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Rebuilding the Giants? The bar was set pretty low

The Giants had the second-worst team in the NFL last year

Syndication: The Record Danielle Parhizkaran/NorthJersey.com / USA TODAY NETWORK

It was a breath of fresh air when New York Giants General Manager Joe Schoen said that the Giants would be incorporating the analysis of data into every level of their decision making. That isn’t to say that they would be slaves to spreadsheets, but rather another tool in their toolbox. Or, as Schoen put it:

“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” Schoen said. “It’s not going to drive the entire process, but it’s another tool that we need to use in order to get whatever competitive advantage we can and make the best decisions we can for the New York Giants.”

We’ve been trying to use advanced analytics (such as EPA and CPOE) and unconventional data (such as NFL NextGenStats player tracking) to give a more nuanced and objective view of the Giants’ play on the field. But now that the Giants are, apparently, incorporating those things into their own decision making processes, they could give us some window into how the Giants are thinking about themselves.

Arjun Menon, a research intern for Pro Football Focus, recently created a composite score using several data sources to rank the teams that franchises have put around their quarterbacks.

I’m not going to concentrate on the “quarterback” part of this chart. Whether or not Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll decide to move on from Daniel Jones is a complicated question. They may decide that he is their best option for this year, or they may decide to move on from a quarterback drafted by their predecessor and predecessor’s predecessor (respectively).

Instead I want to look at everything else on the chart, which covers the other 21 players on the field. In particular, I want to look at the offensive side of the ball.

The Giants special teams was fine last year. And while the defense took a step back from 2020, it likely would have performed better if the offense carried its own weight. The Giants’ offense put little pressure on the opposing offense, and often put the defensive players in tough situations.

So let’s take a look at the Rushing EPA, Open Rate, and Pass Block Win Rate.

Rushing efficiency

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who watched the Giants play in 2021 that their running game was bad.

The Giants’ -0.12 rushing EPA was one of the worst in the NFL last year — though it wasn’t the worst. The Falcons, Dolphins, Saints, and Texans all has less efficient running games than the Giants. Interestingly, the Las Vegas Raiders had a similar -0.12 rushing EPA, while the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals had -0.09 EPA on running plays, which isn’t much better.

For a team that wanted to make their identity that of a hard-nosed rushing team, that just wasn’t good enough.

It’s tempting to say that the Giants’ run blocking was the culprit, but it isn’t that simple. Per ESPN, the Giants were right in the middle of the pack. The Giants had a 71 percent win rate, which ranked 14th in the league last year.

It’s also tempting to say that defenses didn’t respect the Giants’ passing game and were constantly stacking the box against the Giants’ running backs. But again, things just aren’t that simple and neither of the Giants’ runners saw too many stacked boxes.

Saquon Barkley saw eight (or more) men in the tackle box on 35 of his 162 carries (21.6 percent), while Devontae Booker saw 8+ man boxes on 24 of his 145 carries.

The truth might be that neither of the Giants backs were good enough.

Barkley averaged 0.28 yards fewer than expected on his rushing attempts, which was tied for 10th worst in the NFL. Booker averaged 0.22 yards per attempt below expectation which was 12th worst in the NFL.

While the Giants’ win rate on their run blocks was fine, Joe Schoen absolutely should look to improve the run blocking up front. Likewise, Brian Daboll needs to hire an offensive line coach who will develop the linemen that Schoen brings in. But also, the Giants’ offense likely needs better play design on their running plays — as well as timelier play calls.

Open Rate

The Giants invested heavily in their wide receiver corps in an effort to improve the talent level around Daniel Jones in 2021. The team signed Kenny Golladay and John Ross III in free agency and made Kadarius Toney their first-round pick.

But as with the running backs, the Giants’ receivers just didn’t play well enough.

The Giants were the only team in the NFL to have an Open Rate of less than 60 percent. That shouldn’t be terribly surprising, considering Kenny Golladay only averaged 1.7 yards of separation on his routes, which was tied for the lowest amount in the NFL (among qualifying receivers).

While Darius Slayton averaged 3.0 yards of separation, he had the lowest catch rate in the NFL at 44.8 percent. Golladay, the contested catch specialist, had the fourth-worst catch rate at 48.7 percent. Golladay and Slayton were the Giants’ two downfield threats and combined to be 43.8 percent of the Giants’ air yardage.

Golladay was the Giants’ most targeted player (76 targets), and his inability to get open as well as struggles catching the ball made his season incredibly disappointing.

Evan Engram was the Giants’ second-most targeted player at 73 targets. However, he had one of the lowest shares of the team’s air yardage of any qualifying receiver. Engram averaged just 5 targeted air yards and was responsible for just 8.86 percent of the Giants’ air yardage.

Considering all of the Giants holes and needs to address, they may not be able to renovate their receiving corps this year. The onus will likely be on the coaching staff to try and get production out of whoever will be catching the ball for the Giants in 2022.

Pass Block Win Rate

Now for the part everyone’s been looking for: The Giants’ pass protection.

The Giants’ pass protection was just not good in 2021, and their win rate of 54 percent speaks volumes. For those who don’t know, a pass block “win” is considered to be when offensive linemen are able to hold their blocks for 2.5 seconds.

As with the Giants’ rushing efficiency, their pass protection was bad, but not the worst in the NFL. The Panthers, Bengals, Steelers, and Dolphins were all worse than the Giants, while the Texans and Dolphins had the same 54 percent win rate. It’s notable that the Tennessee Titans (56 percent), Dallas Cowboys (58 percent), and Raiders (59 percent) all made the playoffs with win rates not much better than the Giants’.

Per NFL NextGenStats, Daniel Jones had a time to throw of 2.78 seconds, while Mike Glennon averaged 2.71 seconds to throw the ball. It’s interesting that Jones was tied with Andy Dalton and Matt Ryan for the fourth-lowest intended intended air yardage at 7.2 air yards per attempt.

Of course, few quarterbacks actually get rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or less. In fact, only two quarterbacks, Tom Brady (2.5 seconds) and Ben Roethlisberger (2.38 seconds) got the ball out that quickly.

So it’s unlikely that the Giants can scheme to get the ball out more quickly. So as with the Giants’ running efficiency, the answer is going to have to come from the personnel department and coaching staff.

Obviously, Schoen needs to upgrade the Giants’ pass protection up front, though we can’t expect the Giants to find four new starters and for them to be upgrades in one off-season. However, the Giants can upgrade key positions like right tackle and center and find players with the upside to be improvements in their second and third years.

And while we can’t expect the quarterback to get the ball out faster, the Giants’ offensive coaches can scheme plays to slow down the defense. Making greater use of jet motion, and sequencing plays off of that jet motion, using play-action, and making greater use of the screen game can all slow down opposing pass rushes.

Final thoughts

Looking at the Giants through the lens of any one of those advanced analytics, they bad, but not the worst in the NFL. The Giants’ pass protection is bad, but there were teams that made it to the play-offs with pass protection that was as bad or worse. The Giants were a bad running team, but again, there teams who were similarly bad or worse. The Giants had the worst-separating receivers in the NFL last year, but there were teams that were almost as bad.

But only the Atlanta Falcons fielded a worse team when all of these factors were taken as a whole.

The Giants need to improve just about every area of their team over the coming seasons. The good news is that Buffalo Bills had the best overall team in the league this year, and Joe Schoen had a big hand in crafting that team. Brian Daboll designed the offense that put the players Schoen helped find in the position to play their best.

We don’t know how the Giants’ new brain trust will perform, and they certainly have their work cut out for them. But they do have a strong track record based on their work with Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott in Buffalo.