With the 2018 season completed let’s look back on the top stories of the year for your New York Giants. This is my list, a ‘Valentine’s Views’ of the top 10 stories, if you will.
1 — The hiring of Pat Shurmur
This one should probably be the hirings of Shurmur as coach and Dave Gettleman as general manager. Gettleman’s hiring, though, came at the end of 2017. So, while it was “for” 2018 it didn’t happen in 2018, so I’m not including it.
So, why is Shurmur’s hiring No. 1 on my list? Because it was the beginning of everything else that happened with the Giants in 2018. Shurmur’s decisions, often in concert with Gettleman and ownership, are central to everything that happened this year and likely will happen for at least the next couple of years.
Many thought the Giants were going to hire Matt Patricia, but the former New England Patriots defensive coordinator ended up as head honcho with the Detroit Lions. The hiring of Shurmur wasn’t an exciting move, but it made perfect sense for the Giants after they saw what can happen when things go wrong with a young, inexperienced head coach.
Shurmur was head coach with the Cleveland Browns for two years, and was a successful offensive coordinator at a number of NFL stops. The Giants referred to him as an “adult” when they hired him, and his maturity, steady hand and respectful approach has been on display ever since he took the Giants’ job.
Shurmur has thus far dealt well with Odell Beckham Jr., has weeded many of the problems out of the locker room and has kept a team that started 1-7 together and playing hard. None of that was easy to accomplish.
In the end, though, it will come down to winning for Shurmur. Can all of the other things he does well eventually translate into victories and playoff appearances?
2 — Saquon Barkley
Barkley has been a part of the Giants’ story since well before the Giants made him the No.2 overall pick in the draft. For months, the conversation centered on whether the Giants would really select Barkley. Would they ignore the conventional wisdom that there wasn’t enough value in the position to select a running back No. 2, ignoring their need for an heir to Eli Manning with a bumper crop of quarterbacks in the draft class?
They did, with Gettleman saying Barkley was only the second player he had ever given a perfect score to on his scouting report card. Peyton Manning was the other. Barkley has been everything the Giants hoped for, and probably more.
He is a game-breaker with big-play potential every time the Giants get him the ball as a runner or receiver. He has become the center piece of the improving Giants’ offense, with Eli Manning admitting the offense goes through the rookie back. Barkley is a team-first guy who embodies the “teams beat teams” philosophy Shurmur has been preaching, and has quickly become a locker room leader.
Barkley has re-written the Giants’ franchise record book for rookies, setting new marks for yards rushing, yards from scrimmage, receptions and touchdowns. He could set an NFL record for receptions by a rookie running back with two catches on Sunday, and with 114 yards from scrimmage would become only the third rookie to gain 2,000 yards from scrimmage.
After what we have seen from Barkley, it is hard to argue with the Giants’ decision to select him.
Still, with Sam Darnold taken No. 3 by the New York Jets and looking more and more like a franchise quarterback, taking Barkley left the Giants still needing to address the long-term future at the most important position on any football team.
3 — The quarterback plan
The Giants said early on in the tenures of Gettleman and Shurmur that Manning would be the quarterback in 2018, that they believed he had “years” left as a capable player. They doubled down on the idea of supporting Manning by selecting Barkley, not selecting a quarterback in the draft until taking Kyle Lauletta in the fourth round, and adding only non-threatening veteran Alex Tanney. The Giants even removed the potential distraction of calls for Davis Webb to play if Manning and the team struggled by cutting the previous regime’s 2017 third-round pick.
The results? Decidedly mixed.
The Giants got off to a 1-7 start and Manning, obviously uncomfortable behind a porous offensive line, played at times like he was more concerned about self preservation than anything else.
The second half of the season has been different. Aside from a shutout loss to the Tennessee Titans the Giants have played better offense, and Manning has played much better quarterback. With a bigger emphasis on the running game and better pass protection, Manning has been more efficient. He has 11 touchdown passes to four interceptions in the past seven games and has had a passer rating above 100 four times. The Giants have averaged 26.3 points per game in that stretch after averaging less than 19 points in the first eight games.
Manning enters the final game of the season trending up in many passing categories. Among them, he has a career-high completion percentage (66.5), the second-highest passer rating of his career (92.7), his highest QBR (50.7) since 2015, the lowest interception percentage (1.9) of his career, his highest yards gained per pass attempt (7.5) since 2011 and several other numbers that show improvement from the past few seasons.
