Every year fans want to know what to expect from their team in the upcoming season.
And in an ordinary year we would have a much better idea of what to expect from the New York Giants in the coming season. We would have gotten a look at the draftees and UDFAs in rookie mini camp, a look at the team as a whole in the June mini-camp. By now we would have gotten to see the team on the field for training camp, and would even have seen them in live action in a couple pre-season games.
2020 has been anything but ordinary.
So this year we are leaning on the work of the analytics community to try and get some idea of what past performance can predict for the 2020 season. Sharp Football Analysis and Football Outsiders were each gracious enough to give us copies of their season previews, the Sharp Football Analysis 2020 Football Preview and Football Outsiders Almanac, respectively.
Likewise, former Big Blue View contributor and current editor for Sharp Football Analysis Dan Pizzuta contributed to the sections on the Giants in each guide,
We pretty much have to start off with the offense.
Offensive football is being played at an unprecedented level thanks to rule changes which have promoted offense (by making it harder to play defense) and schematic innovations at the collegiate and NFL level.
Statistician Ben Baldwin wrote for 538 that, “Both interceptions and fumbles are completely unpredictable from season to season at the team level. And this pattern holds true for defense in general. If we measure the stability* of defensive stats from one year to the next, we find that compared with offensive performance, most defensive stats are highly variable from year to year.
*Stability measures tell us how well a stat predicts itself over a period of time. Year-over-year r-squared of a metric tells us what percentage future performance, or variance, can be explained by past performance.
High-impact plays on defense turn out to be the least predictable. And while we’re by no means great at identifying which teams will succeed on offense, offensive DVOA is about twice as good at forecasting future performance as defensive DVOA.”
A large part of why offensive success is predictive of future performance is due to the quarterback position. Teams don’t like turbulence at the quarterback position. To put it frankly, there isn’t a single position on the defensive side of the ball that teams are as loathe to shuffle as the quarterback position.
Jones is, as Dan says on the Chris and Joe Show, a “Rorschach Test” at quarterback. By that, Dan means that an observer can find evidence in Jones’ tape and stats to support whatever conclusion they want to reach.
For instance, if you want to set out to prove that Jones is a nascent franchise QB, you could point to the fact that he is the second rookie QB in NFL history to have three games with four or more passing touchdowns, his 23 touchdowns is third among rookie QBs, and he had five 300+ yard games. And from a more nuanced analytics perspective, Jones was the best quarterback in the NFL on 0 or 1 step drops,
“On 0-/1-step drops that allowed the ball to get the ball out quickly on a first read, Jones was one of the best quarterbacks in the league, with a league-high 7.4 yards per attempt.” (per the Football Outsiders Almanac)
But on the flip side of that, Jones provided plenty of evidence for those who tend to see him in a negative light. The most obvious is his tendency to put the ball in danger. Jones lead the league in fumbles with 18, and he also threw 29 “interceptable*” passes (per PlayerProfiler).
*Defined as passes that either were intercepted, dropped by a defender, or where a defender was in position to intercept the ball.
All told, only Jameis Winston put the ball in danger more frequently than Jones last year. That could be bad news considering (per SharpFootballAnalysis) the Giants are projected to face the second-hardest schedule of any team in 2020, with the fourth-hardest defensive schedule.
And again, moving beyond the box score to look at Jones efficiency numbers, he saw his numbers decline precipitously when asked to take deeper drops.
“On 3-step drops, Jones fell to 6.3 yards per attempt. On 5-step drops, where deeper passes typically occur, Jones had a league-worst 5.5 yards per attempt (Table 1).”
The contradiction in Jones’ play likely has to do with his disregard for both pressure and coverage.
While Jones’ willingness to hold onto the ball with a defender in his face could lead to spectacular results, such as Sterling Shepard’s, sliding, twisting, catch against the Packers in the snow or Darius Slayton taking the ball away from a defender in the end zone.
But on the other hand Jones ranked third in aggressiveness, throwing into tight coverage (defined as when a defender is a yard or less away from the receiver) on 22.4 percent of his attempts. Jones’ willingness to throw into coverage down the field made completions hard to come by, and contributed to his decline in yards per attempt and touchdown rate despite throwing further down the field.
But, as Dan says, while those throws often lead to bad outcomes, they also lead to spectacular ones.
“Only 28.8% of Jones’s passes that traveled at least 20 yards down the field were completed, a rate that ranked 25th among 30 quarterbacks with at least 25 such attempts.
Despite Jones having a near-league-worst completion rate of his deep attempts, he had a 17.3% touchdown rate on those throws, which trailed only Jimmy Garoppolo and Patrick Mahomes.”
(via Football Outsiders Almanac)
So what are we to make of this?
