The New York Giants’ 2022 season was a totally unexpected gift. They were bound to be better than they were in 2021, with an impressive new coaching staff and general manager, two high draft picks, and the return of Daniel Jones after a mid-season neck injury. But making the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs? Not many would have guessed that.
Now, though, comes the stark reality of 2023. The Giants have improved their talent at a variety of positions, and returning players have a year of experience in the schemes of Brian Daboll, Mike Kafka, and Wink Martindale, all of whom fortunately are back. But the schedule looks tougher on paper. Gone is the AFC South, with two of 2022’s worst teams, and in comes the AFC East, with four possible playoff teams and at least one Super Bowl contender. Gone is the NFC North, and in comes the NFC West, with the San Francisco 49ers on the schedule. And six road games in the first 10 weeks doesn’t help.
Most worrisome is the dreaded regression to the mean. Were the 2022 Giants a one-year wonder? Was their second half slump due mostly to injuries, to hitting the tougher part of their schedule, or to the league figuring out what the Giants were doing and adjusting to it?
Here are two competing views of the 2023 Giants. One pro:
Pretty interesting take from a longtime AFC executive on the #Giants’ 2023 prospects: “I think they can be a true contender. I think the quarterback [Daniel Jones] is really good. He’s so smart and tough. He’s gotten much better off-schedule.— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) May 10, 2023
[Darren] Waller is the difference…
and one con:
It’s all speculation. But the Giants’ biggest challenge is staring them right in the face: Six games against the NFC East. On Divisional Round weekend last season, three of the eight remaining teams were from the NFC East, and the fourth narrowly missed the playoffs. There are no bad teams, one excellent team, and one very good team among the Giants’ division rivals. The 2022 Giants’ 1-4-1 division record tells the story - they are going nowhere until they can compete consistently against those teams, and win their fair share. Have their off-season moves accomplished that?
The Giants seem to have had a very good draft, and they added some important free agents and made a big trade as well. In isolation we can conclude that they have improved, but the other NFC East teams may have too. Are they better, worse, or about the same as they were last year?
Let’s compare the “starting” offenses and defenses for the Giants’ division opponents in 2022 and 2023. “Starting” is used loosely because teams vary offensive personnel groupings and defensive formations throughout a game and some players who were formally starters wound up playing less in 2022 than others because of injury, etc. Twelve players each are listed for offense and defense to accommodate this. I generally followed Ourlads’ depth charts for May 2023 as projections of starting lineups and at several dates for 2022 as a guide with the choice based on number of snaps played over the season. In the charts below, players in bold are projected new starters in 2023.
Philadelphia Eagles - chinks in the armor or just re-loading?
You may think that a team that almost won the Super Bowl would just run it back the next season, but the Eagles are expected to have significant turnover in their starting lineup. This is partly due to Howie Roseman always walking a tightrope on cap compliance, and partly due to the aging of veterans, which led to the replacement of several starters during the off-season.
On offense, all of the most important players are back in 2023, but there are three changes: Running back Miles Sanders is gone following his most productive year, replaced by ex-Lion D’Andre Swift, whose career has been a lot like Sanders’ career pre-2022. Third wide receiver Quez Watkins is replaced by former Falcon Olamide Zaccheus, another exchange of similar-quality players. The biggest change is at right guard, where second year player Cam Jurgens takes over for departed Isaac Seumalo. Seumalo was an above average blocker, especially in passing situations, while Jurgens is largely untested, having played only 44 snaps last season.
The other issue on offense for the Eagles is center, where future Hall of Famer Jason Kelce, who allowed zero pressures against Giants starters in two games, is returning for one more year, while a future broadcasting career beckons. The plan is for Jurgens to move over to center in 2024 and be replaced at guard by 2023 third round pick Tyler Steen. Will the Eagles’ interior offensive line start to become more vulnerable this season than the 2022 version that allowed only four pressures to the Giants’ vaunted defensive line in the Divisional Round playoff game?
On defense the changes are more extensive and more important. Defensive end Javon Hargrave is gone and Brandon Graham, who split time with him in 2022, should get the majority of the snaps. In the interior, Fletcher Cox returns but had his worst season in 2022 and may be slowing down. Jordan Davis is waiting in the wings. First-round draft pick Jalen Carter, and the off-field baggage he brings with him, is projected to start at the other defensive tackle position.
In principle we should expect no drop off in the Eagles’ relentless pass rush, which means that it will be up to Evan Neal to take a big enough step forward that Haason Reddick cannot wreck games and for rookie center John Michael Schmitz to figure things out quickly enough that when the Giants finally face the Eagles on Christmas Day, the Giants do not find coal in their stockings.
