The 2013 season wasn’t just depressing for Giants fans, it was unexpected. Tom Coughlin’s team, which had never before started worse than 5-2, lost their first six games. Kevin Gilbride’s offense, which had always ranked in the top half of the league in both points and yards per game, finished 28th in the NFL in each category. Eli Manning, who for years had mitigated opposing pressure behind a shaky offensive line, looked overwhelmed from Week 1.
Not fooled by a misleading 7-9 finish, General Manager Jerry Reese orchestrated a massive overhaul in the offseason. Justin Tuck, David Diehl, Chris Snee, and Corey Webster, all key players in the Giants two Super Bowl runs, are now gone. To replace them, Reese added more than a dozen free agents and focused his draft on more developed prospects that are ready to contribute now. Are the newcomers enough to spackle the holes on the roster? And can the New York veterans, many of whom hit career-lows last year, rebound to their previous top-tier form? Let’s take a deeper look at what to expect from the 2014 Giants.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Stacked Secondary
One of the few units that did hold up for New York last season was the secondary. Antrel Rolle finally lived up to his big contract, finishing with a Top-10 safety grade and his first positive mark from us since his 2008 season with the Cardinals. Prince Amukamara flashed his first-round pedigree, albeit inconsistently, and posted the highest run defense grade at his position. And Trumaine McBride, unexpectedly thrust into the starting lineup in Week 5, allowed an NFL-low 43.8% completion rate on passes into his coverage.
Nevertheless, Reese did not rest on his laurels, adding two difference-makers in free agency. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is coming off a stellar season where he earned only two “red” coverage grades and allowed just one touchdown in his last 13 games. He’s had an uneven career, but if he plays at his 2013 level, the Giants will have one of the best corners in the game. Walter Thurmond is among the league’s best nickelbacks; despite playing 70.8% of his career snaps in the slot, he has never allowed a touchdown in coverage there. And the Giants will also get Stevie Brown back from injury, after he displayed solid coverage and a knack for playmaking in a breakout 2012 season. With these new pieces joining an already talented group, New York may have the NFL’s best secondary this side of Seattle.
2. Run-Stopping Line
For years, the foundation of the Giants’ defense has been its defensive line. Though their pass rush is no longer menacing (more on that later), it should still be a strong front against the run. It has been a couple of seasons since Jason Pierre-Paul was a truly disruptive pass rusher, but he earned the highest run defense grade of any 4-3 defensive end in 2012 and was still Top 15 in that category last season. Tuck’s renaissance 2013 season had more to do with his great run defense than his somewhat-inflated sack totals, but the Giants may have found the perfect replacement for him in Robert Ayers, whose 10.7 Run Stop Percentage was the second-best of any 4-3 DE last season. And though many lamented the departure of Linval Joseph, Secret Superstar Johnathan Hankins may be an improvement in run defense. In a division with Robert Griffin III and Chip Kelly’s offense, the Giants will heavily rely on this front to stop opposing ground games.
3. New Offense
Though many fans may not admit it, the Giants’ offense enjoyed a lot of success under Gilbride. His system relied heavily on wide receivers adjusting their routes on the fly to create big plays, and the results showed: from 2007 to 2012, only Drew Brees had more Deep Passing Yards than Eli Manning. But in 2013, everything fell apart. Injuries turned an already-thin offensive line into little more than a turnstile for pass rushers, leaving little time for deep routes to develop. Amid the barrage, Manning lost all chemistry with his receivers, often resulting in game-changing miscommunications and interceptions.
Whether or not Gilbride’s dismissal was deserved, new coordinator Ben McAdoo’s West Coast system looks like a better fit for the current Giants offense. Manning had interceptions on miscommunications even in his best seasons, and more defined routes should bring more ball security. Rueben Randle, in particular, struggled with Gilbride’s sight adjustments, and can only improve without so many options to process. Victor Cruz led the NFL in yards from the slot in 2011, and McAdoo will likely put him more in that role this season. Jerrel Jernigan is coming off a promising finish, and his 2.24 Yards Per Route Run led the team last season. If Odell Beckham Jr. is as good a route runner as some scouts have projected, a new quick-strike approach could be exactly the change the Giants offense needed.
4. Better Backfield
So many focused on Manning’s turnovers last season, it was easy to overlook how bad the Giants’ running game was. They finished near the bottom of the NFL in every major rushing category, and suffered so many injuries at running back that they were plucking players off the street and starting them the next week. But even after the early retirement of David Wilson, the Giants backfield should be in for an improvement this season.
Free agent pickup Rashad Jennings is coming off a good season as an unexpected starter in Oakland. Eclipsing 150 attempts for the first time in his career, his 2.6 yards after contact per carry was the sixth-best rate in the NFL. He was just as productive in the passing game, with 292 receiving yards and no dropped passes on 39 targets. He should be the well-rounded back who the Giants sorely needed last season. Behind him, Andre Williams looks like the latest quality runner who Reese found in the later rounds of the draft. And whether the winner of the fullback competition is John Conner, who posted the third-highest blocking grade of any fullback last season, or former Secret Superstar Henry Hynoski, Jennings and Williams should have a quality blocker paving the way for them. Even if the passing game is slow to pick up their new offense, the Giants should at least have a decent running game to fall back on.