Well, the most fair conclusion is that we should be prepared for a wide variety of outcomes, particularly as the Giants transition to a more vertical and read-heavy offense under Jason Garrett. That plays against Jones’ strengths considering how his efficiency numbers dropped as he was asked to look further down the field.
But on the flip side of that, his willingness to take risks opens the door for spectacular outcomes.
How we interpret Jones’ sophomore season will likely come down to whether or not we see more of those flashes of brilliance and they’re enough to lift the Giants’ offense, or if he remains inefficient on a down-to-down basis and better defenses are able to take the ball away more consistently.
We’re going to lump Engram in with the Giants’ top three receivers for this section. While this isn’t meant to say that Engram should be moved to wide receiver, it is evident that he is one of the NFL’s most dynamic size/speed mismatches. Put frankly, if Engram isn’t a major part of the Giants’ passing attack, they are misusing him and missing out on opportunities.
Engram saw his production plummet in 2019, largely thanks to injuries and misuse. The 2020 Sharp Football Analysis preview had this to say,
“It was stunning to see Evan Engram, a year after delivering 0.26 EPA/att (better than Odell Beckham) and receiving 9.0 YPA, struggle as he did in 2019. Engram recorded just 6.8 YPA, a 41% success rate, and 0.07 EPA/att [in 2019]. Of any receiver targeted at least 30 times, it was the worst on the Giants. Engram’s aDOT was only 6.1 yards, so these were not deep, difficult passes.”
Sharp offers a potential solution, and it could be as simple as better play calling.
“The difference in production by route type was astonishing. Look at the two routes he ran the most, with at least 12 targets on each last year:
Outs: -0.50 EPA/att, 31% success, 3.2 YPA, 67 rating
Curls: 0.24 EPA/att, 50% success, 7.4 YPA, 96 rating”
The difference in Engram’s production on the two similar routes is stark, but it also makes sense. The curl route sees the receiver breaking back toward the center of the field, which takes away the defense’s ability to use the sideline as another defender (when run from a wide alignment). As well, it offers a shorter, easier throw for the quarterback with (potentially) a larger window. It also bears some resemblance to the the first part of the Stick-Nod route which Engram ran to such devastating effectiveness as a rookie.
In our podcast, Dan also notes at the Giants would also do well to use Engram as a vertical threat more often, perhaps offsetting their lack of a second outside threat opposite of Darius Slayton.
Moving on to the wide receivers themselves, and the Football Outsiders Almanac suggests that the Giants’ best personnel grouping might be 12-personnel, based on the overlap between Golden Tate and Sterling Shepard.
“The pairing of Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate overlaps in skill set as players who perform better from the slot, but neither did that particularly well in 2019. Tate had -6.5% DVOA from the slot and Shepard was just barely above average at 0.4%.
91% of Tate’s targets came when he was lined up inside, as did 66% of Shepard’s.”
Unfortunately, the two players share the same skill set, so the team should probably err on the side of the player with the higher upside in Shepard.
A 12-personnel (two tight end) offense would allow the Giants to incorporate Evan Engram into the passing game more and hopefully put him in position to play up to the ceiling he flashed in 2017 and 2018.
That would, however, require a shift in philosophy from Jason Garrett. Per SharpFootballAnalysis, Garrett’s Cowboys ran 11-personnel on 67 percent of their offensive plays (60 percent was the NFL average in 2019), and used 12-personnel on just 18 percent of plays (20 percent was the NFL average). What’s more, Garrett did little to use personnel to disguise his intentions. The Cowboys called a pass on 68 percent of their plays in 11-personnel compared to 37 percent of their plays in 12 personnel.
The flip side of the coin is the defense. In some ways the Giants have completely overhauled their defense, and in some ways it is remarkably similar to what they fielded over the previous two years.
The defensive line remains the strongest unit on the Giants’ defense and remains largely unchanged from a year ago. The quartet of Dalvin Tomlinson, Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, and B.J. Hill will split the vast majority of defensive snaps. And, for the most part, the Giants will be fielding the same group of EDGE players that they did in 2019.
However, there have also been a number of additions in the “back 7” of the defense. But perhaps no change from 2019 to 2020 will be of greater consequence as the change at defensive coordinator from James Bettcher to Patrick Graham.
The Football Outsiders Almanac notes the similarities in how both coordinators describe their defenses, and responded to a lack of talent last year, saying,
“New defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s philosophy reads like the profile of any new defensive coordinator: he wants to be multiple and aggressive. Any “What Does Patrick Graham Bring to the Giants?” articles could be copy-and-paste jobs of what was written when former defensive coordinator James Bettcher came on board. Bettcher eventually had to water down his defense given the players available. Time will tell if Graham will become hamstrung by the same issues. Graham and Brian Flores did some good things with a lack of talent on Miami’s defensive roster last year, but it was still a unit that finished last in the league with one of the worst defensive DVOA ratings we’ve ever tracked.“
As noted above, everything starts with the Giants’ defensive front. They don’t have a single player in the top five of their projected defensive tackle depth chart who was drafted after the second day of their respective draft.
