The 2021 NFL Draft is over. For the New York Giants, it was the most unusual and unexpected draft in many years. Let’s examine some of the ‘Things I Think’ about what the Giants accomplished, and did not accomplish over the past three days.
GM Dave Gettleman is receiving widespread acclaim, and a good bit of ribbing from colleagues and media members, for the Giants’ work in the now-completed draft. The first two trades back in his nine drafts as a GM, a trade up for a coveted player that cost the Giants only a pick they acquired in one of the trades back, and adding three picks in a highly-anticipated 2022 draft that already has evaluators drooling over the expected talent level.
There is no way right now of knowing how this works out for the Giants.
Maybe Kadarius Toney is a star. Maybe he busts. Maybe Azeez Ojulari makes everyone except the Giants look foolish for passing him up. Maybe his knee explodes. Maybe the Giants strike gold in the 2022 draft. Maybe they muck it up.
“I always think I got it right. Listen, we’ll know in three years whether we got this right. And that’s what it is, okay. It’s perception and it’s what the media writes about players,” Gettleman said Saturday evening. “We put a ton of time into this. We don’t do this for a hobby, all right, and in three years we’ll know if we’re right or not.”
In my view, before we know a single thing about whether any of the players selected this year or next will succeed or fail in the NFL, the 2021 draft stands as the best work the Giants have done in the Gettleman era.
They were prepared in Round 1 when their original list of targeted players were gone, executing a smart trade back. That’s a far cry from the Eli Apple debacle of 2016.
They read the board correctly in Round 2, trading back eight spots, adding a 2022 third-round pick and still getting Ojulari, the player they say they would have selected at 42.
The move up for Aaron Robinson in Round 3 cost the Giants only a fifth-round pick they got from the Chicago Bears in their first trade down.
This was a draft obviously unlike any Gettleman had ever run point on as a GM. It wasn’t Giant-like, either. The Giants had not executed a trade back in a draft since 2006, when they moved back seven spots and selected Mathias Kiwanuka.
All of that begs the question — how much influence did Judge have on the Giants’ draft strategy? The New England Patriots, where Judge was an understudy for a number of years, are famous for playing the board. Thus, it’s a natural question and one Gettleman was asked on Saturday.
“I think that we have a great collaborative group going here. It’s not about me. It’s not about Joe. It’s about the New York Football Giants,” Gettleman said. “We collaborate. We’ve been collaborating since he walked in the door. It’s about the New York Giants.”
No offensive linemen?
I have been saying for a while that perhaps the Giants like the young linemen already on their roster more and have higher expectations for them than many outside observers. The fact that they turned down six opportunities to select a lineman in the 2021 NFL Draft would seem to indicate as much.
“It’s really apparent that we have a little more confidence in our offensive linemen than you guys do,” Gettleman said. “So I’m just going to say we’re happy with the group that we have. Obviously you’re always trying to get better and you’re not going to take a player just to take a player, you take a player because you think he’s going to improve the value of your team.”
The Giants could have stayed put in Round 1 and selected Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater or USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker. They moved down from No. 11 to No. 20 and took Toney.
In the second and third rounds, Gettleman said the Giants had identified offensive linemen of interest, but they were selected before the Giants’ turn to pick came along. They could have taken Tennessee guard Trey Smith at any point on Day 3 and did not. He ended up going 226th to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Giants seemingly felt they couldn’t match value and need anywhere else when it came to offensive linemen, had other players they liked, and thus came away with no new hog mollies.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be a new player or two on the roster when the season opens five months from now. There is one part of Gettleman’s quote I haven’t given you yet. It ended like this:
“Right now, our offensive line is what it is, the players are who they are and we’re going to move forward.”
Catch that? Right now it is what it is. That doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way.
Coach Joe Judge sounded a similar refrain.
“I would say we are always looking to make every position more competitive, but right now we are committed to working with the guys on our roster and approving each one of those guys individually and that should help the unit collectively,” he said.
That sounds, at least to me, an awful lot like a coach and GM who might be taking a fresh look at the free agent market to see who might be out there, who might shake free when teams re-assess their rosters post-draft, or who might shake free before or during training camp.
Maybe someone like Trai Turner, who Gettleman drafted in Round 3 of the 2014 draft while GM of the Carolina Panthers. Turner had a poor year for the Los Angeles Chargers in 2020, but he is only going to be 28 next season and was solid for six years in Carolina.
