Another year, another top-10 pick for the Giants.
New York selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft for the third consecutive year, which is only matched by Arizona in terms of sustained bottom-feeding in the last few drafts. To show for it, the Giants have a new head coach, new quarterback, a franchise running back, (hopefully) a star offensive tackle and the same general manager.
Is New York destined to be cellar-dwellers once again in the 2021 NFL Draft?
As with most teams who've picked so early for so long, there's a lot of exciting young talent in New York, but it's yet to materialize to anything yet. When you consider the likely limitations on training camp and preseason preceding the 2020 regular season, you start to get more and more worried about the Giants’ outlook, especially considering their opponents, released in order this week with the official NFL schedule:
- Week 1: Steelers
- Week 2: @ 49ers
- Week 3: Bears
- Week 4: @ Rams
- Week 5: @ Cowboys
- Week 6: Redskins
- Week 7: @ Eagles
- Week 8: Buccaneers
- Week 9: @ Redskins
- Week 10: Eagles
- Week 11: BYE
- Week 12: @ Bengals
- Week 13: @ Seahawks
- Week 14: Cardinals
- Week 15: Browns
- Week 16: @ Ravens
- Week 17: Cowboys
This isn't much of a forgiving schedule for the Giants. They play in a notoriously competitive division in the NFC East, where no game is a give me. They drew the NFC West and the AFC North as the two divisions they face to fill out their schedule. The NFC West figures to be the best division in football this season and three of the four teams in the AFC North have playoff aspirations. And, on top of it all, as a result of their third-place finish last year, they face the Buccaneers from the AFC South, who figures to be a little better in 2020.
And the Bears. But they have a good shot of beating the Bears.
The Giants largely floundered late last year. After quarterback Daniel Jones opened his NFL career with two wins, he lost nine of the next 10 games he started; he won again in a Week 16 overtime game against Washington that prevented New York from securing Chase Young in the 2020 NFL Draft. Of course, quarterback wins isn't a tenable stat to evaluate the play of an individual, and Jones had his bright spots in 2019. He was willing to push the ball downfield, especially to standout rookie wide receiver Darius Slayton, and showed good escapability. But, as he was at Duke, Jones remained extremely risk-prone with the football in the pocket and through the air; his limits in deciphering defenses remain clear and prohibitive to immediate growth.
Jones was a good fit for coach Pat Shurmur's offense, but Shurmur was replaced by new head coach Joe Judge and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, who figures to again give Jones a short-game heavy system that relies on spacing and pre-snap reads to define quick throws and maximize yards after the catch (YAC). The Giants do have a cadre of receivers built nicely for this system with Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate both landing high on the list of NFL YAC threats, but Shepard dealt with concussions last year, and Tate is getting older.
It's likely that the biggest improvement on offense won't come from Jones or the passing game, but rather a return of a healthy Saquon Barkley. Barkley only missed three games with an ankle sprain early in the season but was hampered following the injury and clearly did not play the remainder of his disappointing sophomore year at full health. With the improvements the Giants have made on the offensive line in rookie additions Andrew Thomas and Matt Peart, a healthy Barkley could bring the running game back to 2018 levels when he was always a threat to rip off an explosive touchdown.
Even if the offense takes a step forward in 2020, it will likely be a small one, as Jones was evidently a long way from starting-caliber play in 2019, and there is still work needed along the offensive line and in the receiving corps. The biggest question mark for Judge is a woeful defense from 2019 and how much it can improve across a truncated offseason.
All of the Giants' big-money moves in free agency attacked the defense. They brought in Carolina cornerback James Bradberry on a three-year, $44 million deal and Green Bay linebacker Blake Martinez on a three-year, $31 million contract and EDGE Kyler Fackrell on a one-year, $4.6 million deal. The Giants linebackers got toasted weekly last season, and with Martinez added and David Mayo retained, it remains unclear who is going to be the primary coverage player on the second level. Perhaps that role will fall into the hands of second-round rookie safety Xavier McKinney, who was a versatile box player at Alabama and figures to push for a starting role in base sets with fellow box safety Jabrill Peppers. Fackrell is responsible for turning around one of the worst pressure lines in the league last season and joins promising sophomore Oshane Ximines and holdover Lorenzo Carter in a generally toothless EDGE room.
The Giants' defensive tackle room is stacked; their secondary has a lot of young promise. But this unit was bad last year, and besides Bradberry and perhaps a strong rookie season from McKinney, New York did not add many high-quality players. It's tough to imagine it being much better in 2020, especially considering Judge and defensive coordinator Patrick Graham's New England backgrounds and the unique body types and skills its defensive scheme requires. Where is the Danny Shelton on this roster or the Kyle Van Noy? They might have their versatile safeties in Peppers and McKinney, but do they have the man cover defenders necessary to survive?
The ceiling is high for the Giants long-term as Jones continues to build on his flashy plays; the defense is reshaped from the James Bettcher mold and the offensive line is retooled. But with the limitations on the 2020 camp and preseason, the season is likely to be more so one of stop-start growth than anything else. The new-look Giants will be figuring it out as they go, and while the talent is there for some spunky performances, the time and the coaching isn't there for sustained success.
With the Cardinals trending upwards with quarterback Kyler Murray and coach Kliff Kingsbury throwing the ball all over NFL defenses, the Giants may be alone in extending their top-10 pick streak into a fourth consecutive season come 2021.