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Difference makers: Giants’ players whose seasons will tell the story of 2019

NFL: New York Giants-Minicamp Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

There are lots of acceptable, standard ways to do lists leading up to training camp. Breakout players [we’ve done that one], players on the roster bubble [that one is coming], roster power rankings [I’m still debating giving that one a whirl] and others.

With your New York Giants opening training camp this week I wanted to try and come up with something at least a little bit different, something with perhaps a tad more meat on the bone.

Below, is my list of “difference makers” for the 2019 Giants. This isn’t necessarily a list of the best players. It is a list of which players’ performances are likely to tell the story — positively or negatively — of the Giants’ 2019 season.

Eli Manning and Daniel Jones

You simply have to put these two together, because their 2019 seasons are intertwined. At its core, the 2019 season is really all about these two — the iconic past and the hopefully bright future of the franchise at quarterback.

This isn’t meant to litigate how the Manning-Jones situation will play out. What you believe on how it will — or at least, should — play out is what you believe.

How this unfolds will likely have a great deal to do with how the season goes for the Giants, and if Jones ends up with any meaningful, significant playing time could give us a glimpse into how bright or dark the future might be.

Can Manning hold off Jones and be a 16-game starter? To do that, he is going to have to play well, of course. More than that, though, the Giants are going to have to win games — enough games at least to remain in legitimate playoff contention.

If the Giants get off to another horrible start, like last season’s 1-7 or the 0-6 in 2013, and the Giants deem Jones ready to play the view here is that there won’t be a good reason for him not to be playing.

If the Giants are in legitimate contention it will be fairly easy for them to just let it ride with Manning.

“I understand the circumstances that I am in and sure, I need to play well and play well early. Just do my job,” Manning said in the spring. “You want to do that. You have to be careful not to press and do too much when things aren’t there and force things. Just have to play to the best of my ability and make good decisions. Lead this team to wins.”

If the Giants don’t win enough games, they will almost certainly turn to Jones at some point. How can they not?

Question is, how will Jones do if and when he gets his chance? There will undoubtedly be rookie mistakes, ugly throws, bad decisions. Remember Manning’s 1-6 record and 48.2 percent completion percentage after taking over from Kurt Warner in 2004.

Will there, however, be enough positive signs for the organization to feel good about the decision to select Jones at No. 6, earlier than many thought he should have been taken, and put the future of the quarterback position in his hands?

What happens with Manning and Jones is really going to be the story of the season. There is no way around that.

Saquon Barkley

He is the best player on the roster. Maybe the best offensive player in the league who isn’t a quarterback. He is the one guy every opposing defense will game plan for, will focus on, will send extra defenders everywhere he goes.

Can the Giants run block well enough to give Barkley a chance to work his magic without having to do virtually everything himself? Can Pat Shurmur and Mike Shula, despite all of the attention Barkley will receive, find enough creative ways to get him the ball in meaningful situations where he has space to operate? When opposing defenses are honed in on stopping Barkley at all costs, can the Giants’ other play-makers take advantage?

Jabrill Peppers

No pressure, Jabrill! You were just acquired in exchange for Odell Beckham Jr., and will be playing the position at which Landon Collins made the Pro Bowl in each of the past three seasons.

“He doesn’t feel that pressure, he is thrilled to be coming home. He is very close to his mom, he is going to live in Bergen County, I think. I don’t think he feels that pressure. He is just excited to be a Giant. It’s the team he grew up cheering for, this kid’s coming home,” Gettleman said. “I don’t think he feels that pressure, and we certainly aren’t going to put that pressure on him. There is no reason for there to be that kind of pressure on him. He is coming here to be a safety, play football and help the New York Giants win games. It’s that simple.”

Well, it’s simple. But, then again, it’s not. The Giants need Peppers to be the player they think he can be. They need him to show that they were right to insist he be part of the package they received for Beckham. Mostly, they need playmakers on defense and they are counting on Peppers to be one.

“I’m just going there to be the best football player I can be,” Peppers said. “I hold myself to a high level and I intend to play at that level. That’s about as best as I can give to you.”

Evan Engram

On a Beckham-less roster, the receiver who seems most likely to command extra attention from opposing defenses is Engram, the smooth tight end entering his third season.

Over his first two seasons, Engram has seen his usage spike with Beckham out of the lineup. In 2017, Engram was targeted nine times per game with Beckham out of the lineup and just 3.8 times per game with Beckham on the field. Last season, Engram made 19 of his 45 receptions in the final three games — none of which Beckham played in. Over the final four games of 2018 he was targeted 7.75 times per game. In the first seven games Engram played last season, all with Beckham in the lineup, he was targeted 4.7 times per game.

