With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the New York Giants, who finished 3–13 in 2017.
1. Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham and Evan Engram comprise the most dynamic RB-WR-TE trio in football. All three can pose matchup problems from anywhere in the formation, making new head coach Pat Shurmur’s scheme almost limitless. But that’s first assuming these three can consistently perform their positions’ traditional tasks. Can New York’s revamped O-line pave roads for Barkley in the base run game? Can Beckham, maybe the sport’s most electrifying playmaker, also be a consistent possession target for an otherwise underwhelming receiving group? Can Engram become at least a half-decent blocker? If no, then he’s simply a No. 2 receiver, offering less schematic dimension than a flex tight end.
In a perfect world, the Giants will often go no-huddle out of two-tight end personnel, with Eli Manning checking in and out of plays from every section of Shurmur’s call sheet, and defenses scrambling to locate and combat New York’s three mega-weapons.
2. Adding to Barkley’s, Beckham’s and Engram’s significance is New York’s lack of passing game depth. The only other viable receiver is Sterling Shepard. Everyone else is suited for a run-first offense and dependent on getting help from the scheme.
3. Shurmur’s scheme could well be equipped to deliver that help. As the Vikings’ offensive coordinator, he had a pair of stud receivers in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. But after running back Dalvin Cook’s injury, Minnesota’s lineup as a whole became a tick less talented than this current Giants offense. Those Vikings still scored 23.9 points per game (10th best in the league), beating man-to-man defenses with stack alignments, intersecting routes and crossing patterns. They also destroyed zone defenses with high-low route designs. Shurmur’s play-calling was symphonic.
4. As for that Giants O-line, three new players and four updated position-fillings should make it better than the sorry group that hindered this team in 2017. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely up to snuff. Expensive free agent left tackle Nate Solder struggled last season, which is why New England let him walk. Second-round left guard Will Hernandez has intriguing mobility, but no player’s transition to the NFL is guaranteed to go smoothly. Center Jon Halapio is an almost certain downgrade from departed free agent Weston Richburg. And Halapio’s competitor, Brett Jones, (Richburg’s former backup) is a verified downgrade. Incumbent right guard John Jerry lacks twitch, and his likely replacement, Patrick Omameh, is just a guy. And Ereck Flowers might be coming off his first steady season at left tackle, but now he’s learning all new mechanics on the right side.
5. GM Dave Gettleman was wise not to spend the second overall pick on Manning’s successor. The 37-year-old QB’s 2017 struggles were derivative of a historically up-and-down player being saddled with a depleted O-line and receiving corps. Physically, Manning shows no decline. With a better supporting cast, he should again look like the QB who averaged 4,290 yards and over 30 touchdowns in the three seasons prior to 2017.
6. Cornerbacks will make or break New York’s defense. New coordinator James Bettcher’s pressure-intensive scheme is reliant on solo cover artists outside. Janoris Jenkins can be a near-version of what Bettcher had in Patrick Peterson when he served as the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator… assuming Jenkins relocates the discipline that he finally discovered in 2016. On the other side, Eli Apple can mature into one of the NFL’s best mirror-coverage technicians if he first matures in general. Jenkins and Apple are critical because, outside of maybe supplemental third-round rookie Sam Beal, the Giants are short on backup cornerback talent. (NOTE: Shortly after this piece was published, it was reported that Beal will miss the 2018 season with a shoulder injury.)
7. On first and second down, Bettcher likes to condense his D-line inside, eliminating interior run gaps. He’ll enjoy doing this with tackles like Dalvin Tomlinson and especially Damon Harrison—football’s best all-around run-stuffer.
8. Olivier Vernon will get mentioned as this scheme’s version of Chandler Jones, but don’t expect from Vernon anything close to the 17 sacks and 28 tackles-for-loss that Jones posted as Arizona’s lone All-Pro last year. Vernon is lanky, fundamentally sound and, at times, explosive, but he’s more a cog in a machine than everydown creator—especially rushing the passer. Opposite Vernon, New York has four adequate but uninspiring pass rushers: newly signed ex-Cardinal Kareem Martin, ex-Ram Connor Barwin, third-round rookie Lorenzo Carter and utility front player Avery Moss. Bettcher more than ever will rely on blitzing.
9. Safety Landon Collins improved his coverage awareness and technique last season. It will be interesting to see how often he’s given these responsibilities in 2018 considering that, as a free defender, he’s one of the league’s more dangerous defensive playmakers. Collins, with ex-Rams linebacker Alec Ogletree, gives Bettcher schematic options inside.
10. Bettcher is more inclined to tap into those blitzes in crucial 2-minute situations. But will he be reluctant to early in the season? Surely one of the first things he noticed when watching film of his new defense were the big plays it surrendered on all-out pressures last year.
BOTTOM LINE: Questions still abound, but this team is much closer to being the one that won 11 games in 2016 than the one that won three in 2017.
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