Leap of Faith: 5 Things that Must Happen for the 2017 New York Giants

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Here’s a look at five leaps of faith the New York Giants are taking with their roster.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that one unexpected twist can  impact a season.

Such has been the case over the course of the New York Giants’ history, where we’ve seen events that have been both good and bad.

In 2007, an 0-2 Giants team was on its way to its third straight loss in what might have very well ended up a lost season were it not for a memorable goal-line stand against Washington.

On the flip side, there was a 2010 botched punt by then punter Matt Dodge sent down the middle of the field to Eagles return man DeSean Jackson, whose 65-yard return for a game-winning touchdown gave the birds a 38-31 come-from behind win in what some have dubbed the “Miracle at the New Meadowlands,”

The upcoming 2017 Giants season is sure to have its share of defining moments, but before those moments can take place, there are some major roster decisions that have to be made.

A closer look at those roster decisions reveal that the Giants are prepared to take some significant leaps of faith with their personnel.

If these gambles pay out for the Giants, the 2017 season is going to be fun to watch. If they don’t, then plans to build on last year’s brush with respectability could quickly turn to dust faster than Jackson’s returned punt.

Here, then, are the key leaps of faith the Giants are hoping come to fruition in 2017.

The Offensive Line’s Improvement

Unlike the defensive line, which the year before received a lot of love in the form of $131.2 million in contracts spent on two key additions (defensive tackle Damon Harrison and defensive end Olivier Vernon), the Giants offensive line didn’t get the same kind of attention.

To be fair, general manager Jerry Reese didn’t have anywhere near the $60 million salary cap space he had in 2016 to even think about shopping in the premium free agent section.

Instead, the Giants seem committed to sticking with the very same five starting players—Ereck Flowers, Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, John Jerry and Bobby Hart—who ranked 24th in run blocking and 2nd in pass blocking per Football Outsiders.

The decision was especially surprising given the mostly downs turned in by the two young offensive tackles. Per Pro Football Focus, Flowers finished 37th out of 40 offensive tackles who played in 75 percent or more of his team’s snaps; Hart, ranked 31st out of that same group.

It was eventually learned that Reese’s decision to stay away from the premium free agents was based on both Flowers and Hart re-dedication to improving their craft by staying in East Rutherford to work on their strength and their stamina.

This commitment combined with the progress members of the organization claim is there, likely convinced Reese that the team could get by with some lower-priced options, namely former Chargers first-round pick D.J. Fluker and rookie Adam Bisnowaty, whom the Giants traded up to get in the sixth round this year.

But what happens if when the pads go on, the projected starting five offensive linemen, especially the two tackles, repeat last year’s inconsistent and, at times, uninspiring 2016 performance in which they as a group allowed 169 total pressures, 18th most in the league?

It ain’t gonna be pretty.

Of their 2017 regular-season opponents, the Giants have six games against teams who placed in the top-10 league wide in sacks last year, with three opponents—Arizona, Denver and Seattle—all placing in the top five.

Breaking down that competition even further, of the top 15 sack leaders from 2016, the Giants are scheduled to see nine of them: Von Miller (Denver), Markus Golden (Arizona), Cliff Avril (Seattle), Chandler Jones (Arizona), Ryan Kerrigan (Washington), Khalil Mack (Oakland), Joey Bosa (Chargers), Frank Clark (Seattle) and Dee Ford (Chiefs).

Continued Overall Team Health

When Ben McAdoo was hired to succeed Tom Coughlin, he brought in not only some new coaching philosophies, he also brought in some of his own assistant coaches.

One guy who gets a lot of credit from fans for keeping the Giants, previously the league champions three years in a row in the injury department, healthy is strength and conditioning coach Aaron Wellman.

Whether Wellman was solely responsible for the Giants’ mostly good fortunes when it came to injuries or if it was more of the front office staying away from players with extensive injury histories is up for debate.

Whatever it was, the Giants, per Football Outsiders, were the eighth-most healthy team in 2016 when it came to players who would have otherwise been listed as “probable” (the probable designation was done away with last year).

Of the Giants’ 36 “new probable” designees, 33 played.

In terms of players listed as questionable, 30 of the 44 Giants who received this designation played in 2016, putting the Giants 12th in that category.

