We've reached the quarter point of the 2014 NFL season, New York Giants fans. It's been quite a journey so far, and including preseason, we've already watched nine games of Giants football. It still seems like the season is moving way too quickly given how long the offseason was. Can you remember how the Giants looked in their preseason tilts versus the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers? We're a long way from that, and I think the last two games in particular show that. Let's take a look at who's been contributing through the eyes Pro Football Focus and how they compare to the rest of the league. We'll be doing this review in a bit of a different format.
Elite (+8.0 to beyond)
After four games, if a player has gotten a +8.0 score or higher, they are on target for a season score of +32.0 or higher. Looking back at the 2013 regular season grades by position, that grade will put a player in the top three in his position at the very least. That's pretty much the definition of "elite." Who fits the bill right now for the team? The Giants have three that qualify, which is quite extraordinary when you think about it. Three game-breaking type performances.
The first player is the highest rated left tackle in the NFL, and that's Will Beatty (+10.1) and it's much deserved. After a horrid 2013 in which he allowed a league-high 13 sacks, Beatty is rounding back into form. So far, he's the highest performing member of the Giants' revamped offensive line, and has allowed a total of four pressures in these past four games, none of which are sacks. He started slowly, allowing three of those pressures against the Detroit Lions before really shoring up. His pass blocking efficiency is ranked fourth in the league at 98.0, but it's his balanced performance versus the pass and the run that's really standing out.
The next guy to be rated elite is the sensation at tight end, Larry Donnell (+8.7). Now, I have to say, on a personal note, with this guy I'm kind of patting myself on the back and smacking myself in the face at the same time. If you were here during our offseason draft coverage (and why wouldn't you have been, our coverage was tremendous!) I was a big fan of a certain player, Eric Ebron. I'm patting myself on the back because I remained convinced that the Ben McAdoo attack would focus heavily on the tight end. I'm smacking myself in the face because the reason I wanted someone like Ebron was so that they could run routes like this:
Turns out, the Giants knew more about that than I did. He struggled in the early going with his run blocking, but that has steadily improved. He isn't particularly fast, but the combination of his height, body control, nice hands, and unexpectedly crisp route running has been devastating, as he's on route to more than double the top tight end score from the 2013 season.
Finally, the last "elite" player in this group is the highest-graded defensive New York Giant, and that's Robert Ayers (+9.9). Thanks Denver Broncos, this guy has been a revelation. He has been truly versatile in that he's splitting time between DE and DT and playing both at a high level. He also comes in cold turkey and has an impact right away. In only 76 pass rush snaps this season, he's accumulated 13 QB pressures (three sacks, three hits, seven hurries). That pass rush productivity is second only to Cameron Wake of the Miami Dolphins. If there's anybody that needs to play more, it's Ayers. Just take a look at what he does to the Washington interior here. Absurd.
Superior (+4.0 to +7.9)
With grades ranging from +16.0 to +31.5, you have the range of players that are ending up in the top 10 at their position in the league. The Giants have a whole host of players that fit that description, which ends up going to show that they are an ascendant team. They have a total of SIX players (two offense, four defense), so let's get right to it.
The first guy here that has to be mentioned is Eli Manning (+5.0). After a rough start in which he briefly led the league in interceptions, something clicked. As former offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride stated:
"I do think once they step back, which they have done now, they've paired it away and they're becoming much more specific in what they are going to do against a specific opponent ... I think you're going to see a much better performance."
It all starts with Manning. He seems to have taken the new "WCO" in stride and it shows in his metrics. He currently ranks THIRD in how quickly he gets rid of the ball. He lets it loose in 2.21 seconds, with only Peyton Manning and Andy Dalton getting it out quicker. Compare this to 2013, where Manning threw it in 2.65 seconds on average. That almost a full half-second shorter. While that may not seem like a lot, it's an eternity when in the pocket. Manning is also several measures more accurate. In 2013, after factoring out drops, spikes and throw aways, he completed 67.2 percent of his passes, right behind Geno Smith for DEAD LAST among qualifying quarterbacks. This year? Completing 77.8 percent of his passes (a more than 10 percent increase), good for seventh in the league and right in front of some random guys by the name of Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck. He can still sling it.