The question with Engram isn’t talent, it’s health. He missed time last season with a concussion, followed by a knee injury and then a hamstring injury. He has missed six games over his two seasons, five of them last season.

Engram was held out of the Giants’ mandatory mini-camp due to another hamstring issue.

Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard are good wide receivers. Corey Coleman and Darius Slayton offer big-play potential. The Giants, though, have no other wide receiver or tight end who stresses a defense the way Engram can.

If he is healthy and productive, the Giants have plenty of weapons to have a quality passing attack. If he isn’t able to stay on the field it will be that much harder for the Giants to make opposing defenses pay for all of the attention that will be directed at Barkley.

Arizona Cardinals v Seattle Seahawks
Markus Golden during the 2016 season.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Lorenzo Carter and Markus Golden

The Giants finished the 2018 season 30th in the league in sacks and 31st in sack percentage. A deeper look showed that the Giants finished ninth in the league in pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions, so the pass rush was not completely ineffective. It appears the Giants could impact quarterbacks, they just couldn’t close the deal often enough.

The Giants then traded their only truly established pass rusher, Olivier Vernon, to the Cleveland Browns. In just seven games last season, Vernon led the Giants in sacks (7), quarterback pressures (25) and pass rush productivity (7.2, per Pro Football Focus).

That means the pressure to provide pressure off the edge is squarely on Carter and Golden, a massive gamble by the Giants on potential rather than proven productivity.

Carter, an exceptional athlete, has never really translated that athleticism into dominant production. He had 4.0 sacks as a rookie and in college at Georgia never had more than 5.0 in a season.

The Giants drafted him in the third round a year ago believing that he could develop into a dominant edge player, and they are banking on that happening in 2019.

“He is rushing with a plan. When you see him rush, a year ago he was trying to get off the ball as quick as he could and use his hands when he could. Now, you see a guy that is aware of how he wants to rush, aware of techniques that he wants to rush with,” said a hopeful defensive coordinator James Bettcher during the spring. “Guys that get in there as pass rushers, I have been in there and have coached them before personally, you see their best growth in the two and three years. You start to figure out what they are as rushers.”

Signing Golden to a one-year, “prove it” contract was really a no-brainer for the Giants. He produced a dominant 12.5-sack season for Bettcher with the Arizona Cardinals in 2016. Depending on Golden to return to that form, though, is a massive leap of faith.

A torn ACL wrecked his 2017 after just four sack-less games. His recovery limited him to just 11 games last season, during which he produced just 2.5 sacks. Optimistically, though, he produced 26 pressures (more than any Giant) and his pass rush productivity score of 7.0 was similar to Vernon’s.

Revenge of the Birds covers the Cardinals for SB Nation, and Joh Venerable of ROTB recently had high praise for Golden on the ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast:

“I have always been a huge Markus Golden fan,” Venerable said. “If the Giants are getting that Markus Golden [the 2016 version], who’s still under the age of 30, even if he puts up eight to 10 sacks that’s going to [pay] dividends.” ...

“You just dealt away Olivier Vernon. I think Markus Golden’s a better player than Olivier Vernon.”

Bettcher is also a Golden fan, which is obviously a major reason he is now a Giant.

“Don’t ever forget that before that [knee injury] he was one of the best pass rushers in this league. People had to plan for him,” Bettcher said. “I know that because I was one of the guys calling the plays for him on defense. I saw what he was able to do when he was healthy and running around.”

The Giants need Golden to be, if not the same dominant player he was in 2016, at least a reasonable approximation.

If the Giants get pass rush from these two players, that area of the defense could improve. If they don’t, it’s hard to see where else it will come from.

The complete offensive line

Yes, I’m cheating here by naming an entire position group rather that one person.

For the Giants to play well on offense, version 2.0 of Gettleman’s offensive line revamp simply has to be superior to 2018’s version 1.0. Slicing last season’s 47 sacks in half to a respectable number in the mid-20s would be a start. So, too, would be finishing, oh, middle of the pack in Football Outsiders’ run blocking rankings, rather than 29th.

If Manning is at quarterback, we know he isn’t going to make plays with his feet. He is going to need protection, something he didn’t have nearly enough of the first half of 2018, to succeed.

Football Outsiders ranked Manning 27th in the league among quarterbacks when facing pressure a year ago, 16th when there was no pressure.

More directly, the Giants averaged 18.75 points the first eight games of the season. Over the last eight they averaged 27.4. The biggest difference? Manning was sacked 31 times in the first eight games, only 16 over the final eight.

