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Giants’ season has turned to mush — so, how do they fix it long term?

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Quarterback is the biggest issue that needs to be addressed, but it’s far from the only one

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Giants
Dave Gettleman
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants tried to have their cake in 2018, and eat it, too.

They tried to take a 3-13 team with a roster that needed upgrades pretty much across the board, a team that had been to the playoffs once in six seasons, a team that had an aging quarterback with an obviously short window, and compete while also trying to rebuild the soft underbelly of the roster.

Dave Gettleman talked before conducting his first draft as Giants’ GM about the balancing act of present vs. future.

“Here is the deal – as the G.M., I walk a tight line. I have to look at the short term and I have to look at the long term and that’s the tight rope that I walk and I have to take all that into consideration in making decisions, whether it’s the draft, whether it’s unrestricted free agency, whether it’s trading for an Alec Ogletree,” Gettleman said. “Whatever it is, making claims – you have to think about it. So I’m on that tight rope doing the best I can with the information that I have.”

Obviously, the information Gettleman and new coach Pat Shurmur had at the time was that there had enough top-tier talent — Odell Beckham Jr., Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard on offense, and Landon Collins, Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins on defense — to compete.

That’s why they stuck with Eli Manning. It’s why the drafted Saquon Barkley. Why they overpaid for Nate Solder, traded for Alec Ogletree, signed Kareem Martin and Patrick Omameh to bigger deals than they probably deserved, and supplemented the roster with veterans like Jonathan Stewart and Connor Barwin.

The Giants believed they could be, if not championship-caliber now, at least representative while trying to build a foundation for a better future. They figured all that offensive firepower and veteran talent and leadership could help keep them relevant while helping lay the foundation for the future.

Obviously, 1-5 says the first part of that tightrope act is not going well. Back to my cake analogy. The Giants were, entering the 2018 season, kind of like an ice cream cake. A chance to be good, but very, very fragile. They are, now, like an ice cream cake that sat out in the sun too long.

They turned to mush.

There is silly talk that Shurmur and perhaps Gettleman should already be on the fictional hot seat. Nonsense! We are going to need more than one offseason, six regular-season games are one full season to judge them. They were always going to need more than one season to fix a mess that it took the Giants the better part of a decade to get into. If you didn’t recognize that, you were kidding yourself.

Gettleman and Shurmur have many problems to address. Whether or not they are able to will determine whether or not they are the right people to pull the Giants out of the malaise the franchise continues to find itself in.

Let’s look at some of those problems.

Getting quarterback right

This is the biggest item on the to-do list. The big enchilada. The one that ultimately makes or breaks the careers of Gettleman and Shurmur, and determines the future long-term success or failure of the franchise.

For the sake of this discussion, there is no point in going backwards. No point in re-litigating whether or not they should have drafted Sam Darnold or given Davis Webb playing time last year. No point in rehashing how the organization let Manning down the past five or six years, putting awful offensive lines in front of him and too much poor talent around him, wasting too many of the best years of the best quarterback the franchise has ever had.

At this point, let’s look forward and discuss what the Giants can do to get the position right.

I will not lay all of the blame for the Giants’ offensive woes at the feet of Eli Manning. I fully recognize that Manning is part of the problem, and that the Giants have probably gone as far as they can go with Manning at quarterback. Offensive line problems, some dubious play-calling and the injury to Evan Engram have all been factors.

Could the Giants possibly go forward with Manning at quarterback after this season? Perhaps, because as I laid out a few days ago there are no sure things when it comes to replacing him. Remember, the Giants let Phil Simms go after the 1993 season. They didn’t find another franchise quarterback until 11 years later, when Manning showed up. Franchise quarterbacks don’t grow on trees, and not every college quarterback who looks good turns into one.

It isn’t going to happen in Week 7 and it may not happen until the Giants are officially eliminated from playoff contention, but when that time comes the process of trying to avoid long-term quarterback hell — Gettleman’s phrase — has to start by finding out what the Giants have in fourth-round pick Kyle Lauletta.

