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ESPN ranks the Giants’ skill players 27th in the NFL

Do the Giants really have one of the worst of group of skill position players in the NFL?

New York Giants Offseason Workout Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The New York Giants exceeded all expectations in 2022, and hope abounds as we enter the second year under Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll.

This time last year, we were simply looking at 2022 as a year to be survived before taking strides forward in 2023 and beyond. But suffice it to say, the Giants punched well above their weight class last year in making the playoffs for the first time since 2016. If the Giants want to make the success they saw in 2022 the norm instead of a fluke, they needed to improve their roster.

The Giants’ front office has certainly put resources in improving the offensive skill positions. They traded for TE Darren Waller, signed WRs Parris Campbell and Jameson Crowder, re-signed WR Isaiah Hodgins, and drafting WR Jalin Hyatt and RB Eric Gray.

But have they done enough?

ESPN’s Bill Barnwell is skeptical that the Giants’ offensive skill positions are significantly improved in 2023 despite tall their moves. Barnwell ranked the Giants’ skill position group (running back, tight end, and receiver) 27th out of the 32 teams (exclusive content). And while that’s an improvement from their 30th overall ranking a year ago, it’s down from the 16th overall ranking heading into 2021.

Let’s break down Barnwell’s thoughts for each position group and see if he’s off-base.

Running Back

The Giants’ biggest move at running back was making sure (or at least very likely) that Saquon Barkley would be on the roster for 2023. That, in and of itself, doesn’t constitute an upgrade to improve the Giants’ playmakers, but it does prevent a potential drop-off as compared to a year ago.

Barnwell says about the running back position,

How far can Saquon Barkley carry the Giants?

He approached his 2018 rookie form and excelled last season, generating 114 rushing yards over expected behind an inconsistent offensive line. If this version of Barkley sticks around, the team will be thrilled, but counting on the former No. 2 overall pick to stay healthy for the second consecutive season is difficult. In between healthy campaigns in 2018 and 2022, he missed 21 games and was forced out of three others with various injuries. Matt Breida would be the first man up if Barkley missed time.

The situation surrounding Saquon Barkley is, as of this writing, casting a long shadow over their off-season. As of now, it would be a stunning development if Barkley isn’t on the field for the Giants in 2023, though it remains to be seen whether he is playing on a long-term contract or the franchise tag.

He was arguably the central figure in the Giants’ offense a year ago. Barkley basically carried the Giants’ offense (both figuratively and literally) in the first part of 2022, and played a key role in almost all of their offensive schemes in the second half of the season — even if he wasn’t touching the ball quite as often. The Giants making sure he’s around gives them a potent and versatile weapon for their offense, even if he isn’t an “upgrade” over a year ago.

But Barnwell’s concern over Barkley’s health is valid. Barkley suffered lower-body injuries in 2018 (grade 1 hamstring sprain), 2019 (high ankle sprain), 2020 (ACL), and 2021 (low ankle sprain). He also played through a stinger suffered late last year.

Additionally, our own Rivka Boord looked at Barkley’s advanced stats and found that while his raw numbers mirror his great rookie season, more in-depth stats suggest that he wasn’t particularly efficient. It’s also possible that Barkley could be set to decline this year as he closes in on 1,500 career touches.

Matt Brieda didn’t have a large role in the Giants’ offense last year. He played in all 17 games and started one, playing 264 snaps on offense (23 percent) and had just 74 total touches (54 carries, 20 receptions). But while his production was modest, he did come through with several important plays in big moments. Brieda gives the Giants a capable back-up to both take snaps off of Barkley to help keep him healthy and fresh, and someone to take up the slack if Barkley goes down.

The Giants certainly don’t have the 27th best running back room in the NFL. But whether or not the efficiency of their runners improves will likely depend on everything around them.

Barnwell isn’t sure whether the Giants’ other additions give the team a “sure thing” upgrade over a year ago.

More concerningly, the Giants went into the offseason knowing they needed to add playmakers for newly expensive quarterback Daniel Jones and didn’t come away with a single sure thing.

Tight End

The tight end position is where the Giants started making improvements to their skill position players. The move to trade for WR turned TE Darren Waller was the most noteworthy of the Giants’ offseason, and it could be the most impactful as well. About the tight end position, Barnwell says,

The biggest name is tight end Darren Waller, who turns 31 in September and was limited to 388 receiving yards because of injuries a year ago.

After averaging 958 offensive snaps per season in his breakout stretch between 2019 and 2020, he has played a combined 954 offensive snaps over his ensuing two campaigns. He also dropped off from averaging 2.44 yards per route run during the 2019-20 season to 1.76 over the past two campaigns.

Waller was worth the risk at the price the Giants paid — a third-round pick in a trade — but he’s hardly a sure thing. Jones needs Waller to be one, because the depth chart at wide receiver is uninspiring.

Again, Barnwell’s skepticism regarding the Giants’ roster largely stems from injury concerns. When healthy, Waller is one of the most dynamic tight ends in the NFL. Unfortunately, he’s only played in 20 of 34 games over the last two years (11 in 2021, 9 in 2022). The Giants are confident in their strength and conditioning staff to limit injuries in 2023, and a healthy Waller is an improvement over a year ago.

