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Can the Giants have an explosive passing offense this season?

Daniel Jones can make the throws, and now he has the receivers.

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NFL: AUG 11 Preseason - Giants at Patriots Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In many respects 2022 was Daniel Jones’ finest season as a pro. He had career highs in passing yards, completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, QBR, rushing yards and TDs, game winning drives, and fourth quarter comebacks. He was in the top 10 in QBR and almost in the top 10 in expected points added. Most importantly, he was 9-6-1 in the regular season, leading his team to a playoff berth and having maybe his finest game as a pro in his first playoff game.

One thing he was not, however, was a creator of explosive passing plays. Here are the 2022 NFL rankings in number of passes thrown at least 20 yards, the standard for explosive passing plays (if the pass is completed), from Pro Football Focus:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Forgive the big table, but I want to use it to make two points:

  1. Jones was No. 34 in the NFL in passes of at least 20 yards last season (the last column in the table), with only 23 in 16 games.
  2. If that’s not bad enough, look at some of the people ahead of him. Jones dropped back to pass 571 times last season. Zach Wilson (279 dropbacks), Mitchell Trubisky (195), Taylor Heinecke (292), and Sam Darnold (162) all had more 20+ yard passes than Jones despite dropping back about half as often or even less.

If that continues, there is just about no way for the Giants to become a dangerous passing offense in the modern NFL, and no way that Jones sees all four seasons of his new contract.

Is Daniel Jones a poor deep passer?

The results above have created a narrative that Jones does not have a strong arm and cannot throw deep. You see it on Twitter, in the comments section of Big Blue View, even occasionally from other NFL players. It’s true that Jones doesn’t have as strong an arm as Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, and several others. You just have to watch them all a few times to realize that.

The NFL isn’t a punt, pass, and kick competition, however. It’s a league in which being able to connect on deep passes with pass rushers bearing down on you matters. Here’s another sorting of the same table, this time looking at the top 10 QBs in PFF grade when throwing passes 20+ yards downfield (areas with gray shading at the top are for deep passes):

Data from Pro Football Focus

There’s Danny Dimes with a 91.8 PFF passing grade on 20+ yard passes, eighth in the NFL. Remember that PFF isn’t especially enamored of Jones - he was 20th in overall passing grade at 71.1 last season. If you think he accumulated that 91.8 grade with a lot of 20-25 yard passes while the Bradys, Burrows, Tuas, Mahomeses, and Allens of the world were connecting on 50 yard bombs all the time, think again. Jones’ 15.6 yards gained per attempt on 20+ yard passes was third highest among those top 10. His average depth of target on these throws (ADOT) was 30.6 yards, higher than every other quarterback in the top 10.

Daniel Jones doesn’t have one of the strongest arms in the NFL, but he is one of the better deep passers in the NFL. Both can be true. He just didn’t try to throw deep a lot last season.

Where did the Daniel Jones of 2019 go?

Jones didn’t always have the reputation of being a reluctant deep passer. In his rookie year under Pat Shurmur he threw 20+ yards 54 times, 20th in the NFL despite only starting 12 games. Projected to 16 games that would have been 72 deep pass attempts, good for 8th in the NFL. He wasn’t as accurate with his deep passes in 2019, but PFF still gave him a pretty good 82.2 grade.

In 2020, now in the Joe Judge-Jason Garrett offense, Jones mostly picked up where he left off in 2019. He had only 43 deep passes that season but had an outstanding 95.6 PFF grade when he did, with six touchdowns and no interceptions. Then in 2021 he fell off a cliff: Only 24 deep attempts, only four TDs and two INTs, and a still good but not outstanding 80.7 PFF grade. Part of that was due to the neck injury he sustained in mid-season, but even projected to 17 games he would have only had 37. The 2022 season was even worse, but with a better PFF grade.

It’s easy to figure out what happened. Jones developed a reputation for turnovers as a rookie, and the Judge-Garrett regime emphasized protecting the football. At the same time, the Giants offensive line went from mediocre in 2019 (17th ranked in pass blocking by PFF) to awful in 2020 (dead last) and 2021 (30th). In 2022, under Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka, the offensive line made a bit of a comeback, but was still ranked only 24th in pass blocking, with Evan Neal putting Jones in danger on his right flank on a regular basis.

The receiving corps didn’t help much either. Ranked 17th by PFF in 2019, it dropped to 25th in 2020 and 31st in 2021. It only rebounded to 26th in 2022 despite better offensive game plans from Daboll and Kafka. Some of it was the decimation of the receiver room by injuries, which left Jones with few options for explosive plays, but some of it was just a lack of talent.

Outlook for 2023

So much for the coming season hinges on the offensive line. Absolutely the Giants need Evan Neal to begin to live up to his draft pedigree. It would help if John Michael Schmitz does not become a turnstile for pass rushers in his rookie season.

If the offensive line begins to jell, though, the talent is there at the receiver positions for the Giants to become an attacking downfield passing team. Here are the 2022 stats for their primary deep receiving threats:

Data from Pro Football Focus

Sterling Shepard only caught one of the four deep balls thrown to him last year before his injury, but it was the Giants’ longest pass play of the season, in their opening win in Tennessee. Darius Slayton had his usual bad problem with drops but still graded very well on deep balls, as did Isaiah Hodgins, even though he wasn’t sent deep very often. Newcomer Darren Waller, who only played nine games, still caught seven deep balls with an almost perfect PFF grade on those plays. Parris Campbell, who is already being pigeonholed as “just” a slot receiver before ever playing a game for the Giants, caught three deep balls last season. Add to these rookie Jalin Hyatt, whose 13 deep catches for Tennessee last year was 10th highest in the nation and whose 633 yards on deep throws nationwide ranked second in the country, per the PFF 2023 NFL Draft Guide.

There is probably not a Tyreek Hill or Davante Adams or A.J. Brown on the Giants roster right now. There are plenty of options for deep downfield throws, though, and contrary to opinion in some quarters, Jones is more than capable of making those throws. If the offensive line can hold up, the term “explosive Giants offense” may not be a contradiction in terms anymore.