I only played tackle football once in my life, in high school more than 50 years ago. I was what we would today call an edge defender, and on one play I had a clear path to the quarterback, who was bigger than me. I dove for him and hit him, he swatted me away like a fly, and as I lay on the ground, I said to myself, “That hurts.” Since then my football has been restricted to watching from the living room couch.
We tend to forget what a violent game football is when we’re watching it on TV, especially when played by behemoths like those who make it to the NFL. A football game is a physically draining experience, even for the superbly conditioned athletes we are privileged to watch each week. That’s why NFL players hate Thursday night football - it doesn’t give them the chance to fully heal from what they went through the previous Sunday (as well as condensing their preparation for the next game). The 10 days off after the game doesn’t make up for the pain of playing two games four days apart.
The 2023 New York Giants are blessed with some extremely talented players but cursed with inadequate depth at many positions. The result of that has been that some of their best players have been on the field much more than they should be, as the Giants attempt to get wins whenever they have the chance. It may or may not be intentional - I can imagine that the coaches would prefer to give their star players as much rest as possible. Game situations often dictate otherwise, though, and an unfathomable number of injuries have only exacerbated the problem. Are the Giants compromising their future by over-playing their best players now?
Players to keep an eye on
Different positions in football experience more or less wear and tear on the body. Quarterbacks usually play the full game, unless they have built a big lead or unless you’re the Giants and can’t keep the QB from being injured during the game. Starting defensive backs often play every snap in a game, except for those that rotate in and out strategically as the coordinator switches from base to nickel to dime. Wide receivers and tight ends generally do not play every snap, but this is more a matter of strategic changes in personnel groupings as a function of down, distance, and game situation.
Offensive linemen (other than those of the Giants, who can’t seem to get through a game without injury) usually play every snap. This is a little surprising from the outside, since they are involved in the most violent aspects of football. Apparently dishing out hits on running plays and just trying to get in the way on passing plays is less exhausting than what the defenders on the other side experience. Let’s look at specific players at the other positions, where a rotation is usually the norm for purely physical reasons, and see how the 2023 Giants at those positions are being used.
Running back is the position most well known for having a “cliff” that players reach after too much wear and tear. Sometimes it is expressed simply as a function of age, e.g., in this study from Northwestern University:
It may in part have to do with biological age, but much of it is probably due to accumulated hits and injuries and how susceptible the human body is to future injuries as a result. Other studies have focused on an upper limit on “touches” (carries + receptions) in a given season beyond which problems can be expected in future years. The “magic number” has been estimated as anywhere from 300 to 370 in a season.
These are general rules but there are of course exceptions. Here is a figure from a Pro Football Focus study looking at rushing yards over expected (RYOE) for specific running backs as a function of years in the NFL instead:
Elite seasons by running backs are common through year 7 but become much more unlikely after that. There is no absolute “rule,” though. Consider the case of the best Giants running back ever, Tiki Barber. You can see him in the figure above as having had the second best season of any back in the study in career year 10. Here are Barber’s career stats from Pro Football Reference:
Tiki had more than 300 touches, and several times more than 400, touches in 7 of his last 8 years in the NFL. His final three seasons were among the best in NFL history, with more than 2000 total yards from scrimmage in each (2005 was the fourth highest total ever, and it came at age 30). Barber retired at the peak of his career, though, in part because he was too beat up to go on. As the PFF chart above shows, he was more the exception than the rule in having his best seasons late in his career.
Saquon Barkley had 352 touches in his amazing 2018 rookie season. His injury problems began the next season. If 300-370 touches is the “danger zone” for future problems, that equates to about 18-22 touches per game. Here are the NFL leaders in rushing attempts for 2023:
The good news is that Barkley is only tied for ninth in rushing attempts. He is tied for 16th in receptions among RBs with 19, for a total of 129 touches so far. The bad news is that he is that low only because he missed three games with a high ankle sprain. If we look at just the rushing attempts per game, he is the league leader by far:
For touches per game, it is 25.8. If we project over the remainder of the season, that will amount to 361 touches. Over the previous five seasons, the league leaders in rushes per game were: Ezekiel Elliott, 20.3 (2018), and Derrick Henry, 20.2 (2019), 23.6 (2020), 27.4 (2021), 21.8 (2022). Elliott is basically done as a running back and Henry seems to have begun his decline although he remains a dangerous back.
Barkley carried the ball 36 times against the Jets. Last year, he carried 35 times against Houston and seemed not to be the same force the rest of the season. Whether it was better opponents or his wearing down, we don’t know. It is worth keeping an eye on as the 2023 season progresses.
