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Big Blue View mailbag: Will Hernandez, Xavier McKinney, Logan Ryan, Dante Pettis, more

The mail’s here!

Let’s open the final Big Blue View Mailbag of the 2020-2021 NFL season and see what questions about the New York Giants we can answer.

Jeff Newman asks: Do you have any insight into the Will Hernandez situation? I don’t believe he’s started since being out with COVID and it seems like he’s getting less time in the rotation. I feel like at this point, he is still a better pass blocker than Lemieux. Are the Giants just trying to get a better look at Lemieux, do they feel he’s the better player, or is Hernandez in the dog house?

Ed says: Jeff, you are right. Hernandez has not started a game since going on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, and he is playing far fewer snaps than Shane Lemieux. The question is, why? Thing is, the Giants are not going to tell us. A number of us, including yours truly, have asked the question of Joe Judge and Dave DeGuglielmo in a varying ways. No matter how you ask it the Giants talk around it and don’t give you an answer that makes the situation any clearer.

We’re left, then, to read the tea leaves. The Giants are telling us pretty clearly with their actions that they prefer Lemieux’s skill set to that of Hernandez. Now, if you are scouting purely by looking at Pro Football Focus grades that seems dumb. Hernandez has a 58.1 overall grade (50.9 pass blocking, 59.1 run blocking). Lemieux has an offense-worst 29.9 grade (13.8 pass blocking, 44.4 run blocking). It doesn’t take an offensive line expert to know that Lemieux needs to get better in pass protection, and that purely as a 1-on-1 pass blocker Hernandez is superior.

I suspect part of this has to do with how Lemieux works with Andrew Thomas. I don’t know for certain that there is a correlation, but Thomas has played better since Lemieux began playing next to him regularly in Week 8 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Giants are also placing a heavy emphasis on double team and combo blocks in the run game, something Lemieux’s pre-draft scouting profile references as a strength. Is it also possible that the communication has been better with Lemieux in the lineup? I don’t know for sure, but it’s a possibility.

In the end, I think the reasons go beyond pure grades or which guy is a better pass protector. I think it’s more about how Lemieux fits what they are trying to do. That’s sort of a “nebulous” answer without hard data, but that’s what we’re left with.

John Neubauer asks: Maybe you can answer a question that is driving me crazy? When the Giants win the coin toss, why do they always defer to get the ball first. I understand that the defense is our strong suit... I understand that there are times when it makes sense, but when you’re playing away from home and you’re playing a team that had scored 40 points a game in their last 3 games, why would you want to give them the ball first? It is an advantage to get the ball first in the second half but if you’re 2 or 3 touchdowns down, what difference does it make? Our offense is offensive but if we can kick a field goal and maybe get a lead in our first position and make the other team play catchup, isn’t that to our advantage?

Ed says: John, I have answered questions about deferring previously but I will got through it again. This is a trend that was embraced a few years ago by Bill Belichick, and that most teams follow now. The analytics show that deferring, which raises the possibility of having the ball last in the first half and first in the second half, offers a very slight statistical advantage. That’s enough for most coaches looking for any possible edge.

Now, I agree that there are times you should want the ball first. Many coaches, though, will just do what the analytics tell them to do.

Austin Willis asks: Casually watching the game and not getting a full view of the field it can he hard to assess how well certain players are doing. How do you feel Xavier McKinney has done since seeing increased field time? Sounds like he’s not getting targeted much when he’s in the slot.

Ed says: Austin, I think McKinney has done OK. Not great, not awful. Just OK. Thing is, I’m not sure anyone could have expected more. No offseason or preseason, and basically three months of missed in-season games and practices as a rookie is very difficult. I don’t really think it’s fair to draw any conclusions about McKinney now. McKinney also admitted this week that the Giants have put a lot on his plate and that he is being used differently than he was prior to fracturing his foot.

Let’s see what he does in 2021, when he will — hopefully — have a full offseason, training camp and regular season.

ctscan123 asks: So, I like Logan Ryan as much as the next guy… Considered in the context of the return of Xavier McKinney though, isn’t $10 million per year a lot? How does that affect trying to keep Tomlinson who from my perspective is a more productive player at his granted, somewhat crowded position. What about a wide receiver or if you want to spend our cap on a DB, how about investing in another corner in free agency next year? I know that he is a leader on a young team, but his productivity is a bit underwhelming for that kind of money in my opinion. Do you like the signing at that price?

Ed says: CT, I love the fact that the Giants have made a commitment and already locked Ryan up for the next couple of years. This guy’s value to the Giants goes far beyond tackle numbers, passer rating against and passes defended. Ryan, no offense to Blake Martinez or Jabrill Peppers, has become the true leader of that defense. He’s the voice, the heart, the veteran in the room who has been to the mountaintop and is willing to share everything he can to help his teammates learn how to get there, as well.

