A friend of mine in the business, Jon Ledyard, devised an interesting series of tweets where he highlighted the above-average starters on each team. Ledyard is a talented football mind and you guys should give him a follow. With that said, he composed a list for the New York Giants that included seven players and two future caveats — Saquon Barkley, Kevin Zeitler, Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard, Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Leonard Williams, along with Darius Slayton and Will Hernandez as the caveats, given their development ascends.
Giants: 7— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) May 17, 2020
Offense: 4 (Barkley, Zeitler, Engram, Shepard)
Defense: 3 (Dex Lawrence, Leo W, Tomlinson I guess)
Slayton will get there this year I'd bet. Hernandez too hopefully. https://t.co/QKeS4n9kHC
In my opinion, Slayton must prove that it wasn’t a one year flash and Hernandez needs to be more consistent to be secured on the list.
Former Giants’ general manager Jerry Reese left Dave Gettleman with few assets. Roster turnover in the NFL is typically brutal, but Gettleman has assembled almost an entire overhaul of the Reese roster. There are only five players on the 2020 Giants’ roster that were on the team in 2017: Wayne Gallman, Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Aldrick Rosas. Shepard, Engram, and Tomlinson would make my list as above-average players. Kudos to Reese for that, but the roster left for Gettleman was necessitous — devoid of young, cheap foundational depth, but also had players like Odell Beckham and Landon Collins, who were very good in their own right.
Gettleman just wrapped up his third draft, so the 2018 draftees are entering a make it or break it type of year. Barkley is an absolute stud at running back, Hernandez needs to be more consistent, but I have high hopes for him with Marc Colombo this season, Lorenzo Carter needs to harness his raw potential, and B.J. Hill flashes when he plays, but is buried in a deep rotation. A positive spin to the Gettleman roster is its youth and flexibility; it has a solid quarterback on his rookie deal, the contracts bestowed to the 2020 free agents are front-loaded and shouldn’t hamstring the team in the future, and the team has $46 million in cap space for 2021, before the releases of Golden Tate and Nate Solder.
With all this acknowledged, here’s my list of above-average Giants’ starters.
Saquon Barkley - Hard to argue against it. Barkley is one of the most dynamic football players with the ball in his hands. An adept overall running back, that’s a rare type of athlete who has excellent contact balance and strength. The future is bright for Barkley and let’s hope 2019 was his only “down” year.
Sterling Shepard - Shepard would be an easier decision for me if he stayed healthy. But I had to contemplate it, which isn’t exactly fair to the player. This list is about how he plays when he plays, but I think durability must be weighed. Shepard is a good route runner who operates the middle of the field well. He’s tough, breaks quickly in and out of cuts, and he makes physical catches through contact.
Darius Slayton - Is it a one-year wonder? I hope not, and his traits suggest that it most certainly is not. Slayton showed a precious ability to win at the line of scrimmage with his release while being precise with how he runs his routes. Giants’ wide receiver coach Tyke Tolbert did an excellent job developing Slayton.
Evan Engram - Engram has never played a full season of NFL ball. He just can’t stay healthy, but his athletic profile, along with the on-field flashes, really shows a special player. Engram’s much more than just an athlete playing tight end; he’s made a lot of strides as a blocking tight end, while also having the capability to dominate linebackers and safeties in man coverage. All in all, I’m still very happy the Giants picked up his fifth-year option.
Kevin Zeitler - Gettleman acquired Zeitler from the Browns for Oliver Vernon right before the Odell Beckham trade. The Giants fleeced Cleveland in that part of the deal. Zeitler is the Giants’ best offensive lineman; he brings good power to the point of attack, frames his blocks well, and is sturdy in pass protection. Zeitler uses his hands well, has a good anchor, and has the location ability to climb to the second level. The Giants’ offensive line was a mess last season under Hal Hunter, but Zeitler still flashed his superior skill set.
Dexter Lawrence - Big Dex had a very good year in the trenches. He consistently won the point of attack and commanded double teams as the anchor of a talented defensive line. A lot of people criticized Gettleman for selecting Lawrence, but that was ill-advised. According to PFF, Lawrence finished in the top 25 of overall defense, run defense, and with his tackling for the defensive line position. He also finished in the top 25 of total pressures, with 30.
Leonard Williams - Was it wise to trade important draft capital for an impending free agent? No, but that shouldn’t alter our mindsets on Williams’ ability to play football. He doesn’t flash with stats, but he’s consistently disruptive. Williams had 26 total pressures after coming to the Giants in Week 9. He’s versatile, quick off the snap, and has a lot of length. I like his fit in Graham’s defense, but he’s going to have to produce more in clutch spots to earn his desired payday.
Dalvin Tomlinson - In my opinion, Tomlinson is the most underrated Giants player. He ranks in the top 20 of overall and rush defense at his position, and he’s a pure rock at the point of attack. To me, he made the biggest strides from 2018 to 2019. We all know that Gettleman loves trench players, and the general manager may be in for a big decision next offseason if Tomlinson keeps playing like he did last year.
James Bradberry - We haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Bradberry in Giants’ blue yet, but the cornerback held his own against Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, and Mike Evans two times a year in the NFC South. He’s solid in man coverage, does a good job recognizing in zone, and brings a disruptive nature to the catch point. Still only 26, his best days may be ahead of him. Be ready to play man coverage James, because Patrick Graham employs a ton of it.
That’s nine players who I can confidently put on my list of above-average starters. There are a few players who just missed — Jabrill Peppers, Blake Martinez, and Golden Tate. Peppers is a physical alley defender, who I have a strong admiration for. His toughness is on display every Sunday, but the missed tackles in space need to get cleaned up a bit, as does his coverage recognition. I expect a solid 2020 campaign from Peppers. Martinez is an uber-smart box linebacker, who’s reactive quickness and instincts put him into a position to excel. He wasn’t asked to play man coverage a lot in Green Bay, and that may change in New York. Hopefully, he’ll rise to the occasion. Tate is getting long in the tooth, but he came up clutch in so many situations last season for Daniel Jones. Tate’s presence was important to the development of the rookie quarterback, and that shouldn’t be understated.
Other players that could realistically make a 2020 leap into above-average players are Daniel Jones, Will Hernandez, Oshane Ximines, Lorenzo Carter, Ryan Connelly, and Julian Love. I would love B.J. Hill to take that step, but I don’t think he’ll get the necessary snaps unless injuries occur. We have no clue what’s going on with DeAndre Baker.
Jones made significant strides in his rookie season. If he continues to ascend with his development, he could easily be on this list in 2021, further silencing the doubters who continue to unfairly knock him. Like I mentioned earlier, Hernandez just needs more consistency and structure. Ximines and Carter both need to take the next step as pass rushers. The former needs to get better against the run, and the latter needs to maximize his athletic gifts. I feel the current coaching staff has it in their wheelhouse to get the most out of players, so that should benefit both of them. Connelly is unknown because of the injury but was promising in his brief playing time in 2019. Then there’s Julian Love who will be used in three-safety sets often, along with Peppers and Xavier McKinney. Love is going to be versatile and I can see him easily being the Tomlinson of 2019, where we’re talking about how much he progressed from one season to the next.
There are certainly so many variables when it comes to quantifying the success of a player. Would Hernandez be a better young player if the offensive line around him was more stable? Of course. Is Jabrill Peppers more effective near the line of scrimmage, rather than 30 yards off the ball like he was used in Cleveland? Absolutely. Let’s just hope we get some more consistency and development in 2020 from some of the younger guys on the roster.