I’m not aware of studies on the overuse of players at other positions, but there must be a limit that team analytics departments are aware of beyond which effectiveness decreases, never mind the chance of injury. In the absence of such information, let’s assume that there is some kind of collective wisdom in the NFL that is evidenced in how many snaps players at specific positions actually play in a season and see where several Giants stand.
We’ll start with Dexter Lawrence, who is playing at a level rarely if ever seen for a 0-technique defensive lineman this season, after playing almost as well last season. Here are the snaps rankings for all interior defensive linemen last season, from Pro Football Focus:
Lawrence was only seventh in the NFL in IDL snaps last season, so that’s apparently not an unreasonable load by NFL standards. It’s misleading, though, since Dexy had the luxury of sitting out the final game in Philadelphia after the Giants clinched a playoff berth. If he’d played that final game with snaps equal to his average over the first 16 games (54 snaps), he would have wound up with 918, putting him behind only Christian Wilkins.
This season his usage has actually decreased; he is only 12th in the league in snaps, with ex-teammate Leonard Williams right behind him:
They would rank even lower were it not for the fact that several IDLs just below them have played one less game due to their team’s bye week. Projected to 17 games, that is 784 snaps, much less than in 2022.
Why has Lawrence’s usage decreased this year? One good reason may be the Giants’ signings of free agents A’Shawn Robinson and Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who may be better than the Giants’ other IDL alternatives last season. D.J. Davidson and Jordon Riley have shown promise as well, though the latter has been inactive most games.
Another reason is in the category of “silver linings.” Here is Lawrence’s game-by-game snap count:
One good thing about blowout losses is that you get to rest key players in the second half. Lawrence got fewer than 40 snaps against Dallas, Seattle, and Miami. If Lawrence plays 53 snaps per game the rest of the season, he’ll finish with 846 for the year, less than in 2022. The big question is whether with Leonard Williams and the Giants’ playoff hopes now gone, will Wink Martindale lean more on Lawrence or will he let A’Shawn, Rakeem, and the kids play a lot more?
Edge defenders run a lot more than IDLs do because of where they line up as well as the fact that some of them are used in coverage as well as pass defense. Last year the Las Vegas Raiders’ Maxx Crosby, whom the Giants will see next Sunday, led all NFL edge defenders with 1,082 snaps, an average of 64 per game:
Kayvon Thibodeaux led the Giants with only 740 snaps but in only 14 games (53 snaps per game), 28th in the NFL.
This season Maxx is at it again, even more so:
His 531 snaps in 8 games is 66 per game. This year, though, Thibodeaux is tied for fourth in the NFL with 455 snaps (57 per game). The Raiders basically have the same problem the Giants do: An excellent rusher on one side (though Crosby is more accomplished than Thibodeaux) and little production on the other side. (The Raiders do have 2023 No. 7 pick Tyree Wilson, but he hasn’t gotten the most snaps there and only has one sack, so he’s a work in progress.). Note by the way that Crosby is there for one purpose - sack the QB. he has not dropped into coverage even once all season. On Sunday, Crosby actually played 86 snaps against Detroit (but had zero sacks).
Like Dexter Lawrence, Thibodeaux got some rest in the Dallas, Seattle, and Miami routs, but he has also had three games with 60 or more snaps, and even one with 72 snaps:
There are 32 teams in the NFL, so there should be about a one in three chance that a Giant would appear in the top 10 in playing time at any position. Yet the Giants have a player in or near the top ten in snaps at each of the three most physically demanding positions on the field. (Make it four if we include off-ball linebacker, where Bobby Okereke is ninth in the league in snaps.). It could just be chance More likely it is a showcase of the extreme disparity between the top and the bottom of the roster.
No Giants are outrageously overused up to this point in the season, if other teams serve as a guideline for what is reasonable, but in part that is because the Giants have been far behind in three of their losses. If the team were playing the way many people hoped at the start of the season, the situation might be worse. This is the state of the Giants right now - a team with a few really good players but with woeful depth at key positions.
It will be interesting to see whether, as the season proceeds, the Giants start giving players farther down on the roster more of a chance to play, not only to evaluate them and give them experience, but to prevent key starters from being overworked. D.J. Davidson, Jordon Riley, Isaiah Simmons, Boogie Basham, and Eric Gray (if he returns from IR) or Jashaun Corbin would seem to be the likeliest candidates. By the time we get to the home and season finale against Philadelphia, maybe we’ll even see Tommy DeVito starting and throwing passes beyond the line of scrimmage.