At linebacker T.J. Edwards, who had his best season, and Kyzir White are both gone. Replacing them as starters are promising second year player Nakobe Dean and replacement-level free agent signing Nicholas Morrow. The cornerback room remains the same, with Darius Slay, James Bradberry, and Avonte Maddox all returning, while the safety group is new with second-year player Reed Blankenship and journeyman former Steeler Terrell Edmunds now the starters.
Not to be overlooked is that the Eagles have new coordinators on both offense (Brian Johnson, their former quarterbacks coach) and defense (Sean Desai, former associate defensive head coach for the Seattle Seahawks). Whether the Eagles’ offensive and defensive philosophy change in any notable way remains to be seen.
Dallas Cowboys - are a few tweaks enough?
Dallas had less turnover on both offense and defense this off-season than Philadelphia, but there are still a few new faces:
Unlike the Eagles, the Cowboys have upgraded their offensive weapons. Former Texan Brandin Cooks, who must hold the record for number of teams traded from despite a 1,000-yard receiving season (three), takes over for Noah Brown as the third receiving option. Meanwhile, promising rookie Luke Schoonmaker inherits the honorary “Giants-Killing Dallas Tight End” position from departed Dalton Schultz. If Schoonmaker hits and Cooks is happy sharing the ball, the Cowboys’ passing offense could finally be what it has been touted to be for years.
The big question for Dallas on offense is up front. For a decade the Cowboys have had among the best offensive lines in the NFL, but last year cracks began to show. Tyron Smith missed time with a training camp injury and was replaced by now-departed Connor McGovern until the last few games. Zack Martin, another long time fixture, had his worst season. Center Tyler Biadasz has proven to be barely adequate. This is a line that the Giants’ ostensibly dominant defensive line needs to start exploiting.
On defense there are three changes. First-round draft pick Mazi Smith replaces aging veteran Jonathan Hankins as a projected starter at defensive tackle and should be an upgrade given Hankins’ decline the past couple of years. Promising second-year linebacker Damone Clark is expected to start over veteran Anthony Barr.
In the secondary, Stephon Gilmore, no longer the terror he was in his Patriots days but still a quality defender, should tighten up the Cowboys’ pass defense (the Giants did not target him a single time in their playoff-clinching 2022 victory over the Colts). Look for all-or-nothing (i.e., interception or big YAC) cornerback Trevon Diggs to get more action in 2023.
Are these changes enough to get the Cowboys past the final eight and finally to a conference championship game? One determining factor may be on the sideline, where offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is gone, replaced by Brian Schottenheimer, but with head coach Mike McCarthy calling the plays himself. He did that in Green Bay, but we’ll see whether overall game management suffers for a team that was knocked out of the playoffs a couple of years ago by letting the clock run down to zero.
Washington Commanders - a new era or spinning their wheels?
Can a new owner change results on the field? We are about to find out with the departure of the less-than-popular Daniel Snyder. In the near term on the field, though, the Commanders’ prospects for 2023 are more likely to hinge on a few key changes.
The biggest question mark for Washington is at quarterback, where 2022 fifth round draft pick Sam Howell is the latest in the Commanders’ unending search for a franchise-altering player behind center. How he performs may determine whether Washington commands attention by the rest of the league this season. If he does not look like “the guy,” Jacoby Brissett, who quietly had an excellent 2022 keeping the QB seat warm for Deshaun Watson, is a more than capable alternative.
Washington made no big changes at the skill positions but largely re-tooled its porous offensive line, for which only left tackle Charles Leno played well in 2022. Gone or replaced as projected starters are Tyler Larsen, Trai Turner, and Cornelius Lucas. In are ex-Giant Nick Gates, Sam Cosmi, and ex-Chief Andrew Wylie. Gates was a spiritual leader of the Giants but an undersized middling center on the field. The Commanders drafted Ricky Stromberg in Round 3 as a potential successor. Cosmi had a good rookie year and shows promise as a long term solution at guard. Wylie was the least effective lineman on an otherwise very good offensive line in Kansas City.
On defense the big question is whether Chase Young, who missed most of last season recovering from his ACL tear and whose fifth year option was not picked up, can return to his rookie form. If so then the Commanders have an imposing front four. If not then it will be up to Daron Payne, who got Dexter Lawrence money but only had a 62.2 PFF grade, to shore up his run defense and tackling and solidify the middle of the Washington line.
At linebacker, nondescript Cole Holcomb and Jon Bostic have been replaced by nondescript Cody Barton and Khaleke Hudson to pair with thus-far disappointing Jamin Davis. The interesting part of the Washington defense is its secondary, where draftees Emmanuel Forbes and Jartavius Martin are projected to start at cornerback over Benjamin St-Juste and Danny Johnson, as is safety Kamren Curl, out part of last season with ankle problems but replacing now-Giant Bobby McCain in 2023.