More time. Better offense. More points. More victories.

If Jones is at quarterback, we know he has the ability to move around and make plays with his feet. That will bail him out of some situations Manning simply can’t escape.

Rookie quarterbacks, though, make mistakes. Especially rookie quarterbacks under heavy pressure. We have also seen too many examples over the years of rookie quarterbacks have their confidence shattered and their development delayed — or destroyed — by getting beaten up behind atrocious offensive lines.

In the running game, SB Nation ranked the Giants 30th in the NFL in rushing efficiency, 8.4 percent below league average, despite Barkley’s brilliance. Barkley came into the NFL with the reputation of being a home run hitter who wasn’t always efficient on a per-carry basis. That proved out in 2018. Run-blocking that too often had him hit in the backfield, though, played a large part in the overall lack of efficiency.

With Barkley being the offense’s primary weapon now, the run-blocking needs to be at least adequate.

Dexter Lawrence

The Giants spent the 17th overall pick in the draft, the one they got for sending Beckham to the Browns, not on an edge rusher or an offensive tackle, but on a mountainous defensive lineman viewed by many as a run-stuffing nose tackle. That, of course, is something not valued as highly as it once was in the increasingly pass-oriented NFL.

Writing for SB Nation prior to the draft, former NFL linemen Stephen White had some really encouraging things to say about Lawrence ... and one not so encouraging thing to say. Here are some snippets from White’s scouting report.

Not just a nose tackle ...

Dexter Lawrence is a mountain of a man at 6’4 and over 340 pounds. At that size you might expect him to be strictly a nose tackle.

You would be wrong.

It’s true you would never mistake Lawrence for a smaller, quicker defensive tackle like Ed Oliver because Clemson moved Lawrence around quite a bit up front. But I actually got to see him play from a nice variety of alignments. He looked comfortable no matter where he was lined up, and he showed an ability to make plays from several different defensive line positions.

Yes, Clemson even had Lawrence lined up as a five-technique on occasion. He may not be able to play out there on the edge full-time, but I wouldn’t see any problem with him lining up there every once in a while on early downs.

There was also this in regards to moving Lawrence around ...

Lawrence is one of the better 342-pound athletes that you will ever see. He might not be straight-line fast, but the guy’s athleticism really surprised me a few times.

I can see value in Lawrence as a run defender all up and down the defensive line, especially on early downs. In a 3-4 defense, he would be able to play the run well anywhere from a five-technique to a zero nose, and his team could move him around on any given play.

Those comments are relevant, of course, because it appears the Giants plan is to play him at defensive end with Dalvin Tomlinson at the nose — at least on early downs. If Lawrence remains on the field on long-yardage downs, he would likely kick inside with Tomlinson coming off the field.

About his pass rush impact ...

Of course, where Lawrence is lacking is with his pass rush. That isn’t to say he didn’t get anypressure in four games, but I don’t think anyone who has actually watched his tape believes that pass rushing is his strong suit right now.

There were some flashes to be sure, but it just wasn’t consistent enough. He certainly had the opportunities to rush the passer from different spots, but at the end of the day he still only ended up with one sack and three hurries in four games.

I will say that his bull rush when he had one-on-one opportunities, especially against centers, was remarkable. He was definitely able to use that power of his to get push back into the pocket pretty well in those situations. Early on in his career, pushing the pocket with power moves is surely where he will make his money as a pass rusher. ...

I may be wrong on this, but I don’t foresee Lawrence ever being a big sack guy, anyway. With those power rushes, he could still do a great job of keeping the quarterback from being able to step up in the pocket to avoid pressure. That, in and of itself, can be a huge help to a team’s pass defense.

Lawrence knows that he has to be more than a run defender. He believes his pass rush skills are “underrated.”

“It’s kind of on me to prove myself, right, because I know who I am and to prove others wrong,” Lawrence said. “I’ve always been able to collapse the pocket, now I’m focused on escaping blocks or finishing the plays and things like that.”

The Giants need pass rush impact from as many sources as they can get it. They didn’t draft Lawrence No. 17 believing he would have to come off the field in pass rush situations.

DeAndre Baker

The Giants made a huge statement about what they think of Baker by moving up in the draft from 37 to 30 and surrendering fourth-round (No. 132) and fifth-round (No. 142) picks to get him.

Baker is obviously the most talented and has the highest ceiling of the young cornerbacks on the roster. Gettleman called him “the best cover corner in the draft” after selecting him.

Rookie cornerbacks are always tested by opposing offenses and the Giants need Baker to be up to the challenge.