There’s no time like training camp!
Real football is really back, and we all finally have real football news to report and talk about. After long months of speculating about free agents and draft picks, we finally get to see them in action on the field.
It’s a time to rejoice and be excited.
It’s also a time for every fan wonder just what the season has in store for their team, and fans of the New York Giants should be no different. Some teams will take a step forward, building on the previous year while some will invariably take a step back.
Some have been saying that, according to analytics, the Giants are primed to regress to a 7-9 or (at best) 9-7 team in 2017.
I say it’s August, so I’m going to list five reasons why I think the Giants could be better on the field in 2017 than they were in 2016.
1 - Defensive Consistency
It’s no secret that the Giants rode a dominant defense all the way to the playoffs. The analytics suggest that relying on defense to carry the team year-in, year-out is a tenuous proposition, particularly for the Giants. In general, there is a higher rate of turnover on the defense than on the offense. On the offense, quarterbacks and offensive linemen tend to stick, and the steady personnel offer more long-term consistency for that side of the ball. So if an offense is good, it’s likely because the quarterback and offensive line are good, and because of the general consistency at the positions, they’ll stay good for longer.
That is exactly why I believe that the Giants’ defense will defy the odds and not have a steep regression in 2017. The Giants should be returning nine (or so, considering how Keenan Robinson and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were used) of eleven starters from the previous year. That six of them — Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, Janoris Jenkins, DRC, and Landon Collins — were among the best all-around players at their respective positions last year bodes well. Unlike many great defenses, the Giants actually have the opportunity to build on success, rather than try to overcome attrition.
Finally, this consistency will give defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo the chance to implement more of his sophisticated and communication-intensive defense. As he said earlier in the off-season, last year the defense was at the freshman/sophomore level. This year he will have them in “graduate school.”
2 - An Improved Offensive Line
When most talk about the Giants’ offensive line, it’s almost always negative.
There are, however, several reasons for optimism.
First and foremost, Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg should be healthy. Pugh missed five games with an injured MCL, which hampered him even after he returned. Before that injury, and even going back to 2015, Pugh has been one of the very best left guards in the NFL, with Pro Football Focus even rating him as the best left guard before his injury. Richburg played all of 2016 with torn ligaments in his hand. And while he was still able to be excellent in pass protection, it severely hampered his run blocking. When he was healthy in 2015, he was arguably the best center in the league despite being snubbed when it came to post-season honors. Getting their two best linemen back healthy should be a big boost to the Giants.
Next comes the tackles. There is a lot of talk that they are bad and not improving — present tense. Personally, I prefer to say that they played (past tense) poorly.
It’s true that we won’t know where they are now until the pads go on and they are able to mix it up for real, and the real test will be the Steelers in a week and a half. However, we also know that it’s basically impossible to ask any more of Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart than what they have given the team since February. Both players have basically lived at the facility (that they voluntarily stayed in New Jersey for the winter rather than going back to Florida should say a lot!) and threw themselves into the off-season program to transform their bodies and work on their mechanical weaknesses.
It’s unrealistic to assume that Flowers and Hart will suddenly become All-Pros, but it isn’t unrealistic to believe that hard work (along with a potential attitude change) will help them realize their talent and improve. The Giants don’t need their 23-year-old tackles to be All-Pros. They just need them to improve and be consistently league-average.
Finally, there is the right guard position. D.J. Fluker is PUMPED to be a Giant and has reportedly come in with a renewed work ethic. Likewise, John Jerry has once again been putting in work on his own with LeCharles Bentley. There is a legitimate, and stiff, competition on the right side, and it should give the Giants the opportunity to play whoever is best and provide an upgrade over last year.
While Jerry Reese and the Giants may not have gone out and made a splashy personnel change in the off-season, that doesn’t mean that a return to health by their best players and personal growth by their other starters won’t have the same effect.
3 - More Offensive Weapons
As training camp started, head coach Ben McAdoo hinted that the offense was constrained by the personnel available in 2016. In response, they made several moves to not only add weapons to the offense, but increase the diversity among the offense.
The Giants started the 2017 off-season by adding wide receiver Brandon Marshall and tight end Rhett Ellison. While Marshall had a disappointing 2016 campaign, he has a strong track record of dominance in the NFL. It isn’t unrealistic to believe that he can have an impact and return to form as a secondary option behind Odell Beckham Jr. and playing with the best quarterback of his well-traveled career in Eli Manning. Ellison isn’t known as a receiver, but he is versatile and a strong blocker, providing a presence at tight end the Giants haven’t had since Martellus Bennett in 2012.
