In 2022, Dexter Lawrence was the New York Giants’ breakout player of the year. Lawrence had previously been very solid but not dominant in the interior. A second-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection later, Lawrence is now the focal point of the Giants’ defense, a monster in the middle to pulverize opposing centers.
That level of a breakout cannot necessarily be the bar for a player to make progress. Daniel Jones, Darius Slayton, Isaiah Hodgins, and Saquon Barkley all had varying degrees of jumps in their play without that same level of dominance.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Giants players most likely to take strides in 2023.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE
The No. 5 overall pick from 2022 had a rough start to his rookie season. A legal but nasty block to his knee in the preseason caused a sprained MCL, which sidelined Thibodeaux for the first two games. Upon his debut, he had some ups and downs, making key plays at times (including a strip-sack of Lamar Jackson to essentially seal a 24-20 victory against the Ravens) but also taking a while to get going (one sack in his first nine games).
Thibodeaux’s biggest issue was a lack of consistency as a pass rusher. A fantastic game against Dallas in Week 12 included five quarterback hits and nine total pressures on 26 rushes. He followed that up with two four-pressure games against Washington and Philadelphia but then recorded just nine total pressures in his final five games, including the postseason. He did have a strip-sack and touchdown return in the second game against Washington, as well as another sack against the Colts (the infamous snow angel affair). Still, he failed to affect the quarterback consistently in those games.
Overall, Thibodeaux ranked 54th out of 77 qualified edge rushers (minimum 275 pass rushes) with an 11.1% pass rush win rate, per Pro Football Focus. His 9.8% pressure rate tied for 52nd, and his 67.9 PFF pass rush grade ranked 39th.
Still, Thibodeaux flashed his overall abilities as a rookie. His 6.7% run stop rate ranked 21st out of 72 qualified edge rushers (min. 175 run defense snaps), and his 70.1 PFF grade also ranked 21st. His 28 run play primary tackles ranked 13th, and he had just a 5.4% missed tackle rate, which was 14th. That being said, his 5.0 average depth of tackle was dead-last, which could be attributed to his speed and hustle (ability to make tackles further downfield than most edge defenders) but also to some poor leverage at the point of attack.
Thibodeaux’s two strip sacks demonstrate his ability to get to the quarterback quickly. He has just 33⅛-inch arms, which ranked in the 34th percentile among edge rushers. Often, the edge rushers who can strip the quarterback have long arms, but Thibodeaux did it with his burst off the line, speed, and a nose for the football.
Considering those short arms, Thibodeaux’s five batted passes (per PFF, tied for third among edge rushers) were that much more impressive. That was another way that he impacted games, particularly against the Packers, when he batted up a pass from Aaron Rodgers that could have been a go-ahead touchdown otherwise.
There were many encouraging signs that could lead to a Year 2 leap from Thibodeaux. His overall impact on the game stretched beyond just his ability to sack the quarterback, which led to his 71.9 overall PFF grade (62nd percentile among edge rushers). PFF graded him as above-average in pass rush, run defense, tackling, and coverage, a rare feat.
The biggest obstacles to Thibodeaux’s growth will likely be health and learning a complementary pass-rush move. Although his hit to the knee was unfortunate, avoiding such injuries will help him get in a full camp and start the season on the right track.
As a pass rusher, Thibodeaux seems to try an outside bull rush very often; adding an inside rush threat or some other moves on a more consistent basis could unlock his potential. Some of his biggest plays came when he was completely unblocked, but he struggled at times to get around the edge in a one-on-one rush situation, as evidenced by his below-average pass rush win rate.
A big jump from Thibodeaux could allow Wink Martindale a lot more leeway in his defensive plan, one that is somewhat less reliant on the blitz to get home.
Evan Neal, RT
It’s easy to say that Evan Neal is due for a breakout simply because of how bad he was in 2022. As the seventh overall pick in the draft, Neal was widely considered a top tackle prospect. However, he was borderline unplayable in Year 1 due to his struggles.
Neal’s 8.6% pressure rate allowed was the fourth-worst among 69 qualified tackles (min. 275 pass blocking snaps). The pressures he allowed were highly detrimental, too: his 3.8% sack-plus-hit rate was second-worst, driven by seven sacks (T-57th) and 10 quarterback hits (T-65th). He was at his worst in true pass sets, which are plays on which there is no play-action or screen and the tackle must go one-on-one against a pass rusher. Neal’s 16% pressure rate on those plays was the third-worst.
