A breakdown of how free agency has set up the Giants draft.
Congratulations on surviving another year of endless mock drafts, smoke screens, and conflicting speculation.
The annual NFL draft is finally upon us, and within three short days, each NFL team’s fan base will finally have the answers to questions they’ve been asking since last year’s college football season ended.
If experience has taught us anything about the draft, it’s to expect the unexpected, and that has never been truer for the New York Giants than this year.
General manager Jerry Reese’s approach to free agency the last two offseasons has put this roster in such a state to where there isn’t any glaring, “gotta have” needs to fill.
As such, the organization’s long-time philosophy of taking the best available player when the Giants are on the clock will once again take center stage when the Giants look to fill out the roster’s depth at certain positions to create more competition.
That of course doesn’t mean that the Giants won’t be looking to build on last year’s 11-5 record.
As we wait for Commissioner Roger Goodell to take the podium to announce the Giants’ first-round pick tonight, let’s run through everything you need to know to get you ready for the first of three days’ worth of surprises and, for some, disappointments by recapping what the Giants have done to date that now gives them the choices they have.
Free Agency Recap: Offense
Before we get to the Giants draft needs, let’s take one last look back and what they did in free agency, in what can probably be summarized as a tale of two sides, and thus set up their 2017 draft.
We’ll start with the offense, a group that was coming off a 2015 season in which it ranked eighth overall (372 yards/game), seventh in passing (271.4 yards/game), and seventh in scoring (26.2 points/game) but which fell in 2016 to 25th overall (330.7 yards/game), 17th in passing (242.4 yards/game) and 26th in scoring (19.4 points/game)—this despite the return of receiver Victor Cruz and the addition of promising young running back Paul Perkins.
Thus, the Giants free agency strategy on offense, considering they didn’t have the boatload of money they had last year, was simple: Find complementary pieces to help boost a running game that finished 29th overall in 2016, with the hope of opening things up for the passing game.
The Giants added two key free agents on offense. The first is receiver Brandon Marshall, who takes the spot held by Cruz, the latter a salary cap casualty. Marshall, most recently with the Jets, brings leadership and experience to that still relatively young (and arguably still immature) receivers room.
As a receiver, Marshall has eight career 1,000-yard performances, his last coming in 2015 when he finished with 1,502 yards on 109 receptions.
Even last year with a revolving door at quarterback and with dealing with a knee injury, Marshall still finished with 788 yards in 59 receptions, his yardage total falling behind Odell Beckham Jr.’s 1,367 but well ahead of the production of Sterling Shepard (683), Cruz (586), Roger Lewis (97) and the rest of the Giants receivers (Tavarres King and Dwayne Harris).
Passing game upgrade? Check.
On the field, he brings a big, physical presence, particularly on the outside where the Giants can take advantage of his size not only in matchups against smaller cornerbacks, but also in the running game.
You may recall how last year the receivers barely had success when asked to block for the running game down the field. Marshall, with his physical style of play, should help to open things up in that regard.
Marshall, signed to a very friendly two-year, $11 million contract, is perhaps the biggest free-agent addition from outside the Giants made this offseason.
The second biggest? Tight end/fullback Rhett Ellison, a guy whom they’re hoping will provide some stability to a still unsettled offensive line that last year ranked 24th in run blocking according to Football Outsiders.
For those who see the signing of Ellison, who inked a four-year, $18 million contract as being a foolish investment, consider this: In 2015, with mainly the same offensive line but with a pure fullback (Nikita Whitlock), Football Outsiders raked the Giants’ run blocking 11th, and the Giants running game finished 18th in the league (100.6 yards per game).
Still not convinced? Except for last year, an injury filled one that affected the offensive line as well as star running back Adrian Peterson (who does his best work behind a blocking fullback), the Minnesota Vikings, Ellison’s former team, averaged 169.3 yards, 130.1 yards, 112.8 yards, and 138.2 yards from 2012 through 2015.
Running game upgrade? Check!
Lastly, the Giants didn’t stick their toe into the deep end of the offensive linemen free agent market, mainly because they didn’t have the money, but perhaps just as much because there wasn’t anyone out there they felt would be worth the value.
Instead the signed the Chargers’ 2013 first round pick, D.J. Fluker, who much like the Giants’ 2015 first-round pick, Ereck Flowers, has struggled thus far in his NFL career.
Free Agency Recap: Defense
The key strategy for Reese and the Giants was to keep as much of last year’s 10th ranked defense together as possible.
Reese did just that with one notable exception: defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. While on the surface Hankins’ departure leaves a glaring hole, chances are the Giants were going to add a young defensive tackle to the mix—we are thinking Day 3–regardless of whether Hankins re-signed.
The assumption with Hankins gone is that Jay Bromley is next in line to be the starter because he was with the team from the start of the offseason last year while Robert Thomas, his competition, was not, it’s understandable why one might make that assumption.
However, a concern we have with Bromley was in his progress last year. Normally you want to see young players, particularly rotational guys on defense, see an increase in their snaps as the season wears on.
That wasn’t the case for the former Syracuse defender. He was inactive in Week 12 in favor of Robert Thomas. And after averaging 17.15 snaps per game throughout most of the season, that total dropped to 13.6 snaps in the final three games, including the postseason.
It’s possible that Bromley had an injury that was never disclosed which could have contributed to his drop-off in snaps.
Then again, maybe the Giants saw what they needed to see from him. We did find it interesting how defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo began using outside linebacker Devon Kennard as a pass-rushing defensive tackle in some packages—a promising look.
Speaking of the linebackers, we’ve made note of the fact that other than B.J. Goodson, none of the veterans at this position are signed beyond this year, which would suggest that Reese and the front office plan to remake this unit in steps.
The hot buzz was that they tried to do so last year in the draft by targeting Leonard Floyd, only to be outsmarted by the Bears, who traded ahead of the Giants to get Floyd.
Might the Giants try again to land a linebacker? It wouldn’t be surprising. While the unit did improve (slightly) in coverage, where it didn’t necessarily carry its weight was in affording Spagnuolo opportunities to rush the passer with success.
Based on the regular season stats, the Giants linebackers recorded 2.5 sacks. One was by Kennard, who as previously mentioned, lined up as a pass-rushing defensive tackle.
Technically, that’s 1.5 sacks (all by Jonathan Casillas) from behind the line of scrimmage. By contrast, the defensive backs accounted for eight of the Giants sacks last year, with some of those blitz packages a sight to behold.
The Giants linebackers blitzes off the edge? Not so much.
Lastly, let’s talk about the secondary. It remains to be seen if safeties Nat Berhe and Mykelle Thompson are cleared medically to resume contact activities. given their respective injury histories, the Giants might want to look at adding a safety who can play both spots.
Cornerback? They should be set there for this year, though it wouldn’t’ be surprising if they were to add another slot cornerback after seeing how devastating an effect the absence of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had on the defensive play last year in the Wild Card game.
The Giants’ 8 Biggest Needs Ranked
In a separate article, we’ll try to make the case for which direction the Giants should go in the first round, and will give you a few players at each position.
Until then, here is what we view as the team’s biggest needs, from least important to most important.