How did those numbers stack up against the 2015 season? Of the 33 Giants players listed as questionable, only 19 played (13th ranking) whereas 15 of the 23 players listed as questionable played (26th place ranking).

But here’s the thing the numbers don’t take into consideration: the role of the players who end up missing time due to injury.

Here, thanks to Spotrac, is 2016’s list of Giants who ended up on injured reserve (we didn’t include defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who was never placed on injured reserve even though he did end up not playing again last season after his Week 13 core muscle injury.)

RB Shane Vereen TE Matt LaCosse
LB JT Thomas S Mykkele Thompson
TE/FB Will Johnson S Darian Thompson
FB Nikita Whitlock RB Orleans Darkwa
LB Uani ‘Unga OL Byron Stingily
WR Ben Edwards DB Donte Deayon

Other than Vereen, Darian Thompson and maybe Thomas, none of these other players on injured reserve were considered core players.

Now let’s look at 2015’s list:

LT William Beatty TE Daniel Fells
LB Jon Beason OL Brandon Mosley
S Nat Berhe S Bennett Jackson
OL Brett Jones WR Marcus Harris
S Mykkele Thompson LS Zak DeOssie
DE Owa Odighizuwa TE Larry Donnell
LB J.T. Thomas LB Devon Kennard
WR Victor Cruz OL Geoff Schwartz

The difference? Besides the 2015 list being a little longer, at least nine key role players/starters were among those who didn’t finish out the season.

Injuries are unavoidable in football. Even if you think you have the right formula for rest and recovery, diet and nutrition, and strength and conditioning, often it comes down to a having the good fortune of keeping the injury bug away from a team’s key role players and starters.

The Defense’s Progression

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is entering the third season of his second tenure with the team.

After a rough 2015 season in which he saw his defense destroyed by a combination of injuries and lack of depth, he was finally given several premium pieces which, when they came together a few games into the 2016 season would go on to become the league’s 10th-best overall defense (339.7 yards/game), the third-best against the run (88.6 yards/game, tied with New England), and the second-best in terms of scoring (17.8 points/game).

Having gotten all the introductions and such over with, the Giants defense now has a strong nucleus which was mostly kept intact this year with the re-signing of Jason Pierre-Paul, and Keenan Robinson.

Not surprisingly, Spagnuolo has made little attempt to hide his excitement over what is yet to come from a unit in which nine of the 11 starters from last season are preparing to enter year two of the system.

While logic would dictate that a healthy Giants defense can be even better this season, there are a couple of pitfalls the defense needs to guard against.

The first is the middle of the unit. Defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard are the two starters from last year’s unit that weren’t brought back.

Meanwhile the Giants seem ready to have an open competition for the starting free safety position, the two leading candidates for that job being Darian Thompson, who was supposed to be the starter before a foot injury ended his season, and Andrew Adams, who filled in for Thompson.

The hope is that the team will be able to survive the loss of Hankins, who signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Colts in April. The Giants have auditioned young veterans Robert Thomas and Jay Bromley, and rookie Dalvin Tomlinson for the job. They also made a late-spring signing, investing a veteran minimum contract in Corbin Bryant.

After the spring practices wrapped up, none of those interior linemen had separated himself from the pack. Spagnuolo hinted that for the start of training camp, they would deploy an approach similar to what they did with the middle linebacker spot in 2016. in which a different guy took a turn with the starters until someone separated himself from the pack.

At middle linebacker, the job appears to be second-year man B.J. Goodson’s to lose. Goodson, who played in just 13 defensive snaps last year, doesn’t have much experience with calling plays, a role that he could end up sharing, if not yielding to defensive captain Jonathan Casillas.

Adams played well in relief of Thompson at free safety–so well in fact that the undrafted free agent out of UConn was named the Giants “Secret Superstar” by Pro Football Focus.

We mention defending the middle of the field because last year, it was a lot better than in previous years. Per NFLSavant.com, they allowed 94 pass completions for 1,494 yards (15.8 yards per catch).

In the run game on rushing attempts between the tackles, opponents found little breathing room, averaging just 2.76 yards per carry on rushes behind the guards and center.

The other concern? Spagnuolo admitted that he’ll need to make sure his players don’t rest on their laurels.

“We’ll have a lot of talks about that,” he said via NJ Advance Media. “I think we’ve got the right mixture of guys so that won’t happen, but you’ve always got to be concerned about it.”

