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Progress? Young players are playing a lot, but are they getting better?

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The answer to that in too many cases appears to be “no”

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
DeAndre Baker
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Pat Shurmur says the New York Giants team he coaches is “historically young.”

Let’s just get this out of the way. That is not true. The Giants began the season with an average player age of 26.0 years of age, which placed them 18th in the league in terms of average age. They have played more and more young players throughout the season, but Mike Garafolo of NFL Network said Monday that the Giants have the league’s ninth-youngest roster.

Sure, the number is skewed with 38-year-old backup quarterback Eli Manning and 35-year-old safety Antoine Bethea, but that’s not “historically young.”

Now, the Giants are actually playing young players more than any other team in the league. At last count, they led the league by a large margin in snaps played by rookies. It is also true that 10 rookies have started games for the Giants this season, the most for the franchise since 15 rookies started games for the Giants in 1980.

As a frame of reference, here is Shurmur’s quote from Sunday evening regarding young players and their progress:

“This is a historically young team that’s going out there and competing against some really good football teams. We’ve got to do what we have to do to win games and I understand that. They also are developing. At some point, we’ll be good enough to win.”

Back when training camp began, GM Dave Gettleman framed what he wanted to see this season this way:

“Improvement. You would like to think that guys like Saquon (Barkley), and Will (Hernandez), and B.J. (Hill), and Lorenzo (Carter), and RJ McIntosh are going to make a significant jump. That old saying from ‘year one to year two.’ You’d like to think that those three first-rounders are the next man, and Julian (Love) and Corey (Ballentine) can come in to make us better. It’s about just to continue improvement. I’m not going to put a record on it. It’s not fair, and it’s not fair to the kids.”

So, in looking beyond the obviously atrocious 7-21 won-loss record as Giants head coach the obvious question is whether or not Shurmur and his staff are the right coaches to develop and teach to win the young players the Giants have invested their future in.

The only way we can judge that is by how players are performing on game days. So, let’s look at the first- and second-year players on the roster. The central question we will try to answer is “are they getting better?”

Second-year players

It’s often said that NFL players take their biggest leap from Year 1 to Year 2 of their careers. We know Gettleman and the Giants were looking for at least a couple members of the team’s 2018 draft class to make that jump. Has it happened?

Fourth-round pick Kyle Lauletta has already been jettisoned and fifth-round pick RJ McIntosh is a bit player of little significance. So, we will talk about the rest of the draft class.

Saquon Barkley (No. 2 overall pick) — After an amazing 2018 that saw him amass more than 2,000 total yards from scrimmage and win Rookie of the Year honors, Barkley hasn’t come close to duplicating that success. He got hurt, missing 31/2 games with a high ankle sprain. A couple of warts have shown up, though, as he has struggled to pass block and his early 2018 habit of turning short gains into negative plays has popped up at times. Verdict: Not improving (and, yes, I know it was never going to be easy to improve on his rookie performance).

Will Hernandez (Round 2, 34th overall) — Hernandez got better, especially in pass protection. as his rookie season went along. He allowed five sacks, but none over the final nine weeks. This season, his overall Pro Football Focus grade is down and his run-blocking grade is 57th out of 61 qualifying guards. Verdict: Not improving

Lorenzo Carter (Round 3, 66th overall) — The Giants needed Carter to take the leap from tantalizingly athletic rookie to dominant second-year edge defender. Entering the season, everybody knew it.

Carter is a nice player who flashes the ability to do a lot of things, but that leap simply hasn’t happened. He is on pace for 4.8 sacks and 52 tackles after getting 4.0 sacks and 43 tackles in 2018. Those numbers look slightly better but they aren’t. Carter played 441 snaps last year and has already logged 552 this year. He is, in reality, doing less with more. Verdict: Not improving

B.J. Hill (Round 3, 69th overall) — All you really need to know about this second-year defensive tackle is that his playing time has been dwindling. Sunday was the first time in six weeks Hill had played at least 30 snaps. After logging 5.5 sacks and eight quarterback hits a year ago, Hill has zeroes in both of those categories this season. Verdict: Not improving

Thus, the reality is that in what most consider the most important of a player’s career in terms of showing improvement not a single 2018 draft pick has gotten better.