Can he be a franchise guy? What a coup that would be for Gettleman, getting Saquon Barkley and a long-term starter at quarterback out of the same draft. Could he show enough to at least be a placeholder for 2019 should the Giants move on from Manning and not be in position to — or choose not to — select a quarterback in the early part of the draft?

The Giants like Lauletta’s moxie. They like his decision-making and his accuracy. They like his instincts. They like his mobility. They recognize he doesn’t have a cannon for an arm, but think it’s good enough. He is, however, still a fourth-round pick from Richmond. It is hard to expect him to light it up right out of the gate or that he will become a top-tier quarterback.

The Giants have to get the choice of Manning’s replacement right. Really, they have to do it soon, too, while Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley are still at their best. If they can do that and avoid 11 years of the Kent Graham’s, Danny Kanell’s and Dave Brown’s of the world — the Tyrod Taylor’s, Brock Osweiler’s and Sam Bradford’s — then the Giants will wind up looking brilliant.

If they wind up in quarterback hell, and wind up being mediocre or worse for the next decade while Sam Darnold stars and the New York Jest rise as Barkley and Beckham compile wonderful numbers for bad teams, well then we can go back and have that Darnold-Barkley argument.

For now, let’s just see what happens. And try to ignore all those games the Jets are winning and 40-point outbursts they are having.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Giants
Nate Solder
NorthJersey.com-USA TODAY NETWOR

Fixing the offensive line

Gettleman walked in the Giants’ door saying “I believe in the Hog Mollies” and promising that fixing the offensive line was a priority. Shurmur has said on more than one occasion that the Giants will only go as far as the offensive line will take them.

Well, it’s not fixed and it obviously hasn’t taken them very far.

Give Gettleman an ‘A’ for effort, but a ‘C’ — at best — for execution. There have been a couple of good moves, and a couple that to this point don’t look so hot.

Signing left tackle Nate Solder ranks as a good move. Yes, it was a massive overpay. Still, he was the best left tackle on the market — draft or free agency. He gives them a good player, allowed them to move on from Ereck Flowers, and buys them a few seasons to try and find a young, long-term solution at the position.

Second-round pick Will Hernandez is showing signs of developing into one of the league’s better guards. He was a terrific pick by Gettleman.

At center, the decision to start Jon Halapio over Brett Jones was curious and looks worse with Halapio out for the year, Jones in Minnesota and 11-year veteran John Greco holding down the fort. Patrick Omameh hasn’t been good at right guard and Flowers is now a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars, with Chad Wheeler trying to prove he can be a competent NFL right tackle.

Forget all the gnashing of teeth about not bringing Justin Pugh or Weston Richburg back. The Giants were never going to pay either of those guys the kind of money they got in Arizona and San Francisco, respectively, and they were right. Paying Omameh $15 million over three years ($5.5 million guaranteed) instead of keeping Fluker, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks for one year and $1.5 million and is playing exceptionally well, looks dubious.

The Giants could be looking for as many as three new faces for that line next season.

Dealing with Odell

The Giants and Beckham simply have to find a way to make peace. No matter what you think of the appropriateness of the ESPN remarks made by Beckham to ESPN’s Josina Anderson, reality is the Giants organization can’t be very happy with Beckham right now. Largely because he made it clear he’s not very happy with them.

Beckham knew who the quarterback was going to be and what city he would be playing in when he signed his $95 million contract. So, to question the quarterback — rightly or wrongly — and intimate that he might not be thrilled about being in New York was never going to sit well with Giants’ brass. Thus, the report that he was fined by Shurmur. The head coach, incidentally, has every right to be unhappy with Beckham after going out of his way to build a relationship with him, and to fix a divided locker room. Also, the Giants can’t be happy with the sideline histrionics and just the idea that Beckham keeps making headlines for reasons that have nothing to do with how incredibly talented he is. They gave him the richest contract ever paid to a wide receiver in part because they thought they were past all that, and here we are.