The other offensive player to grade out in the "superior" category is Justin Pugh (+5.1), who is quickly proving to be the best offensive tackle taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. He's allowed more pressure than Will Beatty, giving up two sacks and seven hurries, but he's been an absolute mauler in the run game, his +5.0 grade run blocking ranks third in the NFL. Want the grades of the other offensive tackles taken that year?
Eric Fisher: -9.7
Luke Joeckel: -3.9
Lane Johnson: Suspended
D.J. Fluker: -3.6
Menelik Watson: -1.6
Terron Armstead: +1.7
David Bakhtiari: -1.9
Ricky Wagner: +4.6
Jordan Mills: -4.1
LaAdrian Waddle: -0.3
Only Ricky Wagner comes close to Justin Pugh, and nobody else is even in the same ballpark. Wagner, however, didn't have the same solid display his rookie year, so I still give our guy the edge.
Moving on to the defense, we've got two guys that have and hope to be stalwarts on the defensive line for a long time. The first is Jason Pierre-Paul (+6.3), who isn't the pass rusher he used to be (-3.0 pass rush grade, with two sacks and seven hurries in 133 pass rush snaps) but is a genetically engineered hell-beast when it comes to the run. His +9.0 run defense grade, 17.3 percent run stop percentage and 13 run stops all lead the league. By comparison, the next highest number of run stops is Jared Allen with six and the next highest run stop percentage is 10.2 percent by Mario Williams.
The other dominant player on the line is Johnathan Hankins (+4.9). He is probably the Giants' best two-way player on the line. Known previously for his dominant run defense (indeed, he ranks fourth in the league among run stops from the DT position with six), he has added some downright nasty pass rush prowess, recording the THIRD highest pass rush productivity in the league, ahead of guys like Ndamukong Suh, Henry Melton, and Geno Atkins. In 66 pass rush snaps he's got eight pressures (two sacks, one hit, five hurries). Not bad. Not bad at all.
Finally, the two other guys make up one of the best cornerback tandems in the league. They are, of course, Prince Amukamara (+5.4) and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (+4.1). Amukamara has been especially dominant in coverage, having been targeted 17 times, allowing only eight receptions for 140 yards with two interceptions and three passes defensed. QBs have only a 36.0 QBR against him, which is absurd. DRC has been stingy as well, especially after Week 1. He's allowed 13 receptions on 27 targets for 179 yards and one TD, and has one interception and three passes defensed.
Both are talented against the run as well, which is well known about Prince, but a pleasant surprise regarding DRC. Prince is an especially good tackler, and he leads the league in run stops with 6 and run stop percentage (7.1percent), as well as tackling efficiency (having missed 0 tackles in the regular season). Overall, Prince is the third-highest rated corner in the league, while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is ranked fifth.
Solid Contributors (+2.0 to +3.9)
Extrapolating these grades would give these players grades of +8.0 to +15.5 for the season, which puts them in that "strong contributor" area ranked in the top 15-20. Three players from the Giants fit this category and all are on the defense. They are Jacquian Williams (+2.9), Cullen Jenkins (2.4), and Antrel Rolle (+2.2).
You might be saying, wait a second, why is Williams anywhere near this group? Yes, he's definitely struggled. However, it's relative to the amount of responsibility that he's had. On multiple occasions, Williams has been asked (read: forced) to cover wide receivers. Williams is an excellent jack-of-all-trades linebacker and I'll give you the numbers to show it.
