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It’s not easy to read the 2023 tea leaves in the NFL

Pick your stat to support your prediction for the 2023 Giants and one of their star players

New York Giants v Minnesota Vikings
Saquon Barkley being tackled by the Vikings’ Danielle Hunter in the Giants’ December loss to Minnesota.
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Minnesota Vikings’ decision to release Dalvin Cook, considered one of the best running backs in the NFL, has generated some interesting conversation about the roster building philosophy of general managers. Take this Twitter response to the news and a reaction to that tweet, both coming from well-regarded analytics-oriented people, Kevin Wilson and Tej Seth:

These two tweets raise interesting questions for the New York Giants.

Should a team with an unexpected winning season rebuild?

As a 13-4 team in 2022 that was widely considered to be “fraudulent,” to use a popular description on Twitter these days, the question was whether Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah would use the off-season to build on his team’s success or to tear it down and rebuild with a younger and more solid foundation. Adofo-Mensah seems to be taking the latter path. He chose not to re-sign cornerback Patrick Peterson and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. He released wide receiver Adam Thielen. He traded edge defender Za’Darius Smith coming off a 10-sack season for an exchange of low round draft picks. Now he has released Dalvin Cook. And teams are inquiring about the availability of Danielle Hunter.

The Giants were another 2022 playoff team that was considered by many to be “fraudulent.” Big Blue View has reported on ESPN’s Bill Barnwell’s arguments for why both teams are in danger of regressing this year. Two of his points are that relying on close wins and relying on fourth-quarter comebacks to post winning records are not components of a sustainable model. The comment above by @after_yards that Adofo-Mensah “knew they weren’t a 13-win team with a negative point differential” speaks to the same concern.

And it applies to the Giants as well. The 2022 Vikings were -3 in season point differential - many close wins and several blowout losses. The 2022 Giants were -6 in season point differential - also with a bunch of close wins and a couple of blowout losses.

But does the idea of a negative point differential and a lot of close wins as a harbinger of future trouble jibe with the Giants’ history? Let’s look at their three 21st Century Super Bowl teams:


Data from Pro Football Reference

The 1999 Giants under head coach Jim Fassel were not a winning team, in fact they regressed a bit from their 8-8 1998 season. They were outscored by their opponents by 59 points, including a 50-21 shellacking by Washington, a 31-10 loss to the Rams, and a 34-17 loss to the Vikings. Their seven victories were by 4, 1, 3, 28, 6, 13, and 2 points.

The roster wasn’t all that much different in 2000, the main additions being running back Ron Dayne and linebacker Micheal Barrow. Yet the 2000 team went 12-4 and got to the Super Bowl.


Data from Pro Football Reference

The 2006 Giants were another disappointing team, going 8-8 and missing the playoffs after an 11-5 2005 season. They were outscored by their opponents by 7 points, including a 38-20 loss to Chicago, a 26-10 loss to Jacksonville, a 36-22 loss to Philadelphia, and a 30-7 loss to New Orleans.

Their 8 victories were by 6, 16, 13, 14, 14, 4, 14, and 6 points, and they went down to the Eagles in the first round of the playoffs.

The 2007 team wasn’t much more impressive, going 9-7 and being embarrassed by Green Bay (13-35) and Minnesota (17-41), though they did improve to a +22 point differential. That team won the Super Bowl, of course.


Data from Pro Football Reference

The 2010 Giants did have Super Bowl aspirations, finishing 10-6 with a +47 point differential. Maybe that team was good enough to win it all, but they never got the chance, being denied a playoff berth by the NFL tiebreaker rules. That team had wins by 24, 34, 24, and 18 points. It was all for naught.

The 2011 team by comparison was a disappointment. They scored exactly as many points as the 2010 team but had a considerably worse defense, giving up 400 points for a -6 point differential. That team got blown out by New Orleans, 49-24, and had three other double digit losses. They finished only 9-7. But they won the Super Bowl.

Statistics certainly suggest that teams that win a lot of close games are due to have worse “luck” the next season. But the 2023 season will be a single sample. The Vikings may be wise in rebuilding, considering that the players they released, did not re-sign, or traded were generally older players (Cook, at 27, is “old” in running back age by NFL conventional wisdom).

The Giants are a younger team. They released one older player (Kenny Golladay), did not re-sign several others (Justin Ellis, Nick Williams, Jon Feliciano, Tony Jefferson) and traded for another (Darren Waller). At the moment they have six players 30 or older, none on defense, two on special teams, and two backups: Graham Gano, Tyrod Taylor, Casey Kreiter, Mark Glowinski, and Sterling Shepard. The Vikings had ten players 30 or older before their recent roster moves, which removed three of those players.

But the Giants added several 29-year old players in the off-season: Rakeem Nuñez-Roches, Bobby McCain, and Jamison Crowder. They also signed their quarterback to a new 4-year contract. General Manager Joe Schoen’s actions do not suggest that he sees the Giants as being in re-building mode anymore, unlike those of Adofo-Mensah. Time will tell if he is right.

Should teams re-sign elite running backs to big contracts?

The NFL seems to have spoken loud and clear on this one. Ezekiel Elliott, Miles Sanders, Austin Ekeler, Josh Jacobs, and now Dalvin Cook have found out that there is not much of a market for their services anymore. The last domino standing is Saquon Barkley. Barkley and his agent appear to have mis-read the landscape and let a fairly sizable second contract by current running back standards slip through their fingers.

Cook has had four consecutive 1,000 yard seasons, yet Wilson (@after_yards) says “he’s washed,” and Seth (@tejfbanalytics) says, “it was time for the Vikings to move on.” Pro Football Focus’ grades suggest that they are right:

Data from Pro Football Focus

After very good 2019 and tremendous 2020 seasons, Cook has been only average to above average the past two years, and his explosive (10+ yards) runs are way down. The chart at the top of this article presented by Seth shows that his rushing yards over expected and expected points added per rush were among the worst in the NFL last season, as was the case for a number of other prominent running backs. That wasn’t the case for Sanders, who had a truly impressive EPA/rush greater than 0.10, but it did him no good monetarily.

Which brings us to Saquon Barkley. Barkley, who is a year and a half younger than Cook and has many fewer NFL career rushes (972, vs. 1336 for Cook), had his second best season ever in 2022, with career highs in rushing yards, TDs, and explosive runs, and an elite 80.3 PFF grade:

Data from Pro Football Focus

In Seth’s chart, his 2022 season was close to the median in rushing yards over expected and EPA per rush. So clearly, Barkley is not “washed.” He is very close on this chart to Christian McCaffrey, he of the $16.0M average annual salary contract, and far above Alvin Kamara, who makes $15.0M per year and is down near Cook in 2022 performance. But he’s far below a number of other running backs who made much less in 2022.

Can Barkley continue to be that game-changing, clutch performer that he was in 2022 for another three years? That is the dilemma faced by Barkley and the Giants. Barkley is a back with some unique attributes but with some weaknesses as well. He is not the best running back in the NFL, but he is one of the best, and more important, at the moment he is the Giants’ biggest explosive play threat other than perhaps Darren Waller. But with an injury history and his mileage, nothing is certain.

Barkley and his agent clearly misread the tea leaves by not taking the $12.5-13M annual average salary deal that was reportedly on the table during the 2022 bye week. But if Schoen is satisfied with having a disgruntled Barkley playing this year (and possibly next) at the franchise tag salary, he may not be reading the tea leaves correctly either.

It’s difficult to anticipate whether a solution fair to both sides can be reached.