June and July are the months where no news is definitely good news in the NFL. It never bodes well any time a team or player gets a headline at this time of year.
But the lack of activity around the NFL makes for a pretty big vacuum in the news cycle. It’s a vacuum that outlets have come to fill with lists and power rankings. One of those is a Pro Football ranking of the NFL’s 32 rosters (ESPN paid content).
They broke the rosters down by “strengths,” “weaknesses,” and “X factor for 2022.” For better or worse, Pro Football Focus grades were used to assess the teams’ projected starters.
The New York Giants ranked 26th overall, so let’s take a look at how they fared in those categories.
It’s not surprising to see the former Bills’ brain trust invest in the defensive line in its first draft with the Giants, given how the Bills have attacked the position over the past few years. The Kayvon Thibodeaux addition to a defensive front that already had Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence and 2021 draft pick Azeez Ojulari gives New York a nice collection of talent that can defend the run and get after opposing quarterbacks. Thibodeaux’s 23% pass rush win rate ranked ninth among FBS edge rushers with at least 250 pass-rushing snaps in 2021.
ESPN is probably right on the money here. The Giants are poised to have their best pass rush since Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, and Romeo Okwara in 2016.
It’s difficult to see the Giants go in a direction other than drafting Thibodeaux at fifth overall — particularly if a trade market for the pick didn’t materialize. It was something of a surprise to see Thibodeaux available when the Giants’ pick arrived, and the opportunity to select a player who spent most of the college season at the top of draft boards is tough to turn down.
The Giants’ trio of Thibodeaux, Ojulari, and Quincy Roche, as well as potential darkhorses like Elerson Smith, Carter Coughlin, and Micah McFadden (in a blitzing role) could make for a potent pass rush. One of the interesting dynamics to follow this year will be how the Giants’ (hopefully) improved edge group and Wink Martindale’s blitz schemes interact with their defensive line.
Much of the Giants’ pressure and sack production came from their defensive line under Patrick Graham. Both because his coverage schemes gave them time to convert pressure into sacks, but also because the Giants lacked speed off the edge. We could see a dynamic where the young edge rushers get the majority of the production while the defensive linemen see their numbers drop without actually playing worse than a year ago.
New York’s once-deep secondary has thinned considerably over the past year. Two important veteran starters from last year’s group are gone in James Bradberry and Logan Ryan. Safety Jabrill Peppers also is elsewhere. That probably will push second-year cornerback Aaron Robinson to the outside as the favorite to replace Bradberry. Robinson earned a 58.4 PFF coverage grade in 170 coverage snaps as a rookie while splitting time between the slot and outside. Rookie safety Dane Belton also will have an opportunity to earn a starting job in a thin group.
Again, ESPN is pretty well on the mark here as well. There are a few different ways they could have gone, and the Giants could be one injury away from disaster at a few positions. But the secondary probably gives the most heartburn right now.
Not only did the Giants part ways with two veteran starters, but they are moving to a very different scheme and philosophy from the one this group was build for. Adoree’ Jackson is coming off a career year, but this year he’ll be asked to take on other teams’ top receivers every week. Likewise, his own injury history (he’s missed significant time in each of the last three seasons) is certainly concerning given the Giants’ overall concerns about depth in the secondary. It’s possible we could see a starting cornerback group of Aaron Robinson and Darnay Holmes on the outside, with rookie Cor’Dale Flott in the slot at some point this season.
Personally, I would be surprised to see Belton earn a starting job over Julian Love. That said, I absolutely expect to see a lot of the rookie safety this year. Martindale has historically made frequent use of three-safety “Buffalo Nickel” packages, and Belton has a lot of experience in a similar role in Iowa’s defense. He and Jarren Williams will likely be the Giants’ primary depth at safety.
Coverage plays a massive role in Martindale’s defense, and if the secondary struggles, the defense as a whole could struggle. Pressure defenses can be a double-edged sword, and breakdowns in coverage can mean game-breaking plays for the opposing offense.
X factor for 2022
Wide receiver Kadarius Toney has had an eventful first year-plus in the NFL, including being at the center of trade rumors earlier this offseason that have since died down. When he was on the field as a rookie last season, Toney looked like the dynamic playmaker the Giants drafted him in the first round to be. He was one of just 15 wide receivers in the league to average over 2 receiving yards per route run on at least 100 routes. The issue seems to be him staying on the field. Toney sat out OTAs following a minor arthroscopic surgery that he had on a knee this offseason.
This is fair, and not terribly surprising. Toney captured imaginations with his games against the New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys in Weeks 4 and 5 (respectively). He has excellent movement skills and can make defenses pay for poor tackle attempts. The Giants new offense should look to scheme him the ball in space and opportunities to create big plays. It’s also true that he has a significant injury history, with multiple shoulder and soft-tissue injuries dating back to 2017.
That said, I would argue that there are a few players who could be “X” factors for the Giants in the right circumstances.
Saquon Barkley could see the ball in more advantageous positions (that is, beyond the line of scrimmage without the entire defense bearing down on him) than ever before in his career. If he is able to return to the form we saw when he was healthy back in 2018 and 2019, and stay healthy for 2022, Barkley could re-emerge as a dynamic playmaker in the NFL.
Wan’Dale Robinson was specifically drafted by this regime for a reason and offers as similar skillset to Kadarius Toney. If Toney gets injured or struggles to consistently produce, we could see his role in the offense go to the rookie and Robinson could emerge as that “X-Factor”.
On the defensive side of the ball, Love has flashed throughout his career, but will be assuming a much bigger role than in previous years. His versatility could make him a key piece in Martindale’s defense and he could come up big in a contract year. And as I mentioned above, rookie linebacker McFadden is a capable blitzer. He could see the field far more than many are predicting now, and his ability to create pressure as a blitzer could be a big surprise for folks who aren’t paying attention.
All in all, ranking the Giants’ roster at 26th is probably fair. Right now, their depth is questionable, they have big injury questions all over the roster, and they lack talent at several high-leverage positions.
The expectation coming in to 2022 is that the Giants will need a season or two to undo the damage done by the previous regime and start taking strides forward.
But these things are far from static. The Giants have a very young team and player development can always take unexpected turns. We could see rookies like Robinson, Daniel Bellinger, Belton, or Jashuan Corbin step up out of nowhere. Or we could see unheralded veterans like Julian Love, Smith, or Coughlin emerge as major contributors. A change in scheme, philosophy, and teachers could leave us feeling better about the Giants roster in January than we do now.
Or the Giants are who we thought they were, a flawed team in desperate need of a rebuild. Only time — and games — will tell.