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Six Giants with breakout potential in 2021

Which Giants might have breakout seasons in 2021?

New York Giants v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The New York Giants 2021 off-season program is set to ramp up as their mandatory mini-camp is just around the corner. Next week we’ll get our first real look at the raw block which will be molded into the 2021 squad as every player able to do so takes to the field.

As this marks both the first time we see the Giants on the field in 2021, and the last real football news* we thought it could be a good time to take an early look at players we think will play a major role in the Giants’ 2021 fortunes.

*Note: News between mini-camp and training camp is seldom the kind we actually want to get.

Every year there are players who put forth breakout performances, either on the smaller scale of becoming core players on their team or on the larger scale of becoming household names around the NFL. We’ll start to get a much better idea of which players will be used in what ways over the course of mini-camp and training camp, but for now, let’s take a look at some offensive and defensive players who could be in position to make the jump to prominence.

Offensive breakout candidates

Andrew Thomas - Normally when we look at “breakout” candidates, we tend to focus on the skill position players. After all, they’re the ones who make the highlight reel plays, score points, and get featured on ESPN or the NFL Network.

That being said, Thomas is arguably the player the Giants need to have a breakout season most. The 2020 fourth overall pick got off to a poor start in his rookie season as he struggled to pass protect or run block with any kind of consistency. That improved in the second half of the year, but Thomas’ play against speed rushers remains a concern.

His sophomore season is a chance to address that concern and play up to his pedigree as a fourth overall pick.

Teams will likely test Thomas with speed off the edge from the start of the season, and he will need to prove that he can handle it without over-setting and creating B-gap rushing lanes for defenders. Likewise, he’ll need to show that he can consistently block with sound technique and balanced footwork.

The good news is that Thomas has the athletic profile of a player who can be a good starting offensive tackle in the NFL. And his rough rookie season sets a relatively low bar to counter the expectations set by his draft spot. Players we say have had a “breakout season” generally aren’t coming off of excellent seasons — then they’re good players who continued to play well. It’s the contrast between play that is below expectations, or even just “fine”, and a good season that makes us say a player “broke out”.

Between his potential, the fact that he’ll be playing every down, and the high-leverage nature of his position, Thomas has a good opportunity to be that breakout player.

Matt Peart - Much of what I just said about Andrew Thomas could be applied to Peart. Like Thomas, he has impressive physical traits and the athletic upside to be a good starting offensive tackle. And also like Thomas, his rookie season was uneven, which provides the opportunity for the kind of year-to-year contrast that defines a “breakout season”.

But unlike Thomas, we just don’t have much tape on Peart. He was only used sparingly throughout the 2020 season, usually coming on in a package with Will Hernandez and RB Alfred Morris. Peart played well enough when he was on the field and should be in a solid position to take the next step in his second year. But what makes him a breakout candidate are his physical and athletic traits. Peart has a prototypical frame to go with good movement skills and a solid understanding of technique. What could determine whether or not he has a true “breakout” is if he is able to adapt once defenses get enough tape of him to plan for his tendencies. That being said, he is in a better position than most young tackles to meet edge rushers on (somewhat) even athletic footing.

Of course, throwing a potential wrench into Peart’s chances of a breakout season is the presence of Nate Solder. While it’s fair to expect the collegiate right tackle to have the inside track on the starting right tackle job, the Giants have a young offensive line and could well want a veteran out there somewhere. Likewise, Solder still has a significant contract, and that could be tough for the Giants to see sitting on the bench.

Evan Engram - It seems as though Engram always appears on these lists. It’s also arguable that Engram has already had his breakout season with his 722-yard, 6-touchdown rookie season. Engram is coming off of a season in which he got the ball at a pretty high rate — his 63 receptions on 109 targets are second only to his rookie season when the Giants’ receiving corps was devastated by injury — but his season was also marred by costly drops. It’s reasonable to expect that Engram’s 10.1 percent drop rate in 2020 will regress back the (approximately) 4.5 percent rate of the previous two years.