The Giants’ defensive tackles will likely play a big (no pun intended) role in the defensive performance this year. The Dolphins only rushed three defenders on 20 percent of their plays last year, second most in the League. But rather than a typical “rush 3, drop 8” prevent defense, the Dolphins showed their Patriots ties. They used a Belichickian combination of looks and alignments to create one-on-one opportunities and leave offensive linemen blocking air.
But by the same token, they also blitzed nearly 30 percent of plays (27.9 percent, per Football Outsiders). All told, the Dolphins weren’t sending a typical four-man pass rush on half of passing plays.
That could be good news for the Giants, who struggled to pressure passers with four rushers a year ago. They finished 17th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate (the rate at which pass rushers beat blockers in 2.5 seconds or less), and 23rd in Sports Info Solutions team pressure rate. But both of those measure the team’s ability to pressure quarterbacks. At one point last year the Giants featured the second-worst 4-man pass rush in the NFL, generating pressure on just 19.3 percent of rushes — worse than the historically bad Dolphins’ 19.7 percent.
The Giants can — and should — hope for development from Lorenzo Carter and Oshane Ximines, as well as for Kyler Fackrell to be something more than the 1 to 3 sack producer he was the majority of his time in Green Bay.
However, a plan to either scheme pressure through the blitz or to play coverage, and using both to keep offenses off balance might just be their best bet on defense.
The Giants have also seen change at inside linebacker, signing Blake Martinez in free agency and the Football Outsiders Almanac suggests that Lorenzo Carter might move inside rather than stay at EDGE.
The Football Outsiders Almanac isn’t particularly high on Martinez.
“After getting out of the Alec Ogletree contract, the Giants signed a carbon copy in Blake Martinez. Both are players who struggle in coverage and can put up high-volume, low-impact tackle numbers cleaning up plays after long gains. Martinez was last seen as Kyle Shanahan’s preferred target in the NFC Championship Game.”
Data from Sharp Football Analysis backs this up as well. Martinez’s average tackle came 4.1 yards downfield and despite all his tackles, Martinez proved to be a net detriment to Green Bay’s run defense with -7 points saved in run defense. That was by far the lowest among the league’s tackle leaders. It’s also worth pointing out that the Giants’ Dalvin Tomlinson was among the league leaders in run defense points saved with +14.
The in part through design, and in part through necessity, the Giants have overhauled their secondary. Gone are CB Janoris Jenkins and S Antoine Bethea, replaced by James Bradberry and Xavier McKinney. The Giants were anticipating that 2019 first-round pick DeAndre Baker would start across from Bradberry, but his legal troubles leave that notion in serious doubt. Instead, the Giants will likely be relying on 2019 sixth-round pick Corey Ballentine opposite Bradberry.
The Football Outsiders Almanac is high on the signing of Bradberry:
“James Bradberry, a second-round pick under Gettleman in Carolina, came over in free agency to be the No. 1 corner. Bradberry is a versatile outside corner for both zone and man, whose charting stats undersell his level of play by virtue of matching up against the likes of Julio Jones, Mike Evans, and Michael Thomas twice each season in the NFC South. After adjusting for opponent, Carolina ranked in the top 10 of DVOA covering No. 1 receivers each of the last two years.”
While Bradberry has the versatility to line up in man or zone coverage, we should expect to see him in man coverage — a lot.
The Dolphins played man coverage on 46 percent of their coverage snaps last year, the third-highest rate in the NFL. We should also expect to see Bradberry traveling with the other teams’ top wideout, as the Dolphins had the fifth-lowest rate of “sides” coverage, meaning they rarely simply left their corners on the left or right side.
But while Bradberry might be tasked with taking number one receivers out of the game, the pressure will likely be on Ballentine to step up. Per the Sharp Football Analysis preview, “No corner with 100 or more coverage snaps allowed more Adjusted Yards (factoring in touchdowns and interceptions) or was targeted more often than Corey Ballentine.”
Ballentine was targeted early and often last year, and was targeted on a whopping 31.7 percent of his coverage snaps, per Football Outsiders.
The player Dan was most excited about, and believes could be the Giants’ defensive breakout player, is DB Julian Love.
Drafted in the fourth round last year, it took Love 12 games to finally see the field, but the pay-off was immediate.
“Julian Love didn’t play defense regularly until Week 12 but was the standout of the 2019 draft class. Love played well in the box, at deep safety, and at slot corner during his rookie season and he could find a starter’s worth of snaps bouncing around the secondary in 2020.”
The Chris and Joe Show invited Dan Pizzuta on to talk about what the analytics have to say about the Giants in 2020. We talked about all of this, and so much more, on the podcast.
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