The Giants, though, will miss the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons.
All of that means we are right back where we started.
Can the Giants go into 2019 with a still productive but not what he once was 38-year-old quarterback? Can they do it in a circumstance where the quarterback has a short window but the franchise is at a point where it probably has to take a long view? The second-half improvement shows that the Giants can play good offense with Manning, but the sand in the hour glass is still running out for the two-time Super Bowl MVP.
Even Manning has admitted uncertainty about what will come next.
If they replace him, how do they do that? Can or should they use a high draft choice on a potential quarterback of the future? Is there even a quarterback worth selecting early? Justin Herbert, along with Dwayne Haskins the top two quarterbacks potentially available, has decided to go back to Oregon for his final year. Should the Giants do the best they can at quarterback in 2019 — with Manning or someone else — and look for their next franchise guy in a 2020 draft class expected to be flush with quality quarterbacks? Where does Lauletta fit in the Giants’ plans?
Difficult questions without clear answers. Right where we were at this point a year ago.
4 — Odell Beckham’s contract
Would the Giants trade Beckham, as was rumored early in the offseason? Would they make him play 2018 on the franchise tag, making him prove himself to Shurmur and Gettleman? Would they go ahead and give him a massive long-term contract despite the fact that he was coming off his first major injury and had a history of finding himself involved in distractions that had nothing to do with his immense ability?
The Giants chose to pony up the cash, giving Beckham a five-year, $90 million contract ($60 million guaranteed) that made him the game’s highest-paid wide receiver.
Now, the question is whether or not Beckham will finish that contract with the Giants. His ESPN interview, in which he did not support Eli Manning and seemed non-committal on whether or not he liked New York didn’t help.
There is also the reality that with each passing week the Giants become more and more a team led by Barkley, not Beckham.
5 — Offensive line rebuild
Dave Gettleman walked in the door as Giants’ GM with a promise:
“We gotta fix the o-line let’s be honest, let’s not kid each other. Big men allow you to compete, and that’s what we’ve gotta fix.”
Gettleman’s work is far from done in this department.
The Giants basically swept out everything old — Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, D.J. Fluker, Brett Jones, John Jerry, Ereck Flowers — and started with something new.
The line began with four new starters — Nate Solder, Will Hernandez, Jon Halapio, Patrick Omameh — and one holdover at a new spot in Flowers. Omameh flopped and was cut, and Flowers also played his way off the roster.
The Giants have gone through three centers — Halapio, Spencer Pulley, John Greco — and were fortunate to be awarded guard Jamon Brown on waivers at midseason.
How many building blocks do they have? Solder and Hernandez certainly. Perhaps Brown, a free-agent-to-be who has helped but has also shown limitations since joining the Giants. He has allowed three sacks, 16 pressures and has a Pro Football Focus grade of 49.9. 30th of 36 qualifying guards graded in that time period.
There remains much for the hog-mollie loving Gettleman to get done here.
6 — Roster overhaul
Gettleman likes to say that roster building is a 12-month job, and when it came to the 2018 Giants the general manager obviously wasn’t kidding. The Giants have undergone a massive roster transformation since the end of the 2017 season.
They traded away Jason Pierre-Paul. They let Weston Richburg, Justin Pugh, D.J. Fluker, Devon Kennard, Orleans Darkwa and others leave in free agency. They cut players like Davis Webb, Andrew Adams, Darian Thompson and Romeo Okwara before the season began.
Once they set their 53-man roster, the Giants made a stunning eight changes to it in roughly 72 hours, a 15 percent turn over. The Giants opened the season with a stunning 30 new players on their 53-man roster.
The churn continued during the season. Ereck Flowers and Patrick Omameh were cut. Damon Harrison and Eli Apple were traded. Ray-Ray Armstrong and Donte Deayon were let go. The Giants had a revolving kick return door much of the year.
As of Wednesday, by my count there were only 15 players on the 53-man roster who finished the season with the Giants a year ago.
Have they built a better mouse trap, or just changed the bait? Shurmur, who believes the Giants are “real close” to being a playoff-caliber team, hopes not to see the kind of roster turnover in 2019 that the organization felt was necessary this time around.
“I’d like to see all of our guys back next year because I think we’ve learned a lot of things together,” Shurmur said. “A lot of new players, certainly, I think we’re down to about 12 guys that were on the roster (last year) and there’s a lot of new going on everywhere.