5. May The Schwartz Be With You
As a former seventh-round draft pick, Geoff Schwartz was never given a clear path to NFL stardom. But the fact is that wherever he’s gone, and whatever his team has asked of him, he’s produced. Back in 2010, his second season with the Panthers, he posted a +7.0 grade in five starts at right tackle. Then he moved to right guard, and posted the ninth-best grade at that position in just 11 starts. A hip injury cost him his 2011 season and his roster spot in Carolina, but he signed a one-year deal with the Vikings and posted a +6.1 grade there in backup duty. The Chiefs then signed him last season, again on a bargain one-year deal, and he merely took over the starting right guard spot midseason and posted the best grade of any Kansas City lineman. Since he entered the league, Schwartz’s +4.3 grade per 100 snaps is the fourth-best rate of any guard in the NFL. He was our top free agent guard heading into this offseason, and the Giants smartly rewarded him with a four-year contract. Not only is he a dominant run blocker who also holds up well in pass protection, but Schwartz’s versatility is added value for a line with question marks at other spots. For an offensive line that crumbled last season, Schwartz is a huge addition.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. Questions On The Line
Even with Schwartz and the promising Justin Pugh, the Giants offensive line is still left with question marks. For years, the unit was working on borrowed time. Even in New York’s championship 2011 season, they ranked as the second-worst line in the league thanks to sieve-like pas protection. Manning’s ability to get rid of the ball in the face of pressure often hid those flaws, but his poor 2013 exposed his line’s faults for all to see. Reese finally overhauled the line this offseason, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily fixed. Re-signing left tackle Will Beatty looked smart last offseason, but he allowed a league-high 13 sacks in 2013 and is recovering from a broken leg. If Beatty can’t return to his 2012 form, Charles Brown won’t be a good Plan B. Brown posted the fifth-worst pass-blocking grade of any left tackle last season before losing his starting job. On the interior, J.D. Walton earned the worst grade of any NFL center back in 2011 (his only full season as a starter), but he also posted a +5.2 grade in four starts in 2012 before being injured. It’s yet to be seen which version of Walton the Giants will get. At right guard, John Jerry has historically been a reliable pass protector and poor run blocker, while Brandon Mosley has just 59 career snaps to his name. There’s reason for optimism that this line can improve, but it may not be as quick a turnaround as fans would hope for.
2. Tight End
The most obvious hole when looking at the Giants depth chart is at tight end, which is coming down to a competition between low-impact journeymen and unproven youngsters. Kellen Davis has historically been a very good blocker, but in his biggest production as a receiver came in 2012, where he caught 229 yards but dropped 30% of his catchable targets. Daniel Fells has more pass-catching production and flashed a +10.8 blocking grade in 2012, but spent all of 2013 as a free agent. Third-year incumbent Larry Donnell has yet to take more than 20 snaps in a game, and Adrien Robinson hasn’t played on anything but special teams. Those who remember Kevin Boss and Jake Ballard know the Giants have a history of spinning tight end straw into gold, but the team also dismissed tight end coach Mike Pope this offseason. Whoever emerges at the starter at tight end, it’s hard to imagine New York getting much contribution from him this year.
3. Pass Rush
For a team that often boasted that they could never have too many pass rushers, the Giants sure find themselves lacking many this season. After racking up 33 combined sacks and quarterback hits in his breakout 2011 season, Pierre-Paul mustered just eight last season, leaving many to wonder if he’ll ever reach his once-enormous potential. There was hope that Mathis Kiwanuka would thrive last season back in a full-time defensive end role, but he instead posted a miserable -31.5 grade. We’ve already touched on Ayers run defense, but he’s never been more than a complementary pass rusher. And after years of being one of the NFL’s best interior rushers, Cullen Jenkins was not nearly as dominant last season. Even if Damontre Moore carries his promising preseason work into the regular season, the Giants are missing depth at a position where they once were abundant with it.
4. Lackluster Linebackers
It’s been a long time since the Giants treated the linebacker position with priority, and it shows on a group that’s lacking in difference-makers. Jon Beason got a lot of credit for the Giants defensive turnaround after Week 5, and there’s no way to quantify his locker room leadership. But on film, his play didn’t match the praise he received. Though he was active in run defense, his -15.1 coverage grade was the worst of any linebacker last season. Jameel McClain was brought in to play the Keith Rivers two-down run-stopper role, but it’s been a few seasons since he was an impact run defender and he bottomed out with a -9.4 grade in that category last season. Spencer Paysinger and Jacquian Williams have manned their respective roles as a three-down and nickel linebacker for a few seasons now, but neither has shown more than average play. Fifth-round pick Devon Kennard has flashed in the preseason, but it will take more than a surprising rookie to turn this linebacking corps into a positive.
5. No Will Hill
Around the same time Beason joined the Giants last season, the team also welcomed back Will Hill off a four-game suspension. From that point on, his +15.9 grade was the highest of any safety in the NFL. He didn’t make the highlight-reel plays that got a lot of attention, but he simply didn’t make mistakes. He didn’t earn a grade “in the red” for a game all season, and he missed just four tackles while allowing just one touchdown in coverage. He was the only Giants representative to make our PFF Top 101 of 2013, and looked like a star in the making. Unfortunately, he was not as disciplined off the field as he was on it, and another suspension led to his release. Even if Brown returns 100% from his ACL tear, it’s hard to imagine him matching Hill’s play from last year.
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