So why would anyone believe that Neal will improve in his second year? The main reason is his play in his last appearances prior to his midseason knee injury. Against Baltimore in Week 6, Neal posted a 70.5 PFF grade, and he followed it up with a 62.6 grade against Jacksonville, including a 67.8 pass-blocking grade, before leaving with the injury. He appeared to be starting to figure it out but then was thrown off. He never recovered post-injury, despite one strong game against the Colts, and he posted a 19.4 pass-blocking grade against the Vikings in the playoffs.
The fact that Neal had shown glimpses of improvement provides hope that he’ll find that spark again. Returning after a knee injury as a 6-foot-7, 350-pound tackle is never easy. A full training camp and preseason could help Neal find his legs again.
Neal’s former college teammate, Landon Dickerson of the Eagles, predicted that the Giants tackle would improve in Year 2. Dickerson compared it to his own trajectory in the NFL, in which he allowed a 6.3% pressure rate in 2021 but rebounded to a 2.9% rate in 2022 en route to a Pro Bowl berth. Certainly, Dickerson was not nearly as bad as Neal in his rookie season, as he posted a 67.3 overall PFF grade; however, his 57.1 pass-blocking grade that season was also poor, only to jump to 76.8 in Year 2.
The main reason to believe in Neal’s growth is simply his overall talent level and work ethic. He has worked with former All-Pro Willie Anderson in the offseason to find a more natural stance. As bad as he was, he was also a 22-year-old rookie playing his fifth consecutive season at a different position. Anderson, who runs an offensive line academy, stated that people underestimate the impact of moving from the left side to the right and expressed the belief that Neal can turn it around.
This is not to say that Neal will make the leap that Andrew Thomas did in Year 2. Still, there are many reasons to expect improvement from the right tackle in his second year in the Giants’ offensive system.
Isaiah Hodgins, WR
Although Isaiah Hodgins already had a breakout of sorts in 2022, it was in just half a season. However, given a full year with the Giants, he could duplicate or even exceed his numbers with the team.
For one thing, Hodgins’ overall numbers in his 10 games with the Giants (regular and postseason) would translate to a 17-game slate of 71 catches for 780 yards and 8.5 touchdowns. ESPN gave him a 67 receiver score, which ranked 19th out of 82 wideouts. Though his 85 hands score was his biggest asset (ranked fourth), his 63 open score was also above average (60th percentile).
This means Hodgins is exactly the kind of receiver the Giants seek: a player who can get open quickly and catch the ball. Considering Daniel Jones’ propensity to throw short, it is likely that Hodgins will see a high volume of targets next season. He was certainly a welcome sight after the constant high-leverage drops that Jones endured in key spots last season.
While Hodgins is never going to light up the yards-after-catch department due to his 4.61 speed, his reliability still makes him a viable No. 2 receiver in an offense. He also has potential as a contested-catch target, as he went 6-for-9 (66.7%) in that category in 2022 and also has the measurables (6-foot-4 frame, 82nd percentile arm length, 82nd percentile hand size, 64th percentile vertical jump, 70th percentile broad jump) to be a weapon in that area.
Hodgins may also have some untapped deep-play ability. In 2018 at Oregon State, he caught 8 of 10 deep balls for 246 yards (30.8 per reception), including 4 of 5 contested targets, for a 99.6 PFF grade. As a senior, his deep catch rate decreased to 9-for-25 (36%), but he still had 264 yards and three touchdowns, good for a 96.4 PFF grade (although he went just 2-for-8 on contested deep targets). In a very small sample size with the Giants, Hodgins hauled in 2 of 3 deep balls for 49 yards, including 1-for-1 on contested balls, for a 93.7 PFF grade.
Perhaps Hodgins will not be able to sustain his success over a longer season. However, the way he succeeded in 2022 would suggest the possibility that he can maintain or even exceed his production in 2023.
Giants fans, do you think Thibodeaux, Neal, and Hodgins will take a big step forward in 2023, or is there someone else whom you see making the leap?