The New York Giants 2021 season is, basically, over.
It’s never a good feeling to be going into a season finale game against a divisional opponent and only be playing for draft position, but that’s where the Giants are right now. Considering how the season as a whole — and the last month and a half in particular — have played out, it’s difficult to care much about the game itself.
Instead, we’re all turning our eyes to the future as the Giants look to be in need of a major rebuild after their fifth-straight season with double-digit losses. It is incredibly tempting to demand the team “blow it all up” and start over from scratch, but that just isn’t realistic.
What the Giants’ next general manager, whoever that will be, will need to do is objectively evaluate the Giants’ roster as it stands now. Just how many cornerstone pieces and dependable building blocks there already are in-house will determine just how extensive the rebuild will need to be.
The next GM will have their own philosophies and criteria for roster evaluation. But since I have no clue who, or what, that will be, I’m using my own criteria.
For me, a “cornerstone” or “building block” player will need to be likely to stay with the team for the next four or five years. I’m also using my thoughts on positional value that I put together back in the spring of 2020. I consider a “premium” position to be the bottom two levels of the chart, while “important” are in the next two above those.
In short, players need to be able to directly affect the passing game to be really important in the modern NFL.
As you might suspect from the fact that the Giants have fielded one of the worst offenses in the NFL over the last two seasons, the cupboard is pretty bear when we look ahead on that side of the ball.
It’s entirely possible that there’s more there than appears now. But when it comes to players at premium positions we know the Giants can count on in 2022 and beyond — or are at least within a grace period — there are depressingly few answers.
I’m going to say this right up front: I am not counting Daniel Jones nor Saquon Barkley as cornerstones or building blocks. In Jones has a persistent injury history dating back to his college days and is still making too many of same mistakes we saw on tape from him at Duke. I’ll be writing on this more in the near future, but I firmly believe that the quarterback position is THE foundation piece for the whole football team, and a team that isn’t sure about their QB isn’t going to win consistently.
And frankly, we have seen far too many young quarterbacks find significant success in their first or second years (Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, Mac Jones, etc.) to keep giving Jones a pass.
As for Barkley, his injury history is concerning enough to keep him off the list, but too much of any running back’s production is dependent on outside factors for me to count any runner as a “cornerstone” or “building block” in the modern NFL.
- Andrew Thomas - This is it, the lone “cornerstone” piece I could objectively come up with on offense. Thomas has made remarkable strides over the last two years, going from an abject disaster to start his rookie season to a solid, dependable tackle to end his sophomore season.
Hopefully Thomas will keep developing as he goes into his third season. But as things stand now, he’s one of the few pieces on the offense the Giants can depend on to do his job and do it well-enough most of the time. Other members of the Giants’ offensive line will probably stick around for next year, but left tackle is the only one where the Giants shouldn’t be actively looking for an upgrade.
- Kadarius Toney - Toney comes with a big honkin’ caveat: I can not honestly say that I trust him — both to stay on the field and to consistently produce when he’s on it.
That’s a definite red flag when it comes to “building blocks,” as you really don’t want your construction materials to crumble on you. His injury history (that I could find) dates back to 2017, and he still only has one full year as a wide receiver under his belt in that time.
I consider wide receivers to be “premium” positions that can be cornerstone pieces to an offense. And while Toney has briefly flashed electric potential, much of what he’s shown has relied on overzealous defenders missing tackles. To my eye, what he needs (other than consistent health) is a receiver like what the Giants signed Kenny Golladay to be: A dependable weapon who can attack all areas of the field and demand double coverage. Or what they used to have in Hakeem Nicks or Odell Beckham Jr.
All that said, Toney is still just a rookie and 2021 could just have been a nightmare year and he should be afforded the time to prove himself worthy of the 20th overall pick. I do believe the Giants need to be looking for receiving weapons around Toney. Not only will that afford him the space to emphasize his skill set, but also insulation for when he’s injured.
Things are, predictably, much better on the defensive side of the ball than they are on the offensive side of the ball. Not only have the Giants invested more heavily on that side of the ball, but their investments have paid much better dividends than on the offensive side.
There are two names that just miss the cut for me on this side of the ball. The first is Leonard Williams, who I’m not sure will be a Giant past 2022. He is a solid player, but he is primarily a run defender who struggles to consistently affect opposing quarterbacks without being schemed one-on-one match-ups and afforded lock-down coverage. The Giants’ next regime might not see him as worth the (approximately) $10 million in net salary cap savings that releasing him after 2022 could create.