This likely wasn’t Plan A, and with all the good things they have done this offseason not making a notable move to improve the talent on the offense line is the one area where the Giants have left themselves open to criticism.
Those young offensive linemen are simply going to have to justify the faith the Giants have shown in them. There is a lot riding on their success or failure.
Looking for the special sauce
It had to warm Joe Judge’s heart that Gary Brightwell, the Arizona running back the Giants drafted in the sixth round on Saturday, couldn’t wait to talk about special teams when he met with media via Zoom.
“I’m excited to bring some special teams to the field. I’m going to bring a lot of explosive plays, but my priority right now is getting the playbook, getting on special teams and dominating,” Brightwell said when asked what he will bring to the Giants. “That’s my thing. That’s been my thing since high school. I’ve been a special teams guy.”
It also can’t have escaped the Giants that pass rusher Elerson Smith, drafted in the fourth round, used his 6-foot-6¼ frame, 82⅞-inch wingspan (85th percentile) and 41½-inch vertical jump (98th percentile) to block two kicks during the 2019 season.
Special teams are important to Judge, a former special teams coach. The Giants weren’t good in the coverage or return games a year ago. Helping to fix that had to be at least part of why those picks were made.
The Giants doubled up at two positions in the draft, cornerback and edge rusher.
At cornerback, that might be bad news for players like isaac Yiadom, Sam Beal and perhaps even Madre Harper.
On the edge, I can’t help but wonder if 2019 third-round pick Oshane Ximines might be in jeopardy. This coaching staff wasn’t part of his selection. Before X-man suffered his season-ending shoulder he didn’t seem to have the full confidence of this staff. For me, it is going to be interesting to see if he has a future with the Giants.
At wide receiver, Toney, Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton and John Ross figure to take up five spots. That leaves guys like C.J. Board, Dante Pettis, Austin Mack and David Sills V fighting to stick around.
Senior Bowl importance
Four of the six players the Giants drafted — Kadarius Toney, Aaron Robinson, Elerson Smith, Rodarius Williams — are ones who left an indelible impression on the Giants at the Senior Bowl.
The Senior Bowl has always been an important part of the Giants’ draft puzzle but with the time in Mobile being the only face-to-face opportunity to get to know this year’s draft prospects it became even more significant.
Head coach Joe Judge admitted after the selection of Kadarius Toney that he is “very particular” about the type of people he wants to work with. Face-to-face meetings are a key part of figuring out who fits, and who doesn’t.
“For me, they are crucial. I don’t really like adding someone to our team or I can’t really have a strong enough opinion on someone if I have not had good enough interaction with them as a person, and there’s no better opportunity to sit down with somebody and look them eye to eye and really ask them tough questions and get an answer and get a feel for them as a person,” Judge said. “A number of guys at the Senior Bowl we came away with obviously the ability to have a strong opinion. To be honest the guys you only see on tape, if you don’t have enough interaction with, you may like them as a player and there’s just something missing that you can’t stand on the table and say, this guy fits our locker room, this guy fits our culture. So the interactions are definitely crucial for us.”
“Kudos” to Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy and his crew for successfully putting together this year’s event. The Giants’ draft board thanks you.
Brightwell is a Giant because of often-scorned assistant special teams coach Tom Quinn.
Judge tells the story:
“A few weeks back, me, Tom Quinn and Thomas McGaughey were sitting in the staff room on a Saturday about 5:30 a.m. in the morning and Tom Quinn brought his name up and we watched his kick game and this dude was flying down the field and it was early enough that it woke you up and you really got excited about watching him,” Judge said. “You start watching a lot more of his offense and start talking with our scouts who have done a lot of research on him and talking to Burton (Burns) as far as the running back value.
“Look, he’s a guy that jumps out from his skill set. You are always looking for good versatility and depth at those positions, running back and the kicking game. To be honest with you, the opportunity I had to really speak with him and spend some time with him even though it was over Zoom with Gary was very, very impressive. He has an tremendous story. This dude had the utmost compliments given to him from everyone who has been around him at every level. He was the guy that was available at the time and he was a guy we guy we could bring on on our roster and compete to be on the roster and make us a better team.”
So, if and when Brightwell flies down the field and makes a big special teams play, you can thank Quinn for a sharp eye in identifying an under-the-radar prospect.