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Giants vs. Cowboys: 4 things we learned from the Giants’ final loss

The Giants finish the season 5-11 and a disappointing loss. What did we learn going in to the off-season?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants gave it their all, but they finished the 2018 season just about the only way they could.

They lost, but they made it a close loss, complete with highlight reel plays from Saquon Barkley and a disappointing defensive performance at the end to let victory slip away. The Giants’ loss to the Dallas Cowboys was a nearly perfect encapsulation of their 2018 season.

This was our last look at the Giants before the 2019 free agency and draft seasons, let’s see what parting lessons they had for us.

The Giants have work to do on the offensive line

When Dave Gettleman was hired he came in with sturm und drang, declaring that he would fix the offensive line, bring in “Hog Mollies,” and in general return the franchise to an earlier era of Giants football. Pat Shurmur talked about “changing the transmission” of the Giants’ offense, as they proceeded to completely tear down and rebuild the offensive line over the course of the year.

Unfortunately, the Giants’ offensive line regressed.

Eli Manning was sacked 47 times, eight more times than his previous high of 39, and 16 more sacks than in 2017 (despite attempting all of five more passes).

The Giants finished with the 27th ranked run blocking offensive line (according to Football Outsiders), and spent most of the season with one of the very worst. A year ago they were ranked 15th.

The Giants found a keeper in left guard Will Hernandez. The guard, who nobody expected to fall out of the first round of the draft, looks to be a long-term foundation piece. The team is locked in to left tackle Nate Solder for at least another year, and while Jamon Brown wasn’t the mid-season savior many hoped he would be, he was an upgrade over Patrick Omameh and he might be the Giants’ best option going forward. They could also hope that he plays better with better pieces around him.

Center and right tackle, however, need to be addressed and upgraded this season. Chad Wheeler is a high-effort player, but a liability on the edge. Jon Halapio will return from injury, but he wasn’t particularly good before hie was hurt.

(In particular, he struggled using his hands in the run game, and too often couldn’t snap the ball and get his hands up before defenders were into his pads. He is a low-cost option and should have the chance to continue to develop and compete, however.)

Spencer Pulley showed why the Los Angeles Chargers felt comfortable in letting him go.

Whether it is in the draft or in free agency, the Giants need to find answers for their offensive line. They were able to scheme around it in the last two weeks, and these two games should heavily inform their offensive scheme next year. Doing football things, however, will be MUCH easier if they don’t have a leaky, inconsistent offensive line.

Saquon Barkley is really good at football

The debate whether Barkley was the right pick for the Giants in 2018 will probably rage on for some time. In all honesty, it hasn’t been decided yet, but drafting Barkley instead of a quarterback leaves them with uncertainty at the most important position on the field. There is still time to address the position and maximize the potential of Barkley, Odell Beckham Jr.

We can pick that debate up again tomorrow. For now, let’s just appreciate that Barkley joins Edgerrin James and Eric Dickerson to became the third rookie in NFL history with 2,000 yards from scrimmage.

And in the final game of the season, Barkley got back to giving us highlight reel plays. Plays like these:

Whoops, that was a scene from Space Jam. I meant this:

And, of course, there was the play that put him over 2,000 yards on the season:

He also set the record for receptions by a rookie running back:

Evan Engram needs to be a major piece of the 2019 offense

Is Engram a 6-foot-6, 270-pound monster who can match up with a defensive end in pass protection and blow open holes in the run game?

Nope, and attempts to use him as such are a mistake by the coaching staff. But credit where credit is due, with Beckham injured, Pat Shurmur has adjusted his usage of Engram, and Engram has responded by being the Giants’ most consistently productive offensive player over the last quarter of the season. Engram is a high effort player in the blocking game, though his frame will always limit the types of players he can match up against. Where he has an advantage over the prototypical tight ends is that he can play from all over the offensive formation, and be a true explosive mismatch.

He is also a very tough ball carrier, consistently working through contact and selling out for every yard.

The trick for Pat Shurmur will be to remember what Engram is capable of when Beckham gets back healthy.

The Giants need pieces on defense

I already mentioned that the Giants need to add pieces to their re-built offensive line. They also still need to address the future of their quarterback position.

They also need many pieces to field the kind of defense that James Bettcher wants to put on the field.

Olivier Vernon finished the game with 2.5 sacks and was harassing Dak Prescott all game long — but he has struggled to convert pressure into production all season long, and only really produced against back-up offensive tackles.

Curtis Riley had four interceptions on the year, but has been a liability at free safety all season ... And then he did whatever this was:

The Giants still have struggled against tight ends and have a habit of making them — particularly Dallas tight ends — look like All-Pro players.

Eight of their eleven losses were by a touchdown or less. While their offensive struggles certainly contributed to that, their defense’s inability to hold a lead and close out games was the primary reason. When the Giants had an 11-5 season and went to the play-offs in 2016, the defense’s ability to finish close games was a deciding factor, and it’s a factor that eludes them. They need to pour resources into this defense, and make smart decisions doing so.