The other is Adoree’ Jackson. Jackson is having his best year as a coverage corner opposite James Bradberry. However, I just can’t trust him to consistently stay on the field. Jackson has only played 11 games this year, after just three in 2020, and 11 in 2019. He could be a cornerstone piece for the defense, but he’s got to stay on the field first.
- James Bradberry - Pairing James Bradberry and Patrick Graham should probably go down as the Giants’ best move in recent memory. Bradberry fits what Graham wants to do on defense well and comes up with enough big plays to help offset the albatross of an offense the defense has to lug round.
Bradberry isn’t perfect: His game relies on baiting quarterbacks before using his length and technique to slam receiving window shut. But that can also lead to receptions and big plays when he doesn’t time his jumps well, isn’t right or just gets beat. Likewise, he is better than most at interfering with receivers without getting caught, but he can still be obvious-enough about it to draw flags.
But he is still more than good enough for a defense to win with, and is a player who is good enough that the defense will often-enough win because of him. Also, Bradberry’s game should resist aging and he should be a mainstay in the Giants’ defense for as long as Graham stays in New York.
- Azeez Ojulari and Quincy Roche - I’m going to package these two rookies together, because I think they’re in very similar position. Both have flashed brightly at points in the season and have made (potentially) game-changing plays. And both are the kind of player that every defense needs, but I also can’t help but feel as though both are more complementary pass rushers. I tend to think about the pass rush in the same way as I do pitching staffs in baseball. Every staff needs an “Ace” starter, a battery of relievers, and a closer. In the same way, I think every pass rush needs an alpha rusher (like Myles Garrett, Von Miller, Aaron Donald, T.J. Watt, or Chase Young), a good complementary rusher or two to capitalize on the attention paid to the “alpha,” and a pass rush specialist to bring on in obvious passing situations.
Ojulari and Roche have the ability to win one-on-one match-ups and come up with sacks through persistence or a great rep. But they aren’t the type of player the defense can count on to take over a game, consistently apply fast pressure, convert that pressure into sacks, and get the defense off the field when they absolutely need it. That’s why I can’t consider either a “cornerstone” for the team going forward, but both are good building blocks.
- Xavier McKinney - I’m a good deal higher on the importance of the safety position to the defense as a whole, and McKinney is developing nicely in his second year. In particular, he’s shown improved ball skills (he leads the team in interceptions and is second in passes defensed) while not being burned too badly.
McKinney doesn’t have the other-worldly ability to impact the game that a safety needs to be considered a “cornerstone” for a team (think Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Tyrann Mathieu, Troy Polamalu, or Ed Reed), but his versatility is important to Patrick Graham’s defense.
- Dexter Lawrence II - Lawrence occupies an interesting place for me. He is capable of being disruptive, but is also capable of disappearing from games. Still, the fact that he is one of the most commonly double-teamed defensive tackles in the NFL while having a higher pass rush win rate than Leonard Williams is impressive and speaks to his raw physical skill set.
It’s easy to look at the 6-foot-4, 340-pound Lawrence and think that he is just a nose tackle, but he just isn’t. While a massive defensive tackle, he really is a one-gap player who needs to play at the 4i or 3-technique to maximize his skill-set. I’d like to see Lawrence continue to develop his pass rushing technique and play with better leverage to fully unleash his explosive power. He can be an important piece for the Giants’ defense going forward — particularly if they can find their “alpha” EDGE rusher — but he will need to continue to erase the lulls in his production.
- Blake Martinez - I saved Martinez for last because I’m not sure how much longer he’ll be with the team. Maybe Jaylon Smith will make Martinez expendable, or the Giants will (finally) draft a young, athletic linebacker all their own. But for now it’s difficult to understate Martinez’s importance to the Giants’ defense. He isn’t flashy, and much of what he does goes unnoticed by the box score and commentators. But the importance of his football IQ, communication, and technique have been made evident by his absence.
We know that the Giants’ defense is designed to funnel inside runs to the MIKE linebacker and it depends on Martinez making the right reads, flowing to the ball, and tackling soundly. With him out, we’ve seen too many runs up the middle be successful both because the Giants’ defensive linemen are getting blown off the ball, but also because the linebackers aren’t where they’re supposed to be. We’ve also seen breakdowns in communication happen in the Giants’ front seven that have lead to too many big plays in Graham’s blitz-heavy scheme.
Martinez isn’t irreplaceable, but he should remain an important piece in the Giants’ defense for as long as they don’t have any better options.