The 2021 New York Giants season is in the books.
It has been a long, arduous, and at times agonizing season for Giants fans. And it was made all the worse by the rising expectations following their near-miss of the 2020 NFC East title and all the team’s moves throughout the 2021 offseason.
Hopes were high for the Giants’ 2021 draft class as well. Both their draft strategy and the picks themselves were widely praised in the draft’s immediate aftermath. Those high hopes fed into the high expectations entering the year, but the results, unfortunately, largely failed to live up the hopes.
How did the Giants’ rookies fare this year?
(Note: These grades are all done on a curve and adjusted by draft position. We simply can’t judge a sixth-rounder by the standards of a first-round pick, and vice versa.)
Round 1 - Kadarius Toney (WR)
This was just a bad season from the Giants’ first round pick, and the only thing keeping this grade from being an “F” was his play in Week 5 against the Dallas Cowboys.
Toney only practiced sparingly throughout the off-season after skipping voluntary practices and suffering a variety of minor maladies throughout the mandatory portion of the off-season.
Toney was a non-factor through the first three games of the season, catching four passes for 14 yards. He flashed in week four, exploded in Week 5, and disappeared for the remainder of the season. Toney excited the fanbase with his 10-catch, 189-yard outburst against Dallas, but has had 139 yards (19 receptions) in the five games in which he played the remainder of the year.
I try to avoid knocking players for injury, but the sheer number of, and consistent pace of, injuries Toney has had is incredible:
8/14/21 - Grade 2 hamstring strain
10/10/21 - Pedal ankle sprain
10/17/21 - Pedal ankle sprain
11/22/21 - Quad strain
12/1/21 - Abdominal muscle (oblique) strain
12/29/21 - Shoulder injury
This is all on top of missing a total of nine games to collegiate shoulder injuries in 2017 and 2019. His health (and dedication to training, conditioning, recovery, and treatment) is going to be of paramount importance in 2022 and beyond. Right now, I don’t know that the Giants can (or should) count on him at all.
Teams need their first-round picks to contribute at a high level early in their careers, and Toney just hasn’t done that.
Round 2 - Azeez Ojulari (EDGE)
I graded Ojulari as an “A” back when we did our mid-season grades, but I have to knock him down just a bit. This isn’t because he played worse, or that the team as a whole played worse. But rather it’s because Ojulari didn’t really show the growth I hoped to see from him in the second half of the season.
He’s flashed the quickness, fluidity, and motor necessary to be a good pass rusher in the NFL. He leads the Giants in sacks and tackles for a loss, and is second in quarterback hits, all of which is promising — not to mention exceeding expectations for a second-round pick.
But he is still somewhat raw and inconsistent in his play, and could stand to spend the 2022 off-season working on his technique and honing his craft. Likewise, he absolutely needs to improve on setting the edge in the run game. The Giants have proven vulnerable to outside runs, and their EDGE defenders struggling to set edges and force runs to the sideline are a big reason why.
Round 3 - Aaron Robinson (CB)
It’s frustrating that Robinson needed surgery to repair a core muscle injury, which cost him the first part of his rookie career — particularly considering the Giants traded up to get him.
Once Robinson got on the field, the results were about what we should expect from a third-round rookie cornerback. He started two games for the Giants, has allowed about 65 percent completion, and managed to come way with three passes defensed. Opposing offenses have looked his way and found some success. However, Robinson has also made some plays and showed off the physicality that was his hallmark in college.
Overall, this was about an average season considering Robinson’s draft position.
Round 4 - Elerson Smith (EDGE)
The Giants’ fourth-round pick just wasn’t a factor this year.
He spent the first half of the season on the PUP list and only barely got onto the field once he was healthy. I had hoped that Leonard Williams’ triceps injury at the end of a lost year would open the door for additional snaps for players like Smith and Raymond Johnson III. The Giants, however, kept the veteran on the field for the vast majority of the defensive snaps and the rookie played more special teams snaps than defensive ones.
Smith has only had a smattering of tackles this year, and while fourth rounders aren’t expected to produce as early or as well as Day 2 picks, it’s still a high enough pick that there’s some expectation of production.
It should be noted that Smith hadn’t played football since the end of the 2019 season and had almost two years between games. His last snap of college football (not counting the 2021 Senior Bowl) was on Dec. 13, 2019, and his first snap on defense for the Giants came on November 22nd 2021. Considering he was also held out of the off-season program, training camp, and preseason by injury, his lack of production shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
Hopefully the neck injury which landed Smith on the injured reserve for the final game heals quickly and doesn’t impact him going forward.
How, and how much, Smith improves in his sophomore year will definitely bear watching.
Round 6 - Gary Brightwell (RB)
It’s tempting to dismiss the pick and play of Brightwell given that players like Khalil Herbert, Quincy Roche, and (most glaringly) Trey Smith were all drafted after him in the sixth round.
But if we’re judging the rookie on his own merits and by the standards of an average sixth-round draft pick, Brightwell was fine. He wasn’t cut, carved out a role on the team, and was a consistent contributor on special teams. Considering how few sixth-round picks are even able to do that, Brightwell is above average.
Of course, it’s incredibly annoying that Trey Smith emerged as one of the best guards in the whole NFL for the Chiefs (he’s the only guard to land in the top 5 in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate (second) and Run Block Win Rate (third). But the Giants not picking Smith isn’t Brightwell’s fault, and it isn’t fair to Brightwell to hang that on him.
Round 6 - Rodarius Williams (DB)
Williams created waves in training camp with a knack for being in the right place at the right time to create splash plays. Unfortunately, that didn’t really translate to the regular season and Williams had just one tackle.
Even more unfortunately, Williams’ season ended on Oct. 12 when he suffered a torn ACL. Williams could find his place on the defense when he returns from the injury in 2022, but even being a reliable contributor on special teams would be fine given his draft slotting. For now he has an “incomplete”, as it wouldn’t be fair to grade him on a season in which he didn’t even play a third of the games.
Round 6 (waiver claim) - Quincy Roche (EDGE)
Roche has had, easily, the best return on investment of any of the Giants’ 2021 rookie class. Even if we consider his original draft position of 216th overall (a pick the Giants didn’t even have to spend), Roche’s play compared to his expectations would be stellar. But as a sixth-round rookie who was waived after his very first training camp to play as well as Roche has is incredibly rare. How many players who are, for all intents and purposes, undrafted free agents win games for a team as bad as the Giants?
I’ll admit, I’m not particularly surprised that Roche played well. I had my eye on him throughout the 2020 season as a player the Giants should target in the 2021 draft and ultimately had a third-round grade on him. But still, Roche should be considered one of the Giants’ (few) spectacular successes in 2021.
UDFA - Raymond Johnson III (iDL)
It’s fair to say that Johnson exceeded expectations simply by making the team out of training camp and staying on the active roster for all 17 games.
He did not make much of an impact, totaling just four tackles and one sack (of Blaine Gabbert), and largely flew under the radar. But occasionally spelling a starter and not being an obvious liability is a perfectly acceptable outcome for a UDFA.
They can’t all be Victor Cruz.