They also named sophomore running back Paul Perkins the starter after a strong end to the 2016 season that saw him average better than 4 yards per carry behind the Giants’ beleaguered offensive line. His vision, quickness, and agility mark a distinct change in style from Rashad Jennings. They will also be getting Shane Vereen back healthy. Vereen was quietly integral to the Giants’ offense in 2015, having the best year of his career and caught 8 of 11 Red Zone targets, four of which went for touchdowns. The addition of rookie Wayne Gallman could be another to watch. A decisive inside runner, Gallman helped power the Clemson offense with 28 rushing touchdowns over the last two seasons. In that time frame the Giants as a team have had just 10 in that time frame.
And finally we get to Evan Engram. He’ll get his own section next, but the addition of the hyper-athletic tight end from Ole Miss, in addition to the Giants’ other additions will not only force defenses to divide their attention far more than they did in 2016.
The offensive additions will also allow the Giants to use far more scheme diversity than in 2016. Already in camp we’ve seen evidence of more “12” personnel, or two tight end, sets (a more efficient grouping than the 3-receiver set which dominated their offense last season). They have also been as using Engram as a psuedo-receiver, essentially turning their 11 personnel into a “10” personnel spread attack.
4 - Evan Engram
Engram will be one of season's biggest impact rookies https://t.co/Tetf6GKSRW— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) July 30, 2017
Conventional wisdom has it that rookie tight ends don’t have much of an impact. The dual nature of the position presents a sharp learning curve and even some of the best tight ends to come out recently had quiet rookie seasons.
And it is true that the last tight end to come out and make the Pro Bowl his rookie year was the Giants’ own Jeremy Shockey in 2002 (also, the last time they drafted a tight end in the first round.)
Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that 2002 was also the year that Jerry Reese was promoted to the head of the Giants’ college scouting.
But that hasn’t stopped the Giants from throwing the kitchen sink at Engram (playbook-wise, anyway). Ed has reported that they seem to have confidence in his ability to pick up the offense and are moving him everywhere, from the backfield, to the line of scrimmage, to receiver.
Engram might also have an advantage over other rookies, an advantage he shares with Odell Beckham. While it is true that like Beckham, Engram is both undersized and uniquely athletic for his position, they are also fairly unique among rookies in that they come into the league already having a rapport with their quarterback.
Beckham went to Eli Manning’s high school and has been catching passes from him in the off-season (both as a part of Manning’s workouts and as a part of the Manning Passing Academy) since that time. He came into the league as a Pro-ready route runner, but also with a veteran’s chemistry with his quarterback. That pre-existing relationship and familiarity might have played a pivotal role in Beckham’s ability to re-write the record books despite missing his rookie training camp, pre-season, and the first four games of that season.
Engram went to Eli’s alma mater of Ole Miss, and has said since being drafted that he would catch passes from Manning in the off-season while still in college.
While they may not have stated it, the Giants’ brass might have looked at both player’s familiarity with their quarterback as a way to shorten the rookie learning curve. If so, Engram — who is already being praised for his work ethic and intelligence, and is a savvy route runner as a tight end — might not play like a rookie.
Add to that his match-up nightmare athleticism and versatility, and the Giants’ rookie could take defenses by surprise as an immediate impact weapon.
5 - Ben McAdoo Isn’t A Rookie Anymore
The Giants improved far more in the last year than anyone could have hoped, and Ben McAdoo certainly deserves his share credit for that as head coach. But he was also a rookie head coach and made his share of mistakes and has his share of lessons to learn from his first season in the big office.
We don’t yet know what lessons he took from his first year, or how he will apply them going into his second, but he has so far shown a tendency towards both meticulous planning and flexibility.
Last year he appeared stubborn in sticking with the three receiver set, using it far more than any other team in the league, and it left his play-calling hamstrung and predictable. Will he learn to be more flexible in his play-calling? To better balance the demands of being in charge of the whole team and tending to his baby (the offense he installed in 2014)?
It’s still early in 2017 and we will get those answers in due time, but like any rookie player, now that McAdoo has some idea of what to expect, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that the game will slow down for him. If that happens, and he becomes more comfortable as CEO of the team, the whole organization will benefit.