Ryan is not a great player. He is, though, a really good one with the versatility and football intelligence to be a tremendous fit for the multiplicity the Giants want to display on defense.

As for the contract, it makes him the ninth-highest paid safety in the league based on average annual salary. The deal has $20 million guaranteed, so it’s really for two years. Ryan will be 30 next season, but the Giants aren’t asking him to play cornerback and cover one-on-one.

This is a guy Joe Judge wanted to keep and the Giants have done so, for which I applaud them. They had the opportunity to keep an important player, and they did it. Now, can they keep Dalvin Tomlinson and Leonard Williams? Let’s see what the cap number is, who the general manager is, what these guys actually want and go from there.

Joshua Berman asks: The Gmen were a top tier team early on in sacks, and now we may not reach last year’s total. What happened—decimation of our OLB’s?

Ed says: Joshua, the Giants have had just two sacks and six quarterback hits in the past three weeks. So, you are right that the pass rush hasn’t been good enough. The injuries on the edge is part of it. the fact that they played teams with outstanding offensive lines the past two weeks is part of it. The fact that they have been behind, so the Cardinals, Browns and Ravens could dictate the way the game was played is part of it.

Another part of it is the simple reality that the Giants don’t have that one dominant edge rusher who demands a double team and can wreck a game even when he’s facing one. You can only scheme so much pressure. Sometimes, you just have to have guys who are good enough to win matchups and make plays.

Ronald Balsamo asks: Seeing that we have a tight end almost 7 feet tall, who is a half a foot taller than all the safeties in the league why is he not on the field every time the Giants get into the Red Zone? I would think he would be a dangerous player in the end zone.

Ed says: Ronald, you are talking about Levine Toilolo. He’s 6-foot-8, which is tall but I wouldn’t say that makes him almost 7-feet. Still, I understand what you’re asking.

Things is, being tall doesn’t make him a good pass receiver. Toilolo has been in the NFL since 2013 and has only 101 receptions, 12.6 per year. He has 8 touchdown catches, never more than two in a season. Toilolo has only 6 receptions over the past two seasons combined.

Toilolo is not a guy you are going to expect to win a 1-on-1 matchup. Obviously, you want to use every possible advantage to try and score points. Toilolo, though, is not a real weapon as a pass catcher.

Jeff Newman asks: With the regular season winding down, I’m wondering what was your biggest pleasant surprise and most surprising disappointment with the Giants team this year?

Ed says: Jeff, I will try to answer this one with some brevity.

The most pleasant surprise for me has been Wayne Gallman. I have always liked how hard Gallman runs and I felt he got short-changed by Pat Shurmur. Still, he’s been more effective this season than I thought he would be.

Most surprising disappointment? Probably the injury to Saquon Barkley, the thing that opened the door for Gallman.

Jesse Sorel asks: After last week’s game against the Ravens, did anyone in the media ask Joe Judge why Dante Pettis is just seeing playing time after being picked up off waivers in early November and being cleared from COVID on December 1st. Plenty of time to learn playbook. He is in my opinion the 4th best receiving option on the team. Faster and better than Tate. He is also college footballs best punt returner in history I believe. Why is he not returning punts and kickoffs?

Ed says: Jesse, Judge, wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert and special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey have been consistently asked about Pettis since the Giants claimed him in November.

First of all, Pettis lost a couple of weeks of practice time to COVID-19. That did set him back, no doubt. And I’m going to ask, what evidence is there that Pettis is a better player than Golden Tate? This is a guy who caught 38 passes in three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, who are coached by one of the best offensive minds in the game in Kyle Shanahan. He was buried on the bench by Shanahan and had not caught a pass this season until last week. Tate’s got 695 career catches. He’s not what he used to be, but I’m not buying this “better than Tate” stuff. Now, if you want to argue Pettis vs. C.J. Board we can certainly do that. I hope Pettis contributes on Sunday, but this “he should have been playing instead of Tate” stuff is silly.

I also need to clarify something about Pettis and the return game. First of all, the Giants like Jabrill Peppers very much as their punt returner. Pettis was great in that role in college, but his career average returning punts for San Francisco is 3.0 yards per return. There’s no evidence he can carry that collegiate success over to the NFL.

As for Pettis returning kickoffs, I don’t get why people keep insisting that he should be better at it than Dion Lewis. Pettis did not return kickoffs in college — only punts. He has returned one kickoff as an NFL player for 18 yards. Again, there is zero evidence Pettis would be any good at returning kickoffs.