Interestingly, much has been made this spring of Waller’s athleticism and ability to stretch a defense vertically from the slot or as a detached tight end. However, his best years (2019 and 2020) saw him average just 6.4 and 5.8 yards before the catch, respectively. In other words, he did most of his damage in the short area of the field.

As well, Barnwell doesn’t seem to be factoring any improvement in Daniel Bellinger into his projections for this year, and I’d argue that is a mistake.

Bellinger was an effective player for the Giants, particularly for a rookie tight en, and an incredibly random eye injury disrupted his development. Bellinger might not ever be in the conversation with the likes of Travis Kelce, George Kittle, or Mark Andrews. However, even a modest improvement and a full 17-game schedule could propel Bellinger into the upper-middle ranks of NFL tight ends. Having a player like Hunter Henry, Dalton Knox, or Dalton Schultz would be a respectable improvement for the Giants’ offense.

Wide Receiver

Finally, we come to the wide receiver position. I have argued that the Giants’ receivers for the second half of the year were underrated by many observers. Isaiah Hodgins, Darius Slayton, and Richie James had approximately zero name cache when they were solidified as the starting trio. However, they did enough to allow the Giants to make a mid-season switch in offensive philosophy, from an RPO-based offense in the first half of the year to a modern take on the classic “West Coast” quick game in the second half.

And while they weren’t dynamic and could certainly be improved upon, Hodgins was dependable, and Slayton once again proved to be an explosive option (though drops remain an issue). The Giants’ receivers had notable plays against even the best defense they faced, getting behind the Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary on multiple occasions — even if the offense wasn’t able to capitalize on the opportunities.

General manager Joe Schoen added plenty of depth to a group that was evolving throughout 2022, but he’s trying to make a dollar out of three dimes and four nickels. The team brought back Isaiah Hodgins, Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton; Shepard tore his ACL last September, while Slayton was only pushed into the lineup out of necessity. Slayton, probably best served as a downfield threat in the third or fourth spot in the lineup, might nominally be New York’s top wideout.

Wan’Dale Robinson, drafted in the second round last year, might not be able to break camp with the team after his own ACL injury. The Giants used a third-round pick on Jalin Hyatt, but he was running with the third-string offense during the offseason program and might not be ready to make a more significant impact until 2024.

It might be telling that the receiver getting the most hype at OTAs was former Colts second-rounder Parris Campbell, who missed 34 games over his first three seasons before averaging 9.9 yards per catch for Indianapolis a year ago.

Once again, injury concerns raise their ugly head, and they aren’t invalid concerns. Sterling Shepard looked surprisingly good coming back from his torn Achilles last year, but we don’t know if the injuries will start piling up on him. Likewise, we don’t know when Wan’Dale Robinson will be available for the Giants. Likewise, while Campbell may believe the injuries suffered earlier in his career were flukes, we can’t discount them entirely.

Personally, I’m less concerned with Jalin Hyatt’s role in the offense than Barnwell seems to be. While he wasn’t asked to run a complex route tree in Tennessee’s offense, he executed the routes he was asked to run well. I’m confident that Daboll and Kafka will put him in position to contribute as a rookie. Even if Hyatt’s poor agility numbers limit his overall route tree, a slimmer version of D.K. Metcalf isn’t a bad thing to have.

The concern that Barnwell doesn’t mention is that the Giants don’t have a true “X” receiver. Hodgins and Slayton are both probably best suited to be Flankers or “Z” receivers in a traditional 11-personnel set — though Hodgins is much more of a possession receiver, while Slayton is a vertical threat. Last year that forced them to take on match-ups for which they weren’t well suited, and that dynamic still persists. The Giants’ coaches used a variety of route concepts to scheme separation, but the lack of a true “number one” receiver was part of the reason why the team still struggled to consistently move the ball against good defenses.

The additions of Parris Campbell and Jalin Hyatt, as well as the return of Sterling Shepard and Wan’Dale Robinson should make the Giants’ receivers more dynamic and give the coaches more options. That alone should be a definite improvement, but we should also recognize that injury is a real concern, and could be one or two bad plays away from looking a lot like 2022.

Final thoughts

We do need to acknowledge the injury concerns throughout this roster. The Giants are relying on players at every skill position with significant and recent injury concerns. Darren Waller, Saquon Barkley, Parris Campbell, Wan’Dale Robinson, Sterling Shepard... They all have the potential to be good players when healthy, but enough injury concerns that we can’t say for sure that they’ll be able to stay healthy. There’s an undeniable injury risk inherent in the Giants’ skill position.

Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka proved last year to be nimble coaches who can coach to their players’ — all of their players — strengths. They excelled at exploiting opponents’ tendencies and putting their players in position to succeed. I have faith that if the Giants are hit with another rash of injuries, the coaching staff will be able to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (or at least a nylon purse).

Personally, while it would be a bit much to predict that the Giants will have an offensive juggernaut, I do think a measly 3-spot improvement is underselling the work that Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll have done this year.

If everything goes according to plan, the Giants could have a much improved offense over a year ago. However, we do need to recognize the potential impact that injury could have on the roster, and the Giants might have the broadest range of outcomes of any team in the NFL.

Where the Giants’ skill positions ultimately rank among the 32 NFL teams won’t just depend on how they play, but how the other 31 teams play as well. But if they can avoid the wheels coming off completely (a la 2017), we should certainly see an improvement compared to 2022.