“I’ve got a staff of coaches that, there’s only one guy on the staff that I ever worked with. So we’re battling through it, and we’re doing some things that put us in a position to win.”
7 — Missing the playoffs again
The re-tooling Giants started the season 1-7. While they rallied to win four of five after that, the awful start doomed them to a sixth playoff-less season in the last seven. The Giants have not won a playoff game since their 2011 Super Bowl victory.
Shurmur said throughout the season that the Giants needed to learn how to win again. They suffered devastating last-minute losses to the Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles and Indianapolis Colts throughout their first 15 games. In games decided by a touchdown or less the Giants are 4-7. In the second half of the season, they have lost two games in which they held double-digit leads.
Shurmur said that in 2018 “there is new going on everywhere” for the Giants, and that he would like to see the majority of this year’s team return next season.
“We’ve won some games, but we haven’t won enough, and so that’s the growth that has to take place and for those of us that aren’t very patient, it’s a painful process until we get to that point where we’re winning all of these games at the end – not just a few of them, but all of them,” Shurmur said. “We all know that it comes down to a drive or two at the end or the critical plays at the end of a game. There’s things that we’re doing that are good enough, but right is right. We’ve got to do it throughout the game and we’ve got to win them.”
8 — Pass rush? What pass rush?
The pass rush was a major question mark for the Giants entering the season, and that has proven to be an accurate concern. With 26 sacks entering Week 17, the Giants are tied for 30th in the league. Only the Oakland Raiders (13) have fewer sacks than the Giants.
It’s easy to point to former Giants Jason Pierre-Paul (11.5 sacks with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Romeo Okwara (7.5 sacks with the Detroit Lions) and Devon Kennard (7 sacks, also with the Lions) and believe the Giants made personnel mistakes there.
Kennard and Okwara have set career highs and Pierre-Paul is having his best year since 2014.
Rookie B.J. Hill (5.0), Olivier Vernon (4.5) and rookie Lorenzo Carter (3.0) lead the Giants in sacks.
The Giants are actually middle of the pack in creating pressure, 15th in the league in defensive pressure rate at 30.3 per Football Outsiders. Still, the pass rush has not impacted nearly enough plays.
That pass rush needs to be improved in 2019, and how to do that will begin with a decision on whether or not to retain Vernon, who has missed nine games with injuries the past two seasons. The Giants can save $15.5 million against the cap for next season by designating Vernon a post-June 1 cut. Vernon, though, leads the Giants in hurries with 22 despite playing in only 10 games.
9 — The rise of Rosas
In 2017, Aldrick Rosas was an inconsistent rookie who made only 18-of-25 field goals. That 72 percent mark was 37th out of 41 qualifying kickers, and left his NFL future very much in doubt.
Believing in his talent, the Giants not only gave him another chance in 2018. They really didn’t bring in any legitimate competition. Rosas has responded by making 30 of 31 field-goal attempts (96.8 percent), 28 of 29 extra points and being named the Pro Bowl kicker for the NFC.
That’s a meteoric rise for a 23-year-old who spent his collegiate career kicking in the NAIA.
10 — Rookies not named Barkley
Barkley’s incredible season probably makes the Giants’ 2018 rookie class a good one all by itself. The second overall pick wasn’t, however, the Giants’ only impressive first-year player.
The draft produced an offensive line building block in Hernandez, the team’s second-round pick (34th overall). A Day 1 starter at left guard, Hernandez allowed five sacks in the first seven games but hasn’t surrendered one since.
The draft also brought three players who look like they could be core defensive players. Third-round picks Lorenzo Carter (66th) and B.J. Hill (69th) emerged as key players. Fifth-round pick R.J. McIntosh missed the entire spring, summer and much of the season with a mysterious illness. In limited duty over five games, though, McIntosh has flashed promise.
Drafted players weren’t the only ones to emerge.
Undrafted cornerback Grant Haley got his opportunity when the Giants traded Apple and moved B.W. Webb from the slot to the outside. He has made the most of it. Per Pro Football Focus, Haley leads all rookie slot corners who have played 50at least 20 percent ofd their team’s defensive plays in snaps per reception (11.0) and snaps per target (7.7).
Linebacker Tae Davis has shown potential as an inside linebacker, and return man Quadree Henderson looked like a keeper before a season-ending fractured shoulder.
To rebuild a roster and create lasting success a team has to draft well and develop a core of young players. The 2018 rookie class looks to have gotten the Giants off to a good start heading in that direction.