At the start of the 2020 season, we put together a list of the ten things the Giants didn’t want to see happen during the season.
Of course, as Murphy’s Law would have it, the very first item on that checklist—running back Saquon Barkley suffering another injury--did happen, and it was a game-changer in so many ways,
For starters, the Giants had to adjust how they ran the ball, moving away from outside zone schemes to more inside runs. But the most significant thing the Giants lost when Barkley went down in pain at the top of the second quarter in a Week 2 game against the Bears was the versatility he brought to the game as a receiver.
Barkley was targeted more than any Giants receiver as a rookie, catching 91 of 121 pass targets for 721 yards. In his second season (2019), he was the second-most targeted receiver, behind receiver Sterling Shepard with 52 receptions on 73 pass targets for 438 yards. (By comparison, Shepard caught 57 of his 83 pass targets for 576 yards in 2019.)
Here’s something else to think about. Barkley’s absence might have also shed more of a light on just how lacking the Giants' playmakers are.
This was supposed to be the off-season where Barkley landed his new contract extension that likely would have made him the highest-paid at his position.
Instead of that peace of mind for both Barkley and the Giants, both face some uncertain times, albeit times filled with optimism, that Barkley can return to his pre-injury form.
Wayne Gallman (PFF Grade: 71.1)
2020 Stats: 147 rushes for 682 yards, 6 TDs // 21 receptions for 114 yards
No one benefited more from the increased opportunities there for the taking after Barkley’s injury than Wayne Gallman, the fourth-year pro who, for whatever the reason, kept finding himself buried on the depth chart despite having shown flashes of being a capable runner.
It might be argued that Gallman helped the Giants running game, which finished with its most productive placement in the last three years. The Giants, who in both 2019 and 2020 finished ranked 19th in rushing, actually had a higher average in 2020 (110.5 yards per game) than they did in 2019 (105.3 yards per game).
Gallman’s strengths are running between the tackles, where once he lowers his shoulder, he does a great job of acquiring yardage after initial contact. He averaged 4.74 on those runs, with the bulk of his yardage going through the defense’s A-gaps.
Gallman’s 3.63 yards after contact was the clear runaway leader among Giants running backs and was fourth league-wide among all running backs with at least 100 rushing attempts, behind Cleveland’s Nick Chubb, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry, and Tampa Bay’s Ronald Jones. This also showed up in his receiving game, where 100 of his 114 yards came after contact.
Gallman, the Giants top-scoring offensive position player with 36 points (second overall behind kicker Graham Gano), might draw a situation where he can be equal partners in a running game rotation rather than the understudy to a bell cow.
The likelihood of Gallman returning isn’t very high, but if he doesn’t get a suitable offer on the open market, perhaps a one-year deal with playing incentives might do the trick.
Alfred Morris (PFF Grade: 69.1)
2020 Stats: 55 rushes, 238 yards 1 TD//3 receptions, 19 yards, 1 TD
Morris joined the Giants mid-year, first as a member of the practice squad and then promoted to the 53-man roster when Devonta Freeman landed on injured reserve. Morris, who brought with him a reputation as a tough, physical runner who finished his runs, did just that for the Giants in limited opportunities.
Of his 238 rushing yards, 123 came after contact, an average of 2.2 yards per carry. Morris was also solid in pass protection, pitching a season-long shutout in terms of quarterback pressures allowed (note: he only had 12 pass-blocking opportunities, so we’re not talking a big sample size).
Morris is a tough, physical runner who excelled in the open field. Of his 55 rushing attempts, he managed to avoid five tackles, the second-best rate on the Giants, behind Freeman.
He also reads his blocks well and accelerates through the hole and into the second level. Although he doesn’t have homerun speed, Morris’s rushing yardage distribution was evenly distributed between runs to the edges and in between the tackles,
With that all said, if it comes down to deciding between Morris or Freeman, Freeman probably has the edge despite having had the injury-shortened (and then COVID-19 stricken) season.
Eli Penny, FB (PFF Grade: 65.8)
2020 Stats: 6 carries, 15 yards, 4 First Downs // 2 catches 20 yards
The Giants fullback was a core member of the special teams who would occasionally be thrown a snap or two on offense. In the last quarter of the season, when the Giants were going with their heavy personnel packages, Penny saw his offensive snaps increase.