Running Game Improvement

Sometimes statistics can be deceiving.

Let’s take the running game for example. There’s a belief that a Super Bowl championship team needs to have a top-tier running game.

History appears to suggest otherwise, as shown in the table below:

Year Super Bowl Winner Rushing Rank
2016 New England 7th
2015 Denver 17th
2014 New England 18th
2013 Seattle 4th
2012 Baltimore 11th
2011 Giants 32nd

If having a top-10 rushing game isn’t as important to a team’s success in winning a Super Bowl, then why did the Giants front office make it a focal point this offseason to improve the unit?

So glad you asked.

A functioning running game not only gives an offense balance, but when fired up, especially during the four-minute offense, it’s a vital weapon in helping a team protect a lead.

A solid running game also unlocks a whole spectrum of plays that last year, the Giants likely had to scrap. Besides having a variety of runs—pitches, sweeps, off-tackles, draws, etc.—a running game also opens up play-action, where last season Eli Manning ranked 18th in completion percentage (64%).

We also know that because the Giants didn’t have much of a running game, opponents didn’t often feel the need to load up the box with eight or more defenders. That, of course, led to them being able to clamp down on the passing game, or more specifically, Odell Beckham Jr., who still somehow managed to top 1,000 receiving yards.

Now let’s talk about the changes made to the running game for 2017. Paul Perkins will replace Rashad Jennings as the starter.  As a rookie, Perkins not only topped Jennings in terms of elusiveness (28.2 elusive rating to Jennings’ 15.8), he also averaged 2.24 yards per attempt after initial contact with a defender (to Jennings’ 2.01).

The Giants also brought in rookie Wayne Gallman, drafted in the fourth round, to help shore up the rushing attack. Per Pro Football Focus’s Draft Pass, Gallman averaged 5.1 yards per carry, 3.0 yards per attempt after contact and forced 153 missed tackles over the last three years.

One of the things Gallman is said to do really well is break tackle attempts made by safeties and corners, something the Giants running game didn’t do very well last year when Jennings and Perkins combined for 21 broken tackles.

Of course, all this talk about the running game means little if the offensive line doesn’t do its job. The good news though is that this year the Giants made sure to load up on potential blockers at tight end, another position that didn’t help the running game last year.

That’s one of the reasons why tight end/fullback Rhett Ellison received a four-year, $18M contract including $5 million to sign.

That’s also probably why the Giants have a couple of fullbacks—Shane Smith and Jacob Huesman—jockeying for a spot, and why after a couple of years in development, Mark Herzlich finally made the jersey switch to an eligible number if he’s needed to help run-block.

Evan Engram to Help Break Open the Passing Game

How bad where the Giants on pass attempts in the middle of the field last year?

On short passes thrown over the middle, they, per NFL Savant, converted 107 out of 153 into receptions (69.9 percent) for 1,244 yards, the 153 pass attempts over the short middle ranking the third most in the league.

On deep passes? Try seven completions on 22 attempts (31 percent) for 204 yards, 11th fewest deep-middle pass attempts in the league.

The Giants were just as bad in the red zone. Of those targeted—and this include running backs and tight ends in addition to receivers—at least five times inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, the Giants completed just 29 of 54 pass targets (53.7 percent) in 2016.

Meet rookie tight end Evan Engram, who last year wasn’t part of the problem on passes over the middle, but who this year could be part of the cure, opines  Mark Schofield of Inside the Pylon.

The area, though, in which Engram really has the potential to do damage is in the red zone, an area where the Giants converted just 51.1 percent of their red-zone visits into touchdowns.

Last year, Engram caught seven of his eight red-zone pass targets for 71 yards and four touchdowns, his performance translating to a 143.2 quarterback rating.

Before you go penciling in Engram as a TE1 on your fantasy team, ESPN reminds us that the contributions made by rookie tight ends drafted in the first round have been good, but not great numbers wise: Of the six first-round tight ends drafted, ESPN writes, they’ve averaged 39 receptions, 406 yards and two touchdowns as rookies.

Those numbers probably sound about right for a player who, after all, is on a roster with Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall.

Still, there should be plenty of balls to go around, and it’s important that Engram, who posted 13 drops over his three-year college career, makes sure he hauls in every single catchable pass.