But the reason why Engram always seems to appear on these lists is that his athletic potential as an offensive weapon has always been self-evident. But also, he has yet to truly play up to that potential and be the kind of player defenses fear. Part of that has been due to difficulties staying on the field, but also in how the Giants have used him since he was drafted. Engram was clearly drafted to give Ben McAdoo a weapon with which he could attack the seams in deep coverage shells which frustrated his offense in 2016. And Engram did that to some success as a rookie, and his “stick/nod” route quickly frustrated a number of defenses in that ill-fated season. But Engram did little of that over the next three seasons and his role has largely shifted to working the shallow area of the field with drag and crossing routes.

While the Giants haven’t said as much (and why should they?) their roster moves over the last several months hint at a desire to push the ball further downfield and to do so more often. If the Giants are willing to use Engram in a more downfield capacity, he could have the opportunity to (finally) have the impact the team has been waiting for. And, of course, doing so in a contract year would certainly be to Engram’s benefit.

Defensive breakout candidates

Xavier McKinney - Moving to the defensive side of the ball, sophomore safety Xavier McKinney stands out as a potential “breakout” candidate. Not only is McKinney starting from a relative blank slate after missing much of his rookie year following an injury, but he could be in line for a massive opportunity to make his mark.

Assuming the 2021 iteration of Patrick Graham’s defense is anything like the 2020 version, we should expect the defense to be driven by the secondary. Much of what Graham accomplished last year was thanks to his coverage disguises, late rotations, and blitz packages. Good safety play can be key to making that kind of defense click, and while that role went to Logan Ryan a year ago, this year we could see McKinney step to the forefront. McKinney is a well-rounded safety who can contribute in pass coverage and run defense, as a pass rusher, and in generating turnovers. That ability to play a variety of roles will likely ensure that McKinney never leaves the field and is put in positions to make highlight reel plays.

The Giants were excited about McKinney prior to his injury, and he could be in position to have a big season — particularly if an improved natural pass rush from the front seven creates more mistakes and opportunities for turnovers from the secondary.

Adoree’ Jackson - As with the two tackles on the offensive side of the ball, much of what was said about McKinney could hold true for Jackson as well. He has an exciting athletic profile and should be on the field every snap, putting him in position to make the plays which can help define a breakout season.

Jackson never really broke out or lived up to his potential as a first round cornerback for the Tennessee Titans. He seemed to be on the verge of a break-out in 2018 as a sophomore, but injuries and poor play held him back in 2019 and 2020. Jackson hopes to start over with a blank slate as a New York Giant, and the Giants are surely hoping that he can play up to the athletic upside which convinced the Titans to select him at 17th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. Working in Jackson’s favor are the presence of James Bradberry across from him and Logan Ryan behind him. The presence of Bradberry should take some pressure off of Jackson, allowing him to cover offense’s second or third receivers, and he reportedly has a strong rapport with Ryan both on and off the field. The two reportedly worked together to improve Jackson’s game in Tennessee, and that renewed relationship could pay dividends for the Giants.

On the flip side, Ryan will need to stay healthy, having missed 18 games in the last two seasons. The Giants likely want to use more aggressive coverage schemes (meaning more man coverage than we saw in 2020), and Jackson could be key to that.

Lorenzo Carter - Like Engram, Carter seems to be a regular feature on these types of lists. But also like Engram, his athletic upside and potential to make impact plays are simply too great to ignore. Carter brings rare physical traits to the front seven, with a prototypical blend of length, explosiveness, and athleticism. However, he never managed to capitalize on those traits as he tried to convert to a full-time pass rusher and always looked better in coverage.

Carter seemed to be taking a step forward early on in 2020 under the tutelage of Bret Bielema, but an injury ended his season before it could really get going. Carter not only offers tantalizing tools as a pass rusher, but his background as a defensive “Swiss army knife” who is able to play in space as well as downhill offers a number of opportunities to make plays in Graham’s defense.

If he is able to return to the field and carry that momentum into 2021, The Giants could suddenly find themselves with the kind of athletic pass rush they haven’t seen since 2016 with Carter and Azeez Ojulari.

Complicating the whole prospect of Carter finally realizing his potential (and again, like Engram, doing so in a contract year), is the nature of his injury. Carter suffered a torn Achilles tendon, and there is just no guarantee how much (or little) he will be affected by it in 2021. Carter’s game and position are predicated on lower body explosiveness as well as flexibility. The question of whether he can regain that explosiveness and fluidity could be key to whether he is finally able to break out.