Undrafted players: The only undrafted second-year guy playing any type of significant role is slot cornerback Grant Haley. He has lost his job as the starting slot corner, so that’s not progress.

2019 rookie class

The most important thing here is the development of quarterback Daniel Jones. I will get to my thoughts on Jones a bit later, but I’m going to take this class in reverse order. I will skip seventh-round picks George Asafo-Adjei (IR) and Chris Slayton (practice squad) because there is nothing to go on.

CB Corey Ballentine (Round 6, 180th overall) — The fact that Ballentine has been playing regularly since Week 9 after barely seeing the field the first eight weeks is progress for the former Division II player. He is learning a new position as a slot cornerback, so it’s not always going to be pretty. Whether his future is in the slot or outside is a debate for another day. Verdict: Improving

WR Darius Slayton (Round 5, 171st overall) — It’s hard to quantify whether Slayton is actually getting better. What is obvious is that Jones is depending on him more and more, so he is becoming more important. The rookie has 37 catches already, 20 in the last three weeks. Verdict: Improving

LB Ryan Connelly (Round 5, 143rd overall) — Looks like a nice player, but gets an “incomplete” because of his season-ending knee injury.

S Julian Love (Round 4, 108th overall) — We have only seen a two-game sample size, and Love has been impressive. I always say when guys are not playing that coaches see them in practice every day, and if they belonged on the field they would be on the field. Love’s play, though, has me perplexed. Did it take him this long to figure out the safety position, or was he this good in practice and still not getting a chance? Verdict: Improving, for the simple reason that he’s playing.

EDGE Oshane Ximines (Round 3, 95th overall) — We always knew that the Giants were going to have to spot Ximines in pass-rushing situations as he gained strength and adjusted to the NFL. Still, you hoped for increasing production as the year went on. Instead, Ximines’ playing time is diminishing and his production has disappeared. He has 1.5 sacks on the season, but has no sacks and only a single quarterback hit over the past eight games. Verdict: Not improving

CB DeAndre Baker (Round 1, 30th overall) — Do I really even have to go into this? Rookie cornerbacks never have it easy, but Baker is making this harder on himself. Apparently questionable study habits leading to obvious confusion on the field, visible lack of hustle at times, a league-worst 135.3 passer rating against among cornerbacks with 255 or more coverage snaps, diminishing playing time. Verdict: Not improving

DT Dexter Lawrence (Round 1, 17th overall) — I’m just going to say this — I am not sure about the positional value or whether the Giants could have done something better with the 17th pick, but Dexter Lawrence is a really good player. And already a guy who teammates appear to lean on and listen to. Verdict: Improving

The Daniel Jones section

Mark Schofield did a terrific piece earlier Wednesday on whether or not Jones has made progress. As an aside, you know it’s almost like Mark and I planned these two posts to work together. Mark’s conclusion — it’s been a mixed bag for the rookie quarterback, but he is showing signs of better pocket awareness and ball security fundamentals under pressure.

Jones will still make mistakes. The three interceptions give him 11 interceptions and 15 fumbles on the season. Per Pro Football Focus, Jones is fourth-worst in the league with 5.8 percent turnover-worthy plays. He is, though, 11th in the league in big-time throws. So, you see the good and the bad of an inexperienced quarterback. Tremendous ability, but a lot to learn.

I will agree with Mark that Jones is getting better, or at least more conscientious, about some of the subtleties of playing quarterback in the NFL.

Is that enough to save Shurmur’s job? Constant turnover, changing coaches and schemes, is not a great way to develop a young quarterback. Shurmur may be doing a great job behind the scenes with Jones. Still, the head coach is not the quarterbacks coach. He is responsible for the entire product. So, the decision has to be about more than just Jones. Shurmur is not the only coach in the world capable of developing a quarterback.

Conclusion

Young players are playing — a lot. That, of course, is a good thing with a developing team. There has not, though, been enough overall improvement — especially from the second-year players.

The Giants need to figure out why, before they end up wasting two draft classes they were initially optimistic about.