Beckham may have had the best of intentions, but he ended up once again finding himself as a polarizing figure. It’s pretty apparent there is damage to the Shurmur-Beckham relationship. Patricia Traina said Friday on our latest episode of “Locked on Giants” that she would be “very, very surprised” if Beckham is still a Giant when the contract he just signed comes to an end.

Unless something changes, I’m going to agree.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Giants
James Bettcher
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Fixing their defenseless defense

When he returned to the Giants for a second stint as defensive coordinator in 2015, Steve Spagnuolo tempered optimism by reminding that he was a football coach and not a miracle worker. The Giants’ defense was awful in 2015 before a massive infusion of John Mara’s cash helped a year later.

I’m reminded of that now with new defensive coordinator James Bettcher. After Bettcher coordinated top 10 defenses in each of the past three seasons, there was tremendous optimism that Bettcher would turn around a defense that was 31st in yards and 28th in points allowed last season. The Giants are 13th in yards allowed, but still 25th in points allowed and have given up more than 30 points in three straight games.

The pass rush hasn’t been good. The Giants are tied for last in the league with seven sacks. Through five games, Football Outsiders had the Giants last in the NFL with an Adjusted Sack Rate of 3.6 percent. The fear was always that Olivier Vernon was the only established, in his prime, pass rusher and that if he couldn’t generate the pass rush it simply wouldn’t exist. With Vernon missing the first five games that fear became reality.

The run defense hasn’t been good. The Giants talked about being a run-first defense with Damon Harrison, Dalvin Tomlinson and B.J. Hill up front. The Giants are surrendering 121.7 yards rushing per game (26th) and 4.4 yards per rushing attempt (22nd).

We knew there might be an issue at safety, where the Giants are going with Curtis Riley as the centerfielder. There has been. We didn’t, however, think the play of Landon Collins would be worrisome — but it has been.

Collins has already missed 7 tackles this season after missing only 10 all of last season. He has surrendered two touchdowns in coverage, equaling his total from each of the past two seasons. As a pass rusher he has only 2 total pressures after being in double digits each of his first three seasons. His play hasn’t been bad. He just hasn’t yet been the difference-making player the Giants expected — and need — him to be.

The Giants need help at every level of their defense. We talked about the pass rushers already. They need at least one more every-down linebacker. They need a play-making free safety. They need Sam Beal, drafted in the Supplemental Draft, to be a good player for them when he returns from his shoulder injury in 2019. Even if Beal pans out, they probably need more cornerbacks.

The Giants have major decisions to make on each of the three big-name, big-money defenders signed during the 2016 free-agent splurge. It seems highly unlikely that Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Damon Harrison will all be Giants in 2019.

Vernon has two years and $30.5 million in base salary remaining. The Giants could save $11.5 million against the cap by cutting him, but would have $8 million in dead money. The Giants could have $7.25 million against the cap by cutting Jenkins while incurring $7.5 million in dead money. They could save $5.4 million against the cap while taking on $3.2 million in dead money by moving on from Harrison.

Watch the Giants play, and Jenkins might be making this an easy choice. As the Giants’ losses have mounted, he just seems increasingly disinterested. His 120.1 passer rating against is 121st among cornerbacks graded by Pro Football Focus so far this season. Jenkins had just one tackle Thursday vs. the Eagles, surrendered four catches in five targets and has given up 25 completions in the last 33 times he has been targeted (75.6 percent).

Building some depth

The Giants have more than 30 players who weren’t part of the team a year ago. They were awarded six players on waivers and added two free agents the week the season began, an amazing and sudden roster churn.

There is still a lack of depth. You see it in the drop off from Rhett Ellison to Scott Simonson at tight end. In the struggle to find viable backup offensive tackles. In the constant search for capable return men, one that has led the Giants to using Beckham full time on punt returns the past two weeks. At corner. At safety. Across the roster. It is going to take another good draft or two, and more work in free agency, to really upgrade the roster.