush? Somehow the Giants’ defense finished 13th in sacks in 2020 with 40. This despite only one player (Leonard Williams) accruing more than four sacks on the season. Patrick Graham, his fellow defensive coaches, and the players did a marvelous job of manufacturing a pass rush, but any Giants fan can tell you that the biggest weakness on the defense was the lack of a consistent outside heat on the passer. Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines started 2020 at outside linebacker, but were lost early. Graham was then forced to use a committee approach that barely got the job done. While Carter and Ximines are back, both are still largely unproven. Thus, the team added Azeez Ojulari and Elerson Smith in the draft as well as Ifeadi Odenigbo in free agency. Will one or two of these players approach the double-digit sack mark in 2021?
- Will the team miss Dalvin Tomlinson? The team’s biggest free agent loss was clearly nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. Despite all of the money the Giants threw around in free agency, it appears they did not make a major effort to re-sign Tomlinson who was rock steady in the middle of the defense. The Giants will now have to rely on last year’s back-up Austin Johnson, as well as free agent addition Danny Shelton, a big guy who has never quite lived up to expectations in his three previous stops. In a pinch, the Giants could move Dexter Lawrence inside, but that would then create a possible issue at defensive end. The Giants stayed remarkably healthy on the defensive line last year. They’ll need that again in 2021.
- Can Leonard Williams duplicate or build upon his 2020 success? The previously underwhelming Leonard Williams had a career season in 2020. He was a major factor against the run and the pass. Williams played in all 16 games (74 percent of defensive snaps) and finished the year with 57 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, 30 quarterback hits, one pass defense, and one fumble recovery. Now that he has earned a big, fat new contract, will he return to his previous form or will he build upon his 2020 success?
- Can the Giants settle on some decent designated returners? The Giants have had an issue for years finding steady, reliable punt and kick returners. They’ve largely employed a committee approach, often being forced to employ offensive and defensive starters. Jabrill Peppers was lost for five games in 2019 after getting hurt returning a kick. Obviously, it would be better not to do that.
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