He rewarded the Giants with some solid lead blocking both in the running game and those few pass pro blocks he was called upon. And he also contributed in the short-yardage game, converting four of his six carries into first downs.
Saquon Barkley (PFF Grade: 60.2)
2020 Stats: 19 carries, 34 yards, 3 First Downs // 6 catches 60 yards
We all know what a dynamic back Saquon Barkley is. But if there was one area of his injury-shortened season that stuck out like a sore thumb, it was his pass protection.
Barkley famously struggled in pass pro against the Steelers in Week 1, so much so that former Giants running back and holder of several franchise rushing records Tiki Barber questioned whether Barkley was an every-down running back.
In each of his first two seasons, Barkley allowed eight pressures. This year after a bad showing against the Steelers in Week 1, he never got a chance to redeem himself due to the injury.
For those wondering if that's just something that the Giants will have to live with, it's worth noting that Barkley, when he came out of Penn State, was among the top pass-protecting running backs in the 2018 running backs class.
Dion Lewis (PFF Grade: 54.7)
2020 Stats: 29 carries, 115 yards, 2 TDs // 19 catches 127 yards, 1 TD // KORs 22/548 22.4
Lewis, who had ties with head coach Joe Judge in New England, signed on a one-year deal to help Judge with setting up the type of locker room he desired. But as far as his contributions, let’s say they left something to be desired.
One of the most significant issues with Lewis is his diminutive size. The 5-foot-8, 195-pound Lewis was also often overmatched in pass pro situations. He allowed nine pressures this season, three of which were sacks. In his last three seasons (the previous two with the Titans), Lewis has allowed 30 of his 38 quarterback pressures.
As a runner, he was at his best on runs outside the tackle box, where he averaged 5.14 yards per carry. When asked to run inside, Lewis often got swallowed up by the bigger men. And as a receiver, although Lewis led the Giants running backs with eight receptions for first downs, his 4.4 yards after the catch was the lowest of the Giants running backs.
The Giants are likely to move on from Lewis to get an upgrade at kickoff returner. Lewis averaged a paltry 22.4 yards per return and had some late-season ball security issues that are not acceptable. Combine this with his decline in the running game, and the decision to move on from Lewis is a no-brainer.
Devonta Freeman (PFF Grade: 55.0)
2020 Stats: 54 carries, 172 yards, 1 TD // 7 catches 58 yards
***Update: Freeman has signed with the Bills to replace Zack Moss for the rest of the playoffs.***
Freeman was signed to fill in for Barkley following his season-ending ACL injury. Unfortunately, Freeman's season came to a screeching and premature halt due to a high ankle sprain that landed him on injured reserve.
Before that, Freeman had appeared in five games with four starts and ran for 172 yards on 54 carries with a touchdown while catching seven of 10 pass targets for 58 yards, showing some spring left in his legs.
Freeman, a two-time Pro Bowl running back with the Falcons, also found himself on the Reserve/COVID-19 list amid his stay on injured reserve. The Giants released him earlier this week, a procedural move as league rules state that all pending unrestricted free agents must be released off IR once they can pass a physical.
But in his short stay here, Freeman showed enough spring in his legs to potentially warrant another one-year, incentive-laden contract with the Giants, especially if they decide to mutually part ways with Gallman.
The Giants running back position went from being a minor need to a major one the moment Barkley went down. Barkley is the only one of the Giants running backs under contract for 2021 (besides Jordan Chunn, who was signed recently to a reserve/future contract).
Again, while there is optimism about Barkley making a complete recovery, the Giants were also optimistic that receiver Victor Cruz would make a full recovery from a torn patellar tendon in his knee.
This is why the Giants can't put all their eggs in one basket when it comes to Barkley. There's nothing wrong with being optimistic, but there has to be a backup plan in place that consists of a combination of a veteran and perhaps an early Day 3 draft pick just in case.
Of the Giants' current free agents, Gallman appears to have done enough to warrant another contract on the surface.
If Gallman isn't an option, then Freeman would be a solid veteran fall back plan to go along with an early Day-3 draft pick if all else fails.
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