The most important change for Washington, though, may be on the sideline, where Eric Bienemy takes over for Scott Turner as offensive coordinator (and assistant head coach). Bienemy is one of the big mysteries of the NFL coaching ranks. He has been repeatedly passed over for head coaching jobs, whether because Andy Reid gets all the credit for Kansas City’s offense, because he interviews poorly, or because Brian Flores’ accusations about NFL hiring have merit. This year he gets full control of the Washington offense to show what he can do. If the Chiefs’ playbook has the same effect on Washington’s offense as it did when Mike Kafka used parts of it in play calling for the 2022 Giants, the Commanders could become a force to be reckoned with.
What needs to happen for the Giants in 2023?
A lot of this is Captain Obvious, but let’s put some numbers on things:
The offensive line has to be better in divisional games
Here are the Pro Football Focus grades for the four returning projected starters on the Giants’ offensive line:
- Evan Neal was an absolute disaster in pass protection in three of his five divisional games and only played even close to good in one of them. Mark Glowinski was not much better in three of his six divisional games. Even Andrew Thomas had one of his worst games in the division, though he was said to be battling the flu in that second Dallas game. You probably didn’t notice it in the midst of the dumpster fire, but he blocked well in the Philadelphia playoff game.
- No Giant on the list played at an elite (80 or higher) level in run blocking in any of the six games. A little noticed fact is that the entire Giants’ offensive line had difficulty run blocking against Washington. Considering that five of six division games took place after the bye, did Saquon Barkley actually wear down in the second half of the season or did the line’s failures against good defensive lines do him in? John Michael Schmitz was better as a run blocker (92.4) than as a pass blocker (81.0) in college according to PFF. If he can carry that run blocking prowess over to the pros, it could greatly improve the Giants’ fortunes.
- Ben Bredeson’s sample is limited due to his mid-season injury, but in his three division games he played above average in at least one phase of blocking in three games and had only one terrible showing (pass protection in the first Dallas game).
The defensive line has to play up to its reputation in division games
Here are similar stats, this time for run defense and pass rush grades:
- There were individual great performances by defensive linemen in division games: Thibodeaux vs. both run and pass in the second Washington game, of course, but also the second time against Dallas; and Dexter Lawrence in the second Washington game too as well as the second Dallas game. But overall the Giants’ defensive line looked ordinary against division foes.
- Azeez Ojulari faces something of a make-it-or-break-it year in 2023. He was mostly ordinary in division games in pass rush, his specialty, and was mostly terrible fitting the run, his Achilles heel, except for the second Washington game. The Giants are thin at edge defender, but if he does not take a step forward - and stay healthy - in 2023 the Giants could be looking to go for an edge defender in the first round in 2024.
The Giants desperately need Tae Banks to become CB1 as a rookie and for Xavier McKinney to improve
It’s a big ask, but Sauce Gardner, Tariq Woolen, and several other rookies stepped into the CB1 role in 2023, so why not? Adoree’ Jackson is a good cornerback, but he is not well suited to covering a team’s best receiver. He only played in two division games (not through his own fault), but those were his two worst of the season: a 45.5 PFF grade in the first Dallas game and a 47.1 grade in the Philadelphia playoff game. CeeDee Lamb caught 6 passes in seven targets working against him.
As for McKinney, he had the game-saving stop of T.J. Hockensen short of the first down on fourth-and-8 in the Minnesota playoff game. But he did not intercept a pass all season, and he only earned a PFF score above 70 once in the eight games before his bye week ATV mishap (71.6 in the first Dallas game). He is a solid free safety, but his 2022 did not build on the progress he seemed to have made in 2021. In a division with two elite wide receivers on every opposing team and dangerous tight ends, McKinney has to do more in 2023 to earn a second contract.
Some delusional writer predicted last week that the Giants would split with Dallas and Philadelphia and sweep Washington in 2023. In part that prediction was based on the Giants adding potentially elite players at cornerback and center, an above average player at linebacker, and solid players against the run on the interior defensive line. All of these were distinct weaknesses in 2022, and on paper the Giants seem to have improved more than their division foes as far as filling holes in the roster.
You may be surprised not to have seen anything about the Giants’ receivers. Certainly the Giants seem to have improved in that area (Darren Waller, Jalen Hyatt, Parris Campbell), and that may help the Giants win games outside the division that they would not have with last year’s team.
But the Giants’ deficiencies in that area were partly hidden by inventive play calling, and they did not especially show up in division games. Except for the Divisional Round loss to the Eagles, the Giants’ primary receiving options (Isaiah Hodgins, Richie James, Darius Slayton) mostly had average or above receiving grades. The four Giants divisional losses were more due to their inability to control the line of scrimmage against tough NFC East offensive and defensive lines. That is what has to change first in 2023 for the Giants to go from pretender to contender.