Let's start with the pass rush. Williams has only rushed the passer nine times. However, in those nine snaps, he's gotten one QB hit and two hurries. That's ultra-productive (even though it might not seem like it) and it results in Williams having the second-highest pass rush productivity of any 4-3 OLB in the league. Not convinced just yet? Okay, let's take a look at pass coverage. Williams has had 133 snaps in pass coverage. That's the second highest in the league (behind only the 144 snaps for Denver Broncos LB Brandon M. Marshall), and that looks like safety coverage numbers. With this responsibility he allows a reception once every 12.1 snaps (PFF's Cover Snaps/Rec metric). That's good for second-best in the entire league. It may look like he's allowed a lot of catches (and it's true, he has 11 rec/16 targets for 140 yards) but consider how many snaps he takes covering a player and who he actually is covering. Finally, as far as his run defense goes, he's got a grade of +3.9, FOURTH best in the entire league.
As far as Jenkins and Rolle go, they've been steady if not spectacular veterans for the Giants thus far. Jenkins had a bad game versus the Washington Redskins, not getting a single pressure, but has otherwise been on the positive side the first three games and grading well in the pass rush department. Rolle, meanwhile has only allowed eight receptions on 15 targets for 97 yards and a TD while nabbing two interceptions and one pass defensed.
Needs to Improve (-2.0 and beyond)
It's not all sunshine and roses in New York Giants land. We've got some underachieving players as well that need to step it up as we head into the second quarter of the season. Thankfully, there aren't too many players to go over, so hopefully this is a short section. There are three players on offense to discuss and two players on defense. There would be more than that, but Weston Richburg and Mathias Kiwanuka have vastly improved. Richburg in particular, as he went from a -6.2 grade the first two games to a +4.7 in the last two. The rookie is steadily improving. So is the veteran, as Kiwanuka suffered an atrocious -5.0 grade the first game against the Detroit Lions, but has steadily bounced back to grade at a +4.3 the next three games.
J.D. Walton (-2.3) is one such player that needs to improve, but to his credit, he's starting to. He's gone from a -3.8 in the first two games, to a +1.5 in the last two. So hopefully the Giants see continued growth and comfort from the starting center. The next player is rookie Andre Williams (-2.6) where the vast majority of his negative grade comes from the passing game. That's no surprise as that was a noted weakness dating back to college. He has been targeted four times with two receptions for 7 yards and two drops. The final offensive player that has been playing poorly is somewhat of a surprise. It's Henry Hynoski (-3.5). Hynoski's grade suffers from poor run blocking, which is mystifying given his great grades in the past. It might be a sign that the Giant offense could do without a true fullback in the future, having someone like Larry Donnell fill that role.
On the defensive side, the two players with the most to improve on are wily veterans Jameel McClain (-2.5) and Mike Patterson (-3.5). Starting with McClain, he's been simply mediocre in run defense and in pass coverage. He's great at rushing the passer, notching a QB sack and 2 QB hurries in 12 pass rush snaps (6th highest pass rush productivity) but ranks 31st in the league in run stop percentage. He ranks 17th in the league among inside linebackers in coverage snaps per reception allowed at 10.2. He needs to step his game up, though much like Beason, he's a much more positive influence on the team through his intelligence and ability to read plays and set up the others to succeed.
Patterson, meanwhile, might still be bothered by whatever his injury was that ailed him throughout the offseason process. He has only managed two QB hurries in 58 pass rush snaps and only one run stop in 52 run defense snaps. Just simply not good enough and a big reason why Robert Ayers is the first guy off the bench at DT and why Markus Kuhn is getting more snaps.
Overall Team Rankings
Through the quarter pole of the season, this is how the team ranks in comparison to everybody else:
Overall Team Offense: +15.5 (5th in the NFL)
Passing Offense: +5.3 (7th in the NFL)
Rushing Offense: -0.3 (10th in the NFL)
Pass Blocking: +8.4 (5th in the NFL)
Run Blocking: +0.2 (10th in the NFL)
Overall Team Defense: +35.6 (2nd in the NFL)
Run Defense: +22.2 (1st in the NFL)
Pass Rush: +6.8 (8th in the NFL)
Pass Coverage: +3.0 (6th in the NFL)
Special Teams: +1.8 (17th in the NFL)